Elham – and how it played a part in the Cold War

Elham from the hills, taken by john F.. Bennett

Over the last few dying years of the Cold War, Elham became a hotbed of military activity, completely unknown to most of its inhabitants.

For those not familiar with the village of Elham, it lies in a valley in East Kent just north of Folkestone. It’s a typical Kentish village steeped in history, full of interesting people who pride themselves on the community in which they live.

The sleepy rural community around Elham today does not give any clues to the importance it played during the 1980s. The village was famous for having a young Audrey Hepburn living there and the legendary Kent and England cricketer Les Ames as notable residents. During 1940, a field behind the church became a scrapyard containing the remains of British Spitfires and assorted German aircraft. Elham became centre stage for the Battle of Britain.

Elham High Street, taken by John F. Bennett

How Elham became a hotbed of military activity

Over the last few dying years of the Cold War, Elham became a hotbed of military activity, completely unknown to most of its inhabitants, as life went on as normal and uninterrupted. Government cuts meant that surreptitiously the area was regularly used by soldiers participating in ‘Tactical Exercises without Troops’. Typically, this was just the senior people and officers, usually 5% of the total unit strength. These troops would not carry personal equipment nor weapons, conducting what was essentially a map exercise.

Following the major exercises in Germany up to 1984, when the biggest reinforcement exercise since WW2 made a huge dent in the defence spending, moving reinforcements across to support their parent brigades was just too expensive. To make the exercises already happening in Germany more realistic, and employ the units in this country, the idea was developed to have a desktop exercise. After the major reinforcement exercises ceased, it was obvious that the support to the British Army of the Rhine was going to be scaled down. 

The Elham valley has the same topography as the exercising unit’s allocated positions, South East of Hildesheim in West Germany. The rolling hills with a shallow stream at the bottom of the valley was, in many ways, ideal ‘tank’ country. The direction of the enemy was from the South West, identical to the real terrain in the area they were mimicking. 

On a Friday evening, the unit command post would set up its long-range radios from the top of the hill at North Elham, and begin communicating with their parent brigade over five hundred miles away. At the same time, the senior officers would map out defensive positions on the ground around Elham. This would include the ranges of weapons and tactical positions, marked with a piece of white tape on a stick and random symbols drawn on a pavement with a piece of chalk.

Residents of the village got used to seeing soldiers walking around discussing tactics

Residents of the village would see soldiers walking around carrying maps discussing where they could blow down telegraph poles and demolish buildings to stem the flow of the Soviet might. All done in some secrecy so not to alarm the local residents, but quite obvious in their discussions and the fact they were in uniform. Several veterans of the last war discovered the effective ranges of the latest anti-tank missiles and the ‘beaten zone’ of the machine gun just by standing nearby.

Many a time a group of local residents would gather together with a few lunchtime drinkers from the Kings Arms pub in the square, listening intently on a lecture given by the unit’s intelligence officer to a group of sergeants, about the characteristics of the Russian built T72 tank and how many each regiment held. Fascinating stuff but, in reality, no one cared: they just went about their normal lives oblivious to the perceived threat across the water on the plains of West Germany. No one seemed to care about the fact that the might of this army could reach Dover within three days. 

A casual comment did not go down well. When a young mother with a small child enquired of a bored army driver ‘what is going on?’, the reply of ‘just preparing for WW3’, sent her hurriedly about her business. 

As the tempo of the exercise changed after dark to a mainly radio traffic exercise, the Kings Arms would be pulling pints into a tea dixie. This vessel was used earlier in the day for the traditional afternoon tea break, unchanged across all British army units since Victorian times. Suitably rinsed out, this now provided a refreshing drop of beer for those who were off duty.

As the end of the Cold War loomed in 1989, it was decided to undertake these exercises in civilian clothes and, to be honest, not much changed. The soldiers could still be heard discussing the range of the gun on a Chieftain tank, just this time they were all wearing the ubiquitous flat caps, check pattern shirts, Barbour coats and green corduroy trousers. This had long been the style of civilian dress for officers, ingrained in them from their training days at Sandhurst.

How the Cold War ended in Elham

Elham didn’t know, nor was it ever discussed apart from permission sought from land owners, just how important the village was in the last dying breaths of the Cold War. In the summer of 1990, the defence review, ‘Options for Change’, removed the reinforcement focus on Germany and the village was never used for training again.

Elham Square, taken by John F. Bennett

Life in the village ebbed and flowed but always maintained its history over the two World Wars for which it is rightly very proud. Long may these rural Kentish villages survive unspoilt and relatively untouched by modern life. You sometimes have to scratch the surface and small snippets of history rise to the surface; long may it continue. Thank goodness for the rural idylls and the county traditions of this proud country we live in.