Reviewing The “History” Of Team Yankee – Part Two: Opposing Armies

September 4, 2017 by oriskany

Welcome back, Beasts of War, to our continuing look at the background of Battlefront’s Team Yankee wargame. In this series, community member Ben Collins (@benc) and I are exploring what a Third World War in 1980s Europe might have actually looked like, and how these factors might play into a 15mm wargaming table.

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In Part One we introduced the project, and look a hard look at the actual books that the Team Yankee wargame is based on. Obviously, this was Harold Coyle’s Team Yankee novel, but also The Third World War: August 1985 by General Sir John Hackett. This is the larger world in which the Team Yankee novel (and game) take place.

So let’s climb in our armoured command vehicle and take to the field, and take a look at the actual armies facing each other in this greatest war that never was.

NATO Forces

BenC Reviews Strengths & Weaknesses

The common perception of NATO’s biggest strength was its technological edge over the Warsaw Pact. When discussing the technological aspects of weapon systems it is perhaps more correct to refer to Soviet or Russian equipment rather than the wider Warsaw Pact forces. Despite the bonds of fraternal socialism and the wide export of equipment, the Russians kept the best technological advancements for their own forces.

During the 1980’s the technological edge that NATO held was initially slipping as a new generation of Soviet systems came online. New systems and equipment such as Chobham armour (a British invention shared with NATO allies), aircraft like the F-16 Falcon, and a host of smart weapons helped NATO to pull ahead once again by the mid-1980s.

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NATO’s biggest weakness was and still remains, that it is a military alliance dependant on political cohesion between its member states. During the 1980s NATO comprised of sixteen nations, each its own sovereign state with a government whose main concerns were ultimately domestic.

The political will of NATO to engage in a fully mechanised and industrialised modern war in Europe has always been in question. Contemporary campaigns have shown the casualty adverse nature of Western society.

Another obvious weakness for NATO was that its strongest member was separated from Europe by some 3500 miles of Atlantic Ocean. A reinforcement plan existed known as the Return of Forces to Germany (REFORGER), but whilst men can be flown across an ocean the heavy equipment, such as tanks, must be ferried by ship.

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This would have led to a third Battle of the Atlantic as submarines once again would be pitted against convoys.

NATO Order Of Battle

Oriskany Reviews The Troops

NATO is an interesting “faction” in a hypothetical World War III because it’s an alliance of many nations, and so gives players a wide range of choices for their armies and games. In the initial stages of a 1985 war in West Germany, we’re looking at West Germans, Dutch, Belgians, Danes, British, Americans, and possibly French.

During the 1980s, the West German border was defended by this “coalition army,” the line divided into corps areas. Furthest to the north we have West German / Danish Corps, a mixed force of German “Bundeswehr” (Federal Army) and Danish forces (with mostly German and American equipment), covering the line north of the Elbe River.

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Next, we see the Dutch Corps (three mechanized infantry divisions), responsible for a sector extending back toward Bremen. These divisions each had an integral armoured battalion of German Leopard main battle tanks. Whether a particular division has Leopard 1s or the much better Leopard 2s depends on exactly when your “battle” takes place.

The West German I Corps is next, followed by the British I Corps and the Belgian I Corps, covering a broad area encompassing Hannover, Kassel, and Bonn (the capital of West Germany). The Germans, of course, transitioned from the Leopard 1 to the Leopard 2 during the 1980s, which still serves as one of the best main battle tanks in the world.

The British, meanwhile, were soldiering on with the Chieftain tank. Although one of the most powerful MBTs when introduced in the 1960s, by the 1980s the Chieftain was becoming a bit long in the tooth. A superb “Challenger I” tank was on the way, but in the mid-1980s I don’t think these had arrived yet in battalion-level field service.

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The Belgian Corps was lightly armoured. Even in 1989, their 1st and 16th Divisions were outfitted with Leopard I tanks, “Jagdpanzer Kanone” tank destroyers from the 1960s, and a mix of American-made M113 APCs. They did have solid infantry units, armed with “Milan” missiles and transitioning to the Scorpion and Scimitar family of APCs.

The southern half of West Germany, meanwhile, was defended by two West German corps (III and II) and two American corps (V and VII). With huge military budgets during the Reagan Years, these two American corps (especially the VII) were absolute juggernauts, lavishly outfitted with expensive military equipment.

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The main American tank at the time (as well all know) was the M1 Abrams. Yet in Team Yankee we see it still armed only the L7/M68 105mm rifled gun the British had been putting in Centurions since the 1960s. This was also the same gun we see in the Leopard I and M60A3, making the Abrams clearly under-gunned for the 1980s battlefield.

Fortunately, the Americans soon switched this out for the new German Rheinmetall 120mm smoothbore gun being installed in the Leopard 2. This, combined with a very fast (if uneconomical) engine and British-designed “Chobham” armour, finally made the M1A1 Abrams the tank it was always intended to be.

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These were just the initial line of forces. In the event of a Warsaw Pact invasion, further American, British, and Canadian divisions were “pre-staged” to be brought in as quickly as possible. These deployment protocols were practised over and over through the “Reforger” (Return of Forces to Germany) exercises of the 1960s-90s.

Warsaw Pact Forces

BenC Reviews Strengths & Weaknesses

It can be argued that the Warsaw Pact’s biggest strength was its greater political cohesion compared to NATO. Where the Soviet Union led, its allies would follow. This said Eastern Europe had seen its share of uprisings and Soviet tanks had been used on those streets.

The Solidarity movement, formed in the Polish shipyards in 1980, became the first organisation in the Warsaw Pact to openly have anti-communist ideals. In the wider view, however, the Warsaw Pact was arguably the stronger political body.

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One overlooked strength of the Warsaw Pact was the “Operational Art.” The Soviets had a strong, well-considered warfighting doctrine developed from an ethos that encouraged forward thinking and innovation at the operational level.

This doctrine embraced combined arms and the notion of the deep battle using air assault forces and was undoubtedly ahead of NATO. In the event of a war, the Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces could have established and maintained the initiative through these doctrines.

The most obvious strength for the Warsaw Pact was their numerical advantage. However, putting that to one side we must recognise that the Warsaw Pact can move many of its central reserves rapidly by road, rail and air (i.e., not across the Atlantic). This would allow the Warsaw Pact to reinforce more easily than NATO under REFORGER.

The Warsaw Pact had its weaknesses, too. Since its formation and through to the 1960s the Warsaw Pact was more of a tool in East-West diplomacy than a military alliance. The Warsaw Pact was much more reliant on the Soviet forces than the European NATO allies ever were on the US.

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The Soviets retained the best equipment for their own formations and supplied the Warsaw Pact allies with export versions that did not provide the same combat effectiveness. The T-72 provides a good example. For instance, the export version of the T-72, known as the T-72M, lacks the composite armour of the Soviet T-72 which substantially reduces its survivability.

Despite the numerical advantage, the Soviet forces relied on conscription. This had men under arms for a comparatively short period of time; this can be considered a factor in the overall simplicity of Soviet equipment compared to NATO equipment.

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In western armies, the burden of tactical command tends to fall upon the Senior NCO, however in the Soviet forces that equivalent burden would fall to the small officer corps. There was a noticeable lack of tactical freedom and initiative at the lower levels of the Soviet command structure, hence the greater reliance on following doctrines.

Warsaw Pact Order of Battle

Oriskany Crosses “Over The Hill”

The Warsaw Pact forces facing NATO through most of the 1980s can be divided into a few major categories. These are GSFG (Group of Soviet Forces in Germany), follow on Soviet ground armies staged in Poland or the Soviet Union, and allied armies like East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Rumania.

The GSFG was by far the largest of these components. Comprised mostly of “Category I” divisions (Soviets grouped their divisions into Category I, II, and III classifications), they were armed with the best equipment available, usually at least one generation ahead of their allies. Category II and III were reserve units, again with older equipment.

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One of the biggest debates (which Battlefront seems to be addressing with their latest releases) is what kind of tanks the Soviets should have. I may catch some grief here, but the fact is that by 1985 the main Soviet battle tank should be the T-80 or the T-64, not the T-72.

Please remember that the Team Yankee novel is in fact based on Hackett’s TTWW, originally envisioned in the mid-70s when the T-72 was first coming out. At the time, NATO analysts believed that the T-72 was slated to become the next Soviet MBT. In fact, this was never the case, the T-72 was meant for export to Soviet allies around the world.

Then, when the T-80 started coming out, early versions of the T-80 were mistaken for T-72 upgrades. Meanwhile, Hackett had published TTWW (which features huge armies of Soviet T-72s), then Coyle published Team Yankee in the “world” presented by Hackett.

I give Battlegroup full credit for sticking true to the Team Yankee source material. Furthermore, they seem to be addressing this gap with the T-64 included in “Red Thunder” expansion. In this set, the T-64 is actually better in the game than the T-72, which is exactly how it should be.

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The T-72 does see limited use in the actual Soviet Army…support and HQ units, for example. Also, some regiments fielded T-72s in Czechoslovakia and home garrison units. And of course, T-72s should definitely be used in Polish, Czech, and East German divisions. But the “spearhead” Soviet tank divisions should be using T-80s or T-64s.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this instalment. We may have stirred up some opinions here, but a discussion is always one of the big objectives for these articles. How do you build your NATO and Warsaw Pact armies? What new units would you like to see? Are you participating in the Red Thunder campaign? Let us know in the comments!

By @oriskany@benc

If you liked this article and want to know more about the history behind Team Yankee, make sure to check out the Weekender Interview with oriskany below…

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Click On The Image and you’ll be taken directly to the segment in the show to learn more.

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"The common perception of NATO’s biggest strength was its technological edge over the Warsaw Pact..."

"We may have stirred up some opinions here, but a discussion is always one of the big objectives for these articles..."