By dusk, the situation facing the NATO corps on the North German Plain was auspicious, to put it mildly. The sun dipping beneath the western marked the end of Operation Thunder Cloud’s first day. The counteroffensive was nowhere near reaching its climax., but given the events of the last sixteen hours, the main battle was within sight. In division, corps and army group headquarters on both sides of the frontline, commanders assessed the status in their sectors and conferred with sub-unit commanders when and where possible. With darkness having fallen, resupply became a priority for both NATO and Soviet formations. More so for the Soviets given NATO airpower’s unmatched ability to bomb with precision accuracy at night and in bad weather.
NORTHAG’s command staff was appropriately satisfied with where their units stood. In the north, the Dutch 5th Division had broken through Soviet lines around Celle and was moving to exploit the gap before the enemy had the opportunity to seal it up. Even if the Soviets were able to successfully isolate the breakthrough it would not improve their situation. With 20th Guards Army now committed to holding Celle and delaying the Dutch from advancing east, follow-on units from I NL Corps were preparing to open a second line of advance farther north in the pre-dawn hours of D+22. The objective of this advance, as discussed in earlier entries, was to seal off and potentially pocket the Soviet divisions located around Hamburg and in Schleswig-Holstein.
The push by US III Corps was the heart of Thunder Cloud. So far it was moving along slightly ahead of schedule. Phase Line Mets had been reached at 1300, roughly four hours ahead of the battleplan’s schedule. The Soviet division positioned in front of Braunschweig as a screen had been penetrated in multiple locations by the 1st Cavalry Division. Already understrength after an extended period of heavy combat, much of the remaining 29th Tank Division’s combat elements had been overrun and cut off. A hasty and not very well thought out counterattack by the 29th’s single uncommitted regiment failed to reach their cloistered comrades. By late afternoon, what was left of the division was pulling back through Braunschweig and being harassed by British and West German tank brigades as the 22nd Tank Division arrayed just east of Wolfenbüttel steeled itself to face a major American attack that every soldier, NCO and officer in the division understood was coming at some point.
Confusion and chaos dominated Soviet command posts as the night progressed. The picture presented to Colonel General Korbutov 2200 was neither informative or current. Going by the information presented, Korbutov was led to believe no US, West German or British units had advanced east of Braunschweig. This was in conflict with a small number of eyewitness reports telling of US and British tanks sighted north of Braunschweig and Autobahn 2. Even more alarming were indications in the late afternoon of more American armored units advancing northeast from the Kassel area. Intelligence believed these units belonged to the US 3rd Armored Division. Attempts to confirm those reports had yet to bear fruit. Korbutov believed them to be accurate, however. With the Soviet offensive in the Fulda Gap area dead and buried, the US now had an abundance of divisions available. A second major attack would soon be unleashed from that direction against his very vulnerable underbelly. And he had few resources to halt it with for the time being. What remained of 5th Guards Tank Army was needed to keep the American III Corps delayed long enough for 7th Guards Tank Army. Whatever 5th GTA units survive the next twenty-four hours will be little more than a spent force. But if they could buy Korbutov the time needed to array 7th GTA’s divisions, as well as a hodgepodge of other units from spent divisions, into a coherent defense, their sacrifices would not be in vain.