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.
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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.