A Glimpse at West Berlin: Early July, 1987

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*Authors Note: I realize this posting is off the timeline somewhat and apologize in advance. Next weekend, I plan to spend time editing and reorganizing the pre-war posts into a more orderly presentation. That will precede the beginning of the posts centered on the actual conflict. Apologies for not doing this sooner. –Mike*

Opinions on what West Berlin’s fate would be in the event of war were wide and varied. The contentious history of the divided city, along with the symbolism that both East and West attached to it opened a realm of possibilities. On one end of the spectrum, many military and political observers expected a major East German/Soviet offensive against the city to commence immediately upon the opening of hostilities. A primary reason for this opinion was the fact that West Berlin had been a thorn in the side of the Soviet Union and its East German puppets for almost twenty-six years. Another reason was the amount of political capital a Berlin reunification would bring to the Warsaw Pact, especially early on in a war.

Another group influential political and military observers believed the opposite rang true. From a strict military perspective, seizing West Berlin would require a large, and capable East German force, likely supported by the Soviets to some degree. The regiments, and divisions comprising that force would be better utilized in a Warsaw Pact push into West Germany. Therefore, it made little sense to task so many units with the mission of capturing a half-city so far behind the potential frontline that would have no operational bearing on the outcome of the war. Leaving West Berlin untouched might bring in political and propaganda capital for the Soviets, something else which might be sorely needed as a conflict progresses.

West Berlin was taking no chances though. The lessons of 1948 blockade had been taken to heart. The city was prepared for a protracted state of hostilities, blockade, or whatever the future might bring. Large reserves of food, drinking water, emergency supplies, and other staples of life had been amassed should Berlin’s lifelines to the west ever be severed. Individual Berliners, and families mimicked the preparations made by their city government. Families, apartment buildings, and even neighborhoods had caches of food, and other necessities stashed away, and regularly replenished the items as expiration dates came and went. In ordnung is not simply a phrase for Germans. It is a way of life.

The city’s American, French, and British defenders were prepared to challenge an East German/Soviet invasion, yet they were also very realistic regarding the odds of a successful defense without reinforcements from the outside. Plans had been drafted and practiced for the possibility that troops from the West Berlin garrison might have to escape the city before its occupation and resort to a guerilla-style campaign against the GDR and Soviet occupiers until relief forces arrive.

As tensions increased in late June of ’87, the growing concern in West Berlin was the city’s corridors to the west. Would they remain open for long if the global situation did not reverse itself? Berlin’s citizens were keenly following events and reacted almost instinctively.  Each day more elderly, women, and children were sent west by concerned families. The offstage exodus was quietly condoned by the city fathers who were reluctant to call for an official evacuation for fear of sparking a major panic.  Other preparations were going on out of the public spotlight. US, French, and British officers, along with officials of the West Berlin police were out every night scouting areas marked to be used as potential strongpoints in a future battle for the city. The main strategy was to bog down the invaders in bloody house-to-house fighting. To make this strategy work, military officers had a keen awareness of what intersections offered the best fields of fire for anti-tank missile teams, the buildings sturdy enough to serve as a temporary redoubt, and a thousand other details essential to planning the defense of the city.

If West Berlin was to be fought over, the Western forces garrisoned there were determined to make the East Germans, Russians, and whoever else crossed the border pay a steep price in blood for every yard they advanced into the city.

 

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

REFORGER '85

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.

 

REFORGER Activated

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In the hours before President Reagan’s address to the nation began at 8 PM Eastern Time on 5 July, 1987 Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger was already taking the preliminary steps to place the US military on a war footing. In an NSC meeting late that afternoon, Reagan had decided that with the current crisis escalating and Soviet forces in Germany for Zapad ’87 showing no sign of leaving soon, the reinforcement of Western Europe was essential. He authorized Weinberger and the Joint Chiefs to start the process immediately. In his speech, Reagan also hinted at a possible callup of reservists within 24 hours. In reality, the decision on that had already been made and the first reserve units were receiving their warning orders even before the president’s address was over.

Weinberger’s first act was to declare an Airlift Emergency and activate the Civil Reserve Air Fleet. Within 24 hours 171 commercial transport and cargo aircraft would be pressed into service to augment Military Airlift Command’s own fleet of C-5s and C-141s. Every available aircraft was going to be needed as soon as possible. The secretary’s next action was to authorize the start of REFORGER.

REFORGER is short for the Return of Forces to Germany. Before 1987 it was most commonly known as a large FTX conducted annually by US and NATO forces in West Germany. The premise of the exercise was practicing the movement of a substantial number of US troops from North America to Western Europe. Once there, they would marry up to pre-positioned equipment at POMCUS sites in West Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. From there, the forces would deploy into the field and begin simulated combat operations.

To the surprise of many civilian observers, REFORGER turned out to be more than an exercise. It was, in reality, also the actual plan to reinforce NATO in the event of a crisis between the superpowers. The initial movement of troops from stateside bases to POMCUS sites in the last days of the crisis mirrored the timeline and procession undertaken during peacetime REFORGERs. The last days of peace and the first week of hostilities exemplified the value of countless REFORGER exercises.

The order to initiate REFORGER did not come as a surprise to the commanders and most soldiers in the affected divisions. US Army officers, NCOs and enlisted men alike had all been keeping closer tabs on the news from the time Romanov captured power in Moscow. The steady decline of relations between the US and Soviet Union, coupled with the sudden clashes between their forces at sea, convinced more than one division commander that it would be only a matter of time before his troops were on aircraft bound for Europe.

At Fort Riley, Kansas, Major General Leonard Wishart III, commander of the 1st Infantry Division received a call from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William Crowe minutes before the president’s address. Crowe informed him that REFORGER was being activated and that he should consider the phone call to be a warning order. Once the call was over, Wishart contacted his brigade commanders to alert them. In minutes, the cycle was underway and Riley became a hotbed of activity as the word was passed down the line. Similar scenes were taking place at army bases across the country.

In Europe, the POMCUS sites were receiving warning orders from EUCOM headquarters in Stuttgart. Preparations were shortly in motion to stand up the sites and receive the influx of troops that were going to start arriving within the next 24 hours. Equipment in the large warehouses was checked, and rechecked. Inventories of ammo, commo gear, and a host of other essentials was checked and rechecked. MP and security troops from bases in West Germany were sent off to the POMCUS sites to reinforce the security forces already there. US commanders in Europe were well aware that the POMCUS sites were  high on the Soviet’s targeting list. If war was in fact coming, it would likely begin with a number of coordinated Spetznaz strikes on the sites. Soviet thinking on this point was simple. The more equipment and troops that could be neutralized before arriving at the battleline, the easier the Red Army’s job would be once it crossed the inner-German border.