In 1978, British General Sir John Hackett published the novel The Third World War: August 1985. It was a cautionary tale of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, warning about what he regarded as a low level of military preparedness among NATO members. It created a stir, and in subsequent years many others went on to write similar stories, using Hackett’s suppositions as their backdrop. Harold Coyle’s Team Yankee and Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising are among the better examples.
The Third World War was extremely conventional, in the sense that it reflected mainstream thinking common among both Soviet and NATO strategists. The problems faced by both sides, in the case of Soviet attack, were pretty straightforward. Analysts in the Kremlin and the Pentagon had been crunching various scenarios for decades. Strategy and doctrine evolved over time, of course, but certain basic issues remained more or less stable.
The fundamental problem was one of time. Neither side expected the annihilation of the other, or total and unambiguous victory.
In Soviet ideological thinking, attack was always pre-emptive, necessary for their very survival. They had to capture enough territory to put them in a position to negotiate a favorable peace. If they could overrun, say, Austria, Denmark, West Germany, maybe the Netherlands and a bit of Scandinavia, they could negotiate with the US, UK and France to cede all of West Germany and chunks of other nations to them. This would have drastically diminished NATO power, ensuring the survival of the Communist way of life… or so such thinking went, anyway.
However, in order to capture that territory, the offensive had to be decisive and quick, because they only had about two weeks to do it. That was the length of time it would take the United State to mobilize and start sending waves of reinforcements to Europe. On the NATO side, therefore, the overarching need was to delay the Soviet advance for that critical first week or two, while keeping trans-Atlantic crossing safe for US transport.
While there would be many fronts along the entire length of Europe, most strategists agreed that World War III would be won or lost in Central and/or Northern Germany. From a military perspective there are two basic ways to crack the nut that is West Germany.
One way in is right through the middle, through the Fulda Gap, which is the only significant break in the otherwise mountainous and wooded zone of central Germany. Once through Fulda, threatening the population centers around Frankfurt is relatively easy. Bristling with both German and American defenses, Fulda was the most direct, but also the most contested, path to breaking the West.
The other way is across the North German Plain. With the exception of a few large rivers, it is great tank country, perfect for the rapid movement of armored columns. Besides rivers and the big urban centers of Hamburg and Bremen, it’s just a big, flat corridor to Denmark, the Netherlands and the Ruhr. The Ruhr was West Germany’s most productive industrial region and population center. The loss of the Ruhr could easily mean the loss of the war.
The North German Plain is bounded to the south by east-west hills stretching roughly from Hannover to Osnabruck. Once Soviet forces “round the corner”, as it were, at Osnabruck, they would turn south and into the Ruhr.
In this campaign, the war is five days old. Soviet forces brushed aside opposition in the north, crossing the Elbe and Weser Rivers, and are nearly across the Ems in force. German units were forced to withdraw from Hanover, but have maintained a defensive line from Hameln to Osnabruck.
The Soviet Third Shock Army, after inflicting grievous loss to the enemy and making great strides, is decimated. Remnants have been tasked with defending the long Soviet left (south) flank from NATO counterattack. Its last remaining units have been consolidated into the 7th and 10th Guards Divisions to defend the 20 kilometers between Minden and Lubbecke, facing the Wiehengebirge (the Wiehen Hills).
1st Brigade of the American 4th Mechanized Infantry Division is being committed to counter attack west of the Weser River. Its objective is to push out of the Wiehengebirge, cross the Mittelland Canal, and secure crossings over the Grosse Aue River, and allow 2nd Brigade to pass through, where it can then disrupt Soviet support columns and bleed energy from the main Soviet thrust in the west.
The overall zone of operation is 20 by 30 kilometers in the states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Lower Saxony.