The Buzz

Why World War III in Europe During the Cold War Would Have Killed Millions

Last year in the National Interest we discussed NATO’s plan for World War III in Europe. The scenario, set in the late 1980s, assumed that the forces of the Soviet Union and the rest of the Warsaw Pact—namely East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary—steamrollered West Germany to defeat NATO. The plan assumed the western alliance would defend as far forward as possible while avoiding the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

But what about the Warsaw Pact? After the Cold War ended, the Polish government made public classified Soviet documents that revealed the likely war plan. The plan, known as “Seven Days to the Rhine,” was the basis of 1979 military exercise that assumed NATO as the aggressor, having nuked a series of twenty-five targets in Poland, including Warsaw and the port of Gdansk. The cover story of countering aggression was a mere fig leaf for the true nature of the anticipated conflict: a bolt-from-the-blue Soviet attack against NATO.

By the 1980s NATO had shifted to a “Flexible Response” nuclear doctrine: the alliance was prepared to use nuclear weapons, but would seek to win the war conventionally. This is in stark contrast to the Warsaw Pact, which saw their use as inevitable and planned to use them from the outset. Such early would confer the pact an enormous strategic advantage over NATO.

In “Seven Days to the Rhine,” Soviet nuclear forces would destroy Hamburg, Dusseldorf, Cologne, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich and the West German capital of Bonn. NATO headquarters in Brussels would be annihilated, as would the Belgian port of Antwerp. The Dutch capital and port of Amsterdam would also be destroyed. Denmark would suffer two nuclear strikes.

The result would be a headless NATO and the destruction or demoralization of civilian governments in West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark—precisely the countries likely to be occupied at the end of the seven days. The elimination of the port cities of Hamburg, Antwerp and Amsterdam would severely curtail NATO’s ability to flow reinforcements from the United Kingdom and North America.

Curiously, France and the United Kingdom were to be spared nuclear strikes. This is probably because both had independent nuclear arsenals not tied to the United States. The United States might have hesitated to retaliate for fear of escalating to strategic nuclear warfare, but for France and the UK the European atomic battlefield was much closer and the dividing line between tactical and strategic not so clear-cut. The Soviet leadership probably had no intention of continuing war with either one on the eighth day.

After the Warsaw Pact had launched nuclear strikes, conventional forces would be sent in to conquer. Seven Days to the Rhine assumed a radioactive zone that used to be called Poland, dividing the Soviet Union from its forces in East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Those forces, along with their East German, Czechoslovak and Hungarian counterparts, would need to suffice to carry out the attack. While Polish forces were theoretically available, by 1979 the Soviets would have reason to suspect their political reliability.

As a result, total forces committed would be roughly the same number of forces the pact would have in a no-notice attack on NATO. Planning with the assumption of a radioactive curtain severing forward pact forces from the Soviet Union itself is also a reasonable model for assuming a quick war without a prewar buildup of ammunition and fuel from the Soviet Union.

Leading the spearhead aimed at the heart of NATO would be the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany. The GSFG was comprised of five armies, each with three or four tank and motor-rifle (mechanized infantry) divisions.

In the North, the Soviet and East German attack force would consist of the Soviet Second Guards Tank Army, Twentieth Guards Army and Third Shock Army, consisting of seven tank divisions and five motor rifle divisions. East Germany’s National People’s Army, considered the best of the non-Soviet pact forces, would contribute two tank and four mechanized-infantry divisions.

This combined northern force of eighteen combat divisions, plus artillery, air assault and special forces, would smash into the combined Danish, Dutch, West German, British and Belgian forces facing them. The battle would take place on the so-called North German Plain, a stretch of relatively flat, rolling country from the inner German border to the Low Countries. This was considered the quickest, most direct way to knock out the largest number of NATO countries.

Somewhere in the endless stream of combat vehicles headed west would be what was known as the Operational Maneuver Group, or OMG. Anywhere from two brigades to two divisions large, the OMG would be held in reserve until a breakthrough was achieved. Once committed, the OMG would lunge deep behind enemy lines, cutting off NATO forces as it did so.

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