The rusting fences and chipped white guard towers seemed out of place against the calm and picturesque villages of Germany’s Rhine Valley. Cinder block barracks and concertina wire still sat as tourist attractions, but the maze of tank ditches and patchwork of minefields had long been removed. From their perch atop a four-hundred-meter hill above the Fulda Gap, American forces positioned here would have had a direct line of sight into the Deutsche Demokratishe Republik and the Soviet 8th Guards Army garrisoned immediately within. Since the late 1940s, American and Russian soldiers flooding the hills eyed each other through barricades of steel and dirt, anticipating a conflict that never came. A border crossing anywhere else acted simply as a filter on an artificial line drawn along a map. However, this was more — it was a demarcation between two worlds: democracy and communism. This was Observation Post Alpha, and if war ever came between East and West, this latticework of fences and checkpoints would have been ground zero in a fight that would reshape the world.
In a Top Secret report entitled OPLAN 4102, US European Command scripted in precise detail how American forces would react hour-by-hour to a Soviet attack on the inner German border. West Germany would essentially morph into a massive military encampment as the US Air Force would ferry reinforcements, ready them for attack and place them under NATO’s command hierarchy. The plan described the movements of every individual combat unit in the rugged, rural terrain, creating an in-depth defense plan that even provided for nuclear and chemical release procedures. The region was one of two likely routes for a Soviet tank offensive, the second being the North German Plain near Hamburg, which declared itself an open city that would not stage any resistance to Russian forces. A third, less likely route existed through the Danube River valley in Austria. The geography of these lowlands was more favorable to a Soviet armored column than the alternate route to the north, which was likewise suited to a mechanized infantry assault. Allied and US emphasis on the Fulda Gap was not without reason.
History always relied on this corridor that cut directly through Germany’s core and provided a gateway to Western Europe. In October of 1813, Napoleon Bonaparte — limping away from a disastrous defeat at the hands of both the tsar and Mother Nature — sought to wrestle back control of Germany. His two-hundred-thousand-man Grand Armée — merely a shadow of its former glory — met the formidable Sixth Coalition at Leipzig in what became the largest military confrontation before World War I. Over the next three days, the allied Russian, Swedish and German forces nearly surrounded Napoleon and fought to a clear, decisive victory that ended the French Empire’s ambitions in Prussia. Napoleon’s army made a narrow retreat toward Paris through the Fulda Gap and the coalition gave pursuit. A year after, Napoleon was captured and sent into exile on the island of Elba. Two centuries later, the Warsaw Pact had a similar strategy to that of the Sixth Coalition, and the Pentagon had forty years to decide on a response.
Defense of the Fulda Gap had been the primary responsibility of the American V Corps, which in the 1980s consisted of the 3rd Armored Division, the 8th Infantry Division, and the 11th Armored Calvary Regiment, which guarded the inner German border since 1972. Prior to that point, the border was the responsibility of the UK’s 3rd Constabulary Regiment and 1st Constabulary Brigade. The mission of these heavily mechanized reconnaissance units, equipped with Bradley Fighting Vehicles and M60-series main battle tanks was two-fold: In peacetime, their role was to keep watch over the border for signs of Red Army movement that would signal an imminent attack. At war, the regiment had the responsibility to hold back a Soviet onslaught until the 3rd Armored and 8th ID — the V Corps’ backup — could mobilize and deploy. The armored cavalry would then act as a screening force, maintaining continuous visual contact with the Warsaw Pact’s forces, reporting on their movements and orders of battle.
Opposing American units on the opposite end of OP Alpha was the Soviet 8th Guards Army, reinforced by four armored divisions including the 1st Mechanized Infantry Division of the 1st Guards Tank Army, which four decades earlier had fought back Hitler’s armies at Stalingrad and gave pursuit all the way to Berlin. The 8th Guards had a well-deserved reputation for driving holes through Europe and in the 1980s was equipped with three motor rifle divisions and an armored tank division, plus support elements to ensure the future would not set a new precedent.
The residents of this quiet valley knew it was a dangerous place to live and if the order to invade ever came from the Kremlin, it was common knowledge that the Soviets would have trampled through the NATO units protecting them. Flanked by the Hohe Rhön and Knüllgebirge mountains, the Russians could move massive quantities of men of weaponry through the plains, affectively cutting West Germany in two and storming a path to the French border. The communists would hardly have stopped there; not only would the Soviets have reached the epicenter of American military power in Germany, including Ramstein Air Base and a host of barracks and munitions depots, but the Red Army would also be within striking distance of Frankfurt, West Germany’s main banking center and a key financial hub for the whole of Europe. Compounded with the loss of Hamburg, NATO would stand to forfeit Germany’s industrial heartland and the Rhine. The Americans would then be forced to fall back into Belgium and France and go on the defensive. NATO would lose the initiative and the armies of World Socialism might soon see the Atlantic, or at the very least, redraw the map in a way that favored Moscow.
While history and geography were both on their side, the Soviets knew that crushing the Americans and their allies was easier planned than accomplished. In order to further ensure the success of conventional forces in Germany and the rest of Europe, the Soviets enacted a bold plan that would target key facilities and personalities in the opening stage of World War III. This involved coordinated acts of sabotage, subversion and assassination. Power stations, airfields, ports, bridges and the central nodes of C3I — command, control, communications and intelligence — were canvassed by Russian special operations forces during the Cold War and prepped for elimination when the order finally came down from Moscow. However, this strategy was not exclusive to Europe alone. Russian military intelligence also penetrated deep into the United States where prepositioned arms sat in wait for use by bands of deep cover saboteurs. These weapons would be used for similar purposes as in Europe and were intentionally placed near the location of American leaders in the event of war. The tactic was designed to decapitate the United States and NATO, leading to confusion and disorganization on which the sprawling armored divisions stationed in the Fulda Gap and the rest of the Warsaw Pact would capitalize.
The GRU — the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Soviet General Staff — took the lead in this operation. Relatively unknown to all but a few intelligence circles in the West, this agency’s power rivaled that of the KGB. To keep the Red Army in check and block any attempts at a coup d’état, the Politburo heavyweights always kept a watchful eye on their officers. They entrusted this task to the Second Chief Directorate of the KGB, which held the portfolio for counterintelligence and internal political control. Agents were placed in military units to watch everything and report on even the slightest hint of mutiny on the part of Soviet officers. However, the GRU sat outside this tight network of surveillance and was fully autonomous of their rivals on Dzerzhinsky Square. They kept their own watch on Soviet elites, managed a web of spy satellites and SIGINT stations around the world, and commanded a force of at least twenty-five thousand Spetsnaz commandos. These special operations units functioned much in the same way as the British Special Air Service or the American Delta Force. At the beginning of a war against NATO, Spetsnaz units imbedded in Western Europe would have activated these weapons caches, moved them to their targets and detonated them, crippling American forces.
In the 1990s, a number of former Soviet intelligence officials from both the KGB and the GRU came forward and revealed that high explosives and small arms were not the only things secreted away behind enemy lines. The defectors revealed the existence of small, man-portable nuclear weapons with yields of one to ten kilotons that could be detonated with only thirty minutes of preparation. “Suitcase nukes,” as they became popularly known, would have been the Soviet trump card in any Cold War conflict. Their explosive power was not nearly enough to obliterate a large metropolitan area like Paris or Brussels, but the devices packed enough punch that they would cause considerable devastation. GRU Spetsnaz operators placed the weapons near key ports and depots in Central Europe and command bunkers in the United Kingdom and France. Minutes after the order was given, NATO’s hierarchy would lay in a smoldering ruin and vast swaths of the North German Plain and the Rhine Valley would be showered in radioactive fallout. Moscow’s strategy would ensure that if communism could not have exclusive dominion over Europe, neither would any power. In World War II, the Soviets fought for years to seize valuable ground and cement their hold on the eastern half of the continent. For the next global confrontation, the Kremlin’s top thinkers sought to advance at a brisker pace.
And it is here that the story has its proper beginning.
In November of 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, not by exploding artillery shells or the overpressure of a thermonuclear warhead, but by the might of individual East Germans striving for the same rights and freedoms enjoyed by their families in the West. Over several whirlwind months, tens of thousands of East Germans poured down through the splintering Warsaw Pact to rejoin their relatives and reap the benefits of a free market society in the Federal German Republic. This created an unstoppable chain of events. The Iron Curtain — miles of razor wire and machine gun turrets constructed to keep the oppressed in rather than American GIs out — was now a redundant relic of a bygone occupation. There was neither a need nor a way to fight it anymore. The Soviet Bloc was coming down and it was only a matter of when rather than if. Cries for reunification came swiftly and soon Berliners stood atop the wall that had kept them apart for generations. The communist dream of a single Germany was realized, but not in the way its followers anticipated.
With the triumph of democracy in Europe, the Soviet Union now struggled to maintain its fragile empire of client states and withdrew its forces from the continent to maintain order at home. This new reality fell hard on many in the military and intelligence circles who recently witnessed defeat in Afghanistan at the hands of zealots dwelling in caves and now came to see their own domain, the Warsaw Pact, crumble before them. Yet few in the West understood the paranoia of Soviet intelligence officers, the lengths to which they went to further the Marxist cause, and their utter obsession over a showdown with the United States. To the GRU, still strong despite the gutting of the KGB and the dissolution of Soviet forces in Germany, a third world war was still, eventually, inevitable.
These officers had the means to ensure when that unavoidable confrontation erupted, Russia would keep the upper hand. Since the 1950s, protocol dictated that no single military branch or intelligence service held complete control over the Soviet Union’s vast nuclear arsenal. During the Cold War, this was accomplished in the field by the Red Army’s possession of mobile ICBM launchers and the KGB’s control of individual nuclear warheads. Yet the GRU’s small, man-portable atomic weapons had no such system of joint-ownership and the highly classified nature of their production, storage and deployment kept them free from oversight of arms reduction treaties. It was simply as if these weapons never existed, and it made them the perfect tool for an illegal operation outside of the Kremlin’s oversight.
On February 25th, 1990 — when most Soviet units were pulling back from the inner German border — a small Spetsnaz unit deployed under the cover of a raging blizzard into the dense overgrowth of Baden-Württemberg’s Black Forest with a mission to conceal what would be the GRU’s insurance policy. The forest’s location, a few kilometers from the French armored brigades poised on the opposite bank of the Rhine, or several hours’ drive on the A5 autobahn to the American military communities in Stuttgart and Heidelberg, provided a wealth of attack options should the GRU’s prophecy come to pass.
A small holiday cottage, one of dozens peppered among the snow-laden fir trees, was covertly purchased through the GRU residency at the Soviet embassy in East Berlin. The Spetsnaz operators arrived as the storm spun into its full fury. They posted sentries around the cottage, covered the windows with sheets of ply, and descended to the basement. A section of the brick wall was chiseled away and they excavated a cavity in the foundation just large enough to fit a watertight container approximately the size of a steamer trunk. Attached to the trunk by a set of wires was an antenna similar to the kind used by submarines to receive transmissions under the Arctic ice shelf, and a battery pack that maintained the integrity of the trunk’s plutonium-239 core and neutron generator. The one-kiloton RA-115 Atomic Demolition Munition was designed by its Soviet engineers to be neglected, and with a dry, temperate climate it could linger for years without maintenance. The Spetsnaz operators laid new bricks in the wall, entombing the trunk inside, and cleared away any trace of their passing.
And the bomb would sit for a quarter century while life above eased on, unsuspecting and ignorant of what slept just out of sight, ready and waiting.
"Timely, gripping, and unbelievably authentic…” Active Measures: Part I is available for purchase on Amazon.
Published by H-Hour Productions, LLC. Copyright © 2016 Matthew Fulton. All rights reserved.