It is difficult today to remember that at the height of the Cold War the possibility of Communist hordes pouring across Central Europe was a very real threat. For four decades Europe stood on the brink of the Third World War, thanks to the heavily-armed standoff between the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact. Thankfully it was the war that never was. The Cold War became a historical footnote, sandwiched between the Second World War and the conflicts of the early twenty-first century. It is one of those intriguing ‘what ifs?’ of history.
Washington never allowed its NATO allies to forget the extent of the Soviet threat. Annually throughout the 1980s the US Department of Defense published its Soviet Military Power, which catalogued Moscow’s strategic aspirations and its latest military developments. Anyone reading it was left feeling that war was imminent and woe betide NATO if it was not ready.
By the mid-1980s the Cold War was at its height, with a conventional and nuclear standoff across Europe divided by the Iron Curtain. As part of its forward defence Moscow deployed armies in Eastern Europe with the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany, the Northern Group in Poland, the Southern Group in Hungary and the Central Group in Czechoslovakia. This not only guarded against NATO but also ensured none of the other Warsaw Pact members could defect. These forces were used to stop a repeat of the anti-Soviet uprising in East Germany of 1953, the Hungarian Revolt of 1956 and the Prague Spring of 1968. The following year the Soviet armed forces were involved in a Sino-Soviet border conflict and in 1979 became embroiled in a ten-year struggle in Afghanistan.
After the Second World War with tensions mounting between the Western allies and the Soviets, Berlin remained divided between the American, British and French sectors that made up West Berlin and the Soviet sector that occupied the east. This resulted in the Soviet blockade of West Berlin from June 1948 to May 1949. In response the Allies organised the Berlin airlift and war in Europe was only narrowly avoided. However, the Cold War went hot around the world, most notably in 1950 with the conflict in Korea.
The Warsaw Pact of 1955 brought together eight communist states in Central and Eastern Europe. Moscow argued the pact was a defensive move in light of West Germany being allowed into NATO. The reality was that it bound Eastern Europe’s militaries to the Soviet armed forces. The Soviet Union was divided into military districts, with the key ones being the Baltic, Leningrad, Moscow and Kiev. By this stage the Soviet ground forces consisted of over 200 divisions, down from 500 at the end of the Second World War.
Not only did the Soviets have the numbers, they also had a vast array of weaponry. If there was one thing the Soviet Union was particularly good at it was building tanks. Since the mid-1950s Soviet-designed tanks dominated every single conflict right up until the 1991 Gulf War. Two designs in particular proved to be Moscow’s most reliable workhorses – these are the T-54 and T-62 main battle tanks (MBTs). They are direct descendants of the Soviet Union’s war-winning T-34 and Joseph Stalin tanks. They drew on the key characteristics of being easy to mass-produce, extremely robust and easy to use. As a result they were ideal for the less-well educated armies of the developing world. Having been inside a Czech-built T-54 I can testify that they are certainly no-frills tanks. The finish is not good and there are no creature comforts – clearly a legacy from the Spartan conditions inside the T-34. Nonetheless, they did the job that was required of them.
The scale of Soviet armour manufacturing at its height was immense. The tank plant at Nizhniy Tagil was supported by at least three other key tank factories at Kharkov, Omsk and Chelyabinsk, while other armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) were manufactured at seven different sites. In the 1980s the Soviets were producing approximately 9,000 tanks, self-propelled guns and armoured personnel carriers/infantry fighting vehicles (APCs/IFVs) a year. The Soviet Union’s East European Warsaw Pact allies managed another 2,500.
Moscow sent almost 8,000 tanks and self-propelled guns and over 14,000 APCs/IFVs to the developing world during that decade alone. In effect they exported two and a half years’ worth of production. The Soviets’ ability to manufacture such vast numbers of tanks meant that on at least two occasions they were able to save Arab armies from complete disaster at the hands of the Israelis.
By the 1980s Moscow had a staggering 52,600 tanks and 59,000 APCs in its active inventory, with another 10,000 tanks and APCs in storage. After the Warsaw Pact force-reduction talks in Eastern Europe, in 1990 Moscow agreed to withdraw 10,000 tanks and destroy half of these without batting an eyelid. Warsaw Pact members also agreed to cut tank numbers by almost 3,000. At the same time the Soviets began to field newer tanks such as the T-64B, T-72M1 and the T-80, while retiring older-model T-54/55s and T-62s. They also improved their IFV forces by fielding large numbers of the tracked BMP-2 as well as improving the earlier BMP-1. The net result was a huge surplus of wheeled AFVs available to the developing world.
The British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) was once part of the bulwark that helped protect Western Europe from the threat posed by the Soviet groups of forces stationed across Eastern Europe and their Warsaw Pact allies. At the height of the Cold War BAOR, serving with NATO’s northern army group, represented the largest concentration of ground forces in the British Army. It consisted of the isolated Berlin Independent Brigade and the 1st British Corps in West Germany. HQ BAOR was based at Rheindahlen while HQ 1 (BR) Corps was at Bielefeld, commanding three divisions.
The fate of the American, British and French garrisons in West Berlin had the Cold War gone hot would have been certain. It is likely that the Warsaw Pact would have first cut them off and then overwhelmed them. But this never came to pass, however; West Germany and East Germany along with the two halves of Berlin were reunited on 3 October 1990. The following year the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War came to an end.
While the Cold War resulted in an armed standoff either side of the Iron Curtain, Moscow actively supported the spread of Communism, elsewhere most notably in Korea and Vietnam. Tanks with one previous owner, no strings attached (except when that previous owner happened to be the Soviet Union, there were always strings attached). The fact that the tank was ancient, would not meet your operational requirements and leave you heavily indebted to Moscow did little to deter many developing countries desperate for huge quantities of weapons. From the Horn of Africa to Central America, the Soviet T-55 and T-62 MBTs became as ubiquitous as the Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle.
Although the two Superpowers were cautious about coming into direct confrontation, this did not prevent indirect meddling elsewhere in the world. On the periphery, the Cold War became very hot and on a number of occasions almost sparked war in Europe. Time after time Moscow was able to make good its allies’ massive losses. The Soviets conducted a substantial re-supply of Syria in 1982–3 following their military losses in Lebanon. Major re-supply also took place in 1977–9 in support of Ethiopia in its clash with Somalia and during the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1967 and 1973. Prior to that they conducted airlift operations in 1967–8 in support of a republican faction in North Yemen.
At the height of the Cold War the Soviet Union exported billions of dollars’ worth of arms to numerous developing countries. Intelligence analysts watched with a mixture of alarm and awe as cargo ship after cargo ship sailed from Nikolayev in Ukraine stacked to the gunnels to ports such as Assab in Ethiopia, Luanda in Angola, Tartus in Syria and Tripoli in Libya. Much of this equipment came from strategic reserves and was very old or had been superseded by newer models, as in the case of the T-55 and T-62 MBTs, which were all but obsolete by then. Soviet armoured vehicle exports also included the 4×4 wheeled BTR-60 APC and the tracked BMP-1 IFV.
In many cases Soviet weapon shipments were funded through generous loans, barter-deals or simply gifted, and Moscow’s arms industries rarely saw a penny in return. The net result was that during the Cold War Moscow fuelled a series of long-running regional conflicts that lasted for decades. Ultimately the West was to spend the Soviet Union into oblivion, but the legacy of the Cold War was one of global misery.