Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACLANT) Admiral Lee Baggett Jr, USN was NATO’s senior naval officer. His area of responsibility was vast, stretching from the North Pole to the Tropic of Cancer, and from the eastern seaboard of the US and Canada across the Atlantic to Portugal. In wartime, Baggett’s command was tasked primarily with keeping the sea lines of communication (SLOC) between North America and Europe open to ensure the reinforcement and resupply of Europe. Without a massive, and nearly constant stream of men, equipment, and ammunition going from North America to Europe, NATO would likely lose the land war.
At his headquarters in Norfolk, Baggett was receiving near constant situation reports from every element of his command. It was 2330 local time in Virginia. Dozens of merchant vessels from around the world, along with allied and US Navy warships of every shape and size, were converging on east coast ports of the United States. Those ports would become beehives of activity in the coming days as heavy equipment and supplies from US Army arrived and was loaded aboard container ships for the trip across the Atlantic. Baggett was hopeful that the first convoy would be underway for Europe within 24 hours.
Shortly after President Reagan’s address, Secretary Weinberger contacted Baggett to let him know the call up of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet would be augmented by the National Defense Reserve Fleet by 0300. This meant the nation’s emergency reserve fleet of merchant ships would begin activation within hours. It would be helpful, but not in the short term. And only a handful of the ships would be activated within the next 20 days. The majority would take a considerably longer amount of time to be made seaworthy once again.
Merchant shipping was only one of SACLANT’s concerns as 5 July drew to a close. Transport aircraft availability was another. With REFORGER beginning, the bulk of Military Airlift Command’s planes were going to be busy moving troops across the Atlantic to Europe. Baggett had reminded the Secretary of Defense that his command also needed transport aircraft to move the men of the the 4th Marine Amphibious Brigade from Camp Lejeune to Norway where they would marry up with their pre-positioned equipment. Weinberger assured him planes would be available when the time came. As of yet, though, no orders for the 4th MAB’s movement had been issued.
Aircraft carriers were another concern. At the moment, he only had two carriers in the Atlantic. Forrestal had been working up in preparation for a deployment to take part in the NATO exercise Ocean Venture 87 in August. As tensions began to rise in June, her orders were revised. Right now, Forrestal and her escorts were departing Mayport, Florida and preparing to head towards the North Atlantic. The USS Dwight Eisenhower had been underway in the Caribbean Sea in early July. Now, she was 12 hours from Norfolk and a very brief turnaround before heading back out to sea. She would likely join Forrestal, and hopefully a third carrier (fourth even if all went well) and form the bulk of Strike Fleet Atlantic. Baggett’s war plans called for a three-carrier group at least to steam into the Norwegian Sea and seize control of it from the Red Banner Northern Fleet. The third carrier, Kitty Hawk had just arrived in Philadelphia to begin her Service Life Extension Program, a three-year major overhaul. With the crisis escalating, Admiral Carlisle Trost, the Chief of Naval Operations, had decided that she would be of better use at sea. The carrier was scheduled to depart from Philadelphia within the next 48 hours. A battlegroup was being formed to defend her, her air wing would come aboard when the carrier was in open ocean and she’d be ready for sustained combat operations.
That was the plan at least. No war plan survives first contact, and Baggett knew all too well that he needed to be flexible. Battle losses in theater, or an unexpected turn in the conflict might call for a sudden revamping of NATO’s maritime doctrine at any given time.
As things stood, Baggett suspected the final days of peace were upon him. Sooner or later the shooting would start. The Soviet Union had begun mobilizing two days ago. The West Germans were now mobilizing on their own. With the United States finally in the game other NATO allies were recognizing the threat and also preparing to respond. Belatedly, in SACLANT’s eyes. REFORGER was a good start, but it was only the beginning. Additional reinforcements and call ups of reservists would be ordered, Baggett was certain.
Midnight passed almost unnoticed. In SACLANT’s mind, however, the start of 6 July would be remembered as the time when he began to accept the reality that the Third Battle of the Atlantic was on the horizon and the outcome for NATO would be his responsibility.