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Monday Book Review: Blueprints for Battle

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Blueprints for Battle: Planning for War in Central Europe, 1948-1968, edited by Jan Hoffenaar, Dieter Kruger, and David Zabecki (English translation) is a collection of essays on Soviet and Western plans for war in Germany in the first half of the Cold War. It includes good chapters on East German strategic planning, NATO intelligence, the Soviet operational concept, Bundeswehr plans for defending Germany, and the Dutch commitment to alliance planning.

Broadly speaking, the Soviets expected to cut through Western Europe in several days, pushing past the Rhine and to the English Channel before NATO could manage a very significant conventional defense.  Broadly speaking, NATO expected the Soviets to cut through Western Europe in several days, pushing past the Rhine and to the English Channel before NATO could manage a very significant conventional defense. The most optimistic Soviet assessment had forward elements arriving at the Channel on D+2 (!), and advancing at 100 km/day (!), predictions that even some Soviet military commanders publicly scoffed at. Nevertheless, virtually no one believed that NATO forces (even after the recreation of the German armed forces) could provide much more than a speed bump for the Warsaw Pact.

Still, presumptive conventional military superiority on the part of the Soviets didn’t impart as much security as you might expect.  Memory of the successful German attack of June 1941 gnawed at Soviet planners, who viewed the strategic situations as analogous in many ways.  The prospect of a NATO offensive into Eastern Europe that could destroy the Red Army and carry the war into Russia seemed outlandish to Western Europeans, but the Soviets felt they had seen a smaller, less capable force prevail through surprise once in recent memory.

NATO and Warsaw Pact planners disagreed to a degree about the effectiveness of battlefield nuclear weapons.  Both sides expected that they would be used by (after the mid-1950s) both sides in great numbers, but the Soviets didn’t believe that they would have a transformational effect on the conflict. The Russians still expected to dump several megatons worth of nukes onto defending NATO forces in the opening hours of the conflict.  NATO had more realistic expectations of the damage that tactical nukes could do, but wargames still indicated that the Soviets would overcome this disadvantage and win a decisive victory.

But then there’s “truth” and there’s “Truth.”  Initial British and Dutch plans for the war involved little more than organized retreats from initial positions, trying to save as much as possible from the Soviet onslaught.  Later, alliance commitments and reputational obligations would call for more robust efforts to defend Germany, even though both countries continued to rate the prospects of success as very low.

The potential for nuclear war demanded a great deal of truthiness.  NATO required the Bundeswehr to have any prospect of conventional success against the Soviets, but rehearsals suggested that even with the Germans the use of extensive nuclear attacks on West and East Germany would be required for a chance of success.  Such attacks would almost inevitably incur Soviet retaliation, further irradiating Germany. As the Soviet strategic nuclear position improved, the U.S. became more wary of nuclear escalation in the first days of a European War, a prospect which deeply alarmed European war planners (including the Germans!).

Similarly, it’s not clear how much of the Soviet High Command really believed in the possibility of maintaining operational momentum in the face of serial nuclear attack.  The belief that the Red Army could reach the English Channel in short order was required for bureaucratic and political reasons.  Red Army dominance from 1945 represented both the Soviet Union’s key deterrent capability, and the Red Army’s central political justification. Allowing the NATO tactical nukes could disrupt Soviet logistics (one plan called for the resumption of train service through Dresden twelve hours after a nuclear attack) or blast Soviet spearheads to pieces undercut this entire strategic-political rationale.  We should also recall that no one really knows how armies might operate under conditions of nuclear vulnerability; while one essay traces the disintegration of the U.S. Army’s “Pentomic” division concept, it’s nevertheless possible that the Soviets might have managed to keep things moving even in the face of nuclear weapons.

As suggested, the chapters on Dutch and East German military planning are extremely strong, and the general thread of how both forces conceived of nuclear conflict is quite productive. As others have noted, the chapter on the British Army is extremely weak, with virtually no sourcing. Chapters on NATO northern sector intelligence procedures and Dutch logistical preparations are a bit of a slog, however. The collection only goes to 1968, and consequently does not cover the period in which NATO became steadily more confident in its ability to resist a Warsaw Pact attack. Still, for those interested in the operational, strategic, and political problems on both sides of the European Central Front, this should be a very useful work.

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