Friday, November 06, 2009


For decades a hilly region in central Germany divided by the Iron Curtain was at risk of becoming the ground zero of a nuclear World War III. During the Cold War, troopers of the U.S. 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment -- known as the Blackhorse regiment -- patrolled this border from Observation Post Alpha near the West German town of Fulda.

They were there to protect the so-called Fulda Gap -- a key weakness in the West's defense. It was the most difficult area for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to defend because of its accessible terrain and a geography that marked a deep protrusion of eastern territory into the West.

Twenty years later, the Cold War is in the distant past for most. But it's a vivid memory for a former captain for the Blackhorse regiment. He takes reporter Roman Kessler on a tour of a fort at the Iron Curtain.

The Fulda area, about 100 miles from Frankfurt, was seen as an attractive avenue for a military push from the East into Western Europe.

Roger Cirillo, who served in the Fulda area as a captain during the 1970s, says he always trained his soldiers to expect a situation where the enemy would outnumber them. But he knew that in case of an attack, "there was no way that I could do my job without getting killed." He also left no doubt in his subordinates that they were likely to die if it came to defending their post.

Mr. Cirillo, now director of the Association of the U.S. Army's book progam, in Arlington, Va., remains fascinated by Cold War Germany. After retiring from the armed forces, he got his doctorate and researched defense plans of both sides.

Observation Post Alpha, or OP Alpha, and the Fulda Gap were pivotal in a shaky nuclear balance of power between NATO and the Eastern European Communist nations in the Warsaw Treaty.

In the Fulda region, a dark iron fence cut through barnyards, streets and woods, separating family members for decades.

On the eastern side, many towers overlooked the fence. The west had only a couple of towers close to the border. One was at OP Alpha, where a number of troopers looked into East Germany with the best available equipment, such as ground radar and thermal sights.

Handing over the Fulda Gap was never an option, Blackhorse veterans say.

In the case of a confrontation, "we were told that civilians would be evacuated," says retired Lt. Col. Glenn Allardyce, who served in the area during the 1970s. That was a key concern for the soldiers, as many had German partners, children and friends, he says. But there was considerable doubt about whether a timely evacuation would happen, he adds.

Mr. Allardyce first came to the Fulda Gap as a Tank Platoon Leader, in the Tank Troop of the 3rd Squadron in the early 1970s.

The Fulda Gap became the theme for his career.

He now looks back at what he calls a "long-term involvement." From 1974 to 1987 he worked in Houston in the Armored Cavalry Regiment Exercise Group 07F, 75th USA Maneuver Area Command. The unit conducted command-post exercises for reservists who would be deployed to replace the Blackhorse regiment if it were decimated by an attack.

The OP Alpha post was both tedious and stressful, with training alerts on short-notice deployment coming at strange hours, says Steven Steininger, who began serving in the border area in 1987 and was a young captain when the Iron Curtain opened in 1989. Now, he is a U.S. forces liaison officer with German state governments.

Regular border patrols through the woods in the region were a welcome relief, he says. The troops sought to gather intelligence with the help of radar devices stationed on a nearby mountain and airborne missions, as well.

Interviews of refugees from East Germany who made it over the border were another source of information. For many East Germans, reaching the West meant navigating a cross-country course through minefields and self-triggering guns and hiding from tower guards and their dogs, and then finally climbing over the razor-sharp fence at the border. Many died.

The international border was marked only with a couple of sticks -- neither the wall, nor a ditch nor mines presented much of a hurdle for military vehicles. "The border was never designed to keep the West out. Quite the opposite, it was designed to keep people from escaping," Mr. Steininger says.

For all the strategic planning, the fall of the wall on Nov. 9, 1989, came as a surprise. Throngs of East Germans in Berlin had rallied at border posts at Prenzlauer Berg's Bernauerstrasse and the Brandenburg Gate. Border guards in East Berlin, unprepared, eventually opened a gate that had been padlocked since the wall was built in 1961.

Mr. Cirillo, then chief of war plans for a NATO unit in the German town of Heidelberg, recalls that he heard the news on his car radio. But on American Forces Network radio, he heard no call telling him to contact his unit -- unusual for a tense situation like this, he says, but also perhaps a sign of how high the hopes were for a peaceful revolution.

At OP Alpha, some 250 miles west of Berlin, Blackhorse troopers stuck to business as usual, patrolling and monitoring the border.

Mr. Steininger received regular updates from intelligence and press officers. Family and friends -- many of them German -- were excited and stayed in close contact with the troopers. When the wall came down in Berlin, "we knew that it was only a matter of time that the openings would also reach us," Mr. Steininger says.

More than a week later, the wall at the Fulda Gap was pierced with road construction machines brought in from the West.

"It was a very emotional event, darn emotional," Mr. Steininger says.

An improvised road was set up and a flood of two-stroke Trabant cars crossed the border.

The first cars were stopped by cheering West Germans who had been waiting for their arrival. Relatives who hadn't seen each other for decades hugged each other, crying tears of joy.

"In that moment, we knew: mission complete," Mr. Steininger says.
Write to Roman Kessler at