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 had even been aware of their existence was beyond him at the moment. This was but one of a thousand questions surging through his mind. The most prevalent one, though, was how NATO bombers managed to penetrate into GDR airspace without being detected on radar. There had been rumors that the Americans were developing an aircraft invisible to radar, but it was not yet in operational service.
Or was it? If so, it meant nothing good for his command. Snetkov was certain of that.
The attacks on command bunkers were not the only instances of preemption that morning either. Reports from across the western half of the GDR told of other heavy 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. He had agreed to a two hour delay on all land operations scheduled to go off at 0600, however, everything else would go off as planned. There was no 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 briefly that these operations should also be delayed, but CINC-West would not entertain the notion. His comrades in Frontal Aviation were going to have their hands full soon enough. Their blow would fall shortly.
Snetkov’s problems were more immediate and consequential to the overall outcome of the war. Three of his army groups had been decapitated and were now without effective leadership as their divisions approached the inner-German border. His own battle staff officers were frantically contacting every one of 3rd Shock, 20th and 8th Guards Armies divisions and ordering them not to begin offensive operations until 0800. It took some time, and unorthodox communications in some instances, but Snetkov’s staff succeeded in halting the subordinate units of the affected army groups. 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 were going into action. While it was true that some of the units and installations belonging to the 16th Air Army had been in action since 0300 or so, this later activity 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 had just been unceremoniously revised. 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 visited Mahlwinkle and Cochstedt, causing damage to facilities and aircraft. 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 later in the day. The squadrons tasked for those missions had seen a number of their aircraft 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.
Soviet and Warsaw Pact air commanders had prepared for this moment for years. Now that it was finally upon them, they discovered to their horror that situation was far different than most of them had expected. And it was going to get worse.
NATO’s air forces were prepared, and waiting as the first MiGs and Sukhois approached the border.