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.

 

 

 

 

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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 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.

 

 

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: 9 July, 1987 0545-0800

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The first wave of Soviet and Warsaw Pact aircraft heading towards targets in West Germany, and the Low Countries was made up largely of anti-radiation missile armed MiG-27 Floggers, and Su-17 Fitters weighed down with gravity bombs. Overhead, a formation of MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters flew cover on the strike force. Fifty miles behind the border, offensive jammers were going to work degrading NATO’s line of ground based radars closest to the border. The jamming, however, did not have a great effect on the E-3 Sentries orbiting over the far western fringes of the Federal Republic. Operators on board these aircraft were vectoring defending fighters towards the inbounds. The coordination was excellent, to the point that some NATO aircraft actually began engaging their Warsaw Pact counterparts on the eastern side of the border!

The first wave’s target concentration was air defense: ground based radars, air defense centers, and SAM sites. Their mission was to disrupt NATO’s forward air defenses and pave the way for follow-on waves to strike airbases and command posts without being disruption by air defenses. Upon crossing the border they fanned out and headed towards their intended targets, in many cases with NATO fighters actively pursuing them. The Fulcrums had done an admirable job defending their charges, but the advanced fighters couldn’t be everywhere at once. Some of the Soviet attack pilots found themselves being bounced by F-15s or Tornados when they were still a long way away from their targets. The choice they had was simple: press on towards the target and hope they could get there before being shot down, or jettison their bomb loads now and evade. Some made the right choice and lived to fight again, while their comrades made the wrong one and paid the price.

The air battle over the central front on 9 July would eventually include hundreds of aircraft of various types and expand from central East Germany to the Low Countries. Many NATO radar stations and SAM sites received at least some damage, and some were knocked out entirely. Yet the system as a whole held solid. By 0700 as additional waves of Soviet/WP warplanes crossed the border, the focus of the air attacks was shifting from air defense sites to airbases in the 2nd ATAF (Allied Tactical Air Force) region. By afternoon, airbases in the heavily defended 4th ATAF region were also being targeted. The first day’s air actions will be discussed and analyzed in future posts, however, when all was said and done, the day did not go the way 16th Air Army’s commanders and planners intended it to.

 

MiGs and Sukhois were not the only Soviet aircraft in action that morning. As the air offensive commenced, large formations of attack and transport helicopters filled with troops were streaking across the border at low level. Soviet airmobile forces were highly regarded by NATO and their use early on in the conflict was widely expected. In this case, the Soviets did not disappoint. Airmobile company-sized units were assigned to strike a wide variety of targets in NATO’s rear area this morning ranging from headquarters to crossroads. A handful of airmobile battalions were also going into action as whole units. Their use was restricted for the most crucial targets: bridges spanning the Weser River and parts of the Kiel Canal.

Just transporting the airmobile troops to their intended targets turned out to be hazardous enough. NATO fighters, when able to, engaged and tore into some formations, destroying a large number of Hip transport helicopters. Ground fire also became a great peril. Many of the targets being struck had air defenses of some sort. Transport helicopters had to dodge anti-aircraft fire and handheld surface-to-air missiles as they approached their targets. Accompanying Mi-24 Hinds helped in suppressing some of the defensive fire, but not all of it. More casualties were inflicted.

From 0630 through 0730 Soviet airmobile forces made landings at 20 separate locations from the West German-Denmark border south to VII Corps staging area. In spite of losses endured, the attacks on the Kiel Canal and bridges spanning the Weser River, and crossroads between Kassel and Hannover were successful. Resistance on the ground was light, surprise was gained, and the objectives taken with minimal further loss. Attacks on more heavier defended locations fared differently for the most part, especially headquarters sites.

Much like the air battle, chaos and confusion reigned supreme around the airmobile raids. Neither NATO or Soviet higher headquarters were aware of what was truly happening for some hours. Communications had gone silent in many cases. The first sign of Soviet airmobile troops on the ground in some areas was when civilian cars or an approaching supply convoy was attacked sometime on 9 July.

By 0745 the attention of NATO and Warsaw Pact general officer had moved away from the troublesome airmobile attacks. The main Soviet/WP was just fifteen minutes from launching and preceding artillery strikes were already underway. As reports went up the NATO chain of command it rapidly became apparent what was happening.

The battle for Western Europe was about to begin in earnest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Central Front: 9 July, 1987 0500-0545

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By the time he arrived back at Wunsdorf, General Snetkov had a fair idea of what was happening. NATO had defied all expectations and launched a number of daring airstrikes against the command bunkers of his most powerful army groups. How NATO was even aware of the existence of some of these bunkers was beyond him at the moment. This was only one of a thousand questions raging in his mind. The most prevalent one, though, was how the NATO bombers managed to penetrate into GDR airspace without being detected on radar. There were rumors that the Americans were working to develop an aircraft invisible to radar, but it was not yet in operational service. Or was it? If so, what did that mean for his command? Nothing good. Snetkov was certain of that.

The attacks on command bunkers were not the only instances of preemption that morning either. Scattered reports from across the western half of the GDR spoke of further NATO air strikes against bridges spanning the Elbe river, fuel depots, and a small number of Frontal Aviation airbases.

Before boarding the helicopter in Stendal, the general had sent a coded message to the theater commander explaining the situation and requesting a temporary moratorium on future operations.  Much to his surprise, there was an answer from CINC-West waiting for him when he touched down. CINC-West agreed to a two hour delay on all land operations scheduled to go off at 0600, but everything else would go off as planned. There was not enough time to delay the offensive air operations, and airmobile raids that had been planned to precede the ground offensive. In fact, some of those missions were already inbound to targets in West Germany. Snetkov argued that these operations should also be delayed, but CINC-West would not entertain the notion. His comrades in Frontal Aviation were going to be dealing with a lot soon, if they weren’t already. Their blow would fall shortly.

Snetkov’s problems were more immediate and critical to the overall outcome of the war. Two, possibly three of his army group’s had been decapitated and were now without commanders, and battle staffs at a moment when their divisions were approaching inner-German border. His own battle staff was frantically contacting every one of 3rd Shock, 20th and 8th Guards Armies divisions to order them not to begin offensive operations until 0800. 1st and 2nd Guards Armies commanders, alive and untouched by the devastation brought upon their comrades earlier, acknowledged the order from Wunsdorf and went about passing the word along. It took time, and unorthodox effort in some instances, but Snetkov’s staff succeeded in halting the subordinate units of the affected armies. With that urgent task completed, Snetkov could worry about selecting new commanders for the affected army groups.

 

As all of this was taking place in Wunsdorf, Frontal Aviation and the air forces of other Warsaw Pact allies went into action. While it was true that some units and installations belonging to  the 16th Air Army had been in action since 0300 or so, this action was part of the long planned air offensive against NATO. The offensive was originally intended to begin less than an hour before the first Soviet tanks crossed the border, but that timeline and battleplan no longer existed. Snetkov’s thoughts about Frontal Aviation having their own woes was right on the mark. NATO’s own preemptive airstrikes had thrown the morning’s planned air operations into chaos. USAF and Luftwaffe low level fighter-bombers had visited Mahlwinkle and Cochstedt, causing damage to facilities and aircraft. MiGs had also seen in the pre-dawn hours engaging NATO fighters over East Germany as well.

What all of this translated to was that the first blow struck from the air was not going to be as powerful as intended. The morning’s events so far had punched holes in the Soviet/WP’s master target list. Some NATO airbases and radar sites slated to be hit early on would not be struck until. The aircraft tasked for those missions had been damaged or destroyed outright on the ground. Defensive counter-air now took on a heightened priority as well. Some fighter regiments assigned to provide protection for the attack aircraft and fighter-bombers heading west were reassigned to defend the suddenly vulnerable skies over East Germany.

For years, Soviet and Warsaw Pact air commanders had speculated about this very moment, should it become reality. Now that it was, the situation was far different than most of them had imagined. And tt was destined to get worse.

The NATO air forces were ready and waiting as the first MiGs and Sukhois approached the border.