Thankfully, one of the most horrific battles in human history never occurred. That horror was a Soviet invasion of Western Europe.
Frighteningly, such an invasion was a probability throughout the Cold War. Between 1945 and 1991, the Soviets maintained a massive military machine. The Soviet Red Army had 194 active Army divisions in 1984, the Red Army stationed 30 of those divisions in Eastern Europe and 65 in the Western Soviet Union.
One purpose of those divisions was to invade Western Europe. Late 20th Century popular culture (remember Red Dawn?) assumed Soviet forces could easily overwhelm Western armies.
Some horrific effects of a Soviet Invasion of Western Europe could have been.
Tens of Thousands of Russian soldiers could have been incinerated
On paper, Soviet ground forces were far more powerful than the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) armies. In particular, the Red Army’s tanks could crush almost any opposition.
However, NATO had a secret weapon that could have burned most of the Soviet War machine and tens of thousands of Soviet soldiers to a crisp. The weapon was napalm. Napalm is a flammable petroleum jelly that airplanes can easily drop.
During the Cold War, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and other NATO powers stockpiled enormous amounts of napalm. The plan was for those countries’ air forces to dump napalm on any invading Soviet Army. Hence, most of the Soviet tanks and infantry could have burned in the Fulda Gap long before they reached any West German town.
NATO’s commanders planned to unleash such an inferno on the Soviets. A single CH-47 plane of the US Air Force could drop two-and-half a tons of napalm, enough to burn dozens of tanks and hundreds of soldiers.
Napalm burns long and hot. One variety of Napalm B manufactured by the Dow Chemical company earned the name the Inextinguishable Fire in a 1969 documentary. Napalm was so horrific it led to protests during the Vietnam War. One reason Napalm was so controversial was that the US military used napalm intended for destroying Soviet tanks on Vietnamese peasants during the Vietnam War.
Napalm attacks could have been horrific because field hospitals could have been incapable of treating all the burned soldiers. Thousands of Russians could have died in terrible pain from napalm burns in Germany’s fields.
The Soviets’ best hope to stop the Napalm was to shoot down the Western air forces at the beginning of the war. Since that was unlikely, the Red Army could have faced an inferno that burned most of its soldiers and equipment up.
Ironically, NATO went to some lengths to keep its reliance on napalm a secret. For example, the British people did not realize Her Majesty’s military had napalm until the Torrey Canyon oil spill in 1967.
The Torrey Canyon was an oil tanker that broke apart off the coast of Wales in 1967. To stop oil from the ship from polluting beaches, the Royal Air Force (RAF) dropped napalm on the wreck to burn up the oil.
The napalming of the Torrey Canyon created a scandal in the UK because most Britons did not realize their government had napalm. Napalm was controversial because the US Air Force used it against civilians in Japan in World War II and Communist forces in the Korean War.
Napalm and NATO air power could have turned Eastern Europe into a giant version of the Highway of Death from the First Persian Gulf War in 1991. On the Highway of Death, US and other warplanes destroyed hundreds of Iraqi vehicles and killed hundreds of Iraqi soldiers s they tried to flee Kuwait.
Similar horrors could have seen in Western Europe if the Soviets retaliated by napalming NATO ground forces. Like their Russian counterparts, NATO ground forces could have little protection from aerial napalm attacks. Hence, a Soviet invasion could have turned Europe into a burning hell without nuclear weapons.
A simple petroleum jelly could have incinerated the mighty Red Army and changed the balance of power in Europe. Thus, napalm, jellied petroleum could have been more important than all the high-tech weaponry in the Cold War powers’ arsenals.
The Greatest Air Battle in History
Strangely, World War III in Europe could have resembled the Battle of Britain more than Stalingrad.
The conflict would have been an air battle between fighter planes. The prize was air supremacy and the ability to destroy the enemy’s ground forces.
Instead of fighting, Soviet and NATO troops would have sat around waiting for the fighter pilots to decide the battle. The closest thing to that in World War II was the Battle of Britain, where British soldiers watched helplessly as the RAF and the Luftwaffe decided the nation’s fate.
The Soviets had overwhelming ground superiority during the Cold War. However, Russian generals knew that superiority was meaningless because NATO had massive air power.
There were around 2,000 NATO warplanes; including 700 combat aircraft of the US Air Force in Europe in the 1980s. The US Air Force planned to reinforce those planes with 1,600 fighters from in North America in ten days, Air Force Magazine claims. Thus, NATO could have attacked Soviet forces with 3,600 fighter planes.
In total, the US Air Force had 3,700 fighters in the Cold War. NATO could also all upon hundreds of fighters from the US Navy and the Canadian Air Force. The result could have been what Air Force Magazine calls” the greatest air battle in history.” In the addition to the air forces, NATO armies had hundreds of attack helicopters that could destroy tanks and kill infantrymen.
Would the Soviets have been able to stop the NATO air assault? Fortunately, we will never know, but some modern historians think the Soviets had plans to retaliate early with nuclear weapons. To explain, some Russian generals believed the only way they could destroy NATO airpower was with nukes.
Rebellion in Eastern Europe?
The wild card in any Soviet attack on Western Europe was Eastern Europe. The Eastern Bloc, or Warsaw Pact, was a colonial empire ruled by Soviet-backed puppet governments.
Most Eastern Europeans, including most of the soldiers in the Eastern European soldiers, viewed the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe as illegitimate. Hence, the Eastern European armies were unreliable and a potential threat to the Soviets.
In a hypothetical World War III, the Soviets would have had to rely on their own army. East German, Polish, Hungarian, Czech, and Romanian soldiers were just as likely to turn their guns on their “Soviet allies” as NATO forces.
Mutinies or revolts in the Warsaw Pact forces were likely. The Soviets would have had to deploy thousands of soldiers to watch their so-called allies. The worst-case scenario would have been open fighting between Soviet and Eastern Bloc forces.
Fear of such revolts could have motivated the Soviet policy of an early nuclear strike. Soviet leaders feared a major revolt in Eastern Europe that could spread to parts of the Soviet Union in a prolonged war.
Why there was no Soviet Invasion of Western Europe
There was no Soviet invasion of Western Europe because Kremlin leaders understood the horrors the invasion could unleash.
The invasion could lead to either a catastrophic air battle the Soviets could lose or nuclear war. Either outcome could have led to the end of the Soviet Union. Hence, Communist leaders decided upon a strategy of Cold War rather than military confrontation.
The Cold War Strategy was workable because leaders on both sides understood the horrors a European conflict could unleash. Most of those leaders had either fought in World War II or witnessed it first hand. Hence, the Cold War leaders knew the stakes.
That should frighten us because most of today’s leaders have no experience of war or understanding of what all out war could mean. Remember, most of today’s leaders were born after World War II.
That makes today’s hysterical talk of Cold War II between the United States and the People’s Republic of China frightening. Hence, we need to look back and see how Soviet and NATO leaders avoided war in Europe during the Cold War. Lessons from a conflict that never was could help us keep the peace in today’s world.