The Central Front: Command And Control On The Nuclear Battlefield D+24 (2 August, 1987) Part I

In the battlefield nuclear exchanges that took place early on D+24, command and control elements and links were among the earliest casualties in both the NATO and Soviet formations that were targeted. This occurrence was anything but a surprise. Both sides had anticipated and prepared for the eventuality. Contingency plans for combat operations in a nuclear environment underwent significant revisions. In sub-unit field training and larger multinational exercises, the importance of NBC training increased practically with each passing year. Yet despite all of the preparations and training, once the first exchange of battlefield nuclear weapons occurred, neither side was ready for what awaited them in the aftermath.

I NL Corps was pushing northeast towards the Elbe with the 5th Division in the lead. The division’s next objective was Lüneburg. The Soviet-launched SS-21 detonated 2000 meters above ground north of Schwienau. This location was selected after much deliberation between 20th Guards Army planners and their counterparts at Western TVD. It was deemed to be the post probable spot for the Dutch 5th Division’s main combat element staging area. In reality, the area was occupied by the 5th Division’s support area.  

I NL Corps forward headquarters had arrived in the support area not long before the Soviet warhead arrived. The corps commander was determined to operate as close to the front as possible while the 5th Division pressed on towards Lüneburg. Against the advice of his own chief of staff and NORTHAG, I NL Corps commanding general came forward and met up with the forward command post as it approached Schwienau. The command post was located 2 kilometers southeast of the warhead point of impact. Of the twenty officers, NCOs and soldiers in and around the collection of headquarters tracks, all were killed or sustained severe injuries from the blast effects. This included the CO of the 5th Division, as well as the I NL Corps commander.

Within thirty seconds of detonation, command and control for the division and its parent corps was severely degraded. Communications were also adversely affected leaving unit commanders cut off from higher headquarters and other units nearby. It was obvious that a nuclear weapon had gone off within the division’s area, however, beyond that no other information was available. The blanket of uncertainty and fear which descended upon the 5th Division threatened to render the Dutch formation combat ineffective for the moment. The absence of information in minutes after the explosion cost the Dutch many lives. Conditions of various field hospitals was not known. Wind direction, specific impact location, air or ground burst, size of the warhead and other pieces of critical information were needed at once.

Big picture, it was unknown if the attack was over or just getting underway. Were more warheads on the way? Were Soviet tank and motor-rifle units maneuvering now to exploit a sudden hole in the Dutch defenses?  As communications gradually came back online, at least in a limited capacity, battalion commanders demanded information and details from their brigade headquarters. Brigade commanders in turn requested updates from the division HQ, only to receive nothing but static in response. Their division commander was dead and it would be another thirty minutes before the senior brigade commander realized this and took charge of the 5th Division.

Author’s Note: This will be a two-parter. The next post will talk a bit about the Soviet C2 problems following NATO’s retaliatory strike. Apologies for cutting the Dutch experience short somewhat, however, the experiences of I NL Corps in the aftermath of the SS-21 strike will be talked about more in later D+24 and postwar entries.

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