The Central Front: 9 July, 1987 1200-2359 Part I


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


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


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


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.




The North Atlantic 9 July, 1987 Part II


The Russian attack on Keflavik accentuated the importance of the facility, and of Iceland as a whole, to both sides. The Russians were not going to be able to successfully fight a naval war without Iceland being knocked out of action for an extended period of time. For NATO, mounting a successful defense of the North Atlantic without Iceland would be extremely difficult, but not impossible. The timing of the  first attack also underscored the emphasis that the Russians had placed on closing Keflavik air base down. The early morning air raid on 9 July cannot be considered a smashing triumph or defeat, though it did provide some useful lessons for both sides to consider and apply to later operations.

For the Russians, the bombers that made up the Keflavik attack force took off from bases on the Kola peninsula and detoured far northwest before making the turn south into the Norwegian Sea. The longer flight time had a significant effect on fuel consumption and ordnance loadout. Instead of the Tu-22 Backfires carrying a pair of AS-4 missiles each as the mission profile called for, they could only carry one. The reason for the dogleg in the mission course was simply that the battle for air superiority over northern Norway had not begun at the time. If the bombers had been able to cut across northern Norway it would’ve cut flight times, given them a greater fuel reserve, and allowed the Backfires to carry two ASMs each instead of one.

Of the original thirty Backfires to launch, two had to abort because of mechanical and avionics issues. The remaining twenty-eight approached Iceland from the north and northeast, spread out on a line one hundred and twenty miles wide and into seven flights of four aircraft each. US Air Force E-3 Sentries patrolling over central Iceland and off the northern coast detected the bombers and directed the F-15s on combat air patrol to intercept the nearest ones. Warnings were flashed to Keflavik and the remaining F-15Cs of the 57th Fighter Interceptor Squadron were scrambled. Surprised by the swift NATO reaction, the Russian mission commander did not waver. He ordered his bombers to increase speed past Mach 1 sooner than he’d planned to. The moment the bombers were in AS-4 range, they popped up, launched their missiles and then turned back to the north, in many cases with Eagles in pursuit.

When all was said and done US fighters claimed eight Backfires and five AS-4s. Of the remaining twenty-three missiles only seven impacted inside of Keflavik’s base perimeter. The amount of damage done was not overwhelming, but three missiles struck the air bases runways, causing damage which would take some time to repair. Keflavik was closed during the repair time.

For the Russians, it was made clear that air superiority over northern Norway would be essential. Once this was accomplished, larger raids could be sent south against Iceland, NATO convoys at sea, and, most importantly, against the US carrier groups that might be steaming north at that very moment. The sting of Keflavik’s defenses also made an impression. Long Range and Naval Aviation commanders would ensure that future raids had accompanying ECM aircraft and jammers if they were available.


In the Norwegian Sea on the first day of war, the major NATO naval maneuver was the movement of STANAVFORLANT northeast to a position closer in to the central Norwegian coast. From there, the multinational collection of frigates and destroyers could better provide support for the convoys carrying the equipment of Royal and Dutch Marines, which would begin arriving in the area early the next day. SACLANT decided on the move after reviewing the progress of the air battle over northern Norway. Casualties were extremely high there, and he was anticipating that the Soviets might gain air superiority over the area for a 24-36 hour period of time. Should that happen, the air threat to NATO ships in the Norwegian Sea could double for a stretch of ti me. STANAVFORLANT’s ships could contend with both air and sea threats.

SACLANT’s third major concern on the first day of war was keeping a lid on the whereabouts of his carriers. Forrestal and her battlegroup was in the mid-Atlantic boring circles in the mid-Atlantic. Eisenhower was a day behind, and Kitty Hawk three to four. Until all three carrier groups were in the same staging area, they’d remain under EMCON in an attempt to keep their presence hidden. To avoid the RORSAT satellites searching for them from high above the earth, the carriers were undertaking periodic course changes whenever a Russian satellite was expected to be in the area. Thanks to USAF efforts early on 9 July, F-15s armed with ASATs were unleashed against some RORSATs in orbit. Two out of three targeted birds were destroyed, giving NATO convoys and carriers in the North Atlantic a brief respite.


The North Atlantic: 9 July, 1987 Part I


Senior NATO commanders understood and accepted the fact that they would, in all likelihood, be forced to spend the first twenty-four to thirty-six hours of the war reacting to Soviet moves and intentions. NATO was, after all, a defensive alliance, and this conflict had been precipitated  by the Kremlin. For at least one day, the Warsaw Pact would have the initiative until NATO was able to identify their intentions on the battlefields, begin to exploit weaknesses, and inevitably, bring its own power to bear.

SACLANT accepted the reality of the situation for what it was. His command’s most pressing priority was to keep the SLOCs open and functioning. Every order given, and action taken revolved around that objective. In this war, the fate of Europe was invariably tied to the fate of the Atlantic. If the NATO navies could not keep control of the Atlantic and ensure the reinforcement of Europe, all was lost.

Predictably, it was a Soviet submarine that drew first blood. At 0430 Zulu, a Spanish merchant vessel was torpedoed 150 miles northwest of Lajes. Over the next six hours or so, another seven civilian registered freighters and ferries in the Eastern Atlantic were torpedoed or struck by missiles launched by Russian diesel or nuclear powered submarines. Across the rest of the North Atlantic, on 9 July, a further six merchant ships sailing independently were sunk or damaged, in every case by a Russian submarine. In each case, the targeted ship was steaming towards a port in either Western Europe or on the east coast of the US to join the pool of vessels gathering for convoy duty.

There were some thirty four Soviet submarines in the North Atlantic south of the GIUK line on 9 July, 1987 with nearly eighty two still surging southward towards the open Atlantic from the Barents Sea. NATO maritime patrol aircraft were out hunting Russian subs around the clock. From bases in Iceland, the Azores, Scotland, France, and the northeastern portion of North America, US Navy P-3 Orions, Canadian CP-140 Auroras, French Atlantiques, and RAF Nimrods ranged out into the North Atlantic. Hostile submarines that had been detected through SOSUS and tracked in the hours leading up to hostilities were the initial focus. Some were reacquired relatively quickly and dispatched to the bottom of the sea by air-dropped torpedoes. Others took more time and ultimately more resources. When all was said and done, NATO ASW aircraft were responsible for killing four diesel, three nuclear powered red submarines, and damaging a further three in the first eighteen hours of open hostilities. The total would have likely been higher if air operations out of Keflavik had not been disrupted for a three hour spell following the morning’s Backfire attack.

In the Western Atlantic, the first NATO convoy bound for Europe was approaching the southern tip of Newfoundland. This group was under the command of a US Navy commodore and made up of twenty four ships. Eight were escort warships and the remainder merchant vessels of one type or another. Six of the escorts were US Navy warships, with the other two coming from Canada. Behind the first convoy were others that had just left other east coast ports. In 24-36 hours the majority would be past Newfoundland and approaching the open Atlantic. Helicopters and land-based aircraft were sanitizing the waters around and ahead of each convoy, searching for signs of enemy submarines.  Although the main threat still lay ahead, submarines could still be inshore or tasked with trailing behind a convoy and waiting for the right moment to pounce.






Northern Flank: 9 July, 1987 0600-1800


The Northern Flank was a geographic area vital to Soviet war plans. Northern Norway was of especially high value in the eyes of the Soviets. Capturing it entirely, or simply destroying the NATO airfields there was essential to the defense of the Soviet homeland, as well as the Soviet Union’s ability to fight a naval war in the Norwegian Sea and North Atlantic. Since the 1950s Moscow had designs on disrupting NATO’s Northern Flank early on in a war. Plans had evolved over the years to include or rule out amphibious assaults, commando raids, limited overland assaults, and the use of nuclear weapons. By the mid-1987, the Soviets had put together a comprehensive, periodically updated operational plan for contending with northern Norway and the rest of the Northern Flank. The opening phases of it relied heavily on airpower.

Air activity over the Kola Peninsula and Barents Sea was becoming pronounced in the early hours of 9 July. Although NATO  did not yet have the benefit of AWACS support in northern Norway yet, the array of radar and early warning stations in the region provided a relatively complete photograph of the air situation for a period of time. Of particular interest were two large formations of Soviet aircraft moving northwest over the Barents. Both had taken off from airfields on the Kola. Judging by the speed, altitude, and other characteristics, the first group of twelve radar contacts were thought to be Tu-16 Badgers, while the second group, made up of twenty-six contacts, appeared to be Backfire bombers. The plotted course positions made it seem that Norway was not either group’s target.

The bombers proceeded northwest farther out into the Barents and away from Norway, finally making turns that took them on southern headings. Soon afterwards, more aircraft were taking off from airbases on the Kola and beginning to mass over the southern Barents. These aircraft appeared to be tactical fighters judging from their increasing numbers. The Commander Air Forces Northern Norway (AIRNON) was anxious. On his own authority, he began issuing orders to scramble fighters from airbases in his AO, fearing this was the start of concentrated action against Norway and NATO’s northern flank.

He was right.

Hostilities began in earnest on the Northern Flank with Soviet airstrikes across the region. Tu-16 Badgers struck the NATO communications station on Jan Mayen causing significant damage, while a larger force of Tu-22 Backfires hit the NATO airbase at Keflavik, Iceland. In Norway, two waves of strike aircraft, primarily MiG-27 Floggers and Su-17 Fitters spread out to attack airbases and radar sites in the north with heavy jamming and fighter support.  The initial Soviet theater objective was to close the northern Norwegian airbases for a extended period of time. On the flip side, those same air bases were essential to NATO’s planned defense of Norway and the alliance intended to defend them fiercely.

Royal Norwegian Air Force F-16s, supported by a limited number of RAF Tornado fighters rose to challenge the Russians. A series of fluid air battles broke out over northern Norway and raged through much of the morning. Losses were heavy on both sides and though damage was inflicted on a good number of airbases and civilian airfields from Kirkenes to Bardufoss, none were knocked out of action. But the day was not over yet. After licking their respective wounds, and evaluating which weapons systems and tactics worked and which ones didn’t, the battle would pick up and increase in intensity as the afternoon went on.

Like its sister service, the Royal Norwegian Navy had its hands full on the first day of war. The fast attack craft assigned to Naval Forces Northern Norway (NAVNON) as well as a handful of diesel submarines were heavily engaged in the morning and early afternoon hours. From the deep fjords in the North Cape area, missile armed fast attack craft sprang out to search for and locate the Soviet amphibious group that was expected to be moving southwest to the Norwegian coast. When they encountered Soviet fast attack craft, it was thought that they’d located the screening force for the amphibs. Little did NAVNON realize until mid-afternoon, the Northern Fleet’s main amphibious group was still farther east in the Barents Sea. It would not make its presence felt for another thirty six hours.

As described in a previous entry, Soviet and Norwegian fast attack craft and diesel submarines fought a running battle from Kirkenes to Akkarfjord. The Norwegians lost four out of seven ships and the diesel submarine Utsiera was damaged by a torpedo dropped by an Il-38 May. The sub skipper was able to surface his ship and get the surviving crew members off safely before scuttling her. Soviet losses were slightly higher. Six fast attack craft were sunk, all of which fell victim to the very effective Penguin anti-ship missile, and two Foxtrot class diesel submarines were sunk. By mid-afternoon both sides had retreated. There were smaller engagements throughout the remainder of the day, but nothing as intense as the day’s earlier battles. By the evening hours, NAVNON’s inability to locate any sign of major Soviet combatants led SACLANT to turn responsibility for the task over to NATO submarines in the area.

Farther south, naval activity was limited to a cat and mouse game played between Norwegian frigates and Soviet diesel submarines. Around 1500 a Tango class submarine managed to fire a pair of torpedoes at a Norwegian frigate south of Narvik. The fish missed and the Tango scurried off, beginning an intensive three hour search that yielded nothing. AFNORTH was cautious to allow the Norwegian frigates to move too far north. NAVNON was in need of help, but until the Soviet’s surface groups were located, AFNORTH was reluctant to push too many  naval assets north, especially with the air situation unresolved.

Round two of the northern Norwegian air battle began shortly after 1500 with Soviet airstrikes aimed again at airbases in that particular geographic area. Once more, Norwegian F-16s and RAF Tornados rose to defend, only their numbers were significantly less than they had been earlier in the day. To be fair, the number of Russian aircraft was also less, however, the Russians had more aircraft and pilots to spare. Banak and Bardufoss airbases received most of the attention, and subsequently, much damage. Both had been targeted earlier in the morning too, and damage from those first strikes had not yet been fully repaired. Banak remained open- just barely. Bardufoss had to close briefly in order to allow repairs to its taxiways and runway.

Allied airpower in northern Norway had inflicted heavy losses on Soviet air units, but it had come at a price. Of the forty Norwegian F-16s and twelve Royal Air Force Tornados that were committed to the air battle that morning, only four Tornados, and half of the F-16s remained. The Soviet 76th Air Army had suffered significantly heavier losses. Twenty four MiG-23s, thirty Su-17 and -22 Fitters, twelve Su-24 Fencers and eight MiG-25 Foxbats.

AIRNON saw the writing on the wall. Without quick replacement of his losses,  NATO would suffer its first strategic defeat with the loss of air superiority over northern Norway. And at the current pace it would happen within the next thirty six hours. Unfortunately, AIRNON’s superiors were reluctant to commit any of the squadrons tasked with the air defense of central Norway to the north until more reinforcements arrived. Convoys carrying the equipment of British and Dutch Marines were approaching their intended ports of disembarkation and AFNORTH wanted to be sure he had the air cover to protect those ships from a sudden Backfire or Badger raid.

At 1800, AIRNON’s screams for help were partially answered. Grudgingly, a contingent of additional Norwegian F-16s and NF-5s was chopped to AIRNON. Behind these reinforcements, though, there was little left in the pipeline and it did not appear that the operational tempo over the north was going to slow down anytime soon.