How does it feel to be back, Sir? Are the memories of your time in command still vivid?
They are, indeed. Back in the day, I was commanding Allied Land Forces Schleswig-Holstein and Jutland (LANDJUT) built upon Danish-German participation. Based on trilateral agreements, the Headquarters located in Rendsburg, Germany, was moved further to the East, with me in command. I still remember some of my colleagues saying that the task I was given was impossible to complete. Note that I was brought up in the Cold War times. For many of my peers, establishing a multinational unit on the eastern side of the border which had been dividing Europe for almost half a century seemed unrealistic. Yet, my personal approach was substantially different. “Of course we can do it!” is what I was saying from the very beginning. At the time, Denmark had a visionary Minister of Defence, Hans Hækkerup. It was he who appointed me to close the Headquarters in Rendsburg and take responsibility for a newly established unit which was meant to shape a better future for us all. When Poland joined NATO, Hans Hækkerup saw a historic opportunity to bring about more integration within Europe. Though younger than me, he has already passed away. He has gone too early. I wish he could have seen what I saw at the Headquarters today. Coming back to Szczecin has been a truly great moment that rekindled many fond memories. I am happy to be here today.
You and your team laid a foundation for the Corps. What was your priority and number one goal back then?
We based our work on the experiences gained in Germany, where the multinational Headquarters had been operating for 37 years. Our Polish partners assigned their soldiers to job trainings in Rendsburg already in 1998 – the year when I took command there. I even established the interim HQ MNC NE structure down at LANDJUT. Thus, I knew that we would be able to work together effectively. To tell you the truth, setting things up in terms of military-related challenges was the easiest part. But there was the whole social aspect to focus on as well. Schools, housing, health care, border crossing, language barrier – those were issues to be addressed before moving the Headquarters to Poland. Unlike today, Poland had not been a European Union country yet. We held many detailed discussions with the authorities in Poland which – from that moment onwards – had taken the role of the Headquarters’ host nation. There were numerous meetings convened both at the central and the local level. I found a great enabler and comrade in my Polish Deputy, General Edward Pietrzyk.
It is no exaggeration to say that you were pioneers.
No doubt, we were. We started from scratch. Oftentimes, decisions had to be taken promptly in order to keep things running. In some cases, I had to act while still waiting for a common consent from the three framework nations. “Well… Worst-case scenario, I will get fired.” – I was thinking to myself. During those first months, we went through several internal training sessions and exercises. The aim was to design a coherent system of NATO doctrines and procedures based on our experiences from LANDJUT. This culminated in exercise “Crystal Eagle 2000”, carried out in the Drawsko Pomorskie training area. HQ MNC NE was declared operational on 22 November 2000 in the presence of the President of Poland, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, and three Ministers of Defence. It would not have been possible without the great effort and enormous devotion of all soldiers and civilians. We were a team of pioneers. And we have succeeded. I believe that those years have formed the Headquarters’ identity. It was then that “the spirit of Szczecin” was born.
How did you give your soldiers a sense of unity?
You can easily get soldiers to march together. Yet, it is considerably more difficult to unite them around a common vision. When commanding a multinational unit, you need to find a balance between creating the same mindset and respecting national differences. Changes must not be forced. They have to be worked on. Gaining cohesion takes some time. A commander should make his or her people feel included and convince them that challenges are easier to manage together. It was very important to me that the Polish soldiers I had under my command did not feel second best. I often repeated: “I need you all for this mission.”
And what about the whole social side you have mentioned?
Military leaders should not forget the importance of this aspect. I received a great deal of support from my wife in covering these issues. Back then, it was vital to dispel concerns of young families and make them positive about moving to a new place. When people feel that their commander understands their needs, they are more likely to identify with him. In July 1999, we moved the Headquarters to a newly renovated facility we had named “Baltic Barracks”. Most of the families followed at the turn of July and August, including my wife and myself. Everything, including an international school, was ready and in place in early September – less than six months after Poland had joined NATO. Not to forget, we were simultaneously preparing the Headquarters’ grand inauguration as well. 18 September 1999. What a day!
The signing of the documents at the Baltic Barracks on 18.09.1999. Sitting down: A. Kwaśniewski, the President of Poland and MG H. H. Ekmann, COM MNC NE
Very much so! I particularly remember one situation. It was after the big parade had been completed. We were back at the Baltic Barracks for the official signing of documents and I literally felt as if I had been swimming in the Oder River. I sat by my great supporter, President Kwaśniewski. When I was handing him a paper, water poured out of my sleeve down to the very spot where he was supposed to put his signature. He looked at me and said: “Oh, doesn’t matter!” Above everything else, though, all of us – the participants of the inauguration – felt we were witnessing a unique event in European history. It was a truly magnificent moment, especially for those who have experienced the Cold War and the damaging effects it brought to Europe.
Did you expect that the Corps’ role would expand even more?
The events of 2014 and the Russian actions in Crimea and Ukraine have made very relevant what my Minister, Hans Hækkerup, was able to see twenty years ago. The Corps’ mission today is absolutely vital. It is plain to see that the decision to locate this Headquarters in Szczecin was momentous. Most importantly though, the Corps’ personnel have always known they need to adapt to changing realities of the security environment. Those who lie back and do not look to the future get bypassed.