Soviet Air Mobile Forces on the Eve of Battle: 8 July, 1987

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Both NATO and the Warsaw Pact had fairly solid notions about what moves the other side would make in the opening hours of a conflict. Awareness does not automatically translate to an assured defeat or neutralization of those moves on the battlefield, however. Countermoves and defenses were created, worked into pre-existing operational plans, and practiced. However, their value would not be known until the balloon went up and the shooting starts.

NATO had a high regard for Soviet air assault forces and their capabilities after seven years of observing their use in Afghanistan. Alliance planners also had a keen idea of how the Soviets would decide to employ these forces in the first phase of a Soviet/Pact offensive against Western Europe. In the confusion of those first minutes, with the skies over West Germany and Denmark filled with hundreds of Warsaw Pact and NATO aircraft, heliborne troops would probably land at dozens of sites spread across NATO’s rear areas. Their objectives would range from seizing bridgeheads on the Weser and other rivers, to assaulting forward division and corps headquarters.

The Soviets had many specialized air assault battalions and regiments available to them for these tasks. The 35th Guards Air Assault Regiment was GFSG’s main air assault component. A number of additional air assault battalions had taken part in the June exercises and remained in Eastern Europe instead of returning to the Soviet Union. As tensions rose, and diplomacy broke down, company, and battalion-sized air assault forces began preparing for their wartime tasks.

NATO, in turn, was preparing to defend headquarters, air defense sites, bridges, REFORGER and nuclear weapons sites against possible Soviet air mobile assaults. Security was increased practically everywhere it might be needed at a time when every available soldier was desperately needed farther forward. West German, Dutch, Belgian, and Danish reserve units that should’ve been moving to join their parent active duty brigades and divisions were instead finding themselves watching over bridgeheads on the Weser or Rhine, and babysitting road intersections hundreds of kilometers away from the border. USAREUR focused its best security units on REFORGER sites and the field locations of its GLCM and Pershing II missiles. USAFE contributed to the later but its main security focus was the defense of its fixed installations across Europe.

At forward airbases across East Germany on 8 July, Soviet paratroopers were reviewing plans and making the final preparations for their coming missions. The commander of the 1185th Air Assault Battalion was confident his unit would achieve its objectives. The confidence did not come from hubris or arrogance. All of his company commanders, and a majority of the NCOs were, like him, veterans of Afghanistan. When he took command of the battalion the previous year, he made it a point to bring in as many experienced men as possible. That experience would be needed in the coming days.

The 1185th had a crucial role to play in the coming offensive. It would be transported as a whole unit to secure a number of bridgeheads on the Weser River and hold them until relieved by the armored spearheads of the 3rd Shock Army. The battalion commander was assured that his forces would be rescued within 3 days. He was not prepared to stake his life and that of his men on the promise of an arrogant tank general. In all likelihood it would be twice that amount of time before his battalion was rescued, if at all. In war there are no guarantees, he knew all too well. Therefore, he was bringing as much ammunition, rations, and other essential supplies forward as he could.

As he stood sweltering in the mid-afternoon heat, watching one of his assault companies go through calisthenics, he hoped other air assault unit commanders were thinking along similar lines. In fifteen hours or so they would all be on the ground behind NATO lines, and cut off from resupply. The mere thought was enough to send a chill up his spine.

The colonel took one last look at his men and walked away, wondering just how many of them would be alive at the same time tomorrow.

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.

 

Airbase Angst: 8 July, 1987

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Airbase commanders on either side of the Iron Curtain breathed a collective sigh of relief as the sun rose in the eastern sky on the morning of 8 July, 1987. In NATO and Warsaw Pact air forces alike, the lessons of the Six Day War had been scrutinized incessantly ever since. The pre-emptive strike Israel launched against Egyptian airfields in the early morning hours of 5 June, 1967 destroyed over 300 combat aircraft and irreparably damaged its military infrastructure. The Egyptian Air Force was paralyzed and subsequently was unable to support Egypt’s ground forces in the fighting to come. Since then, the possibility of a massive series of predawn airstrikes against airbases, Command and control sites, and radars became the nightmare scenario for air commanders around the world. NATO expected a Warsaw Pact offensive to begin with a concentrated effort against its airfields, while Warsaw Pact commanders expected NATO to begin counter air operations as soon as possible should their own strikes not produce enough damage to NATO airbases and combat aircraft first.

After Israel destroyed the unprotected Egyptian Air Force, airbase protection became a priority. Hardened Aircraft Shelters quickly became a standard feature of Western airbases, while the Soviet Union and its allies turned to a variety of SAMs and self-propelled anti-aircraft weapons to protect its air forces on the ground. Eventually, the Soviets came around to the HAS concept, but nowhere near as fast as NATO. On the eve of war HAS construction was still underway at nearly every Soviet airbase in East Germany and Czechoslovakia.

NATO airbase commanders accepted the reality that their bases would receive immediate, concentrated attention from Warsaw Pact air forces, and possibly from Soviet airmobile forces as well. Base defenses were readied, and aircraft were dispersed and spread out as much as possible. Pilots, staff officers, ground crew personnel and security troops alike worked, slept and ate with their cumbersome NBC gear nearby. It was anticipated that Pact forces would be using chemical weapons from the outset. The farther forward a NATO airbase was located, the more apprehensive the base commander was.

Their Soviet and Warsaw Pact counterparts were of a similar mindset. The greatest unknown on the eastern side of the Inner-German Border was the accuracy and effectiveness NATO aircraft and air-delivered weapons. The consensus among the more senior base commanders was NATO air forces held the edge in the quality of aircraft and weapons. If air superiority was lost over East Germany, round-the-clock airstrikes could be expected. Therefore, it was no surprise that fighter regiment and base commanders from Magdeburg to Vilnius were screaming for additional air defense assets.

What no NATO, and most Warsaw Pact air officers recognized at the time was that the morning of 8 July would be the last morning of peace for a while.

 

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.

 

USAFE Stands Up 6 July, 1987 (Part 1)

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6 July, 1987 was a day the US Air Force had prepared long and hard for. Every year, at least one Rapid Reactor exercise was held to simulate the swift movement of stateside squadrons to their potential wartime airbases in Western Europe. After years of updating contingency plans, and training, the time had come to reinforce USAFE for real. Following the president’s speech on the night of 5 July, US airbase commanders across Western Europe were taking serious steps to prepare their respective bases for action. Within 24 hours a stream of tactical fighters would be streaming across the Atlantic from bases in the continental US to Europe. Simultaneously, two other resource-intensive events were happening which would directly affect air base operations.

One was the start of REFORGER and the reinforcement of Europe. Added to the flow of combat aircraft would be an endless stream of transport aircraft carrying men and supplies. In some cases, these large aircraft would be landing at the same bases earmarked to receive large numbers of fighters from the US. It was the responsibility of the base commanders to ensure that airlift and tactical air operations could coexist with minimal no hindrance to either.

The second event was the evacuation of US dependents from Western Europe, specifically West Germany for the moment. As per SACEUR’s  Rapid Reinforcement Plan, the evacuation was to begin within 12 hours of REFORGER. The concept was simple in theory at least: Transport aircraft would deliver troops and equipment to Europe and then return to the US with dependents. To augment the departure of US families from the potential war zone, Military Airlift Command had contracted a number of airliners from regional European carriers. The first families to be evacuated, predictably, were those living on or in close proximity to the airbases where the airlift/evacuations were taking place. This had nothing to do with favoritism. It was quite simply a matter of common sense. These mothers and children were closest to where they needed to be. Hence, they would be some of the first dependents placed on westward flights. The evacuation officially began on 6 July, moving smoothly at first. But within 12 hours the first major problems would arise. Ironically, these issues would have nothing to do with the airbases, or the availability or aircraft. It would be the traffic jams on the autobahns that inevitably disrupted the evacuation process. This will be discussed in greater detail in later posts.

The first tactical aircraft to arrive in Europe were F-15C Eagles from the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing at Langley AFB in Virginia. As per the contingency plans, Bitburg Air Base was their wartime base. Bitburg was already home to the F-15s of the 36th TFW so integrating the new arrivals with the base’s maintenance, and aircraft support personnel and facilities went smoothly. The greatest issue for the base commander at Bitburg was where put all of the additional aircraft. Luckily for him, he had contingency plans available for dealing with this matter too, and the plans were executed almost flawlessly.

Over the next 12 hours similar scenes would be taking place at bases all over the Federal Republic of Germany and neighboring countries as the first contingents of combat aircraft from the US landed. F-4s from the 4th TFW at Seymour Johnson AFB went to Lahr AB, while F-15Cs from the 33rd TFW at Eglin AFB deployed to Soesterberg AB in the Netherlands. As the 6th turned into the 7th and beyond, the number and type of combat aircraft arriving increased dramatically.

Part II of this post will be published Friday and discuss a few of the unique challenges facing USAFE bases and wings as the transition from peace to war was sped up.

 

Opening Moves

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Hostilities between NATO and the Warsaw Pact began at 0103 hours Zulu on 9 July, 1987. For a war that would spread across the globe in a matter of days, the opening clashes between combatants were quite small. The first shots were exchanged outside of the NATO airbase at Gielenkirchen by KGB-trained saboteurs attempting to gain entry to the base and NATO security forces. The effort was unsuccessful and all seven saboteurs were killed. After the war, it would be learned that this particular attack went off twenty-seven minutes ahead of schedule. The initial wave of Soviet Spetznaz, desant, and saboteur attacks behind the lines was not supposed to commence until 0130 Zulu.

As it was, however, the early attack gave NATO valuable time to get the warning out and bring security to a higher state of alert before the initial wave of attacks began a short time later. Some sites which may not have been ready were. The extent of the attacks and the results will be explored and discussed at a later time. Suffice to say, the opening hours of hostilities were defined by explosions, helicopter landings, and small unit actions across West Germany, Denmark, the Low Countries, and even the United Kingdom and Norway to an extent. Before the first Soviet tanks crossed the border, the war was more or less already in full swing.

At sea, the first contact between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces took place in the Norwegian Sea at 0219 hours Zulu. Soviet and Norwegian fast attack craft clashed in the North Cape area. The first casualties of the war at sea were the Norwegian Storm-class patrol boat Brask and a Soviet Pauk class patrol boat. Fighting in the North Cape continued through the early morning hours as a running battle between units of the Royal Norwegian Navy and Soviet Red Banner Northern Fleet materialized.

In the North Atlantic, the Soviets drew first blood, sinking a pair of merchant ships northwest of the Azores. The Foxtrot class diesel submarine that launched the attack escaped the area only to be discovered and sunk by US Navy P-3 Orions operating from Lajes Airfield later on the first day.

The Mediterranean and Black Sea remained quiet until around dawn when fast attack craft of the Soviet navy made contact with elements of the Greek and Turkish navies in the Black Sea. Not long afterward, Soviet and Syrian naval forces struck Turkish and other NATO warships operating in the Eastern Med. The rest of the region remained precariously quiet in those first two hours.

The storm would soon break across Europe and the Med.