By the time he arrived back at Wunsdorf, General Snetkov had a fair idea of what was happening. NATO had defied all expectations and launched a number of daring airstrikes against the command bunkers of his most powerful army groups. How NATO was even aware of the existence of some of these bunkers was beyond him at the moment. This was only one of a thousand questions raging in his mind. The most prevalent one, though, was how the NATO bombers managed to penetrate into GDR airspace without being detected on radar. There were rumors that the Americans were working to develop an aircraft invisible to radar, but it was not yet in operational service. Or was it? If so, what did that mean for his command? Nothing good. Snetkov was certain of that.
The attacks on command bunkers were not the only instances of preemption that morning either. Scattered reports from across the western half of the GDR spoke of further NATO air strikes against bridges spanning the Elbe river, fuel depots, and a small number of Frontal Aviation airbases.
Before boarding the helicopter in Stendal, the general had sent a coded message to the theater commander explaining the situation and requesting a temporary moratorium on future operations. Much to his surprise, there was an answer from CINC-West waiting for him when he touched down. CINC-West agreed to a two hour delay on all land operations scheduled to go off at 0600, but everything else would go off as planned. There was not enough time to delay the offensive air operations, and airmobile raids that had been planned to precede the ground offensive. In fact, some of those missions were already inbound to targets in West Germany. Snetkov argued that these operations should also be delayed, but CINC-West would not entertain the notion. His comrades in Frontal Aviation were going to be dealing with a lot soon, if they weren’t already. Their blow would fall shortly.
Snetkov’s problems were more immediate and critical to the overall outcome of the war. Two, possibly three of his army group’s had been decapitated and were now without commanders, and battle staffs at a moment when their divisions were approaching inner-German border. His own battle staff was frantically contacting every one of 3rd Shock, 20th and 8th Guards Armies divisions to order them not to begin offensive operations until 0800. 1st and 2nd Guards Armies commanders, alive and untouched by the devastation brought upon their comrades earlier, acknowledged the order from Wunsdorf and went about passing the word along. It took time, and unorthodox effort in some instances, but Snetkov’s staff succeeded in halting the subordinate units of the affected armies. With that urgent task completed, Snetkov could worry about selecting new commanders for the affected army groups.
As all of this was taking place in Wunsdorf, Frontal Aviation and the air forces of other Warsaw Pact allies went into action. While it was true that some units and installations belonging to the 16th Air Army had been in action since 0300 or so, this action was part of the long planned air offensive against NATO. The offensive was originally intended to begin less than an hour before the first Soviet tanks crossed the border, but that timeline and battleplan no longer existed. Snetkov’s thoughts about Frontal Aviation having their own woes was right on the mark. NATO’s own preemptive airstrikes had thrown the morning’s planned air operations into chaos. USAF and Luftwaffe low level fighter-bombers had visited Mahlwinkle and Cochstedt, causing damage to facilities and aircraft. MiGs had also seen in the pre-dawn hours engaging NATO fighters over East Germany as well.
What all of this translated to was that the first blow struck from the air was not going to be as powerful as intended. The morning’s events so far had punched holes in the Soviet/WP’s master target list. Some NATO airbases and radar sites slated to be hit early on would not be struck until. The aircraft tasked for those missions had been damaged or destroyed outright on the ground. Defensive counter-air now took on a heightened priority as well. Some fighter regiments assigned to provide protection for the attack aircraft and fighter-bombers heading west were reassigned to defend the suddenly vulnerable skies over East Germany.
For years, Soviet and Warsaw Pact air commanders had speculated about this very moment, should it become reality. Now that it was, the situation was far different than most of them had imagined. And tt was destined to get worse.
The NATO air forces were ready and waiting as the first MiGs and Sukhois approached the border.