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The Fulda Gap is a section of territory between the former East German border and Frankfurt, (West) Germany.
Named after the unfortunately placed town of Fulda, strategically the Fulda Gap was of immense importance during the Cold War. It was one of two obvious routes for any invader attacking West Germany. (The other was the North German Plain.)
Frankfurt, relatively close to the Gap, was at the heart of West German industrial and financial power, and its loss would have been a serious blow for West Germany and NATO. It was also an important civil and military air hub that was important to the defense of West Germany.
Perhaps more importantly, the terrain between the Gap and the river Rhine was less rugged than adjacent districts, offering the best pathway for an invading force from Warsaw Pact territory to reach and cross the formidable Rhine before NATO was in a position to prevent it.
Strategic planners on both sides of the Iron Curtain understood its importance and forces were allocated accordingly. Defense of the Fulda Gap was tasked primarily to the US V Corps. More specifically, the actual East/West border in the Fulda Gap was protected by the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment from 1972-1994. Its principal adversary was the Soviet 8th Guards Army. Both formations were lavishly equipped and generally received a high priority on new equipment.
The Soviet 8th Guards Army was to be followed by a number of additional armies and has been positively identified as the key Soviet axis of advance in any (hypothetical) major military confrontation in Cold War Europe.
By 1985, NATO and Warsaw Pact forces had been staring at each other across the Iron Curtain for 40 years as the Cold War became increasingly warmer. During the mid '80s, the Cold War reached a boiling point as the ideologies of communism and capitalism were in their most confrontational posture. One spark on the world scene would be all that it would take to ignite these powerful military forces and send them crashing into each other across the only thing that stood between them in Germany: the open region of Erfurt-Eisenach, Vogelsberg, and the highlands north of the Autobahn...the region used by the US Third Army to drive deep into Germany at the close of WWII...the Fulda Gap.
We are not certain when the term "Fulda Gap" began to be used in military circles to speak of the prominent terrain corridor that runs from what used to be East Germany toward Frankfurt. Some of us remember hearing it in the 1960's. We do know that by 1980 the term was in broad use all the way up to NATO.
If the Eight Guards Army was deployed to forward positions before the outbreak of war its engineers would have needed bridging for only one secondary river, the Fulda, and that river was sometimes fordable in late summer. For the more probable scenario, a short warning attack (with no preliminary deployment from Kasernes and training areas), some bridging could also have been needed for the Werra River.
When US military planners first found a need for a name to identify this probable axis of Soviet attack there may have been a debate as to whether it should be named for Fulda or Bad Hersfeld. Probably it was resolved in favor of Fulda because that was the better known city and its name was more user friendly (easier to say and write).
Operations Plan 4102 [with Annexes] was a top secret road map from peace to war by the US European Command. It described in minute detail how the US forces would react, almost hourly, to a Soviet attack across the inter-German border, including detailed plans for bringing in reinforcements from the United States, equipping them, and putting them under NATO command. The plan included descriptions of where each unit will go upon the outbreak of war, and now individual combat units would use the hills and valleys of the rugged West German terrain to conduct a defense in depth, including nuclear-release procedures..
Every piece of artillery, every machine gun, rifle, mortar, tank, and anti-tank weapon in the 3d Armored Division was intended to hit the Russians the moment they came pouring through the gap.
During the 1980s, V Corps included the 3d Armored Division, 8th Infantry Division, and 11th Armored Cavalry. The VII Corps included the 1st Armored Division, 3d Infantry Division, 1st Infantry Division (Forward), and 2d Armored Cavalry. The separate 2d Armored Division (Forward) was stationed in northern Germany. These forces were arrayed, in line with the NATO General Defense Plan, in an essentially static forward defense of the traditional, critical eastern approaches to Western Europe. Their mission was to hold off an attack from the East until reinforcements could arrive from the United States.