I haven’t often written about my own military experience on this site, but I thought I might update this old post to explain a little of what we used to do in the Cold War.
I got posted to Germany in June of 1988 with the Second Armored Cavalry Regiment (2ACR) and the border was the reason I had requested the posting. It was one of only a few places in the Army at that time that had a real readiness rating to keep things fixed and running as if the balloon might go up at any time (Korea being the other main one). 2ACR had a long lineage of distinguished service going back to the Seminole Indian Wars in 1836 and they had retained that strong history after World War II by assuming the front line against the Russians and the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War. A lot more of 2ACR’s history can be found here.
When discussing my border service, it is important to point out that I am speaking of the frontier border of West Germany and not the border in Berlin. Everyone assumes you mean Berlin when you speak of the Cold War border, but the frontier border was the long border between NATO member, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG or West Germany), and the Warsaw Pact members of Czechoslovakia and the German Democratic Republic (DDR or East Germany). Even more specifically, the 2ACR was responsible for the Bavarian (FRG state) border from Austria to a point near Bad Konigshofen, west of Coburg, FRG. In Germany (east and west), the border followed the historical borders of Bavaria with Saxony and Thuringia. The border with the then Czechoslovakia (modern day Czech Republic), Bavaria bordered the Karlovy Vary, Plzen and South Bohemia regions. The 11th ACR had the next, northern, stretch of the Thuringia border with Bavaria and Hesse until it met the British sector in the far North.
For US Army forces, the border was split between the 2d ACR in the south and the 11th ACR in the north.
Significance of the NATO Frontier Border
The reason this area was so important to NATO in the Cold war was that the Fulda Gap in 11ACR sector and, to a lesser degree, the Meiningen and Hof Gaps in the 2ACR sector provided the most likely avenues of approach for a Soviet thrust into West Germany. NATO believed it could win a drawn out conventional war, but feared a deep Soviet thrust into the FRG that would so rattle the NATO allies that it could not be overcome. Therefore, the thin line of hyper-alert cavalry regiments along the most likely avenues of approach seemed to provide the best chance of detecting potential Soviet movements and moving quickly enough to stem the tide. Those of us who manned this border often, only half-jokingly, referred to ourselves as the world’s most effective speed bumps.
The Physical Border and the Make-Up of the NATO Frontier Border
The border when I was there had quietened down from its worst times of the 1940s through the 1970s. Events such as the Berlin airlift, the 1st Russian nuclear weapon, the space race, the Berlin Wall and Vietnam kept NATO and the Warsaw Pact faced off at high alert. However, there were still sectors of heavily mined fence zones until the early 80s. Particularly gruesome were the automatically triggered “shotgun” mines that were placed at different heights on the fence and had a 25 meter blast radius. Even until the end of 1989, the fences and walls were formidable obstacles to civilians trying to escape. And, if there was any doubt what the border was designed for, one need only look at who built the fences and what they were designed to do.
US Cavalry Patrols
We had variable schedules and tiered configurations for patrolling the border in the 2ACR sector. At any given time, a Troop (company) from each of the 3 ground Squadrons (battalions) would occupy a border camp(s) in their assigned portion along the whole Regiment’s sector. Each camp had a camp duty officer (usually one of the Troops platoon leaders) who was responsible for all operations in that camp’s area of operations. Each camp would be on 3 levels of readiness. 1st, several patrols a day, usually led by Sergeants, would keep up a presence on the border. 2nd, a reaction force would be ready to roll extra patrols or the whole reaction platoon and its armored vehicles to a border section within 15 minutes. 3rd, the whole troop could muster and be ready to move within an hour.
During my time there, it was not common to have major issues on the border, but each patrol would normally spot our opposite number on the ground on the other side of the border. Of course, the towers were usually manned. We sometimes saw Russians, but normally we saw East German troops.
The patrols were conducted in HMMWVs (Hummers) or Mercedes 300 series SUVs normally, but also on foot inserted by trucks or helicopters. In the winter, it was not unheard of to patrol on nordic skis. Additionally, the 2ACR’s 4th Squadron of helicopters, kept up a routine of over-flights along the border.
High Tension Events
Very occasionally, we would have an event that would warrant a heightened state of alert. Some of these would be a Soviet aircraft tracking or pacing a Regimental aircraft which was considered aggressive. Other issues, would be observed alerts on the other side of the border or the most anticipated of all events, an International Border Crossing (IBC). About once a quarter, some east German would make it across the heavily fortified area and make it to freedom. These were normally co-ordinated through family members in West Germany and the FRG agencies (Zoll, Grenze Polizei or Bundesgrenzshutz (BGS)). The Regiment never caught an IBC whilst I was there, but there were always stories of some old Sergeant somewhere who had helped an IBC across the border back in the 1960s or 70s.
We won! Eventually. Which is the only good news. I was on the border, the day it fell. That afternoon, I went out to the road crossing to see the spectacle. There were miles of Trabants lining up to enter West Germany. In the years following the fall of the eastern bloc, I’ve had occasion to speak to East Germans, but mostly Czechs and Poles. They had a very hard life during the time I was enjoying all of the western treats a kid from Kentucky gets in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. I wish we had won a lot earlier. I have now also traveled extensively through Poland, East Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia and the Baltic states. They are still recovering a sense of self and creating lives that they can be happy with. If you are ever tempted to say they had it better in some areas than we in the West did, I suggest you go and talk to a few more of them…. you’re sample size may be limited.
I am very proud of my service on the border and I hope we continue to look back on it with pride for many generations.
Take a ride, hike and/or drive in the Frankenwald Park in northeastern Bavaria near Hof, Germany and go to Mödlareuth to get a good feel for what the area was like during the Cold War. 27 years on, the vestiges of the border are fading, but at Mödlareuth there is an open air museum to commemorate the time.