The Southern Flank: 9 July, 1987 0400-0600

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Hostilities in Southern Europe and the Mediterranean began at 0400 CEST. The first clash between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces came in the southwest corner of the Black Sea off of Thrace. A combined force of Hellenic and Turkish navy fast attack craft was covering minelaying operations off Limankoy when they were attacked by Soviet and Bulgarian fast attack craft. The engagement was short, yet deadly. Four NATO ships were sunk and an additional three damaged to varying extents. Out of eight Soviet and Bulgarian ships only two survived the engagement.

As dawn approached and general war got underway in Europe, AFSOUTH headquarters started receiving reports of contact, and unusual activities across the theater. Turkish and Russian fighters were engaging each other over the Black Sea. A Greek destroyer struck a mine and sunk in Souda Bay with heavy loss of life, confirming that Soviet submarines had been active sewing mines around NATO’s Mediterranean ports in the previous days. Spetsnaz teams were also positioned in theater during the build up to hostilities and this morning they struck targets almost in unison. Though the number of teams came nowhere close to replicating those in actionn on the Central Front, they made their presence felt. Airfields, ports, and communications centers from the southeastern Turkey to Spain were struck. The larger US airbases in the region were given particularly close attention. Torrejon, Aviano, and Sigonella were attacked by large contingents of Spetsnaz commandos. Every raid was defeated, though damage was inflicted. At Sigonella, six P-3C Orions were destroyed on the flight line by plastique explosives planted by Spetsnaz commandos. The raid on Torrejon failed to destroy any of the F-16 fighters based there. However, a number of USAF pilots belonging to the 613th TFS were killed when a well-placed mortar round landed on their squadron headquarters building. Overall, the Spetsnaz raids were unsuccessful in achieving their main goals. They failed to disrupt NATO enough to significantly affect operations in the Mediterranean or Southern Europe.

AFSOUTH’s preliminary wartime objectives were threefold: The prompt destruction of deployed Soviet naval forces in the Mediterranean, provide support to NATO’s Southern Flank if attacked, and lay the foundation for future air and cruise missile strikes against Soviet ports and airbases on the Black Sea coast, and Crimea.

In order to achieve the first objective, aircraft carriers were necessary. On the morning of 9 July, NATO only had two in the Med. Saratoga was west of Crete and Clemenceau positioned south of Turkey. AFSOUTH had managed to finally obtain the Constellation and she was expected to transit the Suez by nightfall. The Soviet 5th Eskadra had two surface action groups in the Eastern Med, one centered on a Slava class cruiser, the other on a Moskva class cruiser. Father west, a smaller SAG was sitting in the Gulf of Sidra. The Soviet groups were far enough away from NATO carrier groups that they were not going to pose an immediate threat. Submarines and bombers, on the other hand, were an entirely different matter.

Upon receiving the news that war was underway,  the NATO carrier groups in the Mediterranean immediately sank the Soviet AGI trawlers that had been shadowing them. An Il-38 May that had been operating relatively close to Clemenceau was shot down by French F-8s. These actions might seem minor in retrospect, yet they helped set the stage for the naval actions later in the morning which would become known as the ‘Great East Med Shootout.’ The Russians had a good idea of the general areas that NATO’s carriers were operating in. NATO, in turn, was relatively certain of where the 5th Eskadra’s SAGs were. On both sides, pilots were briefed, aircraft ready and armed for this very moment. At 0600 NATO fighters and strike aircraft were screaming down the flight decks of the Saratoga and Clemenceau, while Soviet Backfire bombers and support aircraft were departing from Latakia, Syria and bases on the Black Sea.

The stage was set for an explosive morning in the Mediterranean.

 

 

 

 

 

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The View From The Flanks: AFSOUTH 6 July, 1987

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For the Commander-in-Chief Allied Forces Southern Europe (CINC-AFSOUTH) Admiral James Busey, the bulk of 6 July was spent on the telephone with Norfolk, attempting to pry another aircraft carrier away from SACLANT for use in the Mediterranean. As it stood, the Sixth Fleet had only one carrier in the Mediterranean at present with the SaratogaConstellation was supposed to have steamed up from the Arabian Sea and made the transit through the Suez Canal but hadn’t yet. Chopping that carrier group to Sixth Fleet was turning into an impossible task. Seventh Fleet was complaining loudly that the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean were now naked of carrier support. Busey knew that was true, however, he was aware that Seventh Fleet could afford to transfer one of its other carriers to fill the void if necessary.

SACLANT was sympathetic, but his cupboard was quite bare at the moment. The carriers in the Atlantic were going to be needed there, so he was reluctant to even consider moving one of them east to the Sixth Fleet and AFSOUTH’s AOR. Yard workers in Norfolk were hustling to put the carriers there for overhaul back together and ready for sea as quickly as possible. It would be another week at the earliest before one of those decks became available and there was no guarantee that it would wind up coming his way anyhow.

So, as it stood, CINC-SOUTH had two traditional carriers available in the Mediterranean: Sara, and the French carrier Clemenceau. Doctrine called for at least three carriers (two of them at least being US) to fight and survive in the Eastern Med. Busey now had two, but the air wing aboard Clemeneau was nowhere near as powerful as the one on the US carrier. At sea, AFSOUTH’s main wartime mission would be to retain control of the Eastern Med and prevent it from becoming a Soviet lake. To do this, Busey’s command had developed a maritime strategy revolving around using the US Sixth Fleet and accompanying NATO units aggressively from the second hostilities commenced.

Busey envied his AFNORTH counterpart somewhat. The north flank had a laundry list of reinforcements from outside the AOR that were already packing and preparing to move. AFSOUTH and NATO’s vulnerable southern flank lacked the prepositioned equipment and specifically assigned units AFNORTH had. His reinforcements would be more of a scratch force depending on what was available and the situation at a given moment.

His command’s intelligence staff was working feverishly to develop a picture of what the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies might do in Southern Europe and the Med if war began. There were strong indications of a major build up going on in Buglaria, indicating a potential Soviet/WP plan to move into Thrace and cut off Turkey from the rest of Europe. The consequences of a successful Thrace offensive were almost too dire to contemplate. Therefore, keeping both Turkey and Greece from being driven out of the war also was positioned high on Busey’s priority list. The two nations were bitter enemies as well as NATO allies. The tense relationship nearly led to open war between the two back in March when the Greeks began exploring for oil in disputed waters. How well they would function together now was anybody’s guess.

The primary threat he was concerned with was that posed by Soviet Long Range Aviation, Naval Aviation and tactical air. From bases on the Black Sea coastline, Backfires and Badgers would waste little time in streaming down across Turkey to attack his ships in the Eastern Med. Satellite photos also indicated that Soviet aircraft were arriving in Bulgaria, and Syria. If the Turkish and Hellenic air forces were not up to the challenge of stopping these attacks, or at least inflicting moderate casualties, Saratoga’s battlegroup and air wing were going to have an exciting, and likely short life if the shooting started.

As late afternoon turned to early evening in Naples, Admiral Busey was contemplating a quick meal when the phone on his desk rang. He lifted it up.

“Yes?”

“Jim?” The voice on the other end belonged to SACEUR in Brussels. “Sorry to bother you. Have you got a second?”

“Evening, general. What can I do for you?” Busey was immediately on guard.

“I’ll be brief. Peter Carington is making a statement within the hour.” Carington was the NATO secretary general. “He is going to publicly announce that NATO is officially mobilizing.”

“God,” Busey breathed. “What took him so long?”

“I know,” General John Galvin chuckled. “Just a formality at this point, really. But I thought you should know.”

“Thank you, sir. I appreciate it. Since I have you on the line, is there anything new happening anywhere that I should be aware of?” The direct line from Brussels to Busey’s office was one of the most secure telephone lines in the world.

SACEUR was quiet for a long moment before responding, “The diplomatic efforts have closed down almost entirely. They weren’t making progress anyhow. Ready your command for action, Jim,” Galvin spoke slow and deliberately. “I’m guessing we have maybe another two days of peace left at best.”

 

Opening Moves

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Hostilities between NATO and the Warsaw Pact began at 0103 hours Zulu on 9 July, 1987. For a war that would spread across the globe in a matter of days, the opening clashes between combatants were quite small. The first shots were exchanged outside of the NATO airbase at Gielenkirchen by KGB-trained saboteurs attempting to gain entry to the base and NATO security forces. The effort was unsuccessful and all seven saboteurs were killed. After the war, it would be learned that this particular attack went off twenty-seven minutes ahead of schedule. The initial wave of Soviet Spetznaz, desant, and saboteur attacks behind the lines was not supposed to commence until 0130 Zulu.

As it was, however, the early attack gave NATO valuable time to get the warning out and bring security to a higher state of alert before the initial wave of attacks began a short time later. Some sites which may not have been ready were. The extent of the attacks and the results will be explored and discussed at a later time. Suffice to say, the opening hours of hostilities were defined by explosions, helicopter landings, and small unit actions across West Germany, Denmark, the Low Countries, and even the United Kingdom and Norway to an extent. Before the first Soviet tanks crossed the border, the war was more or less already in full swing.

At sea, the first contact between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces took place in the Barents Sea at 0219 hours local time. Soviet and Norwegian fast attack craft clashed in the North Cape area. The first casualties of the war at sea were the Norwegian Storm-class patrol boat Brask and a Soviet Nanuchka class patrol boat. Fighting in the North Cape continued through the early morning hours as a running battle between units of the Royal Norwegian Navy and Soviet Red Banner Northern Fleet materialized.

In the North Atlantic, the Soviets drew first blood, sinking a pair of merchant ships northwest of the Azores. The Foxtrot class diesel submarine that launched the attack escaped the area only to be discovered and sunk by US Navy P-3 Orions operating from Lajes Airfield later on the first day.

The Mediterranean and Black Sea remained quiet until around dawn when fast attack craft of the Soviet navy made contact with elements of the Greek and Turkish navies in the Black Sea. Not long afterward, Soviet and Syrian naval forces struck Turkish and other NATO warships operating in the Eastern Med. The rest of the region remained precariously quiet in those first two hours.

The storm would soon break across Europe and the Med.