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Netherlands Armed Forces

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"Never, perhaps, in the postwar decades has the situation in the world been as explosive and, hence, more difficult and unfavourable as in the first half of the 1980s. The right-wing group which has come to power in the United States and its fellow travelers in NATO have turned away from detente to a military policy of force." 1
    Mikhail Gorbachev, 25 February 1986

"By 1986 the Cold War had been going on for as long as most of us in that room had been alive, and there was no likelihood that we would ever see any significant changes during the remainder of our lives." 2
    David T. Zabecki

"Our country had established armed forces in accordance with its economic, financial and demographic weight: a complete nation state." 3
    Pieter de Geus

Through a Glass, Darkly (1)
Not all that long ago two major world powers were locked in a standoff that lasted more than forty years: both armed to the teeth, capable of wiping each other off the face of the earth — and it did not happen. In the end the United States of America and the Soviet Union did not unleash their vast arsenals on each other, and suddenly, in a few months' time, it was all over. After the relief and euphoria we quickly forgot about the pressure we had lived under, how it had pervaded and shaped our society, and moved on.4
The Cold War is a unique period in world history because of what did not happen. A paradox, a World War that was no war — but there were casualties nonetheless: in proxy wars, in military exercises that followed the "train as you fight" principle, in intelligence operations that damaged the lives of many. A war of shadows with in the background, barely visible but ever present, the abyss of an actual Third World War: a dark promise of death and destruction on an unimaginable scale.5
1985: The Beginning of the End
The period of 1979 to 1985 is sometimes called the Second or New Cold War, starting with the breakdown of détente after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and ending with the ascension of the reform-minded Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. In retrospect the latter event may be seen as the beginning of the end of the Cold War: from 1985 his overtures to the West led to a gradual easing of tensions, tensions which had peaked only two years earlier when the atmosphere between the United States and the Soviet Union had become particularly hostile. As we know now, in 1983 the world actually did come close to the fulfillment of that dark promise, perhaps closer than ever before — or since.6

The Past is a Different Country 7
Today very little of this website's subject remains. The armed forces of the Netherlands, first sized down and converted into an all-professional expeditionary force in the 1990s, are now effectively fading away under the steady erosion of nearly thirty years worth of budget cuts and misgovernment. For the foreseeable future it is unlikely that the Netherlands will reattain anything resembling its Cold War military posture, and in this light a survey of what was built up and broken down seems to be of historical relevance.8
Near the end of the Cold War about 45,000 young Dutch men were conscripted for military service each year. Olive-drab convoys were a regular sight on the roads in the eastern and southern parts of the country and if one took a stroll through the woods it was not uncommon to hear the sound of gunfire coming from some training ground in the distance. Periodically large-scale exercises were held, sometimes involving tens of thousands of men. Every year there was a mobilisation exercise in which hundreds of reservists were called away from their homes and jobs to test the nation's readiness for war. Far from making a militarised society, these things had nonetheless become a more or less normal part of life.9
The Netherlands of the 1980s saw a continued and moderately increased defence effort, the further continuation of which was laid out in the 1984 Defence White Paper. By 1985 the results of earlier investments were becoming visible as new materiel was gradually introduced. The Royal Army in particular was a force in transition, with large-scale materiel modernisation programmes underway and new tactical, operational and logistical concepts being introduced. Of political importance was the fact that the government, after much manoeuvring in the previous years, finally allowed the United States to station forty-eight nuclear-armed cruise missiles on Netherlands territory as part of NATO's response to the Soviet SS-20 programme.10

How did the country I grew up in prepare for the war that never was? What did its military forces amount to? These are the questions that lie behind this study. The answers are sought not through historical overview or analysis but through the collection, combination and presentation of data — military data, much of which was highly classified at the time. Rather than providing a narrative account this website projects an afterimage of the Netherlands armed forces near the end of the Cold War by showing, dissecting, describing and explaining their organisation and, to an extent, listing their equipment. An afterimage that is both comprehensive and detailed: most units and formations are shown here in their entirety for the first time, or in unprecedented detail.11 

This website is the handiwork of an amateur. I am not a professional historian and I have no military experience. There is however a difference between amateur and amateurish and I do my best to avoid being the latter. Most information is derived from primary sources, all information is presented after careful study and richly annotated and referenced in order to make it verifiable, to provide context and to facilitate further study.
The main primary source for this website are the two official Royal Army orders of battle for 1985 kept at the Netherlands Institute of Military History (NIMH) in Den Haag, one per 1 July and one per 23 December 1985. Unless stated otherwise all information regarding the Royal Army comes from the July document. Significant changes that took place between July and December are reported in notes or footnotes.12
An important complement to the Royal Army orders of battle are the 1980, 1983 and 1985 unit filling schemes also residing with the NIMH, which show in detail where the reservists of the Royal Army's many mobilisable units and subunits came from. This information has been integrated with the order of battle data, making visible something of the Royal Army's intricate and rather ingenious unit filling and reserve system.13
The extensive planning and realisation memoranda of Army Plan 149 kept by the Semi-Static Archive Services of the Ministry of Defence (SSA-MvD) in Rijswijk made it possible to ascertain which main battle tank types equipped which tank and reconnaissance units during 1985. Army Plan 149 comprised a vast re-equipping and reorganisation programme for the Royal Army's cavalry units which was realised between 1983 and 1988, during which period most battalions had a mixed tank inventory for some time. This information is also published here for the first time.14
These main primary sources are supplemented by many official documents residing in the National Archives in Den Haag (NL-HaNA), many military field manuals either consulted in the library of the Army Museum in Delft (now National Military Museum in Soesterberg) or obtained through local internet auction sites; by other official publications such as parliamentary papers (HTK), and finally by many secondary sources: books, articles and other publications.15

Through a Glass, Darkly (2)
No matter how trustworthy our data, it is useful to keep in mind that knowledge, in this case historical knowledge, is limited by what we are able to observe: we can, in principle, never be certain that we are in possession of all the relevant facts.16 Like everyone else the historian, professional or amateur, tries to construct a reality by peering through a darkened glass. But the historian is, or should be, more aware of his limited view and thus of the inherent uncertainty of his reconstruction. When it comes to matters of state security this uncertainty is especially inherent. In the opening chapter of The Hidden Hand. Britain, America, and Cold War Secret Intelligence the author Richard J. Aldrich issues
"a salutary warning to scholars working in the immediate wake of any major conflict who feed only upon material available in official archives. Government files that are allowed into the public domain are placed there by the authorities as the result of deliberate decisions. [...] There is a potential cost involved in researching in government-managed archives where the collection of primary material is quick and convenient. [...] Most historians are remarkably untroubled by this and some have come to think of the selected materials in the Public Record Office as an analogue of reality." 17 
The subject of this study is not nearly as sensitive and indeed we may safely assume that the Netherlands had no secret armoured divisions, aircraft carriers or intercontinental ballistic missiles. Nonetheless this website firmly falls in the category Aldrich intends and it is good to be aware of this. Although the Cold War may seem long ago we are still in its wake and, as Aldrich notes, its full story has not yet been told, and may indeed never be told — and there is no reason to assume that this notion excludes the Netherlands or its military. Recent publications revealing the secret intelligence operations of Netherlands submarines against the Soviet Mediterranean Fleet, the Netherlands secret stay-behind network and East German operational war plans against the Netherlands army corps underline this.18   


My interest in this subject was generated years ago by playing and modding the computer wargame North German Plain '85 and later revising the Dutch part of the order of battle for the sequel title Danube Front '85. It made me conscious not only of the fact that an entire era had passed into history but also that it had already passed out of public memory. After giving up wargaming the work of O.W. Dragoner, Alan Young, Rogier Peeters and Leo Niehorster stimulated me to take up the lingering idea to turn the material I had collected over the years into a comprehensive order of battle website.19  
Over the past years several people have been helpful with this project, sometimes by providing additional data and sometimes by pointing out errors, which is always most welcome. They are thanked in the relevant places throughout this website. Here I would like to thank the following people by name: Willem Smit of the NIMH for opening the Royal Army orders of battle to me, without which this project would not exist; Rokus van den Bout of the SSA-MvD for pointing me to Army Plan 179, which enabled me to incorporate accurate data on the Royal Army's large tank force in 1985; Lieutenant-Colonel Henk Molman (Rtd.) for patiently explaining to me the operational organisation of the nuclear artillery; Brigadier-General J.R. Mulder (Rtd.) for drawing my attention to the stay-behind role of the General Affairs Section of the Army Staff and providing additional information; and Lieutenant-Colonel R. Dorenbos (Rtd.) for providing valuable information on the Royal Air Force's ground-based air defence units and air bases.20
Any mistakes, of course, remain my own.

Hans Boersma
September 2011, April 2018, December 2020, June 2023

1. Gorbachev at the 27th Communist Party Congress, quoted in 'Defector Told of Soviet Alert', The Washington Post8 August 1986. The full text of Gorbachev's speech is published in Gorbachev, Political Report, with the quoted passage on page 81.
2. Hoffenaar and Krüger (eds.), Blueprints, viii: the author of the Foreword reminiscing about a command post exercise of NATO's Central Army Group (CENTAG) in November 1986.
3. De Geus, Staatsbelang, 214. Pieter de Geus was Minister of Defence from August 1980 to September 1981. Website Parlement & Politiek, Drs. P.B.R. (Pieter) de Geus.
4. Ibid., 205. Aldrich, The Hidden Hand, 5. More than forty years: there is some debate amongst historians about when exactly the Cold War started and when it ended. A common timeframe is 1947 (Truman Doctrine) to 1989 (Malta Summit), though this might be extended to 1991 (Collapse of the Soviet Union). See Van Rossem, Drie oorlogen, 147.
5. Unique in world history: see Hoffenaar, De logica, 67. Proxy wars: instigated or sustained by major powers that do not (fully) participate themselves. Examples of Cold War proxy wars: Korea (1950-1953), Vietnam (1955-1975), Lebanon (1975-1990), Afghanistan (1979-1989). In The Cold War's Killing Fields (New York: Harper Collins, 2018) the author P.T. Chamberlin argues that outside Europe the Cold War was in fact a long and bloody affair in which some fourteen million people died. "Train as you fight": following wartime practices and tactics in peacetime training and exercises. See for example Steve Netto (red.), Jachtvliegers in de Koude Oorlog. Flirten met de dood? (Vlijmen: Martin Leeuwis Publications, 2010). Also: Andere Tijden, Altijd paraat! (NTR/VPRO television, 2010). Death and destruction on an unimaginable scale: the greatest single threat of the Cold War was that of nuclear war. See for example Miller, Cold War, chapter 35 and 37. However, the consequences of an all-out conventional war in Europe are not to be underestimated: in 1980 the US Army reckoned that modern non-nuclear conventional war had become 400 to 700 percent more lethal and intense than it had been in World War II. Gabriel and K.S. Metz, Short History, 100.
6. Second or New Cold War: see for example Van Rossem, op. cit., 251. Détente: the period of reduced tensions between East and West lasting from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. See for example ibid., 228-238. Beginning of the end: Hoffenaar, Van der Meulen en De Winter, Confrontatie en ontspanning, 247-248. Van Rossem, op. cit., 272. Gradual easing of tensions after 1985: Elands, Harderwijk, 176. De Graaf, Over de Muur, 261. It is interesting to note that the East German army (Nationale Volksarmee, NVA) began adopting a new, defensive rather than offensive war planning as early as 1985. Lautsch, Zur Planung, 26. Tensions peaking in 1983: website CIA, A Cold War Conundrum: The 1983 Soviet War Scare by B.B. Fischer. More in particular on the threat of nuclear war in 1983: website National Security Archive, The Able Archer 83 Sourcebook. In the margin of this it is interesting to note that the NATO nuclear release exercise Able Archer 83 was part of the Autumn Forge 83 series of NATO exercises, which also included a large-scale Netherlands military exercise: FTX Atlantic Lion (see footnote 9). Website Unredacted (National Security Archive), New Evidence on Autumn Forge 83 from the Netherlands.    
7. "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." Opening sentence of L.P. Harley's novel The Go-Between (1953).
8. Budget cuts: see for example website Marineschepen.nl, Bezuinigingen op Defensie en de Koninklijke Marine. Misgovernment: for example selling off newly acquired or recently modernised materiel: Panzerhaubitze 2000 self-propelled 155 mm howitzers, CV-90 armoured infantry fighting vehicles, Leopard 2A6 main battle tanks, modernised P-3C Orion long-range maritime patrol aircraft. 'Duitsland koopt Nederlandse Orion-vliegtuigen', Trouw, 21 juli 2004. 'Te koop: F-16's, mijnenjagers en houwitsers', Volkskrant, 15 oktober 2011. 'Defensie verkoopt overtollig materieel', Reformatorisch Dagblad, 24 april 2013. Today the Netherlands armed forces are no longer capable of performing their constitutionally mandated tasks (Constitution of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Article 97). Advisory Council on International Affairs, Advisory Letter No. 22, September 2012. W.M. Oppedijk van Veen, 'Defensiebegroting: waar is de urgentie en het commitment?', Militaire Spectator nr. 4, 2017. 'Defensie kan grondgebied niet meer verdedigen', NRC Handelsblad, 18 mei 2016. For the foreseeable future: the recent "investments" are merely repairs to retain what limited capacities the Netherlands armed forces have left. 'Er komt 1,5 miljard euro bij, maar de inzetbaarheid van het Nederlandse leger wordt niet groter', Volkskrant, 26 maart 2018. In Dutch the collective term for the armed forces is 'krijgsmacht' (force of war), a term that ceased to be appropriate years ago. 
9. Number of conscripts: Hoffenaar en Schoenmaker, Met de blik, 432. Large-scale exercises: the largest were the Field Training Exercises (FTX) of 1 (NL) Corps. Four of these were held: FTX Big Ferro in 1973, for which the Royal Army brought some 24,000 men in the field; FTX Saxon Drive in 1978 with ± 26,000 men; FTX Atlantic Lion in 1983 with ± 24,000 men; and FTX Free Lion in 1988 with 33,146 men. Hoffenaar en Schoenmaker, op. cit., 292. Website military-database.de, Saxon Drive Revue und Zeitungsartikel. Royal Army information booklet on FTX Atlantic Lion, 23. Legerkoerier nr. 8/9, 1988, 11. These corps-level FTX were an integrated part of the massive NATO Autumn Forge exercises. Yearly mobilisation exercises: these went by the name Donderslag (thunderstroke) and lasted three days. The number of reservists called up appears to have varied from ± 600 to ± 1,600 men. De Jong en Hoffenaar, Op herhaling, 92, 120-121. See the army information film on the 1989 mobilisation exercise: Donderslag 19. For an overview of the vital role of reserve forces in the Royal Army during the Cold War see Hoffenaar, Reservisten
10. Moderately increased defence effort: the three-percent real annual growth in defence expenditure agreed in NATO in 1977 was unilaterally lowered to two percent by the government in 1984. Hoffenaar en Schoenmaker, op. cit., 377. Defence White Paper: Defensienota 1984. For a critical analysis see De Geus, op. cit., 196-201. Cruise missiles against SS-20s: ibid., 171-172. Much manoeuvring: ibid., 173-176, 186-190. Forty-eight cruise missiles: these were BGM-109G Gryphon ground-launched cruise missiles, each armed with a W84 nuclear warhead. The W84 had a variable yield of 0.2 to 150 kilotons. For reference: the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 had a yield of 15 to 16 kilotons. Mechtersheimer und Barth, Militarisierungsatlas, 339. Website The Nuclear Weapon Archive, Complete List of All U.S. Nuclear Weapons. The decision to begin deployment was taken on 1 November 1985. The actual deployment was however cancelled by the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union. De Geus, op. cit., 190-191.
11. The war that never was is the title of a retrospective fictional World War III history by Michael A. Palmer (Arlington: Vandamere, 1993). Another noteworthy title in this 'dark mirror' genre is the contemporary and influential The Third Word War by John Hackett (London: Sphere Books, 1978). The heightened tensions of the first half of the 1980s brought forth a number of speculative World War III novels, of which Chieftains by Bob Forrest-Webb (London: Futura, 1982), Red Army by Ralph Peters (New York: Pocket Books, 1989) and Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1986) should be mentioned. Highly classified: see footnotes 12, 13, 14. Units and formations shown here for the first time: including more or less obscure mobilisable elements like 305 Commando Battalion, 3 Amphibious Combat Group, 901 Torpedo Company and 102 Medical Group. With their shadowy state of existence/non-existence mobilisable units like these were part of the alternate reality that lay behind the Cold War.
12. NIMH 430, inv. nr. 54 (Slagorde KL stand 1 juli 1985). Ibid., inv. nr. 55 (Slagorde KL stand 23 december 1985). Classified as "zeer geheim" (top secret), which was the highest classification. Ministerie van Defensie, Nederlands Instituut voor Militaire Geschiedenis
13. NIMH 205A/10, Aflossing van mobilisabele eenheden en -aanvullingen d.d. 27 mei 1980. Ibid., d.d. 11 november 1983. Ibid., d.d. 17 juni 1985. Classified as "confidentieel" (confidential). Rather ingenious unit filling and reserve system: see Gijsbers, Blik in de smidse, 2222-2231; Selles, Personele vulling; Berghuijs, Opleiding, 14-23. In English: Isby and Kamps, Armies, 341-343; Sorrell, Je Maintiendrai, 94-96; Van Vuren, The Royal Netherlands Army TodayMilitary Review April 1982, 23-28. 
14. SSA-MvD, CLAS/BLS 7486 (Legerplan 149: Reorganisatie cavalerie-eenheden 1982-1988). Classified as "geheim" (secret). Ministerie van Defensie, Semi-Statische Archiefdiensten. Previously called Centraal Archievendepot (CAD), apparently now known as Semi-Statisch Informatiebeheer (SIB).
15. National Archives: Nationaal Archief. Army Museum: Legermuseum, now Nationaal Militair Museum. Parliamentary papers: Proceedings of the Second Chamber of the States-General, Handelingen van de Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal. All sources are listed on the Sources page. How sources are referenced is described in the Introduction, under Order of Battle: Typical Page Structure.
16. The perimeter of knowledge. Or, if you like, the perimeter of ignorance. See for example astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson at 92nd Street Y, New York, 3 May 2017. I thank my old friends Kees Torn and Matthias Giesen for the stimulating correspondence we had about the nature of human knowledge.  
17. Aldrich, loc. cit. "Deliberate decisions": for example, the NL-HaNA inventory of the archive of the Commander-in-Chief of the Army/Chief of Staff of the Army 1973-1979 shows that out of sixty-five metres of classified documents, thirty-eight metres were destroyed. NL-HaNA, archiefinventaris 2.13.110, 13.
18. Recent publications: In het diepste geheim. Spionage-operaties van Nederlandse onderzeeboten van 1968 tot 1991 by Jaime Karremann (Amsterdam: Marineschepen.nl, 2017. English edition: In Deepest Secrecy: Dutch Submarine Espionage Operations from 1968 to 1991)Een geheime organisatie in beeld. De Nederlandse stay-behind-organisatie, geheim, onafhankelijk en zelfstandig? by Herman Schoemaker (thesis, 2013)'Zur Planung realer Angriffs- und Verteidigungsoperationen im Warschauer Pakt. Dargestellt am Beispiel der operativen Planung der 5. Armee der Nationalen Volksarmee der DDR im Kalten Krieg (1983 bis 1986)’, by Siegfried Lautsch, Military Power Revue nr. 2, 2011. Remarkably, the operations and preparations that are the subject of the first two publications were apparently independent national undertakings, taking place outside the NATO framework. 
19. Computer wargames: see website John Tiller Software, Modern Campaigns. For the work of O.W. Dragoner, Alan Young, Rogier Peeters and Leo Niehorster, see the Links page.
20. The Royal Army's large tank force: see the brigade pages under 1 (NL) Corps, Part II. In 1989 the Royal Army had, in total, 913 main battle tanks: 445 x Leopard 2 and 468 x Leopard 1V. HTK 1989-1990, kamerstuknr. 21610 ondernr. 2 (Rapport Leopardtanks Algemene Rekenkamer). Nuclear artillery: see 1 (NL) Corps Artillery, Dual Capable Artillery. Stay-behind role of the General Affairs Section of the Army Staff: see Royal Army, Part I, note g. Royal Air Force ground-based air defence units and air bases: see Royal Air Force, Air Force Tactical Command.