1 (NL) Corps Sector in West Germany, 1979-1989


The situation within Germany and the Low Countries would have been without precedent. First, mobilization within those countries would have been taking place on a massive scale, with some 2 million men and women travelling to their reporting depots. Second, 60,000 British and some 300,000 US troops would have been moving into Germany, landing at a variety of service and civil airfields and ports. In the Low Countries four British infantry brigades (plus signals brigades and an engineer brigade), with virtually all their equipment and vehicles, would have been disembarking to follow the Belgian and Dutch brigades en route to their wartime positions in Germany. Within West Germany these new arrivals would have joined hundreds of thousands of troops resident in the country (and their vehicles, tanks and guns) as they too deployed to their wartime positions.

There would also, without a doubt, have been a serious problem with refugees fleeing in a westerly direction, which could well have caused serious delays to the reinforcement forces endeavouring to move eastward and could also have interfered with plans to demolish bridges. The problem was (and remains) completely unquantifiable, but it seems reasonable to assume that it would have been on a massive scale. The most immediate fear of the civil population would have been of becoming involved in the fighting, especially as they would have assumed that nuclear and possibly chemical weapons would be used. On top of that, however, would have been German folk memories of the atrocities committed by Soviet troops following their conquest of eastern Germany in 1945.

The only possible precedents were the flow of refugees during the 1940 German invasion of France and the Low Countries, and the 1944–5 flight of ethnic Germans in front of the Soviet advance into Germany. The refugees of those days were, however, virtually all on foot (or, in the case of a proportion of the Germans along the Baltic coast, travelled by sea), while those in any war in Europe in the 1980s would have been predominantly in vehicles – at least until they had exhausted the fuel stocks along their routes.

Control of refugees was a national responsibility, which, as far as the Central Front was concerned, meant Belgium, the FRG and the Netherlands, but whether these countries would have been able to cope and to keep the routes clear for troops moving in the opposite direction is a matter for conjecture. There was also a NATO Refugee Agency, whose task was to provide a consultation forum and to co-ordinate actions in war, but it was certainly not an executive agency and could, at best, only have provided cross-border co-ordination.


Although NATO laid down guidelines, logistical support was a national responsibility, one major consequence of which was that national lines of communication (LOC) stretched rearwards from the operational corps to the home country. For the Danes, the West Germans and the French this presented few problems, but for the others it was a major headache. The Belgian and Dutch LOC were several hundred kilometres long, but at least they were all overland, whereas the British not only had much greater distances to cover, but also had to cross the English Channel from ports in south-east England to ports on the Belgian, Dutch and German coast.

Worst of all was the position of the United States. Not only had it to cross the Atlantic, but also, following the expulsion of NATO facilities from France, its maritime LOC terminated in ports on the German and Dutch North Sea coast (principally Bremerhaven) and thereafter its supplies had to be transported by road and rail down the length of Germany – along routes which ran parallel to the IGB and within easy reach of any Warsaw Pact thrust.

There were many logistical problems, but one merits mention: that of war stocks, and in particular of ammunition. The level of war stocks was not as glamorous and vote-catching a subject as the number or quality of tanks or artillery pieces, but in the event of an actual attack those weapons would have become useless without an adequate and timely supply of ammunition. Throughout the Cold War, artillery, tanks and small arms became capable of ever higher rates of fire. Indeed, the appetite of weapons such as the Multiple Rocket-Launcher System was so voracious that the cost and capacity of the resupply system became a major constraint in both their purchase and their use.

The NATO requirement was that nations should hold ammunition stocks based on the calculated requirement for thirty days of use, but there was always some doubt about the validity of the figure. Indeed, one of the major lessons of post-Second World War conflicts such as the Korean, Middle East, Vietnam, Falklands and Gulf wars was that ammunition expenditure was greatly in excess of peacetime predictions. For example, the British noted after the Falklands War that one of the lessons learned was that ‘rates of usage, particularly of ammunition, missiles and anti-submarine weapons, were higher than anticipated’.2 Many insiders consider this to have been a serious understatement, not least because, on the day the Argentine garrison surrendered, the British artillery had less than one day’s ammunition stocks in the theatre. During the Gulf War, the British land forces (essentially one armoured division of just two armoured brigades) required 104,000 tonnes of ammunition for initial stocks, while the total cargo which would have been required had fighting continued would have been 19,000 tonnes per week.

The difficulty for NATO was that, with higher than expected ammunition expenditure, forward munitions depots would quickly have been stripped bare and national stocks would have been depleted to replenish them. But, owing to ever-reducing peacetime orders, many munitions factories had been closed and their plant sold off, and those that remained would have taken time to crank up production to meet the short-term requirements. Indeed, even if they had succeeded in doing so, their output could well then have choked the resupply system.

One solution adopted in the 1980s was a programme to build ammunition depots. These would have eased transportation problems in war, but, since they were difficult to disguise, they were vulnerable to sabotage and to air attack. A further difficulty was that, in order to be of any value, such depots needed to be relatively close to the projected deployment areas, which meant that in a surprise Warsaw Pact attack they might well have been overrun before the forward troops had deployed in sufficient strength to protect them.


1 (NL) Corps Maldeployment


As the Cold War progressed, it became clear that many formations and units in the Central Region were badly deployed in peacetime. In overall terms, the southern part of the FRG was hilly and heavily wooded, making it better country for defence than the north, which was much more open, less heavily wooded and in most places ‘good tank country’. Thus, in an ideal world, the US and West German forces, with their mass of armour and long-range anti-tank systems, should have been in the north. This would also have eased the US logistics problem. It would, however, have meant that the Belgians, British and Dutch, with further German support, would have been in the south. Not only would that have run in the face of history, but the exchange would have been extremely costly. In addition, the Belgians, the Dutch and in particular the British would have incurred severe logistic penalties, which they were much less able than the US to cope with.

Even within each nation’s forces, however, there were serious examples of bad deployment, where units required to deploy very rapidly to the front line in a crisis were located several hundred kilometres away in peacetime. This applied not only on a national scale, e.g. with the distance between Belgian and Dutch peacetime barracks in their home country and their deployment positions near the IGB, but also within national deployments in the FRG. Such problems were examined from time to time, but, though there were a few minor adjustments, a major reshuffle was always prevented by the huge costs that would be involved. Thus maldeployment simply came to be accepted as a fact of life.


It is clear that, in the ‘worst-case’ scenario of a sudden and unexpected Warsaw Pact attack, Central Region forces would have required substantial augmentation to bring them up to combat strength. In the first place, even the forward units in some armies would have needed individual reinforcements, which would have been found either by redeployment of regular soldiers (e.g. by closing down the training organization) or from reservists.

The increasing practice of locating major elements of the forward divisions and brigades in their home countries meant that, even if they were regular, they would take some time to arrive and would require valuable and scarce movement facilities, while reserve units would take even longer, having to mobilize and possibly also needing to carry out some training before deploying.

Despite all these difficulties, the NATO ground forces appeared impressive to the Soviets and they never once faced a major challenge.

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