Senior NATO commanders understood and accepted the fact that they would, in all likelihood, be forced to spend the first twenty-four to forty-eight hours of the war reacting to Soviet intentions, and actions. NATO was, after all, a defensive alliance, and this was a war that had been precipitated by the Kremlin. For at least one day, the Warsaw Pact would have the initiative until NATO managed to identify their intentions on the battlefields, begin to exploit weaknesses, and inevitably, bring its own power to bear.
SACLANT accepted the reality of the situation for what it was. His command’s vital priority was keeping the SLOCs open and functioning. Every order given, and action taken would be related to it. In this war, the fate of Europe was invariably tied to the fate of the Atlantic. If the NATO navies could not keep control of the Atlantic and ensure the reinforcement of Europe, all was lost.
Predictably, it was a Soviet submarine that drew first blood. At 0430 Zulu, a Spanish merchant vessel was torpedoed 150 miles northwest of the Azores. Over the next six hours or so, seven more civilian-registered freighters and ferries in the Eastern Atlantic were torpedoed or struck by missiles launched by Russian diesel, and nuclear powered submarines. Across the rest of the North Atlantic, on 9 July, a further six merchant ships sailing independently were sunk or damaged, all the victims of Russian submarines. In every case, the targeted ship was steaming towards a port in either Western Europe or on the east coast of the US to join the pool of merchant vessels gathering for convoy duty.
There were some thirty-four Soviet submarines in the North Atlantic south of the GIUK line on D+0 with another eighty two surging southward towards the open Atlantic from the Barents Sea. NATO maritime patrol aircraft were out hunting Russian subs around the clock. From bases in Iceland, the Azores, Scotland, France, and the northeastern areas of North America, US Navy P-3 Orions, Canadian CP-140 Auroras, French Atlantiques, and RAF Nimrods ranged out into the North Atlantic. Hostile submarines that were detected through SOSUS and tracked in the hours leading up to hostilities were the initial focus. Some were reacquired relatively quickly and dispatched to the bottom of the sea by air-dropped torpedoes. Others required more time and ultimately more resources. When all was said and done, NATO ASW aircraft were responsible for killing four diesel, three nuclear powered enemy submarines, and damaging a further three in the first eighteen hours of open hostilities. The total would have been higher if air operations out of Keflavik had not been disrupted for a three hour spell following the morning’s Backfire attack.
In the Western Atlantic, the first NATO convoy bound for Europe was approaching the southern tip of Newfoundland. This group was under the command of a US Navy commodore and made up of twenty-four ships. Eight were escort warships and the remainder merchant vessels of one type or another. Six of the escorts were US Navy warships, with the other two belonging to Canada. Behind the first convoy were others preparing to, or just leaving east coast ports. In 24-36 hours the majority would be past Newfoundland and approaching the open Atlantic. Helicopters and land-based aircraft were sanitizing the waters each convoy would sail through, searching for signs of enemy submarines. Although the main threat still lay ahead, enemy submarines could still be inshore or tasked with trailing behind a convoy and waiting for the right moment to pounce.