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.