Why are we here?

More than one US Army soldier in the Cold War looked at his map of Western Europe and wondered why the US Army, the anchor of the Nato Alliance, was stationed at one of the least likely invasion routes. The geography in the north of Germany is generally flat or low rolling hills, quite suitable to armored forces attacking from Poland and East Germany, where the bulk of the Soviet army was stationed.

In the south, the terrain was far more mountainous, with numerous chokepoints where attacking forces could be blocked, trapped, and destroyed. The primary Warsaw Pact Forces there were the Czech Army.

Given the importance of this terrain, why was the vast majority of the US Army in Europe stationed in the south, rather than in the north where the heaviest attack could be expected? The answer is a historical accident from 1940, and shows the tyranny of logistics over tactics.

In the summer of 1940, Nazi Germany was triumpant. They had conquered all of Western Europe from the Baltic to the Mediterrenian Sea. The only countries not under the Nazi thumb were a compliant Spain and tiny Portugal, both neutral countries, and that defiant lion, The United Kingdom. Following the fall of France in June 1940, the British Army was forced to retreat at Dunkirk and return to England. The British evacuation there will long live in the annals of history as a magnificent feat, but it was still a defeat.

The remains of the British Army were in bad shape. Most of their equipment had been abandoned in France. Just twenty miles away lay the victorious Wehrmacht. Already the German Army was laying plans for an autumn invasion of England. The British Army quickly moved to the southeast of England to defend against this planned invasion.

The Battle of Britain, where the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force fought a desparate struggle for command of the skies, took place over that summer and fall of 1940. The Germans knew that air superiortiy was needed for a successful invasion. They failed to achieve it. Still, the British were obliged to maintain a defense in southeast England lest the Germans try. While here, they began the process of re-equipping and rebuilding.

After the entry of the United States into the war in December 1941, Churchill and Franklin (and more importantly, their military staffs) both agreed that eventually, there would have to be an invasion of France across the English Channel. The US began moving forces into England. Since the southeast of England was full of British troops, most US forces were based in the west.

When the time for the invasion came, the decision was made to land in Normandy. Here is where the tyranny of logistics raised its ugly head.  Looking at the map below, we see that the US forces, stationed in the west, would be forced to land on the western side of the Cotentin Peninsula. The size of the invasion fleet was just too large to swap positions while at sea. The British would land in the east and the US to the west. When they broke out of the beachhead and wheeled to head east, that would place the British to the north and the US to the south.

After the invasion of Normandy, further US and French forces would invade southern France near Marseille, reinforcing the US position in the south.

While military planners would have preferred the heavier, larger, and more mobile US forces to attack across the north of Europe, while the smaller, less mobile British Armies made a supporting attack in the south, the delay, cost and confusion of trying to switch their positions made this impossible. Moving the forces might have been just barely possible, but there was no way to even attempt to move their huge logistical tails. The die was cast and the stage was set in stone. The disposition of forces would remain all the way across Europe to the defeat of Nazi Germany in May of 1945.

With the defeat of the Nazis, the vast majority of the Allied armies were demobilized and went home. Because so much of the German society had collapsed, however, significant occupation forces had to remain. Germany was divided into zones of occupation, with zones for the Russians, British, Americans, and French. Mostly these zones were where the forces had halted at the end of the war.

When the Iron Curtain fell across Europe in 1947, the Western Allies began to reinforce their positions in Europe, eventually forming NATO in 1949 (the Warsaw Pact wasn’t formed until 1955). By this time, it was too late to shift major forces to better suit the terrain, again primarily because of logistics. There was a political factor here though. If the US had tried to reposition major forces outside the US zone, the Soviets would have been able to protest that we were not abiding by the terms of the agreement. In fact, they could have argued that they should be able to move outside their zone as well, perhaps into the British or US zones. We certainly didn’t want that. Even after West Germany regained its sovereignity in 1955, it was logistically impossible to switch the positions of the major forces.

It is a fair guess that more than one US general, looking at the defense of Western Europe during the Cold War, cursed the fates that places the Allies in the positions they held. In fact, a large part of the development of AirLand Battle Doctrine was about flipping this geographical disadvantage on its head, and finding a way to use manuever to hide behind the terrain of southern Germany and strike into the flank of any Soviet attack to the north.

6 thoughts on “Why are we here?”

  1. Well, I’ll be damned. Did not know that, have never read it anywhere before, and it makes perfect sense.

    Truck drivers from Warsaw Pact countries, particularly the East Germans, drove all over Western Europe in the 1980s. Apparently a sizable number of these trucks were mobile listening posts, rolling over the autobahns while collecting signals intelligence. I remember reading reports that they had stopped/captured several of these trucks in Holland. Some of these trucks also carried rods which were used to measure the depth of canals — just in case sometime in the future armor had to cross a canal and couldn’t fit on the bridges that weren’t dropped.

    If it had happened we were going to get hammered. The British didn’t have a real large presence in northern Germany. Soviet doctrine dictated the use of SCUDs with chemicals and we were certainly within range of their SCUDs. Why I called my MOPP gear my nightmare suit.

    Perhaps our biggest ally was doubt over whether the other Warsaw Pact countries would actually fight in support of the Soviets.

  2. Cranky,
    I’m not saying I ever got a look at the war plans when I was there, but when I worked at Brigade, the staff pukes spent a lot of time looking at North/South Roads. This is pure supposition, but my guess would be that in case of war, the allies would look for the Brits/Germans to delay as best as possible, fall back in an organized manner, and maintain the shoulders of any penetration. The 7th Army would hold the Fulda Gap and the rest of Southern Germany, while a reserve of formations deployed via Reforger (and anything they could spare from the front) would then attack the flank of the penetration.

    The historical model here, of course, would be Patton’s counterattack at the Battle of the Bulge. He was able to quickly pivot north and slam into the German’s flank, badly disrupting their plans. Montgomery had gained control of the US 1st Army (by lying to Eisenhower) and should have done the same from the north. Courtney Hodges was apoplectic about not being allowed to counterattack. Had he done so, they would have cut off the entire German Army in a pocket, to be destroyed in detail, rather than pushed back out of the Bulge.

    What forces might have been able to form the northern half of this maneuver in the Cold War, I don’t know, but my guess would be that the BAOR would hold the line while the Bundeswehr formed a northern attack force.

    As to chemical weapons, I’m pretty sure the Soviets would have used non persistent agents against tactical units at the front. I also think that would not have been enough to trigger a WMD response from the allies. Non persistent agents are more hindrance than anything else.

    Airfield attacks by SCUD would have been either nuke (with all the political problems there), persistent chemical (non persistent would have been pretty useless, but persistent might have been enough to trigger WMD response from the allies) or submunition/clusterbomb warheads. I just don’t know what route they would have taken. Their doctrine said chemical, but that had risks that were political, not military.

  3. The ultimate irony is that the Sovs realized our plan was to hit them in the flank from Fulda — according to a couple of ex-Sov officers I knew in Bosnia and some Poles I escorted around our flight facility, their war plan called for their main effort to punch through — the Fulda Gap.

    According to the ex-Sov officers, they weren’t real sure their WarPac allies would fight against NATO, and they may have had cause for concern. The Poles told me that it would have been a good bet that at least half the Polish and Czech forces would decide to sit it out or desert to NATO at the first opportunity.

  4. Bill, (Can I call you Bill, as opposed to BillT?)
    DuPuy was no dummy. When he started looking at the defense of Western Europe, he realized that there was a couple thousand years of recorded history showing the fighting flowing across the same ground, and not surprisingly using the same routes, time and again. Sure, there were changes of emphasis from one campaign to another, but nobody found a new route during the whole of history. He quickly realized that victory wasn’t going to go to the guy that chose the best route, but rather the guy that was more agile in responding to changing circumstances.
    The Soviets were no dummies either. While their Strategic outlook in Western Europe really was defensive, the figured the best defense was a good offense. Having been invaded a few times, they figured that it was better to let the battles lay waste to the other guys dirt. That’s why their Operational and Tactical outlook was so offense oriented. And the echelon attack was a pretty good plan.
    Would their “fraternal socialist brothers” play along? Good question. In the early days, sure. They really were vassal states. As time went along, that became less and less clear.
    Of course, if the Soviets had made their main effort in the Fulda Gap, then the game just flips. They face the same problem with flank attacks coming from the north by our allies. I know for a fact that our plans stressed holding the shoulders of any penetration. That’s been the rule since before WW2.

  5. Thanks. I knew of the four sections of post WW2 pre-Germany and guessed their location reason but now I understand why it was in that order.

    I kind of like the rail gauge and qwerty problems. Stuck with the customs of the past due to the difficulty of implementing change.

    “There’s nothing as permanent as a temporary solution”

  6. Damn, Argent is almost as good-looking as I am!

    On a more serious note, while I was stationed in the UK in the USAF (68-71) the plan was always to depend more on the Germans than the British if only because they had the numbers and were fighting on home turf.

    It should be noted that the Soviets were doing all the stuff Cranky spotlights in the 70s as well–it was a long on-going operation. They also had a project to locate the off-base living quarters of most USAF &
    NATO pilots. The plan was to plant hit squads outside the door of every pilot pre “BIG SHOW” attack to assassinate him as he answered the telephone re-call to base.

    IIRC the intel in my day said 1/3
    of all WP missile war-heads were chemical. WP forces also practiced/trained with live–tho diluted–nerve agents in both naval and land exercises for greater realism. They had chemical thoroughly integrated
    into their forces and oplans and I really think it inconceivable
    they wouldn’t have used it from the get-go. “You fight like you train.”

    Funny but sadly pathetic story from a buddy of mine who was over in Germany TDY as a range officer for one of the few ground ranges we had in Germany during the bad old days of the nadir of the American Army in the early 70s when morale was low as units had been stripped for Vietnam, the “black power” movement was rampant, and there were parts of Caserns in Germany where whites couldn’t safely go. He was having a beer one afternoon when they were weathered out with an American Army Maj. at a local
    watering hole. When the subject of what was going to happen if the “balloon went up” and the readiness of NATO forces to resist, the Maj. replied: “See that white Porche 911 parked out front? It’s mine. I’m going to jump in that sucker and drive like hell straight for Dunkirk!” LOL!!

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