1215 Zulu (1615 Local)
The mid-afternoon session of the Politburo concluded earlier than anticipated. The mood had soured very early on and before anyone could think of containment it was too late. Vladimir Dolgikh was the figure that the opposition rallied around, somewhat to Romanov’s surprise. He’d expected another twenty-four hours to pass before the opposition coalesced and either instinctively or by general agreement appointed a leader. Just five minutes into the meeting a number of opposition and undecided Politburo members were borderline insubordinate. They volleyed pointed questions at the general secretary demanding details of his supposed plan for ‘victory.’ Updates on the present battlefield situation were requested too. Rumors of chemical weapon use in Europe was beginning to reach Moscow. Despite Romanov’s claims of a NATO disinformation campaign now underway. The fate of the KGB’s agent in Washington was also asked about, as well as whether there was evidence of the US making moves to attack the bastion. It is clear the opposition was losing patience and the loose ends in the war news provided a logical point to begin the challenges.
This, coupled with Boris Yeltsin remaining at large and rumors of clandestine meetings between Soviet Army officers around Moscow unnerved Romanov. The realization that time was running out struck him square in the face. The time had arrived to put his plan into action even if all the pieces were not completely in place or ready.
A Defense Council meeting came immediately following the departure of the Politburo members not attached to this more exclusive group. The general secretary wasted no time. He explained his intent and polled them. The members were in unanimous agreement on the options now available. Either act decisively once and for all or watch helplessly as the Soviet Union falls.
Wolfenbuttel, West Germany
1245 Zulu (1445 Local)
1st Cavalry Division’s commanding general Major General John Yeosock was at his division’s forward headquarters on the outskirts of Wolfenbüttel. He’d just wrapped up a short talk with 1st Brigade’s commander on the status of his unit when he’s contacted via radio by NORTHAG’s commander General Crosbie Saint who asks Yeosock for a short report on his division’s readiness. At first Yeosock was surprised to hear his friend’s voice on the other end of the secure radio. It wasn’t common for an army level commander to get in touch like this unless the division in question was engaged in heavy fighting. But Butch Saint was not like most army group commanders and despite currently running NORTHAG, still felt he had a personal stake in III Corps and its divisions.
“My combat elements are at MOPP 4,” Yeosock informed CINC-NORTH. “But I’ve dropped my rear area and support units down to MOPP 3. I’ll take the heat for bending orders if it comes to that, but the people behind the lines need to keep their masks off if they’re going to do their jobs properly.”
“I won’t fault you for that, John,” Saint promised. “You’re the commander on the spot.”
“I appreciate that, sir. Now, moving on, the division’s combat units are all spread out and dispersed. As an effective CBW defensive posture requires. The troops know what happened up north this morning too. They’re concerned but it won’t prevent them from doing their job.”
“Good to know,” Saint commented. “I suppose you’d appreciate an update yourself.”
“If at all possible.”
“These radios are pretty secure,” Saint reminded 1st Cav’s commander. “Unofficially, do not expect orders to resume movement until midnight at the earliest. Right now, political decisions are being made. These will determine the next phase of operations for NORTHAG.”
“Yes, sir.” Yeosock could read between the lines rather well and understood what NORTHAG’s commander was telling him.
“Apart from that, I have nothing else. Keep your people alert and report in immediately if any of your units detect gas. We’ll talk again soon. Luck, John.”
The Norwegian Sea
1300 Zulu (1500 Local)
The four CAP F-14 Tomcats arrived over the HMS Illustrious group less than five minutes after the impact of the last Kingfish. In the cockpit of Felix 1 the pilot eyeballed the collection of burning ships and the blanket of thick black smoke.
“Goddamn,” he breathed, taking in the scene.
“Yeah,” his RIO agreed shakily. He couldn’t believe his eyes. “We’d better check in, Steve.”
“Right.” The pilot keyed his mike to talk with the E-2C Hawkeye. “Ghost 27, Felix 1 is overhead Illustrious.”
“Roger,” the Hawkeye controller answered. “How does she look?”
The pilot and RIO of Felix 1 examined the damage done by the surprise Badger strike. Lusty, as the carrier was known, was in bad shape. She sat dead in the water and afire in two different locations. Of her three escorts, one frigate was burning and listing perilously to starboard, another had light damage and the third, a Type 42 class destroyer, appeared untouched. Felix 1 and 2 observed and reported while the flight’s second section flew top cover.
The flight was loitering at their CAP station when word of the surprise appearance of Badgers was received. With the air situation over the Norwegian Sea suddenly turning fluid and confusing, the E-2 would not vector Felix flight east until it was replaced on station itself. This delay prevented the Tomcats from influencing the battle, but Felix 1’s crew didn’t fault the Hawkeye crew for the decision. It was probably the right one, and in all likelihood, there was little they could’ve done to save the British carrier and her escorts. The Sea Harriers on patrol at the time of the attack had chased the Badgers but reported no kills. They were on their way to recover at an airfield in northern Norway right now due to the condition of their home ship. The Sea King helicopters that had been airborne during the attack were doing the same.
Illustrious had been positioned too close to the Kola to be defended properly. This was known from the moment she had rounded the North Cape, but her mission of ASW gatekeeper had been critical to the survival of Strike Fleet Atlantic. Now she was finished. Even if the Brits managed to keep her afloat, Illustrious was no longer mission capable.
Author’s Note: More on Illustrious and the attack on her in the next couple of entries.