D+24 (2 August, 1987)
The gravity bomb contained a 30-kiloton warhead that was set to airburst at 800 meters. This aspect of the plan worked perfectly with the warhead exploding at the prescribed altitude. The Fencer aircrew’s delivery of the weapon, on the other hand, was off. The pre-selected ground zero point had been designated four kilometers west of the Soviet headquarters, directly between Wünsdorf to the east and Klausdorf to the west. For reasons never entirely determined, the Fencer’s navigator/weapons officer missed the mark The weapon detonated one kilometer west of the officer housing on the Group Soviet Forces Germany headquarters complex.
The immediate effects of the 30 KT airburst have been documented and described in dozens of government and private sector reports over the years. The majority of these are open source and available to the public. As a result, I am not going to delve into the details of the damage caused by the nuclear detonation. Suffice to say, significant damage was done to the GSFG headquarters complex and surrounding area and the casualty numbers were high.
The blinding white flash and subsequent mushroom cloud was seen by thousands of people south of Berlin. Predictably, Soviet military personnel and East German civilians in the Wünsdorf area were the first to witness it. They would not be the only ones, however. The flash and subsequent cloud was also seen in Berlin and by over twenty-four NATO pilots and aircrew members over East Germany that night. The proper term used here should be surviving aircrews since at least eight NATO warplanes were destroyed by the nuclear detonation.
Naturally the detonation caused an immediate disruption of communications in the central and eastern regions of the GDR. But the EMP emitted by a 30 kiloton explosion at a fairly low altitude was nowhere near what a larger warhead at higher altitude would’ve caused. Yet in those first minutes following it, the disruption was enough. Confusion dominated the first fragmented reports transmitted to both NATO and Soviet higher headquarters. Also, in those initial minutes the need for more complete, verifiable information prevented the news from spreading higher up the chain of command.
This was the case for Marshal Snetkov at Western TVD headquarters in western Poland. The initial reports received there told of a ‘possible nuclear explosion’ somewhere south of Berlin. While the communications officers at Western TVD attempted to determine exactly what had taken place and where, more reports flooded in. To make matters more confused and worrisome, GSFG headquarters at Wünsdorf was off the air. Snetkov’s alarm growing by the second as he reviewed recent developments in his mind. First it was NATO’s use of chemical weapons, a worrisome if anticipated move. But then to be followed up by reports of a nuclear detonation inside the GDR less than thirty minutes later…..
Whatever was taking place was dangerous. It appeared, to Snetkov, NATO’s retaliation for the earlier use of chemical weapons against Danish and West German units was now rapidly taking shape and was apparently not limited to only chemical agents. My God, this is all about to spiral out of control, the marshal realized at once. Next he ordered the communications officer to raise Moscow immediately.