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UK’s Cold War Defence Test, Exercise Brave Defender

1985 is the halfway point in the decade that brought us new Coke, the discovery of the wreck of the Titanic and Live Aid.

However just under the surface the threat from behind the iron curtain was ever present – the smallest spark could ignite World War Three at a moment’s notice. As a result this was also the year Britain took action to defend herself should war come to her shores…

In 1984 the British armed forces took part in exercise Lionheart, which was the largest military exercise in mainland Europe since World War 2.

Content

Brave Defender

CND Protests

Home Guard

SAS

It tested the British, American and their European allied forces against what a Soviet thrust into west Germany could look like should the Cold War go hot. However, there was still a question that remained unanswered.

globe, image of the globe
Border of NATO and Warsaw Pact in contrast to each other from 1949 (formation of NATO) to 1990 (withdrawal of East Germany). Heitor Carvalho Jorge CC BY-SA 3.0

Brave Defender

What would happen in the event of a Soviet attack on the United Kingdom itself? How would the armed forces protect the nation? In September 1985 that very question would attempt to be answered by the MOD.

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Speaking in the House of Lords on the 21st of March 1985 Lord Trefgard described the objective of Brave Defender:

‘The aims of the exercise are to test plans and procedures for the ground defence of vital establishments; liaison between the military and civil authorities over military home defence matters; and to demonstrate the Government’s commitment to Home Defence. It is planned that about 65,000 servicemen, both regular and reservist, who would have a home defence role on mobilisation will take part. The Territorial Army, including the Home Service Force, will have an important role to play in the exercise. There will also be some United States forces involved in the exercise.’

Home service force adverts appealed for men who would volunteer to defend the nation in the event of crisis.

CND Protests

As well as military personnel, the public also helped run the exercise, with a reported 1,800 landowners giving the MOD permission to use their land for the duration of the exercise. Most of the population of the UK received the news of Brave Defender well, despite CND protests at some locations.

Even Historian Peter Caddick-Adams took part in the exercise in North Yorkshire as part of a reconnaissance unit – during his time in the Army, he would go on to become the British Army’s official historian in the 90s.

Brave Defender would be the UK’s biggest Home Defence exercise since 1945, and would take place from the 2nd to the 13th of September 1985. Manpower from the BAOR (British Army of the Rhine) was to be drafted into play against an enemy force that consisted of 1000 men.

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Regular and reserve SAS units and paratroopers would become involved, while mock air attacks were to be carried out by both the RAF and the USAF. All in all there was a force of about 4,500 that would put the defence of key points across the UK to the test.

Men lead away a captured ‘Russian saboteur’ at RAF Biggin Hill during the Exercise. Sevenoaks Chronicle, 1985.

Home Guard

The two key threats portrayed during the exercise were outlined in a MOD ‘first impressions’ document from October 1985:

‘The primary was the use of small parties of enemy special forces to attack elected targets which would be vitality important to national and NATO military capabilities. The Level of enemy activity was deliberately sustained at an unrealistically high level so that all those being exercised were fully tested.’

The exercise would see the ‘Home Service Force’ used in a major Home Defence exercise for the first time. The Force was created along the same lines as the Home Guard of the Second World War. But the difference between the HSF and the Home Guard was that instead of calling for civilian volunteers and training them from the ground up into soldiers, the HSF would consist of men aged between the ages of 20 – 60 who would need to have at least 2 years of previous regular or reserve military service, or the equivalent in the cadets or the police.

Unlike the Home Guard the HSF would not face the same logistical problems in terms of arms and equipment since they were attached to the Territorial Army and were able to draw from their supplies of L1A1 rifles and uniforms.

Landrovers parked up at RAF Biggin Hill during Brave Defender.

After being successfully piloted in locations such as Reading and Maidenhead in England, and Perth in Scotland in September 1982, the initial number of HSF recruits was only 380, but the force was expected to be made up of 5,000 personnel before the start of the full recruitment process in 1985.

Emergency

This meant that HSF members would already have a basic understanding of things like: drill, field craft and weapons handling, allowing them to be integrated into their home defence role much quicker.

Sandbag defences are built around RAF Biggin Hill in preparation for the start of the exercise. Photo taken by Brian Eager, 1985.

Units were quickly made up of ex Territorial Army members and veterans eager to do their bit yet again for the defence of the realm. Each member was required to do 10 days training each year and serve for a minimum of 3 years. Volunteers were paid at the same rate as the TA at the time for their service. A HSF recruitment leaflet outlined the nature for the calling up of HSF troops in a time of crisis:

1 – When a national danger is imminent, or a great emergency has arisen.

2 – When warlike operations are in preparation or progress.

3 – In defence against actual or apprehended attack.

HSF adverts in local papers boasted tag lines like ‘Who’ll mind the shop?’ and ‘Can your country depend on you?’ These adverts showed images HSF men next to telephone exchanges and bridges, which outlined one of the main roles of the HSF and Exercise Brave Defender itself – Key point defence.

During the exercise the defensive capabilities of the HSF, regular and reserve forces were tested at key areas such as army barracks, airfields and supply depots throughout the UK.

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Over the weekend of the 7th/8th of September, 170 Key points were manned and ready to be defended from enemy infiltration and sabotage. The exercise started on the night of the 8th/9th of September and lasted for 5 days until the 13th.

SAS

One of the places being defended during Brave Defender was Biggin Hill airport in Kent. The former RAF fighter base had played a key role during the Battle of Britain in 1940 and had been an operational RAF airfield since 1958. In 1985 the airfield was still being used by the RAF as an officer and aircrew selection centre.

During Brave Defender the airfield was under the protection of a force consisting of 3 platoons from the adult recruit training company of the Guards Depot at Pirbright and 25 regular soldiers of the Welsh Guards. The enemy force was played by ‘A’ Squadron of 21 SAS. Platoon Sergeant Brian Eager explained the Guards’ role that September:

‘The three platoons used were each placed with different tasks, one was exterior patrol and barbed wire installation team, the other platoon was a ‘QR’ platoon for quick reaction, whilst my platoon No 5 was tasked to build and maintain a system of fortified positions with sandbags (Sangars). This was our ‘highpoint’ because ‘stagging on’ was largely monotony punctuated with brief periods of high intensity.’

Territorial Army

Major Michael Senior told the Sevenoaks Chronicle newspaper about one of the largest enemy actions that the men under his command had to deal with during the exercise.

‘Between 10pm and 2.30am Wednesday morning, we were subjected to at least 5 well thought out and coordinated attacks’

The Chronicle also detailed the attacks that were carried out upon Senior and his men:

‘Members of the Territorial Army’s SAS broke through the security net by arriving in official staff cars and impersonating senior officers The official looking party comprising a major general his ADC, a photographer policeman and driver successfully bluffed their way in and sabotaged an operations centre. Smoke bombs were let off and a suspect briefcase thought to contain a bomb was left behind and later blown up’

This type of subterfuge and hit and run tactics were conducted by the enemy forces on Brave Defender throughout the country. As well as this the practicing of bomb disposal and the liaison between the military and the civilian police force were tested during the exercise for the first time.

Exercise Brave Defender was a military exercise unlike another during the Cold War as it pitted part time soldiers against special forces to evaluate the defensive capabilities of of the realm. The MOD first impressions document said this on the effectiveness of Brave Defender:

‘The exercise has been judged a success. The revised concept for military home defence has been validated…there is now a much better understanding of the nature of the threat to vital installations in this country and of the plans we have to counter it’

A second Brave Defender exercise was planned by the MOD in 1988 to take place in 1993, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 the Cold War thawed out.

Thankfully the lessons learned from Brave Defender never had to be put to the test for real, and the HSF were finally disbanded in 1992, as the need to protect the nation from Spetznaz hit and run raids faded as the decade went on.

Author

  • Robbie McGuire

    Robbie McGuire is a military historian, YouTuber and Podcaster. From scaling the stairs as if they were the Atlantic wall from a early age. Military history has always been close to his heart. After Graduating in Drama and Performing Arts from Staffordshire University in 2015. he combined my his knowledge and experience from Living History and aided on small scale film productions as a historical advisor & scripted a 10 part WW2 Fiction audio series. His YouTube channel RM Military History began in July 2020, in October of the same year ‘Fighting On Film’ was launched. The war movie podcast hosted with Matthew Moss of ‘The Armourer’s Bench’. He now writes scripts and articles on everything from the British Army in the Cold War to the American Revolutionary War.

Robbie McGuire

Robbie McGuire is a military historian, YouTuber and Podcaster. From scaling the stairs as if they were the Atlantic wall from a early age. Military history has always been close to his heart. After Graduating in Drama and Performing Arts from Staffordshire University in 2015. he combined my his knowledge and experience from Living History and aided on small scale film productions as a historical advisor & scripted a 10 part WW2 Fiction audio series. His YouTube channel RM Military History began in July 2020, in October of the same year ‘Fighting On Film’ was launched. The war movie podcast hosted with Matthew Moss of ‘The Armourer’s Bench’. He now writes scripts and articles on everything from the British Army in the Cold War to the American Revolutionary War.