The View From The Flanks: AFNORTH, 5 July, 1987

Allied_Forces_Northern_Europe  The Commander-in-Chief Allied Forces Northern Europe, British General Sir Geoffrey Howlett had been monitoring the deterioration of the international situation with great trepidation. Like most general officers in Europe and North America in early July of 1987, his focus was on his command, the role it would play in a conflict, and, last but not least, ensuring that it was properly prepared if hostilities broke out. AFNORTH (Allied Forces Northern Europe) had an operational area which covered vast areas. Howlett’s forces were charged with defending every square mile of land and airspace from the North Cape south to the Kiel Canal, as well as the Norwegian, North, and Baltic seas.

He was eager to get on with the preparations for war. Even before Reagan’s speech announcing the call up of reservists and reinforcement of Europe, Howlett was quietly making sure that his command would be ready if the orders to begin mobilizing and reinforcing AFNORTH came from Brussels. His dilemma was that AFNORTH was made up of military units from three separate nations in peacetime. In war, that number would inflate to at least six. Nation-states, even allies, rarely ever march in lockstep. Denmark, and Norway were two particularly special cases. Although NATO members, they were among the more liberal member nations. The governments in Oslo and Copenhagen made concerted efforts to avoid provoking the Soviet Union. Norway did not allow foreign soldiers to be permanently stationed on its soil in peacetime. Denmark followed a similar policy for Jutland and Zealand. In wartime, the bans did not apply, of course.

For Norway, though there were no foreign troops on its territory,  a large amount of pre-positioned military equipment belonging to Royal Marines, US Marines, and the US Air Force was in place there. War plans called for the immediate and heavy reinforcement of Norway in a time of crisis. There was equipment on hand to fit out a US Marine Amphibious Brigade, and the Royal Marine 3 Commando Brigade. The troops simply needed to be flown in and marry up with its equipment. The concept was quite similar to REFORGER in principle.

Following Reagan’s speech, Howlett received a telephone call from SACEUR. He did not know General Galvin very well, having only met the new supreme allied commander at the change of command ceremony in Brussels back in late June. Five minutes into the conversation and any questions or concerns he’d had about the his new commander were melting away. SACEUR informed him that REFORGER was beginning immediately and although the initial focus was going to be reinforcing Germany, he was going to make certain that a number of transport aircraft were earmarked to begin bringing US Marines into Norway within 24 hours. It would be Howland’s task to get permission from the Norwegians for foreign troops to begin landing on their soil. The request was a formality, though at this stage a crucial one. Should US or Royal Marines begin arriving in Norway without the government’s official blessing, the Soviets could use it as a potential reason to make war.

After hanging up with SACEUR, Howlett made a quick call to England and confirmed that 3 Commando’s troops were packing. Next,  he contacted the office of Norway’s Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland and requested an immediate audience with the PM. It was granted and five minutes later, Sir Geoffrey was in a car departing AFNORTH’s headquarters at Kolsas, Norway for the short ride into Oslo. On the drive, CINC-AFNORTH stared out the window as his mind cataloged the endless list of tasks that needed to be accomplished once this essential political ritual was complete.


REFORGER Activated


In the hours before President Reagan’s address to the nation began at 8 PM Eastern Time on 5 July, 1987 Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was already taking the preliminary steps to place the US military on a war footing. In an NSC meeting late that afternoon, Reagan had decided that with the current crisis escalating and Soviet forces in Germany for Zapad ’87 showing no sign of leaving soon, the reinforcement of Western Europe was essential. He authorized Weinberger and the Joint Chiefs to start the process immediately. In his speech, Reagan also hinted at a possible callup of reservists within 24 hours. In reality, the decision on that had already been made and the first reserve units were receiving their warning orders even before the president’s address was over.

Weinberger’s first act was to declare an Airlift Emergency and activate the Civil Reserve Air Fleet. Within 24 hours 171 commercial transport and cargo aircraft would be pressed into service to augment Military Airlift Command’s own fleet of C-5s and C-141s. Every available aircraft was going to be needed as soon as possible. The secretary’s next action was to authorize the start of REFORGER.

REFORGER is short for the Return of Forces to Germany. Before 1987 it was most commonly known as a large FTX conducted annually by US and NATO forces in West Germany. The premise of the exercise was practicing the movement of a substantial number of US troops from North America to Western Europe. Once there, they would marry up to pre-positioned equipment at POMCUS sites in West Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. From there, the forces would deploy into the field and begin simulated combat operations.

To the surprise of many civilian observers, REFORGER turned out to be more than an exercise. It was, in reality, also the actual plan to reinforce NATO in the event of a crisis between the superpowers. The initial movement of troops from stateside bases to POMCUS sites in the last days of the crisis mirrored the timeline and procession undertaken during peacetime REFORGERs. The last days of peace and the first week of hostilities exemplified the value of countless REFORGER exercises.

The order to initiate REFORGER did not come as a surprise to the commanders and most soldiers in the affected divisions. US Army officers, NCOs and enlisted men alike had all been keeping closer tabs on the news from the time Romanov captured power in Moscow. The steady decline of relations between the US and Soviet Union, coupled with the sudden clashes between their forces at sea, convinced more than one division commander that it would be only a matter of time before his troops were on aircraft bound for Europe.

At Fort Riley, Kansas, Major General Leonard Wishart III, commander of the 1st Infantry Division received a call from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William Crowe minutes before the president’s address. Crowe informed him that REFORGER was being activated and that he should consider the phone call to be a warning order. Once the call was over, Wishart contacted his brigade commanders to alert them. In minutes, the cycle was underway and Riley became a hotbed of activity as the word was passed down the line. Similar scenes were taking place at army bases across the country.

In Europe, the POMCUS sites were receiving warning orders from EUCOM headquarters in Stuttgart. Preparations were shortly in motion to stand up the sites and receive the influx of troops that were going to start arriving within the next 24 hours. Equipment in the large warehouses was checked, and rechecked. Inventories of ammo, commo gear, and a host of other essentials was checked and rechecked. MP and security troops from bases in West Germany were sent off to the POMCUS sites to reinforce the security forces already there. US commanders in Europe were well aware that the POMCUS sites were  high on the Soviet’s targeting list. If war was in fact coming, it would likely begin with a number of coordinated Spetznaz strikes on the sites. Soviet thinking on this point was simple. The more equipment and troops that could be neutralized before arriving at the battleline, the easier the Red Army’s job would be once it crossed the inner-German border.



Awakening In Brussels


In the days immediately following Mikhail Gorbachev’s ouster, NATO commanders collectively began to consider what the consequences of the coup would be for the alliance, as well as for their respective commands. Romanov had the reputation of being a hardliner and it was suspected that he would eventually turn his attention to the smoldering situation in the Eastern European satellites. It was not widely known in April, 1987 exactly how deep of a hole the Soviet Union had itself in. At home, there was increasing strife in the southern republics and Baltics. Discontent was growing among the general population as well. The grumblings were not restricted to Armenians and Estonians either. Russians were questioning the Communist Party’s decisions now in ever increasing numbers.  The economy was teetering on the verge of a total collapse, Afghanistan continued to consume Soviet blood, and Soviet influence in Central America was declining.

Nowhere was the situation more precarious for Moscow than in Eastern Europe. Internal discontent was fomenting from East Berlin to Warsaw and Prague. Poland had never been entirely pacified in the early 1980s. Jaruzelski, despite Soviet propping, was barely keeping his country together. Solidarity was still a force to be reckoned with. In East Berlin, Erich Honecker’s problems were more pronounced. His hold on power was becoming more illusionary. The harder he clamped down, the more resistant the voice of his opponents became. And it was spreading across the population rapidly. East Germany would celebrate its 40th anniversary as a nation-state in 1989 and there was widespread concern in the Kremlin that the nation would not last that long without Soviet military intervention.

What the ramifications of an East German collapse would mean for NATO was alarmingly clear: Nothing good. So, as Romanov was consolidating his power in the Kremlin, General Bernard Rodgers, SACEUR at the time, was holding meetings with his top commanders in Brussels to discuss the situation, and the training schedule for the summer months. Rodgers was leaving in June and wanted everything to be running perfectly for General John Galvin, his successor.

Over the next two weeks the new geo-political situation started to take shape. Romanov’s first priority was the United States. Specifically, repositioning the Soviet Union into a position of, if not political strength, political parity. The balance of power was tilting dangerously in Washington’s favor, even if the West was not clearly aware at this point. By mid-May, incidents between US and Soviet aircraft, submarines, and ships at sea were becoming a regular occurrence. It was the collision between a Russian Tu-95 Bear and US Navy F-14 Tomcat in the Pacific that captured Rodger’s attention and did not let go. Incidents like this have the power to start a war. Romanov was playing for keeps, he decided then and there. It now became the American general’s sole mission to ensure that the alliance was prepared for a conflict with the Soviets.

Opening Moves


Hostilities between NATO and the Warsaw Pact began at 0103 hours Zulu on 9 July, 1987. For a war that would spread across the globe in a matter of days, the opening clashes between combatants were quite small. The first shots were exchanged outside of the NATO airbase at Gielenkirchen by KGB-trained saboteurs attempting to gain entry to the base and NATO security forces. The effort was unsuccessful and all seven saboteurs were killed. After the war, it would be learned that this particular attack went off twenty-seven minutes ahead of schedule. The initial wave of Soviet Spetznaz, desant, and saboteur attacks behind the lines was not supposed to commence until 0130 Zulu.

As it was, however, the early attack gave NATO valuable time to get the warning out and bring security to a higher state of alert before the initial wave of attacks began a short time later. Some sites which may not have been ready were. The extent of the attacks and the results will be explored and discussed at a later time. Suffice to say, the opening hours of hostilities were defined by explosions, helicopter landings, and small unit actions across West Germany, Denmark, the Low Countries, and even the United Kingdom and Norway to an extent. Before the first Soviet tanks crossed the border, the war was more or less already in full swing.

At sea, the first contact between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces took place in the Barents Sea at 0219 hours local time. Soviet and Norwegian fast attack craft clashed in the North Cape area. The first casualties of the war at sea were the Norwegian Storm-class patrol boat Brask and a Soviet Nanuchka class patrol boat. Fighting in the North Cape continued through the early morning hours as a running battle between units of the Royal Norwegian Navy and Soviet Red Banner Northern Fleet materialized.

In the North Atlantic, the Soviets drew first blood, sinking a pair of merchant ships northwest of the Azores. The Foxtrot class diesel submarine that launched the attack escaped the area only to be discovered and sunk by US Navy P-3 Orions operating from Lajes Airfield later on the first day.

The Mediterranean and Black Sea remained quiet until around dawn when fast attack craft of the Soviet navy made contact with elements of the Greek and Turkish navies in the Black Sea. Not long afterward, Soviet and Syrian naval forces struck Turkish and other NATO warships operating in the Eastern Med. The rest of the region remained precariously quiet in those first two hours.

The storm would soon break across Europe and the Med.


July 5, 1987- NBC News Special Report


Diplomatic efforts continue as the crisis between the United States and Soviet Union over Thursday’s naval action in the Mediterranean that left a US frigate damaged and a Soviet cruiser sunk continues to escalate. The US and Soviet Union have blamed each other for the incident that left 30 US sailors and 100 Soviets dead. General Secretary Romanov addressed his nation this morning and said the Soviet Union ‘stands ready to withstand further aggression by the United States.’ President Reagan, in an address earlier this eveing, has laid blame on the Soviet Union and warned Romanov not to test American resolve. In light of the current situation and heightened tension in Europe, Reagan announced that reinforcements from the US will begin leaving for Europe this evening and a call up reservists in the near future is probable.

July 2, 1987- CBS News Special Report


White House sources have confirmed to CBS News that there has been a clash between US and Soviet warships in the Mediterranean. Less than an hour ago, a Soviet cruiser rammed the frigate USS Klakring east of Malta. The Soviet ship had been shadowing the Saratoga carrier battlegroup for two days. After the ramming, Klakring was fired upon and sustained further damage. The frigate returned fire along with other nearby US ships. As of right now, both ships are dead in the water and burning. There is no word on the condition of either ship or casualties.