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.

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

The Central Front: 9 July, 1987 0800-1200

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No one in Western Europe other than a handful of generals in Brussels and Ramstein, and a slightly larger cadre of pilots and squadron intelligence officers at RAF Alconbury, had any suspicions about the level of chaos and confusion that the pre-dawn F-117 strikes might have sewn in East Germany. Remarkable post-strike videos from the targeting pods on the stealth fighters showed smart weapons impacting precisely on the intended targets. Copies were made and hurried up the line for analysis by NATO air commanders, SACEUR and their staffs. As dawn came and went and the air war kicked off with ferocity, NATO commanders braced, fully expecting the land war to begin at any minute. By 0700, with the Inner-German border still intact, only SACEUR and his senior air commander suspected the delay was linked to the command bunker attacks.

It was around this time that hostilities in space began to have an effect on NATO operations. The war in space on 9 July and beyond will be covered in detail at future point, but to summarize, the opening hours were marked by effective Soviet attacks on US communications and reconnaissance satellites. Close attention was given to those satellites approaching the Central Front. US and NATO commanders in Europe suddenly lost large swaths of satellite from the Baltic Sea to the central Hungary. Communications disruptions were also experienced, but these were minor in comparison. Other methods were available to replace lost communications. The lost reconnaissance satellites could also be replaced as well, and eventually they would be. Only it took more time.

At 0754 the first Soviet forces crossed the frontier south of Hötensleben. The early movement was due to a miscommunication yet it did not have an adverse effect on the attackers overall strategy or plans. By 0803 hours the scene was being repeated all along the frontier. T-80 tanks and BMP infantry fighting vehicles were moving through holes in the fortifications that had been hastily erected at the border and into West German territory. Contact between Soviet and NATO forces started to materialize, marking the start of the covering force battles.

Allied airbases that had been the recipients of heavy damage from raids earlier in the morning were undergoing repairs. Fortunately, the number of bases that had to be temporarily closed because of damage was small. As the air battle continued to rage through the morning the need for close air support was shifting the focus of air commanders. Gaining control of the airspace over the forward edge of the battle area became a paramount concern as urgent calls for close air support came in. Over the CENTAG area of operations air superiority was gained and held by a curtain of US Air Force F-15s operating out of Bitburg. This allowed A-10s and other ground attack aircraft to be committed to the covering force battles in the US V and VII Corps areas without having to worry about them being challenged by marauding MiGs. Control of the skies over NORTHAG was another matter altogether. It wouldn’t be until later in the afternoon before NATO ground attack fighters and attack helicopters were able to influence the action on the ground.

In Brussels, SACEUR monitored the reports coming in on the covering force battles. Communications were not entirely reestablished, though, and the content of the reports that reached Brussels highlighted this fact. In place of the fluid, constantly updated big picture that he needed were singular pieces of the puzzle that provided little more than a fraction of information. He had a very good idea of how the offensive would likely play out,  yet had to rely on his commanders in NORTHAG and CENTAG to confirm or deny where the main axes of advance were forming in reality. Would 3rd Shock Army be oriented westward or perhaps southwest aimed at the seam between NATO’s army groups? Was the bulk of the 2nd Guards Tank Army’s thrust be directed south of Hamburg or north? The flow of information coming in was far too disjointed to offer indications of where the axes might materialize. All SACEUR could do for the moment was watch and wait.

 

As 1200 approached, the covering force battles were still raging while overhead the battle for air superiority continued unabated. Chemical or nuclear weapons had not yet been used by either side, though SACEUR expected the Soviets to make use of them by the end of the day. West Berlin was quiet so far. Communications with the city were spotty, but the East Germans and Soviets hadn’t made a move against the city yet. That could change by the end of the day too, General Gavin knew. If it did he wouldn’t be surprised. Unfortunately, if Pact forces did begin crossing into West Berlin there was nothing he could do to aid the city or its defenders.

 

 

 

The Central Front Chessboard: 8 July, 1987

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General Galvin had decided to remain at NATO headquarters in Brussels for the time being instead of moving to his wartime headquarters. It was SACEUR’s prerogative where he chose to direct the defense of Western Europe. For the moment, Galvin preferred his office and the command room in Brussels to a command post nestled deep in the Belgian woods that was still in the process of standing up. His operations staff was not thrilled with his choice, but with rank came privilege. SACEUR would remain in Brussels unless the situation called for a change.

It was 2300 local time. The general was seated at his office desk looking over the latest situation reports from his commanders in the field, and intelligence reports from various agencies and commands. He’d slept from 1500 until 2030 and was now wide awake. The opportunities for long, uninterrupted sleeps would be few and far between from this moment forward. SACEUR fully expected the balloon to go up sometime before dawn.

To the east, hundreds of thousands of troops on both sides of the Inner-German Border were making their final preparations for war. In East Germany, Soviet tank and motor rifle divisions were, or shortly would be, at their lines of departure. At airfields across Western Europe, fighter aircraft sat on alert, waiting for the scramble order to come. The pilots inside of the cockpits understood that the next time they heard the klaxon it would be the real thing.  On autobahns all over West Germany, convoys of men and materials were moving east towards the frontier as reinforcements poured into the Federal Republic from the US, Great Britain, Holland, and Belgium. Five or six more days of peace would’ve worked wonders for NATO readiness, SACEUR knew all too well. As it stood, his command was as ready as it could be.

NATO’s defense of West Germany was anchored by a pair of powerful army groups. NORTHAG, the Northern Army Group, was one of them. The formation was comprised of four corps: I Dutch Corps, I West German Corps, I British, and I Belgian Corps. NORTHAG’s coverage area spanned from Hamburg in the north to Kassel. Its corps were equipped mainly with armor and mechanized infantry divisions. The area they defended was likely to be the main avenue of a Soviet/Warsaw Pact advance west. The North German Plain was ideal tank country and favored a mechanized attacker considerably. NORTHAG was a powerful entity, but if its corps elements did not react with speed and decisiveness, it might not be able to mass its combat power in time to prevent a breakthrough.

As fate, and post-World War II politics would have it, NATO’s most powerful army group was not situated along the Soviet’s most likely axis of advance. CENTAG, the central army group, guarded the border from south of Kassel to the Austrian border. It’s four corps were tank heavy, maneuver based units consisting of the V and VII US Corps, and the II and III West German Corps. CENTAG was SACEUR’s mailed fist. He hoped to smash elements of it into the flank of a Soviet blitz across the North German Plain if the situation presented itself. The Soviet formations facing CENTAG were powerful in their own right, yet he expected the US and West German corps to halt them in a relatively short period of time. The reasons for his confident expectation were the quality of CENTAG forces, and the extremely defense-oriented terrain in its area. The terrain in most of CENTAG’s sectors was made up of tree-lined hills, and valleys that would challenge the advance of an attacking force. US and West German tankers were extremely familiar with the terrain they’d fight on. Defensive positions had been staked out and established long ago. Artillery observers knew every inch of the ground they would plot their fires on intimately, as did forward air controllers. The Soviets would be made to pay a heavy price for every kilometer they advanced from Kassel on south. The ultimate objective of the Soviet 8th Guards Tank Army and its follow-on forces was Frankfurt. SACEUR fully expected them to be stopped cold long before they came anywhere near the city.

On the air side of things, SACEUR was comfortable with the level of readiness. The 2nd and 4th ATAFs (Allied Tactical Air Force) were ready to go. Both formations were broadswords that would be used to defend the skies of Western Europe, and then take the war directly to the enemy. His air commander was an experienced, creative career fighter pilot who had some surprises up his sleeve for when things kicked off. NATO air forces had a qualitative edge over their Warsaw Pact counterparts. Most aircraft types, and weapon systems were technologically superior. NATO pilots were better trained than the MiG pilots they’d soon face, or so the belief went.

That wasn’t to say that NATO’s air commanders were taking the Soviet threat lightly. The skies over Eastern Europe were defended by a dense integrated-air-defense system. SAMs were going to be a formidable threat. The world had seen the amount of damage that Soviet SAMs could inflict on Western air forces during the Vietnam conflict, and 1973 Yom Kippur War. Since then a new generation of Soviet missiles had arrived and they were even more capable. In response, NATO air forces had spent tens of millions of dollars developing anti-radiation missiles, and a new generation of ECM measures to counter the threat.

SACEUR chewed on all the positive changes that had come to NATO since the early 1980s. The Reagan administration’s military buildup had benefitted US and allied forces in Europe tremendously. The new class of weapons systems were fielded in Western Europe in large numbers including the M-1 Abrams battle tank, M-2 Bradley IFV, Apache attack helicopter, F-15 Eagle and F-16. Britain, West Germany, and other NATO countries had introduced their own modernization programs and were making progress.

In a matter of hours, the alliance would begin to find out if its investments had been worthwhile or not.

 

3rd Armored Division To The Border: 7 July, 1987

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Across the length of the Federal Republic of Germany on the night of 7 July into the morning of the 8th, two mass migrations were underway. One was made up of thousands of West German civilians that resided in close proximity to the border. What had started as a steady stream of families heading west towards perceived safety in good order was transforming to an evacuation fueled by panic and rumors. News of mobilization, and diminishing chances for a diplomatic solution had finally pushed those West Germans who had ignorantly remained behind to accept the situation for what it was and leave before it was too late. Roadways from the Baltic Sea to Austria were now filled with thousands of civilians moving west.

The other migration was moving in the opposite direction: east. Tanks, APCs, armored vehicles, self-propelled artillery, and other military vehicles were pouring out of NATO installations across the FRG and moving east to occupy the wartime positions of their respective units. In some instances, evacuating civilians, and military convoys met on the autobahn, occasionally resulting in large traffic tie ups. For the most part, though, West German police were efficient in keeping the roads assigned to military traffic cleared.

All in all, NATO land units were responding swiftly and with determination to their deployment orders. In some brigades, and regiments records were set for the amount of time it took for the unit to pack up and deploy. The urgency of the moment was not lost on anyone wearing a uniform. Officers, NCOs, and enlisted men alike fell back on their training. Practice alerts were regular occurrences for NATO units based in West Germany. Personnel were recalled to their installations, units packed up and readied to deploy into the field. When the order to move was given, units embarked on road marches to the same locations they would move to in a time of crisis. Individual units trained on, and familiarized themselves with the terrain and features of the areas they would fight from.

In the US V Corps sector, the 3rd Armored Division was seventy percent in the field by 2300 hours. An impressive feat that exceeded the expectations of everyone in V Corps headquarters. For the division commander Major General Thomas Griffin Jr, his unit’s performance was no surprise. 3rd AD was as capable and motivated a combat division as Griffin had ever seen or been a part of during his career. His brigade commanders were all-stars, all of whom would likely command divisions. The junior officers and NCOs all took soldiering quite seriously. They took pride in their unit, its history, equipment, and most importantly, in its role should war come. Spearhead, the division’s nickname, was a word spoken with dignity and reverence at kasernes in Frankfurt, and across Hessen.

3rd AD was V Corps muscle, one of two heavy maneuver divisions assigned to the corps. The 8th Infantry Division (Mechanized) was the other division. But Griffin’s unit was the one that would serve as the sword which the Soviet 8th Guards Tank Army impaled itself on in the Fulda Gap. Griffin was certain that his counterpart in the 8th Infantry probably thought the same thing about his division. To an extent he was right, yet when it came down to it, Griffin fervently believed that his division was the corps most invaluable piece.

At the current time, the majority of the division’s kasernes were empty. Two of its three brigades were fully in the field, the combat elements digging in west of the town of Fulda. The remainder would be emptied out soon enough. Griffin had reported to V Corps commander, Lieutenant General John Woodmansee that the 3rd would be fully in the field by 0000 9 July.

East of Fulda lay the Inner-German Border, and on the other side of it sat thousands of Soviet tanks, IFVs, and artillery belonging to the 8th Guards Tank Army. When the balloon went up, the Soviets would push west, channeling through the valleys and around the mountains that marked the terrain, on the drive towards Frankfurt. It was the terrain that made up the area collectively known as the Fulda Gap, not the actual town of Fulda. In those valleys and from those hills is where V Corps planned to smash the Soviets.

Before that could happen, Griffin needed to ensure that his troops were ready. MPs had set up traffic control points to better control the flow of units heading into the field. Unfortunately, the sheer numbers of vehicles on the roadways was causing unforeseen delays. The section of autobahn between Hanau and Gelnhausen was a green parking lot where a large part of his division’s artillery and third brigade were stuck. Efforts were underway to detour German civilians onto nearby roads and clear the highway, but it was going to take more time than expected. The general needed those units off the road and, if not in the Gap, close to it, by the time fighting broke out. If the MPs couldn’t do the job by themselves, he’d get men in there who could.

As midnight approached, 3rd AD’s commander was certain that his problem was the worst one being faced by any division commander in the FRG. Had he been aware of the issues facing some of his NORTHAG counterparts just then, Griffin would’ve breathed a collective sigh of relief and realized that his problem wasn’t so major after all.