Baltic Approaches: 10 July, 1987 Part III

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COMBATLAP’s naval commander believed otherwise. Bornholm possessed no true strategic value for the Warsaw Pact. It was unable to support offensive operations against Denmark and the Baltic approaches. The island’s airport was small and its port facilities were severely limited for that. The attack on Bornholm was a feint, he judged, aimed at distracting his command’s attention while WP forces finished their last minute preparations for the eventual invasion of Denmark.

Danish and West German diesel submarines operating close in to the East German and Polish coastlines were encountering increasingly heavy ASW patrols as the day went on. Enemy surface combatants were keeping their distance from the Baltic approaches, as well as the NATO fast attack craft, and small number of destroyers tasked with defending them. Soviet sub activity had dropped off too, though a Foxtrot did sink a German minesweeper east of Fehmarn in the early afternoon. Efforts to locate and sink the sub were unsuccessful.

Late afternoon NATO reconnaissance flights brought back evidence of growing activity in Rostock, Gdynia, and Gdansk. NAVBALTAP’s commander, a West German vice admiral, resisted pressure from his superiors to begin mounting air strikes against the ports and naval facilities. His primary reason for wanting to hold back was to wait until the amphibious ships, and their escorts had sortied and were in open waters. Once there, they would make much easier targets for his strike aircraft to engage and destroy. The other matter was the fact that his surviving naval strike aircraft were in the process of shifting locations. The frontlines in Schleswig-Holstein were coming perilously close to the NATO airbases situated there. The squadrons assigned to these bases were largely in the process of moving to alternate airfields for much of the day, leaving few strike aircraft readily available for combat operations. As night fell, the situation started improving, though it was not until around 2200 hours that NAVBALTAP had a respectable naval strike capability back on line.

 

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After 12 PM, Danish airbases came under heavy attack. The WP strikes against radar stations, and SAM batteries earlier in the day succeeded in damaging the detection and defense capabilities, but the integrated air defense system continued to function, albeit at a somewhat diminished capacity. The Royal Danish Air Force once again sent its fighters into the skies to defend Denmark’s airspace and again, the F-16s and Drakens acquitted themselves very well.

Unfortunately, the deck was stacked against them. The sheer numbers of East German, Polish, and Soviet fighters, and bombers entering Danish airspace was simply too large. Danish fighters could not be everywhere simultaneously. For the first part of the afternoon, WP efforts seemed to be centered on airfields and bases in Zealand and the surrounding areas. As later strikes moved west and began targeting airbases in Jutland, AIRBALTAP was forced to stop sending his fighters too far forward. His surviving Drakens and F-16s reestablished themselves in force over the Jutland airbase and maintained air superiority over those bases from 1600 through till the next morning when the first contingent of USAF F-16Cs arrived.

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Baltic Approaches: 10 July, 1987 Part II

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10 July saw the beginning of a major effort by the Pact to secure air and sea supremacy in the Baltic. The focus of this effort was on Danish airbases. Of the fifty NATO airfields that were hosting combat aircraft in Central Europe, six were located in Denmark. The Royal Danish Air Force was a relatively small, well-equipped force with a respectable number of F-16 Fighting Falcons forming the core of its inventory. USAF F-16s were also anticipated to begin arriving in Denmark within the next forty eight hours to reinforce AIRBALTAP. When WP amphibious and airborne operations against the Danish homeland were inevitably launched, it was anticipated that they would be taking place in uncontested airspace. In order for that to happen, Danish airbases, radar sites, and air defenses had to be dealt a knockout blow before then.

Aircraft availability was becoming a greater obstacle for Pact planners to overcome. Losses and expanding commitments on the Central Front was limiting the number of combat aircraft available for air operations against Denmark. To make up for the temporary shortfall, Pact air commanders were forced to use a significant number of Polish and East German warplanes to make up for the shortfall in first-line Soviet aircraft. It was not an ideal solution, but for the moment it would have to suffice.

During the night, USAF F-111s,  as well as RAF and Luftwaffe Tornadoes  a number of heavy airstrikes against airfields deep in East Germany and western Poland. The damage and confusion caused by the attacks delayed the first wave of WP sorties by three hours. The first raids were launched at 0615 in brightening skies much to the dismay of aircrews and commanders alike. Sixty fighter-bombers and attack aircraft, supporting jammers, and thirty escorting fighters took off from bases in Poland and headed northwest over the Baltic before separating and heading for their respective targets, not all of which were located in Denmark proper. Under the protective overhead cover of MiG-21s,  a squadron of Polish Su-17 Fitters struck the NATO radar station located on the Danish island of Bornholm, south of Sweden and north of the Polish coast in the Baltic. No defending fighters rose to challenge the Poles. The small detachment of Danish Drakens that was stationed on the island had been withdrawn the day before hostilities began. The Danes did leave behind some air defense weaponry to protect the island though and it was put to good use. Four Fitters were shot down by SAMs, and another two damaged. The radar station suffered significant damage and the radar itself was knocked out entirely. Perhaps more important than the damage inflicted was the sense of shock that the attack generated in Copenhagen, as well as Brussels. It was, for some Danish politicians and generals, a clear sign that the Soviets and Poles would be landing soon. Today it was air attacks on Bornholm. Tomorrow, it could be enemy naval infantry landing on the island, or perhaps Zeeland itself.

Radar stations and SAM sites in Denmark proper made up the rest of the early morning target list. Danish fighters began scrambling at the first sign of heavy jamming activity to the east and southeast. Fighters already on CAP began converging on the area as well. WP escorting fighters pushed forward of the main strike groups to engage the F-16s and Drakens and a number of air battles broke out in the skies over the Baltic.  The WP fighters were doing their job of keeping NATO fighters occupied and away from the ordnance-laden attackers, though it was coming at a heavy price. As the strike aircraft drew closer to their targets they were engaged by Danish Hawk sites. Losses were inflicted but the attackers pushed forward. Soon those same Hawk batteries, and accompanying radars were on the receiving end of iron bombs and anti-radiation missiles.

The end results of these first WP strikes of the day were mixed.  Losses had been heavy, and Denmark’s air defenses had suffered moderate damage. Holes were punched in the nation’s protective radar and SAM screen, however, the blow had not been a fatal one. Subsequent strikes against Danish airbases later in the day were not going to be a walk in the park.

 

*   *   *

COMBALTAP was concerned by the lack of coordinated Warsaw Pact naval movement overnight and into the morning. The brief, violent engagements between NATO and WP ships that had occurred the previous day were not repeated. Efforts to interdict NATO mine laying operations had diminished too. The Baltic Sea became quiet on the morning of 10 July, even as battles being fought in the skies overhead, and ashore in Schleswig-Holstein. The calm, he suspected, was indicative of a storm gathering in East German and Polish ports. When reports of the air attack against Bornholm reached his desk, he was convinced that a WP amphibious assault on the island, as well larger landings on the beaches of Denmark proper would be launched in the next 24 hours.

 

*Author’s Note: Part III will be posted on Monday*

 

Baltic Approaches: 10 July, 1987 Part I

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The defense of Schleswig-Holstein was important to NATO’s defense of Denmark and the Baltic approaches. By noon on 10 July the issue was in doubt. The Warsaw Pact advance north to the Jutland peninsula was expected to resume within hours after slowing overnight and into the early morning hours. As the battle plan dictated, elements of 2nd GTA were preparing to hand off the battle to divisions from the Northern Group of Forces. The process was taking far longer than expected, however. Kiel was the next major objective for WP forces. Unfortunately for NATO, the battle for the city was half over before it even started.

Rendsburg remained firmly under the control of Soviet airmobile forces. Attempts to retake the town by West German and Danish forces had failed, leaving the town, as well as a strategically important portion of the Kiel Canal in enemy hands. For Soviet and WP forces it presented potential opportunities. The city could be bypassed entirely and the canal crossed at Rendsburg, flanking the NATO forces preparing to defend Kiel and possibly enveloping them if the situation allowed. The level of audacity in WP operations between Kiel and the Danish border would be dependent on the level of support afforded to the second phase of operations and beyond.

COMLANDJUT and his operations staff looked at the map and drew a similar conclusion. Lubeck had fallen, and the greatest question now was whether the WP advance would be centered in the direction of Kiel, central Schleswig-Holstein or a broader front encompassing both areas. Rendsburg could not be ignored. It sat directly on the main NATO supply line for LANDJUT forces fighting in Germany. Contending with a battalion of well trained, and equipped Soviet paratroopers effectively would require a sizeable NATO force. Added to the unfavorable situation was SACEUR’s order to attach a brigade of the 6th Panzergrenadier Division to NORTHAG. COMLANDJUT understood that conditions around Hamburg necessitated the move, but it diminished his own combat power at a time when he needed every soldier, gun, and armored vehicle to slow the advance towards Jutland. Schleswig-Holstein was important, but not important enough to break the back of his land forces. He would fight a delaying action south of Rendsburg for as long as possible and continue to chip away at the Soviet airmobile forces. Before the Soviets captured Kiel, or linked up with the Rendsburg salient he would have all of LANDJUT’s combat forces positioned north of the Kiel canal.

From the afternoon of 10 July into the late evening the plan went smoothly. The WP advance was delayed long enough by West German reservists, and elements of the Danish Jutland Division for the withdrawal of the 6th Panzergrenadier to be largely completed. The skies over the battle area remained neutral for the majority of the day. Danish and West German fighters kept WP attack helicopters and fighter bombers at bay, while WP…primarily Soviet…..air defenses inflicted less than acceptable losses on NATO ground attack aircraft. The next defensive line would be established across the width of Schleswig-Holstein from Husum in the west to Brodersby in the east.

The Central Front: 10 July, 1987 Part III

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*Author’s Note: I’m still playing around with presentation. I’ve been using the narrative approach almost exclusively, though on one or two occasions I’ve used a timeline type of format. I’m going to try the timeline again for this post in order to experiment a bit and see how it plays out.*

 

CENTAG 10 July, 1987

0600- The Soviet 8th Guards Army, supported by the East German (GDR) 3rd Army commenced a major attack west into V Corps sector after dawn. The attack echelon was made up of 2 Soviet motor rifle divisions and 1 East German tank division.  Opposing them was the US 8th Infantry and 3rd Armored Divisions. Supporting attacks were made against the West German III Corps positioned to the north in the hopes of keeping the West Germans tied down and unable to support US forces to the south.

 

0635– A major effort against the US VII Corps sector by the Soviet 79th Guards Tank Division and GDR 7th Tank Division begins. Pre-dawn NATO airstrikes against the massing forces caused delays. As a result, Soviet and East German forces did not begin crossing their lines of departure until roughly an hour later than expected.

 

0700– Central Group of Forces and accompanying Czech divisions resume their advance west against the West German II Corps in Bavaria on a 50 kilometer front. Progress on the first day of fighting was minimal in most areas. The greatest amount of progress made was the area guarded by the West German 10th Panzergrenadier before it was halted and driven back by a fierce counterattack.

 

0845– Pressure against the 8th Infantry Division during the morning was significant. Two separate enemy attacks against the division’s 1st and 2nd Brigades nearly succeeded in penetrating the defenses. The first attack was in the direction of Bad Hersfeld and forced the US defenders back to the town. The second attack came was launched in the area of Hunfeld would continue throughout the rest of the morning with little progress made by the attackers.

 

1100– Major General Len Wishart III, the commander of the 1st Infantry Division informs SACEUR that his division will be entirely REFORGED and ready for combat operations within 24 hours.

 

1330– After a morning of heavy fighting the situation in the VII Corps area has stabilized following major action that saw the almost complete destruction of the GDR 7th Tank Division. The Soviet 79th TD withdrew under heavy pressure on its left flank following the East German collapse. The 3rd Infantry Division and 1st Armored Division continue to hold their main defensive lines. Casualties in both units have been surprisingly light.

 

1800– CENTAG commanders request that 4th ATAF increase the numbers of BAI sorties being launched against the 8th Guards Army.

 

2000– Follow up attacks in the V and VII Corps areas net little gain. The Warsaw Pact forces that crossed the lines of departure that morning have suffered brutal losses for little gain, and are essentially still within sight of their starting points.

 

2356– After the day’s failures, 8th Guards Army’s commander contacts General Snetkov and requests the release of chemical weapons in his army’s zone.

The Central Front: 10 July, 1987 Part II

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NORTHAG Continued….

By 1700 hours, Soviet forces had secured a firm bridgehead on the Elbe despite a counterattack by the Dutch 43rd Armored Infantry Brigade that left the issue in doubt for a period of time. In front of Luneburg, East German troops were keeping the Dutch forces there occupied well enough that 2nd GTA’s commander sensed an opportunity arising. Without consulting his own superiors, he ordered the commander of the 94th Motor Rifle Division to start preparations to turn his forces away from the northwest and move towards the newly established bridgehead. If he moved fast enough, 2nd GTA commander was increasingly optimistic that his units could cut off the better part of the Dutch 4th Division.

He was not going to wait for his forces to build up before moving though. Aware of the need to maintain the initiative, he urged the commanders in the field to speed up the flow of forces across the Elbe. Specifically, he wanted the bulk of the 16th Guards Tank Division on the south side of the Elbe by midnight. The plan was to use the division as a sledgehammer to break the Dutch lines irreparably before they could react. Intelligence reports led him to believe the bulk of the Dutch division’s combat power was centered around Luneburg. A decisive roll of the dice now could result in a heavy payout.

To the credit of NATO commanders, they recognized the growing danger on the banks of the Elbe immediately and were in agreement that counteraction had to be taken quickly. This is where the unity of opinion ended. The corps’ commanding general wanted a larger counterattack unleashed immediately while General Martin Farndale, NORTHAG’s commander, favored ceding the Elbe bridgehead to the Soviets and the establishment of a hasty defensive line to run from Seevetal to Winsen. Simultaneously, he wanted to being withdrawing the Dutch forces around Luneburg to minimize the chances of them becoming cut off. Following a brief conversation between the two via secure communications, NORTHAG won out.

Farndale directed 2 ATAF to place a priority on the Elbe bridgehead. His Soviet counterpart was of similar mind, screaming at 16th Air Army to support his crossing. The result would be one of the fiercest air battles of the war. By midnight 40 percent of the 16th Guards Tank Division had made it across the Elbe, but at a murderous cost.

 

To the south, 3rd Shock Army (to be referred to as 3SA for the duration) resumed its westward advance before dawn. Enemy resistance on the first day had been exceptionally fierce and bogged down 3SA considerably. Like his fellow newly-installed army group commanders, Lieutenant General Alexi Mityukhin was determined to get his army group back into the war again. 3SA’s first strategic objective was the industrial city of Hanover. Hanover was an essential step towards the Ruhr, West Germany’s industrial heartland and 3SA’s primary wartime objective.

Mityukhin was hoping to be able to achieve a breakthrough against the German I Corps. This was the formation he considered to be the weakest link in the NATO defensive chain arrayed against his tanks. South of the Germans were the British and Belgians. With enough pressure and some luck a breakthrough was possible there too, but his money was on the Germans.

For most of the day, it seemed the general had placed the right bet. His armored spearheads were making the most progress in this area, though it was apparent a strong NATO defensive line was going to be found east of Braunschweig. Here, the advance slowed to a bloody crawl and then a complete standstill, and by nightfall the next echelon had been called forward to flank the defenders. Only instead of finding a softly guarded flank, the 40th Motor Rifle discovered a newly arrived battalion of British armor at Wolfenbüttel.

Advances against the British and Belgian sectors fared little better. Progress was being made, but slowly. Each kilometer of ground seized came at a disproportionate cost in men and equipment. Mityukhin was uneasy about the losses he was taking, but he knew NATO was suffering just as badly. His side could afford the losses, it had far larger stockpiles of war material and soldiers to commit to the battle.

The Central Front: 10 July, 1987 Part I

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The watchword for GFSG’s newly installed army group commanders on 10 July was speed. The first day of the war had been a near disaster for Soviet and Warsaw Pact arms on the Central Front. Only the reality that Warsaw Pact forces had a toehold on West German soil at the end of the day prevented it from being remembered as an unmitigated disaster. The fact remained, though, that very little Federal Republic territory was in Warsaw Pact hands. The grandiose lightning offensive that had promised large swaths of enemy land conquered by the morning of the second day instead resembled a lethargic pachyderm. Every moment the operational pace remained sluggish gave NATO time to reinforce and fortify.

There were other problems facing the army group commanders. Casualties, and equipment losses on the first day had been far higher than projections. Staggeringly so in some army zones. MBT losses were over 50 percent higher than expected. Soviet tank commanders were quickly learning just how effective NATO’s newest generation of anti-tank munitions were on the battlefield. NATO airpower was not making the lives of Soviet troops at the front any easier. Airstrikes on second echelon formations, and logistics sites was taking a toll. Once the offensive was underway in earnest and the war of maneuver developed this would change, GSFG commander General Snetkov was certain.

The North German Plain would remain the primary avenue of advance. Although the Red Army was pushing forward from the Baltic to the Austrian border, the main effort would come in the north. The pressure was on 2nd GTA and 3rd Shock Army to force a breakthrough of NATO lines and open the door for the Operational Maneuver Group to exploit the rupture. It was widely expected that the breakthrough would be made against NATO’s Northern Army Group.

The bulk of 2nd GTA and attached East German divisions were focused on driving northwest and west from the Inner-German Border towards the Danish border and Hamburg respectively. It was this sector where Soviet ground forces had made their farthest advances. A second prong consisting of one motor rifle division and an accompanying tank regiment was developing south of Molln, aimed at the Elbe and beyond it NORTHAG’s extreme left flank. West German units confronting this push were already worn down after 24 hours of heavy fighting. The 16th Panzergrenadier Brigade was covering the approaches to Hamburg, wary of a sudden push in that direction. Between Mölln and the Elbe River though, there was nothing but a handful of rear guard units left to delay what was turning out to be a significant Soviet advance towards the river and the Dutch 4th Division beyond it.

For the I NL Corps, the developing threat on its flank was cause for concern. The covering force battles had stopped the Soviet 21st Motor Rifle Division dead in its tracks the day before, however, information reaching Corps headquarters and NORTHAG indicated the advance was anticipated to commence again by noon. The threats developing were aiming specifically at the sector held by the Dutch 4th Division. The division was 80% deployed in the field with the remaining combat and support units stationed in the Netherlands expected to close by nightfall. The new corps commander elected to move the US 3rd Brigade/2nd Armored Division closer to the battle front instead of keeping it as part of the corps reserve.

Dutch reconnaissance and cavalry elements crossed the Elbe and started probing for signs of the Soviets to their front. Contact was made east of Hohenhorn. Following a number of brief, violent engagements the Dutch broke off and attempted to keep a close watch on the movement of Soviet units from a distance. Attempts to radio back reports to higher headquarters was frustrated by enemy jamming. By the time contact was reestablished it was already apparent to division and corps commanders that the Soviets were planning to cross the Elbe at Geesthact. Surviving Dutch recon units were redeployed to the friendly side of the Elbe, the bridge was blown behind them and Dutch forces south of the river waited patiently.

 

*Author’s Note: The Central Front: 10 July will be divided into 4 parts and posted over the Thanksgiving weekend. The first two will deal with NORTHAG, and the third CENTAG, as well as operations farther south. The final Central Front: 10 July will cover some issues facing NATO and Warsaw Pact forces on the second day of the war. After the holiday weekend I will discuss future posts and some changes which will be coming by the end of the year. Happy Thanksgiving!*

The Southern Flank: 10 July, 1987 Part II

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It was generally accepted that the Southwestern Theater of Military Operations (SWTVD) would constitute a secondary theater in the opening days of a war against NATO. The Western TVD (WTVD) was the theater of highest priority and understandably so. SWTVD objectives in the first 3-4 days of hostilities were to halt any NATO air or land countermove against WTVD, and prevent a major conflict in the SWTVD while preparations for offensive operations were underway. The preparatory phase for land operations against Thrace and the subsequent battle for the Dardanelles was still underway on the second day and was expected to continue for another 24-48 hours. The Bulgarian Army was fully deployed on that country’s border with Turkey and Greece, along with a limited number of Soviet units. The main Soviet ground forces allocated to SWTVD were still deploying into the region. When the time came, the bulk of the initial Warsaw Pact thrust into Thrace would be made up primarily of Bulgarian forces.

SWTVD air operations on the second day continued to be chiefly focused against Turkish air defenses, radars, and airbases. With more air assets becoming available as elements of the 24th Air Army arrived in theater, the attacks were becoming focused and intense. The airstrikes were not limited to targets only in the western half of Turkey. A portion were being directed against Hellenic Air Force bases and radar sites, but the center of attention was Turkey. The Commander, Sixth Allied Tactical Air Force (COMSIXATAF) was becoming more concerned about his losses as the day went on. From his headquarters at Izmir, Turkey he monitored the air battle and directed the air defense of Turkey. Twice he and his staff had to head to the shelters when installations around Izmir were targeted by Soviet aircraft.

Sixth ATAF’s fighter squadrons and air defenses were inflicting losses on the attackers, but it was costing them. As the day went on and the tempo of air strikes peaked, Turkish F-4 Phantoms, F-16s, and F-104s allotted to defending Turkey were almost fully committed. Losses in aircraft and pilots were heavy and climbing. Almost as disconcerting was the grim fact that, as losses climbed, COMSIXATAF was losing its ability to take the fight to enemy forces in Bulgaria. He concluded, quite correctly, that without a swift infusion of NATO air reinforcements, air superiority over Thrace and much of Turkey could not be guaranteed for more than the next 24 hours.

In Naples, CINCSOUTH was fully aware of the situation in Turkey. He agreed with COMSIXATAF regarding the reinforcements equation and was working to get additional squadrons to Turkey rapidly. Unfortunately, CINCSOUTH could not begin moving squadrons from 5th ATAF in Italy east until reinforcing squadrons from the US arrived in significant numbers. As desperate as the situation in Turkey was becoming, CINCSOUTH couldn’t afford to strip 5th ATAF of fighters right now and leave Northern Italy naked. Thus far, Soviet forces in Hungary, and their Hungarian comrades had not moved into Austria or Yugoslavia. A move into Yugoslavia was not anticipated, however, a thrust into Austria would pose a grave danger to AFSOUTH.  Italian forces guarding the Gorizia Gap, and corridors in the Austrian Alps were going to need air cover and close air support. For the moment the Northern Italian subregion was quiet. Moving fighters and attack aircraft from Italy to Turkey could inspire the Soviets to move and take advantage of the situation. For the moment, 6th ATAF was on its own.