Home Forums Modern It Didn't Happen, Thankfully, But If It Had…?

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    Avatar photoDan Kennedy

    My reply in another thread (that I expected Soviet forces in a war with NATO would have simply overwhelmed them on the ground) got me wondering about why I think that.

    When I was a budding and not-yet-medically-discharged (fell very badly down a hill at Catterick, long story) wannabe Fusilier in the early 90’s, I met a number of what I suppose we would now call ‘Cold War Veterans’, who painted a less than rosy picture of the likely outcome of such a war. The general supposition was that the Sov’s would open with at the least a massive chemical bombardment and likely a tactical nuclear one, and that would be that. Some of the more optimistic felt that it might stay non-nuclear for up to a week or even ten days, but at that point if no one was willing to talk the nukes would be used by one side and then the other.

    As a youngster in the 80’s I’d believed firmly that NATO technological superiority and especially air power would decisively beat the Pact, and it came as a shock to me to hear things that undermined this. For example, I heard tales of M109’s in POMCUS sites which would’ve blown their seals on the first round fired, and more than one person suggested that BAOR realistically had about two days of ammunition, given how they reckoned we would go through it. Porton Down cheerfully estimated life expectancy on the front line in minutes. There were many other tales like that, all painting a picture of NATO forces likely to be smashed to pieces in a day or two.


    Over the years I’ve thought a lot about it. I came to the conclusion that we would’ve lost quickly, even without the use of nuclear weapons, because I thought the ground war would be over before the air war could have any effect, especially if chem was dropped all over the airfields. Soviet subs (helped by Walker) seemed likely to have wreaked havoc in the Atlantic, and the whole thing would’ be done long before seaborne Reforger could reach continental Europe.

    It’s hard for me to imagine a general conflagration in Europe between Pact and NATO that didn’t start or at least end nuclear. Maybe I’m pessimistic, but everything I’ve read indicates that both sides were willing to use them, and if we’ve been able to come disturbingly close to actual nuclear war in peacetime, then the possibility of such events in a hot war are – to my mind – very likely. However, I’d like to ask the group mind on TWW to envisage just such a state of war, where somehow no one shoots nukes and it stays conventional/chemical (I think the idea that them wouldn’t  be used is too far-fetched!). Under such circumstances, does anyone disagree with me? Does anyone think it would be possible for NATO to hold ground long enough for their strengths to show and gradually erode Pact superiority of numbers?

    I think the ‘nightmare scenario’ – of an attack from barracks, total tactical, operational and even strategic surprise, would have Russian being spoken in Calais and Madrid within a week or two; only some measure of preparedness would allow NATO any chance at all. But I’m keen to hear others thoughts? It’s fair to say that the forthcoming release of Red Storm: The Air War Over Central Germany 1987, is another factor that’s piqued my interest in this, very interested to get a copy whenever it comes out.


    Avatar photoNorm S

    In 1981, the ‘cold war’ was still decidedly chilly and I think a lot of young men thought that there was at least some prospect of conflict.

    Against that background, Sir General John Hackett put out a book called The Third World War. It is a superb read because, it was written at that time when this tension was real and it was written by someone who had substantial insight into military capability and threat.

    It gives a most believable account of the first weeks of war. Oddly enough, I checked Amazon a few hours ago to see whether it has  been Kindled (it hasn’t), because I am looking at the game MBT by GMT.

    There was a follow-up book called The Untold Story.

    I think those that read it at the time (me) were struck by its almost prophetic quality.

    Avatar photoDarkest Star Games

    Many moons ago I spoke with a friends father-in-law whom was a Soviet General back in the day, and he actually told me that the Soviets would only have gone nuclear if it appeared that NATo was going to deliberately target the political leadership with nukes, mostly because they knew that no one could live in a post nuke world, even if it was limited or tactical strikes.  They had studies that showed even limited tactical nuke use would pretty much screw the whole world up, and they’d rather that NATO won a conventional war than force doom upon even their own people.  Not to mention that they also knew that both sides NBC protection/survival and decontamination protocols were crap and that troops would be useless pretty quickly in a radioactive environment.  To quote him “we were all measuring our d*cks, and realizing they were all far too short to work right.”  That sort of quote sticks in your head!

    "I saw this in a cartoon once, but I'm pretty sure I can do it..."

    Avatar photoJohn D Salt

    I was in an IS battalion in the TA in the late 70s, so my job (for which I trained in desultory fashion some Thursday evenings) would not have been stopping the Soviet juggernaut, but killing Spetsnaz reidoviks, shooting food rioters, and helping to sort out the mess after the instant sunshine, if any.

    In 1980 I spent a few weeks in what was then Leningrad, and then did a couple of years in a University OTC, a fairly amateurish way of playing at soldiers even by TA standards.

    Before I went to Leningrad, my opinion, which was popular at the time, was that although the Russians were not ten feet tall, they were going to take a hell of a lot of stopping if they rolled over the IGB, and we might not be able to carry it off. After a few weeks experiencing Russian culture first-hand, I changed my opinion completely, concluding that we would hand them their head on a plate if they were mug enough to try anything, and our main foreign policy objective should not be defending ourselves against the imaginary Communist Menace, but rather helping the Soviet Union go down the pan, as it inevitably would, with as little fuss and bother as possible.

    With my wargamerly head on, the situation on the Central Front was always interesting, because each side had its own strengths and weaknesses.

    The Sovs had mass on their side only really for armour and artillery. NATO had them outnumbered in personnel, tactical nukes, and deliverable weight of air-to-mud ordnance. NATO availability and sortie rates would have been considerably better than the Sovs’; the Sovs, on the other hand, could move like a greased weasel out of barracks at no notice, and one suspected might well arrive at BAOR’s active edge positions before BAOR itself did. NATO logistics would be complicated by the Russian subs in the Altantic, although our ASW would thrash them eventually. Warpac logistics would be complicated by their heavy reliance on railways, and the fact that NATO tac air would thump the railways very hard indeed.

    Since our TA battalion was really very good indeed at NBCD, I wasn’t worried about CW short of nerve gases, as back the we hadn’t had demonstrations of the fact that they are not much more tactically useful than other CW. Their main effect is to gum things up, which is not what you want in a lightning advance. Tactical nukes would have made life interesting, if short, but as we had more of them, and better, I expected NATO to be the first to use them, which wouldn’t be necessary unless we were losing badly.

    With my Russian cultural hat on, I concluded that the Russians wanted a war even less than we did, and that, in the great tradition of the Potyomkin Village, they had puffed themselves up to look enormously threatening on a fraction of the economic strength of the combined NATO nations. We, being mugs, fell for it. Ordinary Russians wouldn’t want to fight in a war of aggression (though I’m sure they would fight like the devil if defending their motherland). Russian leaders had enough to worry about dealing with discontent from Poles, Hungarians, East Germans, Ukrainians and dissident Russians, without taking on a bunch more rebellious West Germans, Belgians, Netherlanders, Danes or French by invading their countries. All Russians were aware from the Great Patriotic War what all-out war really means, and they didn’t want it. They did, however, have the nervous feeling that some NATO countries — especially the English-speaking ones that haven’t been invaded recently — were a good deal more cavalier about it. And I think they all had sufficient self-awareness to realise that, while Russians make superb strategic thinkers, excellent bluffers, and extraordinarily tough soldiers, under the Soviet system they really couldn’t organise the proverbial celebration in a brewery.

    All the best,


    Avatar photoPatrice

    The official French doctrine at the time was that French tactical nukes (Pluton missiles …which would have fallen in West Germany) would be used if the Soviet forces threatened to cross the French border on the Rhine. It’s impossible to say if they would actually have been fired in this case, but they were relied upon.

    On the other hand, as John said (and with my Russian cultural hat on too) I always thought that the USSR never wanted a war or to invade Western Europe.  The bureaucracy in Moscow didn’t want anything that could threaten its power and they certainly hated the uncertainity of what a large war could bring.


    Avatar photoMaff Sparkes

    I was in the 6th form in the very early 80s and a few of us tried to take an interest in defence. We had a lot of ultra hawks who were born again MAD believers and a few like me who knew we needed a deterrent but also thought we needed solid conventional stuff so as to delay what I now know as the “instant sunshine”.

    I say that because I was one of the few in my group that didn’t think the Soviets really wanted war – I wasn’t sure why and the posts above set it out better. It wasn’t a commonly held position tbh!

    I always presumed there’d be a few days of conventional followed by escalating use of tactical nukes to try to block a gap.

    Bluntly I wasn’t optimistic and it looks like the professionals weren’t either.



    Avatar photoDan Kennedy

    I certainly don’t think they Sov’s wanted a war, and a large part of their doctrine I’m sure revolved around the idea of making us believe that they would annihilate us with nukes straight away if it kicked off. Conventionally I believe that if they had done the total strategic surprise thing they woulds’ve, as John Salt avers, been sitting in our fighting positions, bombing our airfields and sinking our ships before we had our boots on, and NATO would never have recovered from that; in many ways that was their main weapon, they were set up to deliver such a shocking first strike, even conventionally, that we had no hope of defeating.

    If NATO could somehow have withstood the initial onslaught then it’s quite possible it could’ve turned the tide.

    The two big ‘what-ifs’ to me were always a) whether the Warsaw Pact itself would hold together. I’ve met enough Polish guys over the years to make me think Poland would simply take the opportunity to settle scores with Russia, and b) how long would the ammo last?

    Avatar photowillz

    In 1981, the ‘cold war’ was still decidedly chilly and I think a lot of young men thought that there was at least some prospect of conflict. Against that background, Sir General John Hackett put out a book called The Third World War. It is a superb.

    Agree with Norm “General sir John  Hackett’s” book is an excellent read and would be a good reference and starting point for any wargame off the 1980’s.

    For several years I was a chemical biological and nuclear warfare instructor for the Royal Navy / army and our armed forces are very good at this subject. Fighting in full CBRN equipment is taxing and tiring, however its all about routine, practice and confidence in he use of your equipment.

    Avatar photoMaff Sparkes

    I remember reading about Gen Keegan (?) and “the Rhine in 48 hours from a barracks start” in the “news” page of iirc “battle for wargamers” – which is where I learnt about Milan, making me the anti-tank expert in the school “intelligence cell” 🙂

    I think that if NATO could have held, the stresses on the WAR PACT would have taken a huge toll. The problem would have been getting through the first 72 hours. And in that sense the question of how long the bullets and missiles would have lasted is vital.

    Whats even more important was how long the NATO soldiers would have lasted?



    Avatar photoRussell Phillips

    I was a teenager in the 1980s. The conventional wisdom at the time seemed to be that Soviet soldiers wouldn’t be willing to fight a war of aggression, and NATO technology would win out over Warsaw Pact numbers. I wasn’t convinced by either of these arguments.

    For the first, I always assumed that if the Soviet Union did initiate a war, the Soviet people (and especially the soldiers) wouldn’t know that. Their media would be full of stories about how the Western Imperialists had attacked again, just as they had in 1941.

    Secondly, I saw parallels with the later years of the Second World War. German equipment and vehicles are generally considered superior to Allied equivalents, but the Allies had numerical superiority. There were other reasons for the Allied victory, of course, but that parallel made me uneasy.

    I still think the first point is one that many people don’t give enough consideration. My brother-in-law was convinced that the footage of the Tiananmen Square protests would lead to an uprising that would bring down the Chinese communist party. I pointed out that the Chinese would see very different news coverage. I don’t know why the uprising didn’t happen, but I’ll bet very few Chinese saw the iconic footage of the man that blocked tanks.

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    Avatar photoMaff Sparkes

    I can’t say I ever thought the Soviet troops wouldn’t fight; if anything I presumed the Warsaw Pact was a solid cohesive unit. Looking back it seems likely that the reliability of the non Russian elements depended on who they were facing and how many Russians were around to keep them in line.

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