The Third World War – North German plain or Fulda Gap?

In reading about the possible land battles that might have ensued in a Third World War in Europe, I’ve found an interesting parallel with the Schlieffen Plan of 1914 and the Manstein Plan of 1940.

General Sir John Hackett, in his book The Third World War, predicted that the main Warsaw Pact thrust would come through the North German Plain. A strong Soviet thrust from northern East Germany would have fell upon NATO’s Northern Army Group, cut off Denmark and effectively sealed the Baltic. There were also fewer natural obstacles in the area, and an advance in the north would have allowed the Warsaw Pact to avoid more difficult terrain in the south and also outflank US forces in central and southern Germany. NATO forces would have been hamstrung by a need to defend as much German territory as possible, but would almost inevitably have had to fall back to soak up the Soviet advance. A strong advance along the North Sea Coast might have cut occupied Holland and possibly threatened channel ports such as Rotterdam and Antwerp. This would in turn have threatened NATO lines of communications, especially for Britain.

An attack along the North German Plain to outflank NATO forces in Europe would have been very similar to both the Schlieffen Plan in terms of a northern advance through easier territory, but also the Manstein Plan in terms of outflanking a Maginot line like obstacle. It also shows a more British-like thinking, with a policy of attacking the point of least resistance. Remember also that in September 1944 Montgomery wanted to attack the North German Plain, only in the opposite direction.

US strategists, on the other hand, seem to have focussed on the Fulda Gap, a low-lying and open plain between the East German border and Frankfurt. A thrust through the Fulda Gap would have been in the centre of the front-line of Cold War Europe. An attack near Fulda would have met the bulk of the US Army in Germany head on, and given that the US provided most of the forces in the theatre a defeat there would have been catastrophic to the rest of NATO. A Fulda Gap operation would have been more in line with US military thinking, namely a strong frontal attack against the bulk of the enemy’s forces.

Both options, however, would have been hampered by pressing concerns on the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact. Given the numerical weakness of the NATO armies, it was assumed that the US would use nuclear weapons on targets in Poland and East Germany to disrupt reinforcements reaching the front-line. Therefore the Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces would need to reach as far as possible as quickly as possible before this might happen. Some Soviet exercises, such as Seven Days to the Rhine, assumed that the Rhine would be the limit of the advance before the communist forces were forced to halt.

Its an interesting dilemma indeed. Thinking as a Soviet General in the 1980’s, I must admit the North German Plain looks inviting. Less natural obstacles, weaker opposition, the possibility of cutting off Denmark and the Baltic and reaching the North Sea and Channel Coast quicker, isolating the British Army of the Rhine and outflanking the bulk of US in Europe would have been pretty appealing. But then maybe thats too predictable? On the other hand, it does seem that NATO thinking – always led by an American, remember – saw the Fulda Gap as the most likely route, followed by the North German plain.

I’m sure its a scenario that war game enthusiasts have played out many a time…



Filed under Army, cold war

47 responses to “The Third World War – North German plain or Fulda Gap?

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    First Clash is the book you need. Beloved of war games and the counter-factual fan (such as myself.)


    Ok to know when; better to know why; best to ask what if? !!!

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