North of Bad Salzungen, German Democratic Republic, 10 July, 1987 (D+1)
Major Gurenko stood on the side of the stone building currently serving as his regiment’s headquarters and looked up at the camouflage netting overhead. The first peeks of daylight were seeping through the mesh, previewing the coming dawn. Sunrise would be at 0520 hours, just under ten minutes away. Another ten minutes from then and 8th Guards Army would begin its initial assault of the war eighteen or so hours later than originally planned.
Before leaving for division headquarters, Colonel Voronin had been good enough to supply Gurenko with a brief overview of the plan. The 27th Guards Motor Rifle Division (MRD) would push forward at 0530. The division objective was the West German town of Bad Hersfeld and the road network just beyond it. The assault would be made with two regiments forward and Gurenko’s 243rd Guards Motor Rifle Regiment (GMRR) in tactical reserve. It would be committed wherever the most progress was being made to punch a hole in the NATO line. Once a breakthrough was achieved, the division’s tank regiment would be brought forward to exploit it and flood into the enemy’s rear area. At the same time, the 39th Guards MRD would be making its own push to the south, and an East German division attacking to the north.
All things considered, the plan was good enough, Gurenko judged. Intelligence estimated the opposing forces in his division’s sector consisted of a damaged US cavalry regiment. He did not know what to make of the Americans, but assumed they were competent in the art of war. Still, one damaged regiment couldn’t hope to hold the line against the bulk of a motor rifle division for too long.
The major spent no more time pondering the big picture. His concerns were more immediate. He now commanded an entire motor rifle regiment. A far cry from the single battalion that had been his charge until a few short hours ago. The unfortunate death of the division commander had triggered a mad rush to fill the open billets with competent, capable officers. Gurenko understood why Voronin was selected to be the new division commander. The colonel was a first-rate officer who had proven himself under fire in the mountains of Afghanistan during his two tours there.
His own selection to take over the 243rd Guards MRR made less sense. By his own admission, Gurenko was inexperienced. Book teaching, and performances in field exercises aside, he never led men in battle. The fact that Voronin had felt him capable enough to take command of the regiment on the eve of battle spoke well of the regard his superior held for the young major.
The thoughts and opinions embedded in the minds of the regimental staff officers he had inherited were more difficult to measure. Colonel Voronin had indeed taken many of his staff officers with him to division. But the cadre of men that remained behind were not slouches by any stretch. Lieutenant Colonel Smotsyev, the regimental operations officer was especially talented, and like his former commander, had made a name for himself in Afghanistan. Why he was not selected instead was a mystery to Gurenko. To his credit, Smotsyev did not appear to be harboring a grudge and was primarily focused on the upcoming day like his lower-ranking regiment commander.
He turned, walked back into the former farm equipment storage building and immediately made for the plot table. Communications officers monitored the division and army nets and passed along unit reports to a trio of NCOs who made the necessary adjustments to the unit markers on the table. Gurenko studied the map intently, absorbing every detail. Two other officers also stood at the table immersed in their own thoughts. One was a young lieutenant who was linked rear services in some capacity Gurenko could not remember at the moment. The other officer was a stout Red Air Force captain who Gurenko suspected had trouble fitting into the tight cockpit of a MiG. This man was responsible for arranging air support for the regiment once it joined the fight. It bothered him that he didn’t even know the name of either man. But such details were trivial for the moment.
“Five minutes, Comrade Major,” the senior communications officer, also a major, reported.
Gurenko nodded and approached his operations officer. “Are we ready?”
“As ready as we can be,” Lieutenant Colonel Smotsyev replied. “All of our maneuver battalions are either in, or approaching the holding area. The artillery battalion has its guns deployed and is ready to join the division’s initial fire strike in,” he raised his arm up and checked his watch. “Four minutes. After that, the battalion will pack up and move forward to the holding area too.”
“Very well. I’ve reviewed the routes of advance, plan for commitment. Are there any changes you’d prefer to make now before we move?”
Smotsyev examined the plot map for a long moment, obviously thinking. “No,” he finally decided. “We have to see how the initial assault plays out before thinking about revisions. The plan Colonel Voronin and I have cobbled together is a good one, but much depends on how the forward regiments fare.”
Gurenko nodded, satisfied with the answer. The two men then stood there in silence staring at the map as the clock counted down.
“We will move the headquarters forward in an hour,” Gurenko said. “This position is good, but once the shooting begins, events will move quickly. The closer we are to our units, the better.”
“This is true,” Smotsyev answered softly. His mind was elsewhere, Gurenko realized. In all likelihood he was envisioning what the next few hours would bring. Like an adept chess player, a good operations officers was always looking three or four moves ahead.
“One minute, Comrade Major.”
As the words reached Gurenko’s ears, the thump of artillery firing in the distance followed close behind. Someone had jumped the gun and fired early. A faulty clock, perhaps, or nervousness. It did not matter, however.
The battle had commenced.