NATO was faced with a pair of potentially decisive crises in the early hours of D+16. The first was a crisis of command in NORTHAG while the other was of the physical variety, having to do with the emerging situation on the battlefield. Given the urgency of the moment, these two crises were inexorably joined together and a failure to address one of them effectively ran the danger of turning the tide against NATO at the worst possible moment.
NORTHAG’s commander General Martin Farndale had been relieved of his duties shortly before midnight by SACEUR. The British general’s stubborn insistence that the main Soviet attack was centered in the direction of Hameln was his undoing. Even as evidence piled up and indications pointed to the main attack likely falling to the south, Farndale persisted. Once the cat was out of the bag, however, and there was no further question on where the Soviet attack would come, SACEUR fired Farndale. Timing-wise, it was not the most opportune moment to cashier an army group commander, with a major battle less than twelve hours away. Yet SACEUR had lost all confidence in Farndale’s abilities.
SACEUR’s choice to replace Farndale was controversial to say the least. NORTHAG was a command customarily held by a British general who also commanded the British Army of the Rhine. This tradition was bucked on D+16 when SACEUR named Lieutenant General Crosbie Saint, US Army as NORTHAG’s new commander. Until 0005 hours on D+16, Saint had been commander of US III Corps. Now, the entirety of NATO’s northern army group, and quite likely the future of West Germany, was in Saint’s hands. Officially, SACEUR selected Saint because he understood the situation on the ground completely.
Unofficially, General Galvin wanted an American general in the position now because it would streamline the chain of command, so to speak. Galvin and Saint were the products of the same doctrine and tactical mindset. SACEUR didn’t believe he’d find himself questioning some of Saint’s decisions the way he had with Farndale’s. Even more importantly, Saint was an offense-minded, aggressive commander who had a reputation of approaching battle as if it were a football game instead of a chess match. Where Farndale had been more deliberate and guided by logic, Saint was willing to take a gamble and roll the dice. Saint was also more able to adapt to an ever-changing battlefield situation. Another reason why SACEUR intended for him to assume command of NORTHAG.
There was blowback from SACEUR’s decision immediately. It wasn’t long before word reached London that Farndale had been relieved. The British government had been caught off guard, though, by a US general being named the new commander. There was quite a deal of anger and frustration from 10 Downing Street to Whitehall. To their credit, the Brits kept the a lid on their angst for the time being, but there would be an eventual reckoning between Reagan and Thatcher over Farndale.
The second crisis was that NORTHAG had been caught looking the wrong way. The long-expected drive to Hameln and the Weser had evaporated earlier on the evening of D+15. The push on Hameln had been nothing more than an effort to keep the NATO defenders fixated on the Soviet tank divisions crossing the northern Leine. In that respect, the Soviets had been wildly successful. Farndale swallowed the bait fully. Even when signs of increasing Soviet movement and activity appeared on the southern area of the river, Farndale ignored it. Through this obstinance, the British general managed to place NATO forces in the unenviable position of suddenly having to face the prospect of losing the war in spite of its magnificent performance thus far.