Aboard the US Navy aircraft carriers of Strike Fleet Atlantic, aircrews and intelligence staff were preparing for the first set of the day’s missions against targets on the Kola Peninsula. 0400 was the scheduled launch time. Surviving radar sites and air defenses near the bomber bases in the central region of the peninsula were the morning’s primary targets. These attacks constituted the bait which air wing planners hoped would bring the Backfires and Badgers out for a final, decisive air battle.
Unknown to the senior officers on the carriers and USS Mount Whitney at the time, Soviet bombers were already preparing to make the first of multiple appearances over northern waters on D+22. At Severomorsk-3, an airbase situated 28 kilometers east of Murmansk, Tu-16 Badger crews were going through preparations and preflight briefs for their own missions that morning. The radar data from the RORSAT pass, coupled with information gathered by the surviving Tu-95 Bear reconnaissance flights late on D+21 revealed the likely position of a single American carrier group. Red Banner Norther Fleet’s new commander Vice Admiral Felix Gromov was reluctant to commit to a multi-regiment attack on the single carrier group. He agreed to commit a single regiment of Badgers to this attack. Until more definitive information on the enemy’s other carriers became known, the remainder of Badgers, as well as the entirety of the Backfire force would remain in the ground.
Despite the fervor of his air commanders to launch a multiple regiment attack at once, Gromov refused. His long-range bomber formations were his most valued asset. The lessons from earlier attacks on American carrier task forces and convoys by bombers were painfully etched in his brain. Bombers were a perishable and irreplaceable asset at this stage of the game. Especially in the face of considerable ship-borne air defenses and fighters. What this boiled down to for Gromov and his fleet was the somber reality that he would have only one chance to catch the American carriers and inflict maximum damage. This required the Red Banner Northern Fleet commander to be quite careful in choosing when and where that battle would come. This morning’s strike would be little more than a precursor, but a valuable one. Takeoff time was set for 0230.
In the leadup to the bomber mission, Gromov retreated into the fleet operations center for an update on the overall situation at sea. NATO was concentrating heavy ASW patrols between Bear Island and the northern coast of Norway. Over the past twelve hours activity in that area continued to grow. Even the attack on the British ASW carrier task force failed to hinder the enemy’s focus here. It was beginning to bear fruit too, Gromov admitted begrudgingly. Two diesel submarines had failed to make contact at midnight as directed and he assumed them to be lost. The carriers were somewhere west or southwest of the ASW barrier now in place. The radar satellite pass earlier confirmed the presence of one carrier group 135 kilometers southwest of Bear Island and on a course of one-seven-five.
Then there was the matter of the amphibious task force gathered to the south. Intelligence reports, as well as Gromov’s own operations officer assessment were that the US Marines on board those ships would begin landing around Andoya in the next eighteen hours. Gromov wasn’t so certain this theory would become reality. The land war in northern Norway was finished. Soviet ground units were in a defensive posture and positioning to delay the expected NATO advance to the Norway-Soviet boundary. What troubled Gromov was simply that additional US Marines were not required for NATO to succeed in this endeavor. The correlation of forces was already in their favor. Perhaps not decisively so, but close enough in his eyes.
Curiosity became concern and then alarm as the clock pressed nearer to 0200. A singular question dominated Gromov’s thoughts; What are the Americans really doing?