To the surprise of senior NATO officers in Brussels and Kolsas, as well as the government and citizenry of Denmark, the first day of World War III was exceptionally quiet around the Baltic Approaches in comparison to other areas of Europe. It had been expected that the Warsaw Pact offensive into West Germany would be accompanied by a major assault on Denmark, and the Baltic Approaches. NATO was aware that an invasion of Denmark was included in nearly every Warsaw Pact war plan. The assumption had been that Soviet paratroopers would be dropping across Jutland as Soviet and Polish naval infantry landed on the Zealand coast at first light on the first day of war, with both efforts heavily supported by Soviet/WP air power.
The anticipated landings did not come though. Instead, the real war around the Baltic Approaches and Denmark began in a haphazard fashion after dawn. At 0600, the Commander Baltic Approaches (COMBALTAP) ordered all NATO ships under his command to sortie. COMBALTAP was a NATO commander with a far different opinion of Soviet designs on the Baltic than most of his peers. He did not expect there to be a major action taken against Denmark within the first 24 hours of the war. His conclusion was drawn from solid intelligence information received between 6 and 8 July indicating that the enemy units expected to take part in an invasion of Zealand were not yet in their staging areas. If such an assault was to take place early on, these staging areas should have been filled with troops, and equipment by the end of the Warsaw Pact’s mobilization. This wasn’t the case and it gave COMBALTAP reason for pause.
He ordered the remainder of his ships to sea partly because they were safer at sea than they were in port. Soviet air attacks against Danish and West German ports and naval bases in the Baltic were expected at any time. The other reason for the mass sortie was to reinforce the forces already at sea in the Baltic and around the approaches. Most of his submarines were patrolling the Kattegat, and Skagerrak where Soviet sub activity was expected to be high as diesel-powered, and a handful of nuclear subs prepared to clear a path for the eventual breakout of the Soviet Baltic Fleet. Minelaying efforts in the Danish Straits were more than sixty percent complete and he hoped it the effort would be finished by the coming evening.
In the morning, skirmishes between NATO and WP fast attack craft occurred around the Baltic. These engagements happened mainly by chance rather than being deliberate. As of 0900 there was no sense of importance tagged to the enemy’s actions and perceived intentions, although losses were being inflicted by both sides. At 0930, a West German RF-4E Phantom flying out of Leck Air Base photographed a large collection of barges, a pair of small merchant vessels apparently carrying heavy equipment, and an assortment of East German fast attack craft and two frigates in accompaniment, departing Peenemunde. Suspecting this could be the first wave of the amphibious effort against Denmark or perhaps Bornholm, COMAIRBALTAP decided to strike fast and hard. A squadron of twenty-four Tornado IDS strike fighters belonging to the West German Navy’s air arm were tasked with attacking the convoy. They launched shortly after 1030, yet because of the demand for air assets farther south and the Dane’s early reluctance to release its F-16s to missions unrelated to air defense of their nation, the strike force did not have escort fighters accompanying them. This proved to be a costly mistake.
Over the Baltic, just north of Rostok, a squadron of East German MiG-23 Floggers, with heavy jamming support ambushed the Tornados as the West German fighters screamed east. The MiGs had surprise on their side, seeing their opponents first on radar and then getting the first missile shots of the engagement off. The first indication of trouble for the Tornado crews was their threat receivers going off, warning them the incoming missiles. Although the Tornado was a superior aircraft to the MiG-23, the element of surprise gave the East German pilots the advantage over their Federal Republic counterparts. Six Tornados were shot down and another three damaged. The East Germans lost two MiGs, a price they were perfectly happy to pay.
It had been a simple but effective trap. The convoy acted as bait. The ships and barges carried farm equipment with thick tarps draped over them, not military equipment. The escorting warships purposely kept their air search radars active to attract the attention of nearby NATO reconnaissance aircraft or warplanes armed with anti-ship missiles. This was one of the nasty little secrets the Warsaw Pact sprang on NATO on the first day. The East Germans had been perfecting the ambush for years, having dedicated an entire squadron of MiGs, and specific ships to the effort. They’d manage to successfully pull the ambush off once again in the coming days before NATO caught on.
The start of the Soviet/WP land offensive in West Germany was preceded by a number of air mobile landings against targets in the allied rear areas. One of the largest attacks was made was on the Kiel Canal, a vital waterway in the LANDJUT area of operations. A pair of reinforced Soviet air mobile battalions were helicoptered from East Germany to Rendsburg, a town strategically located on the canal and adjacent to a critical north-south highway junction. The first battalion secured Rendsburg while the second focused on capturing the junction. Both objectives were secured swiftly and with low casualties. By the time the first elements of 2nd Guards Tank Army crossed the border, LANDJUT’s supply line between Denmark and West Germany was cut, and the Kiel Canal was under partial Soviet control, denying NATO the ability to shift naval forces from the Baltic to the North Sea or vice versa.