Vital Peripheries: Central America & the Caribbean 7-8 July, 1987

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*Author’s Note: I forgot to add this post in the Pre-War section over the summer. Better late than never*

Central America and the Caribbean was a potential tempest in a teapot for the United States with Nicaragua and Cuba, two firm Soviet allies, situated squarely in the geographic backyard of the US. Fidel Castro was still running Cuba despite decades of US efforts to remove him from power, while in Nicaragua, leftist strongman Daniel Ortega ran the nation. It was believed in Washington that both of these men would take their marching orders directly from Moscow if war broke out. If left unchecked, Castro and Ortega could cause major damage to United States at a critical time.

Cuba’s close proximity to US shores called for an increased military presence in and around Florida to deter Castro from possibly launching military action against the US. Guantanamo Bay was another prickly issue for the US to contend with. As tensions rose, the Pentagon wrestled with what to do with the base. There were three realistic choices available to select from; Reinforce Gitmo with additional US Marines and aircraft, evacuate dependents and non-essential personnel from the base, or undertake a mass evacuation of everyone, civilian and military. The Cubans, for their part, were behaving very cordially with regards to the US base on their soil. Cuban MiGs and other aircraft gave Gitmo a wide berth. Regular troops stationed in close proximity to the base were replaced by the local militia. In the Caribbean, Cuban naval vessels were not straying far from home waters.

The behavior by the Cuban military was curious, to say the least. Some voices in the Reagan administration wondered if the low activity was part of a ruse. A much smaller group of advisers and aides suspected the drop in activity was due to a rift between Havana and Moscow. Publicly, Fidel Castro had welcomed the coming of Romanov to power. The General Secretary had a history of making anti-Castro remarks when he had been a member of the Politburo. The US State Department was making preparations to reach out quietly to Havana and attempt to decipher where the relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union stood at the moment.

Until that was clarified, precautionary steps had to be taken. On 7 July, the evacuation of non-essential personnel from Gitmo began. The Florida Air National Guard began dispersing fighters to a number of locations around South Florida. The US Navy could not afford to spare an aircraft carrier to station in the Caribbean at the moment, though it did part with a handful of reserve frigates and destroyers which were originally expected to head north to take part in convoy duty.

Nicaragua was another matter altogether. Daniel Ortega and his Sandinistas would blindly follow Moscow to hell and beyond. He could cause trouble in a variety of ways if he chose to and Washington was fully aware of this. The fattest target for Nicaragua in Central America was the Panama Canal. Disabling it would severely delay the transfer of US Navy ships from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Instead of transiting the canal, they would be forced to take the long trip south around Cape Horn and up the eastern coast of South America. The methods available to disable the Panama Canal were varied. A bomb exploding at one of the locks would put the canal out of commission indefinitely. A Sandinista attack on the canal could cause equal amounts of damage. Just as effective would be scuttling a merchant ship or other vessel of a similar size somewhere in the waterway.

To prevent either from happening, security at the canal was redoubled. US Southern Command doubled the number of troops it currently had guarding the canal and a number of Panamanian workers were sent home for the duration of the crisis. These men and women were soon replaced by US Navy civilian workers from the United States. Ships belonging to Eastern Bloc and Soviet allied nations were denied permission to transit for the time being. On 7 July, less than 48 hours before war broke out, the US military officially took control of the Panama Canal Zone and would maintain that control until the end of fighting in Europe.

 

 

 

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The Southern Flank: 9 July, 1987 0600-2359

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Authors Note: I seem to have misplaced the original entry for this date somewhere. I thought I placed it on a flash drive but after scouring every one that I have, as well as my hard drive I cannot find it. So, instead of going back and rewriting it I decided to put it forward in a timeline format instead. Apologies.

 

Southern Flank 9 July Timeline 0600-2359

 

0639– French Super Etendards from the Clemenceau attack the Slava SAG, damaging a frigate.

 

0700– The Slava SAG launches a salvo of SS-N-12 missiles at the Clemenceau group sinking a frigate and a destroyer.

 

0715– In a loosely coordinated effort, Soviet Tu-22 Backfires based in Syria follow up with a second strike against the Clemenceau group. The carrier, along with her surviving escorts, are all sunk. Search and rescue efforts begin immediately from Turkey and RAF Akrotiri.

 

0745– A Hungarian merchant ship sinks mysteriously in the Suez Canal, effectively blocking the waterway.

 

0800– The Moskva SAG launches its own SSM attack on the Saratoga carrier battlegroup. All Soviet missiles are intercepted by SAMs and Phalanx gun systems, or lured away by defensive countermeasures.

 

0900Saratoga’s airwing conducts a Sierra strike against the Moskva group. Moskva, and four accompanying escorts are sunk. Two others are heavily damaged. Only one undamaged warship remains. Greek A-7s operating from Crete will sink the surviving ships later in the day.

 

0915– Soviet diplomats meet with Turkish and Greek officials in a last ditch effort to keep the rival nations on the sidelines of the war. The Soviet Union promises to respect the boundaries and sovereignty of both nations in exchange for them declaring neutrality. Ankara and Athens both refuse.

 

0945– In response to the Greek and Turkish refusals, Soviet warplanes begin systematically striking military targets in Turkey and Greece. These attacks will continue through the entire day, effectively tying down much of the Turkish and Hellenic air forces.

 

1100– Yugoslavia declares its neutrality.

 

1300– Skirmishes break out on the Thrace frontier between Warsaw Pact and Greek and Turkish ground forces. The intermittent fighting continues off and on for the day, but so far there is no indication of a Warsaw Pact offensive into Thrace taking place.

 

1320– HMS Superb sunk in the Eastern Med

 

1340– Soviet Backfires from airbases on the Black Sea coast attack the Saratoga battlegroup. Raid warning is established early and US Navy F-14s from the carrier meet the bombers over the Aegean and inflict severe losses. A number of ASMs are launched though. Most are intercepted, but two make it through the layered defense and hit the destroyer USS Preble. She sinks almost immediately with all hands.

 

1415– In the Western Med, a Soviet Foxtrot class SS and a Charlie class SSN are sunk respectively by a US attack submarine and Italian ASW forces.

 

1500– In its second Sierra Strike of the day CVW-17 targets the Slava SAG. Slava, a Kresta II cruiser, two Udaloy class destroyers, and a Krivak III friate are all sent to the bottom of the Eastern Med. A Kashin class destroyer survives the attack with some damage. He begins making his way towards a friendly anchorage in Syria but is later destroyed by French Super Etendards now flying out of RAF Akrotiri.

 

2045- USS Pogy and a Soviet Victor II SSN are sunk in the Eastern Med.

 

2300- NATO reconnaissance flights pick up  on heightened activity in southern Bulgaria, including the movement of Warsaw Pact armor and infantry towards the Greek and Turkish borders.

Baltic Approaches: 9 July, 1987 1000-2359

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The Soviet air mobile assault earlier in the morning on Rendsburg nearly succeeded in decapitating LANDJUT’s senior leadership. The town, for all of its previously mentioned importance, was also the peacetime headquarters for the Commander, Allied Land Forces Schleswig-Holstein and Jutland (LANDJUT). When the warning of Soviet helicopters approaching Rendsburg was received, LANDJUT’s commander, a West German lieutenant general, was at his forward headquarters in Dobersdorf.. Much of his staff, as well as LANDJUT’s deputy commander, were still in Rendsburg and had to hastily depart via helicopters to Denmark once the extent of the Soviet attack became apparent. Their evacuation was successful largely due to the headquarters security troops, who bought their superiors the time needed to leave. Allied troops based around Rendsburg fought fiercely to delay the Soviets for as long as possible. Eventually, surviving troops either surrendered or retreated north of the Kiel Canal to link up with friendly forces in the area. By late afternoon, LANDJUT’s commander had rejoined his senior staff and deputy commander at their new, temporary headquarters in Aarhus. Once he arrived, he ordered his staff to begin laying plans for the immediate retaking of Rendburg.

Forward deployed elements of the West German 6th Panzergrenadier Division bore the brunt of the fighting in LANDJUT’s sector through most of the daylight hours. On a front extending from Scharbeutz on the Baltic south to the Elbe River, LANDJUT’s forces were engaging the Soviet 2nd GTA. Despite putting up fierce resistance and inflicting heavy casualties on the first Soviet echelons, the enemy was moving northwest and westward into the Federal Republic by late afternoon. The commander of the 6th was reluctant to pull his forces back as the situation had worsened. He was determined to defend forward as long as possible, yet was now looking at the possibility of one of his brigades being outflanked south of Lubeck. Reluctantly, as dusk fell, he ordered a withdrawal, ceding the city to the Soviets.

 

***

With the exception of Nordholz no other NATO airbases in the BALTAP area of operations, or farther north in Denmark were targeted by Soviet and Warsaw Pact air forces on the morning of 9 July. Six Su-24 Fencers made a low level approach towards Nordholz before being intercepted by West German F-4s. Three of the fighter-bombers were shot down. The surviving trio made one pass over the NATO base, dropping cluster munitions and fuel air explosives over the flightline and taxiways. Some damage was inflicted, including destroyed aircraft, but the airbase continued functioning throughout the rest of the day.

The primary focus of Soviet and Warsaw Pact air forces on 9 July was the battle raging to the south. Most frontline air regiments were committed to operations south of Hamburg, with the exception of air support missions for 2nd GTA, though these were few in number and not very effective thanks to the presence of NATO fighters in the area.

In the late afternoon the first raids against Denmark were launched. To the surprise of AIRBALTAP, the incoming formations of enemy aircraft were made up entirely of East German MiG-21s, and MiG-23s. No Soviet aircraft took part in strikes against Danish targets on that first day, mainly owing to priority tasking. The main targets were airbases and radar stations on the Jutland peninsula. Danish F-16s rose  to challenge the intruders and a large air battle materialized in the skies over the Baltic Sea and Denmark. The Danish F-16s outclassed their East German opponents in every category except quantity. The maneuverability of the Falcon, coupled with its highly advanced electronics, and weaponry outshined the Fishbeds and Floggers they engaged, to say nothing of the superior capabilities of the Danish pilots. The Danes scored 24 kills that afternoon for the loss of just 5 F-16s. Some East German fighters managed to get through to their targets, though the numbers were low and the resulting damage and disruption to AIRBALTAP operations was minimal.

From dusk through to the early hours of 10 July, West German RF-4 reconnaissance flights of the GDR coast. The search was on for signs of a coming Pact amphibious move against Denmark. The RF-4s took losses, and the film they brought back revealed no conclusive evidence of preparations. After the ambush earlier in the day NATO was gun shy about committing strike aircraft against a possible Warsaw Pact amphibious task group without solid intelligence that the target was genuine.

 

***

The Denmark straits and accompanying sea space was becoming one large, interconnected minefield. NATO minelayers, under the watchful eye of escorting fast attack craft and frigates, laid their explosive cargoes along predesignated paths. Concurrently, allied minesweepers, and other MCM assets were equally as preoccupied with their task of sweeping the seas of mines that had been laid by Soviet/WP submarines, minelayers, and aircraft. The Baltic approaches were being turned into a jigsaw puzzle of offensive and defensive minefields, safe travel corridors, and hunter killer groups of surface warships and submarines stalking the seas.

Hit and run tactics were utilized by both sides missile-armed warships to probe the other’s defenses, and create an air of anxiety. As NATO awaited the imminent body blow against Denmark in the form of an amphibious landing, the Soviets and their allies were doing their best not to telegraph where that punch would land, or from what direction it would come from.

 

 

 

 

Baltic Approaches: 9 July, 1987 0600-1000

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To the surprise of a good number of senior NATO officers in Brussels and Kolsas, as well as the government and citizenry of Denmark, the first day of World War III was remarkably quiet around the Baltic approaches in comparison to other parts of Europe. It had been expected that the Warsaw Pact offensive into West Germany would be accompanied by a second determined effort against Denmark, and the Baltic approaches. An invasion of Denmark was almost certainly included in Warsaw Pact war plans, and the assumption was that Soviet paratroopers would be dropping across Denmark as Polish and East German troops came ashore simultaneously at first light with both efforts largely supported by Soviet/WP airpower.

This did not happen though. Instead, the real war around the Baltic approaches and Denmark began in a haphazard fashion after dawn. At 0600, the Commander Baltic Approaches (COMBALTAP) ordered all NATO ships under his command to sortie. COMBALTAP was a NATO commander less sure of Soviet designs on the Baltic than most of his peers. He did not expect there to be a major action taken against Denmark within the first 24 hours of the war. His conclusion was drawn from solid intelligence received between 6 and 8 July indicating the formations expected to take part in an invasion of  Zealand were not yet in their staging areas. If there was to be an invasion early on then these staging areas should have been filled with troops, and equipment early on in the Warsaw Pact’s mobilization. They weren’t and it gave COMBALTAP pause.

He ordered the remainder of his ships to sea partly because they were safer at sea than they were in port. Soviet air attacks against ports and naval bases in the Baltic were expected at any time. The other reason for the mass sortie was to reinforce the forces already at sea in the Baltic and around the approaches. Most of his subs were patrolling the Kattegat, and Skagerrak where Soviet submarine activity was expected to be high as diesel-powered, and a handful of nuclear subs prepared to clear a path for the eventual breakout of the Soviet Baltic Fleet. Minelaying efforts in the Danish Straits were more than sixty percent complete and he hoped it the effort would be finished by the coming evening.

In the morning, skirmishes between NATO and WP fast attack craft took place at various points around the Baltic. The engagements happened mainly by chance rather than being deliberate. As of 0900 there was no sense of importance tagged to the enemy’s actions although losses were being inflicted by both sides. At 0930, a West German RF-4E Phantom flying out of Leck Air Base photographed a large formation of barges, along with a pair of small merchant vessels apparently carrying equipment, and an assortment of East German fast attack craft and two frigates in accompaniment departing Peenemunde. Suspecting this was the first wave of an amphibious effort against Denmark or perhaps Bornholm, COMAIRBALTAP decided to strike fast and hard. A squadron of twenty-four Tornado IDS belonging to the West German Navy’s air arm were tasked with attacking the convoy. They departed from Schleswieg Air Base shortly after 1030, yet because of the demand for air assets farther south and the Dane’s early reluctance to release its F-16s to missions not related to air defense of their nation, the strike force did not have escort fighters. Not having them along proved to be a costly mistake.

Over the Baltic, just north of Rostok, a squadron of East German MiG-23 Floggers, with heavy jamming support ambushed the Tornados as the West German fighters screamed east less than 100 meters above the water. The MiGs had surprise on their side, seeing  their opponents first on radar and getting the first shots off. The first indication of trouble for the Tornado crews was when their threat receivers blared the first warnings of inbound missiles. Although the Tornado was a superior aircraft to the MiG-23, the element of surprise gave the East German pilots the advantage over their Federal Republic counterparts. Eight Tornados were shot down and another three damaged. The East Germans lost two MiGs, a price they were perfectly happy to pay.

It had been a simple, yet overwhelmingly effective trap. The honey trap was convoy. The ship and barges carried farm equipment with tarps draped over them, not military equipment. The escorting warships had purposely kept their air search radars activated in order to attract the attention of nearby NATO reconnaissance aircraft or warplanes armed with anti-ship missiles. This was one of the nasty little secrets the Warsaw Pact sprang on NATO on the first day. The East Germans had been perfecting the ambush for years, having dedicated an entire squadron of MiGs, and specific ships to the effort. They’d manage to successfully pull the ambush off once more before NATO would catch on.

The start of the Soviet/WP land offensive in West Germany was preceded by a number of airmobile strikes against targets in the allied rear areas. One of the largest attacks made was against the Kiel Canal, a waterway situated in the LANDJUT area of responsibility. Two reinforced Soviet airmobile battalion was helicoptered from East Germany to Rendsburg, a town strategically located on the canal and adjacent to a critical north-south highway junction. One battalion secured Rendsburg, and the other focused on capturing the junction. Both objectives were secured swiftly and with low casualties. By the time the first elements of 2nd Guards Tank Army crossed the border, LANDJUT’s supply line between Denmark and West Germany was cut, and the Kiel Canal was partly under Soviet control, denying NATO the ability to shift naval forces from the Baltic to the North Sea or vice versa very rapidly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

The Central Front: 9 July, 1987 1200-2359

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CENTAG was an army group blessed with a number of inherent advantages. It was made up of NATO’s best trained, and equipped divisions. The US V and VII Corps, as well as the West German II and III Corps contained well trained, and motivated officers, NCOs and soldiers. Their equipment was second to none, in most cases the best that the United States and West Germany were capable of producing. As if this weren’t advantage enough, CENTAG’s four heavy maneuver corps guarded the central and southern areas of the Federal Republic, regions consisting in large part of hills, mountains, and other defensible terrain, supplemented by a first class network of roads which was expected to make the movement of units and supplies flow smoothly in a time of war. The Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces facing CENTAG opposite the border were also well equipped and trained, but  it was widely expected that the main Soviet/WP effort in a war would be made against NORTHAG farther north. This is not to say the danger facing CENTAG was trivial or minimized in any way. The III West German Corps defended the vital seam between the two NATO army groups, an area expected to receive significant Soviet pressure. To its south, the US V Corps protected the gate to Frankfurt and beyond it the Rhine. If the Soviets had any significant success in either area it could be catastrophic to the overall NATO plan for the defense of West Germany.

When Soviet forces crossed the frontier on 9 July, CENTAG’s covering forces were deployed in close proximity to the border, spread out in small, yet powerful clusters and supported by air and artillery support. Engagements began almost immediately and carried on with a growing intensity in some areas through the early afternoon and beyond. By 1500,  the entranceways to theFulda Gap and Hof Corridor looked like high tech junkyards littered with the burning hulks of dozens of tanks and armored vehicles, the overwhelming majority of which were Soviet. The initial Soviet thrusts had been halted with a minimal loss of territory. Elements of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment fought two regiments of the 57th Guards Motor Rifle Division to a bloody standstill before Gersfeld. North of there, West German reconnaissance forces, supported by armor were keeping the Soviets busy in front of Hunfeld. Similar situations were being reported near Hof, where the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment was positioned as VII Corps covering force.

–  –  –

The second echelon regiments were expected to begin moving forward by 1700, however this didn’t happen. NATO air attacks, communications jamming, and the leadership crisis earlier in the day were taking their toll on 8th Guards Tank Army. The pace of the general Soviet offensive was falling farther behind schedule, something that was not lost on higher headquarters. General Snetkov and his aides managed to select replacements for the fallen army group commanders and install them, as well as new staffs by late afternoon.  Considering the fact that he also had an offensive to run at the same time, it should come as no surprise that the process took so long.

As dusk grew closer, Snetkov was haranguing his air commanders on the importance of air superiority over the battle line and rear areas. The NATO air forces had already displayed a prowess for night fighting. So much so that if the second night of the war went anything like the first one had, NATO airpower would be on the cusp of controlling the night skies over the Central Front.

Snetkov informed his newly minted ground commanders that he would tolerate no major delays in resuming forward progress once they were adjusted and had assumed full command of their army groups. He cautioned them on remaining stationary for too long at night, however, he need not have bothered. The fates of their predecessors had made an impression that would not be washed away anytime soon. Coordinating and issuing orders was not a simple task when mobile in command vehicles, yet it was the best option until the alternate command posts were up and functioning.

 

As darkness fell, a brief lull set in over theater before covering forces began withdrawing from their forward positions and passing through friendly lines. At 2200 NATO strike fighters went back into action flying offensive counter air missions against airfields in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, and interdiction strikes against targets deeper in the Warsaw Pact rear. The attacks were made mostly by US F-111s, Luftwaffe and RAF Tornados in the first part of the evening. As midnight approached, the F-117 stealth fighters was added to the mix,  make their second appearances over the GDR in twenty four hours. Rumors of  the aircraft’s stealth capability -real and imagined- were coursing through Soviet and WP air defense units like wildfire all day.

And so ended the first day of hostilities on the Central Front.

 

 

The Central Front: 9 July, 1987 1200-2359 Part I

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Through the course of the afternoon, the covering force battles raged on with no Soviet breakthrough coming about. Pressure was starting to build up in some areas though, namely in the NORTHAG area and to the north of it. The mission of NATO covering forces was to buy time for the main forces to deploy and prepare. When mobilization began the expected surge of forces  heading for the border commenced within hours. Regrettably, in some sectors the pace of the surge more closely resembled a slow crawl, while in other sectors units moved quicker and were close to being fully manned and deployed by the time hostilities began. Divisions in CENTAG fell into this column, and their NORTHAG counterparts the former with the notable exception of the British Army of the Rhine.

Fortunately, NATO had anticipated such a possibility and worked revisions into the latest concept of operations for corps and their assigned army groups. An excellent example of this new thinking was in the changes made to the I Netherlands Corps covering force TO&E in 1985. The bulk of the corps troops and equipment were positioned in the Netherlands even though it came under NORTHAG’s command.  During a time of emergency the Holland-based units would move into West Germany and join the rest of the corps. Recognizing that this situation likely meant the corps needed additional time to mobilize and move, the size of its covering force was increased considerably. On 9 July, 1987 it comprised the Dutch 103rd Reconnaissance Battalion, 41st Armored Brigade, German 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, and the US 2nd Brigade/2nd Armored Division. This collection of units was essentially a covering force on steroids for the most part and was under the command of the German 3rd Panzer Division. Its coverage area ran from the Inner German Border west to the Elbe Lateral Canal, and planners expected this covering force to fight a delaying action there for 24 hours to allow for the forces in I Netherlands Corps ( Note: this formation will be referred to as I NL Corps for the duration of this blog) sector to finish deploying to their battle positions.

While its covering force was holding firm after fighting two regiments of the 21st Motor Rifle Division to a standstill in the morning and afternoon, I NL Corps was hastily reorganizing from a devastating Spetznaz raid before dawn. A group of Soviet commandos dressed in Dutch Army uniforms had penetrated the perimeter of the corps field headquarters and attacked the command post, killing the corps commander and severely wounding its deputy. None of the attackers survived the effort, but the damage had been done: I NL Corps was decapitated at the worst possible time. The command structure was reorganized as fast as events allowed. By 1000 the commander of the 1st Division had assumed command of the corps and was actively directing the battle.

North of I NL Corps, NATO forces situated north and east of Hamburg were enduring a determined push by elements of the 2nd Guards Tank Army. In this sector of the line allied forces were under the command of LANDJUT, not NORTHAG. Soviet forces were moving northwest and west from the Inner German Border against West German and Danish forces, and making headway. Lubeck would fall by dusk and  the main axis of the Soviet’s initial advance showed signs of focusing near Mölln, indicating the 2nd Guards Tank Army’s (Note:  initial objective could be to swing south of Hamburg, this isolating the city and everything north of it from the rest of the Federal Republic. This prospect was causing concern at NORTHAG headquarters as well as Brussels. A successful south swing by the bulk of 2nd GTA (Note: this formation will be referred to as 2nd GTA for the duration of this blog) would threaten the left flank of NORTHAG as well as indicate Denmark as the target for follow-on Polish and Baltic Military District divisions.

To the south of I NL Corps, the covering force battles in the I German Corps (I GE Corps), I British Corps (I BR Corps), and I Belgian Corps (I BE Corps) areas continued. Heavy casualties were being inflicted on the Soviet first echelons , but it was coming at a price. Losses in the covering force elements were increasing as the afternoon drew on. All three corps commanders hoped to wait until the cover of night to hand the battle off from their respective covering forces to the main forces, but it wasn’t realistic for each corps.

The Belgians were under the heaviest pressure. On his own, the I BE Corps commander ordered his forward forces to begin pulling back at 1630. The Belgians were facing a similar dilemma to that of the Dutch farther north. The entirety of the I BE Corps was not yet fully in the field and more time was needed before that task was complete. The premature disengagement of its forward elements put the corps commander in a bind. In order to buy more time for his main force, and to prevent his covering force from being overrun and smashed he requested as much air support as was available to cover the withdrawal. 2nd ATAF , its resources already stretched thin, allocated two squadrons of ground attack fighters to the effort and made a desperate request to 4th ATAF for help, which was given in the form of A-10 Thunderbolt IIs and a mixed force of F-15s and F-16s flying top cover and support.

The British and Germans opted to wait until nightfall to begin the withdrawals of their covering forces. They’d fought the Soviet first echelons of the 3rd Shock Army to a bloody standstill. In the case of both corps, however, the second echelons had yet to appear. The afternoon moved towards early evening and all that appeared in the east were signs of Soviet BRDMs and other reconnaissance vehicles prowling and searching for the next line of defensive positions for the covering forces. The movement of the recon elements appeared hesitant and even pained to an extent. British and German commanders passed these reports and observations up the line, not sure what to make of them. NORTHAG’s thinking was along similar lines. It was not until word reached Brussels that SACEUR and his staff were able to connect the dots. The slow movement of follow up forces in 3rd Shock Army’s area, combined with other reports on strange happenings in front of CENTAG forces that will be discussed in Part II led SACEUR to conclude that the events were directly connected to the results of the early morning F-117 strikes. The Soviets, General Galvin suspected, had been hurt far worse than they were letting on.