The Central Front D+21 (30 July, 1987) Part I

By 0100 hours the main components for the first phase of the NORTHAG counterattack were in place. North of Hanover, the Dutch 5th Division was primed and ready to jump off. This division’s attack would hit the forward positions of the Soviet 20th Guards Army just west of Autobahn 7. The first objective was Celle, a town which had seen bitter fighting between West German and Soviet forces earlier in the war. Once Celle was taken, the remainder of I NL Corps would move up and begin pushing northeast with the intent of sealing off Hamburg and preventing reinforcement of the main Soviet forces in the field east of Hanover from that direction. West German forces were expected to join the push within twenty-four hours, giving I NL Corps added combat power. The liberation of Hamburg was a matter not yet settled by NATO commanders. Despite being declared an Open City, follow on elements of Soviet forces had moved in to occupy large sections of Hamburg as the front moved west. For the upcoming operation, I NL Corps looked to use the Elbe River as a natural defensive boundary to keep Soviet forces, mainly remnants of 20th GA and 2nd Guards Tank Army, hemmed in around Hamburg.

South of Hanover was where the bulk of NORTHAG’s counterpunch was set to come from though. US III Corps forward staging areas held an armored cavalry regiment and two heavy maneuver divisions and an artillery brigade. The remainder of the corps was still on the western side of the Weser and expected to join the attack on the afternoon of D+22. Along with the large contingent of US armor and mechanized infantry south of Hanover was a West German panzer brigade, as well as a British armored brigade.

III Corps was the hammer intended to fall on what remained of the 5th Guards Tank Army and its sister the 7th GTA. The blow was expected to smash the divisions of these two armies into pieces and send their remnants scrambling across the Inner-German border. Compounding the situation for the Soviets was going to be the emergence of another NATO prong from around the Kassel area, made up of US V Corps and supporting West German forces. If Soviet commanders did not realize the danger coming from the south and react fast enough, V Corps would position itself between the border and Soviet forces, effectively cutting off the enemy’s escape route east. This was the plan, at least, and it was flexible enough to adapt to changes. After all, no battleplan survives first contact with the enemy. This was a lesson that many commanders on both sides had learned firsthand since 9 July.

III Corps would press east, with the West German and British protecting their left flank, and work along a series of phase lines running from the outskirts of Braunschweig (Phase Line Mets) all the way to Helmstedt (Phase Line Red Sox). Intelligence data was inconclusive on the Soviet state of readiness and morale. The most recent batch of interviews with prisoners painted a picture of bewilderment and shock. Supplies were running desperately low in many units according to some junior officers. Others, however, were more defiant and talked of overflowing depots and streams of reinforcements arriving every hour. The consensus among NATO intelligence officers was that the truth lay somewhere in between those claims.

Dispositions in US III Corps forward area. 0100 Hours, D+21

The attack was scheduled to commence at 0400. General Crosbie Saint, NORTHAG’s commanding general, wanted operations to kick off earlier the West Germans and British had required more time to get into position. With the time of attack approaching, Saint and his staff were on the way to NORTHAG’s forward headquarters in Hameln. The town on the Weser was as far forward as SACEUR was allowing his Northern Army Group commander to go—for now. If the first day of the attack went well, he’d revisit the matter but NATO’s supreme commander did not want to see an army group commander end up dead simply because he couldn’t resist the urge to set up shop too close to the forward edge of the battle area.   

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