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North German Plain - Operations

The North German Plain is good tank country. It bears repeating. The North German Plain is good tank country. Had a purely conventional war been fought in 1949, Soviet forces almost certainly would have quickly swept to victory with minimum losses, crossed the Rhine, and reached the English Channel within a few days. In 1959, the task confronting them was a more difficult and problematic one.

The rule of thumb was that one brigade can hold a line 7 to 15 kilometers long. NATO's northern army group (West German, British, Belgian and Dutch troops) deployed 30 brigades over a 225-kilometer front - one brigade for each 7.5 kilometers. If 10 brigades are held in reserve, each of 20 front-line brigades would hold 11 kilometers, well within the rule.

In late 1944, Allied airborne troops were used in a last bold stroke to capitalize on German disorganization before logistics should force a halt. The best bridgeheads on the Rhine for this undertaking were Arnheim in southern Holland, where the British forces were poised, and Cologne where the Americans were building up and regrouping for the river crossing. Market Garden was the result of several motivations among them, to outflank the German West Wall, to get onto the north German plain, to threaten the Ruhr, to liberate Holland, to overrun the V1 and V2 rocket missile sites. Airborne troops were to land in Operation MARKET astride three major water obstacles in the Netherlands: the Maas, Waal, and Lower Rhine Rivers. Crossing these rivers on bridges to be secured by the airborne troops, the Second Army was to drive all the way to the Ijssel Meer (Zuider Zee), cutting off Germans farther west and putting the British in a position to outflank the West Wall and drive into Germany along a relatively open north German plain. Employing one British and two U.S. airborne divisions, the Allies began the airborne attack on 17 September 1944. On the first day alone approximately 20,000 paratroopers and glider troops landed in the largest airborne attack of the war. The combined operation gained a salient some fifty miles deep into German-held territory but fell short of the ambitious objectives, including a bridgehead across the Lower Rhine - a bridge too far.

Once the Allies had concentrated along the Rhine, the main thrust would be made in the north on the north German plain over terrain conducive to the mobile warfare in which by then the Allies excelled. On 24 March 1945, two months after the Battle of the Bulge, the 17th Airborne Division joined the British 6th Airborne Division for Operation Varsity the last full-scale airborne operation of World War II. The two divisions supported amphibious assaults on the Rhine River as the Allies looked to gain a foothold on the North German Plain for an advance to Berlin and other northern cities. By 31 March 1945, Operation PLUNDER was over. Four Allied armies were across the last great barrier to the heartland of Germany and had either begun to exploit or were poised to begin the last deep thrusts.

NATO's forces in 1959 were able to cover a much larger portion of the Center Region terrain than in 1949, which was a key consideration in establishing a conventional defense. The deployment of four West German divisions and the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) gave NATO forces for protecting the North German Plain, while the U.S. presence of five divisions provided defense of the key Frankfurt basin to the south. NATO still did not have sufficient forces to erect a frontal defense along the inter-German border. But it would have been capable of conducting a mobile defense, thereby delaying the Warsaw Pact advance and extracting a far higher toll. Although the Soviets would probably still have been able to breach the Rhine, their capacity to do so was now less certain than in 1949. Had U.S. reinforcements arrived in time, it is possible that NATO could have established a Rhine defense, thereby protecting France and the Lowlands.

Soviet and Warsaw Pact documents released after the collapse of the Soviet Union indicate the Warsaw Pacts "counteroffensive against the Western aggressors" included a primary strike across the North German Plain, turning north to the Netherlands and the Danish peninsula. A supporting attack emerging from Czechoslovakia would advance through the Fulda and Hof Gaps with a goal of crossing the Rhine within seven days. While the Soviet generals came to believe by 1963 they could take Lyon within two weeks of the outbreak of hostilities, their NATO counterparts had by this time become confident of being able to stem the Warsaw Pact advance already near West Germany's eastern borders rather than, as previously, along the Rhine, the English Channel, or the Pyrenees, if at all. As the extensive records of the exercises of the East German army show particularly well, the Warsaw Pact kept practicing the thrust into western Europe, with or without nuclear weapons, in ever greater detail, the perfectionist East Germans even printing in advance occupation currency and preparing new street signs with congenial names.

After the end of the Cold War, the Polish government made secret Soviet documents open to the public, revealing possible plans for waging war. The plan Seven days to the Rhine River, was the basis for conducting military exercises in 1979. In the north, the Soviet and East German strike forces were to include the Soviet 2nd Guards Tank Army, the 20th Guards Army, and the 3rd Shock Army (seven tank divisions and five motorized rifle divisions). The East German National Peoples Army, which was considered the best after the Soviet armed forces, would have provided two tank and four motorized rifle divisions. As a result, 18 shock divisions would be concentrated in the north, as well as artillery, airborne and special forces, and this group would strike at the combined forces of Denmark, Holland, West Germany, Britain and Belgium. The battle would have occurred on the so-called North German lowland - this is a fairly flat terrain, stretching from the inner border of Germany to the Netherlands. This direction was considered the shortest and most direct to strike at the largest NATO countries.

Tom Clancy's "Red Storm Rising" was hailed by many critics as a realistic portrayal of what a future conflict may be like between the forces of NATO and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. Clancy develops a scenario in which the Soviet Union decides it must wage a preemptive war against NATO. Its aim is to deny NATO the ability to intervene against them in their intended subsequent conquest of critically needed oilfields surrounding the Persian Gulf. Clancy's Soviet attack is focused on the North German Plain, a likely strategic direction into the West. It becomes evident when one examines a map of Germany that the attack is limited tc this area. The Soviets launch an offensive against NATO that is not successful in bringing about its capitulation.

The location of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany (GSFG) and the terrain of the Central Front region both gave rise to the general belief that a Pact offensive would be across the North German Plain. As they proceeded across the Northern Army Group (NORTHAG), they would encounter German, British, Belgian and Dutch forces, and a single US brigade. If they traversed the Fulda Gap and Hof Corridor (in CENTAG), the main NATO opposition would come from German and US forces.

NATO's weakest vulnerable spots were in the Belgian, British, and Dutch sectors of the North German Plain, where the terrain is best suited to armored advances. Here NATO's forces are relatively less able to meet the challenge. A Pact thrust into this area could sever the main artery of communication to the U.S. and German forces in southern Germany.

The shallow depth of NATO's operational area limits its ability to conduct a successive defense in depth. From the Soviet perspective, NATO's lack of depth makes it possible to achieve strategic aims by means of a single operational campaign that is executed during the "initial period of war" without mobilization or reinforcement.

NATO was also vulnerable as a result of the peacetime mal-deployment of its forces. Many NATO forces, especially those defending in the North German Plain, were garrisoned significant distances from their wartime positions and required considerable warning time to complete mobilization and forward movement. Moreover, the best equipped and most capable NATO forces were generally deployed in southern Germany. These forces were poorly positioned with respect to the North German Plain, considered by many Western analysts to be the principal invasion route for a Soviet thrust into Central Europe.

In the Soviet view, the success of NATO forces defending the southern approaches, i.e., the Fulda Gap, the Hof Corridor, and the Cheb Approach, would not prevent the rapid seizure of the heavily populated Ruhr region and hence the achievement of a major strategic objective. In other words, failure in the north made largely irrelevant successes in the south.

Precision ATGMs may well complement NATO forces defending in areas of obvious Soviet offensive activity by providing NATO with a potentially useful means of slowing and attriting Warsaw Pact armored forces. This may prove to be especially true in mountainous areas on the flanks, in the rolling hill country of central Germany, but on the North German Plain mainly if employed in villages and towns as part of an interlocking defensive grid. The hills and forests in the American sector provide more exposure for attacking armor than the flat land of the North German Plain where attacking armor is more often screened from view by vegation. The construction of an interlocking defense network based on urban areas on the North German Plain would require a decision by West Germany to transform its villages, towns, and cities into strong points. There was little evidence to suggest that such an action was politically feasible.



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