While the threat of thermonuclear war loomed over the heads of those who lived through the Cold War and news footage focussed mainly on the threat of (and protection from) atomic blasts, the nightmarish world of chemical warfare was a far more likely World War three scenario.
While every country began to take Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) defence seriously from the late 60s, issuing men with protective gear and over pressuring combat vehicles to survive in a toxic environment, the Soviet Union became almost obsessed with an NBC battlefield.
Outnumbered by odds of up to 10-1 at times, NATO would have planned to fight a “defensive” third world war and would almost certainly have used nuclear weapons to cause “choke points” to slow up a Soviet advance and to destroy large concentrations of Soviet forces. The Soviets on the other hand, saw nuclear weaponry as a retaliatory measure but took chemical warfare deadly seriously. While NATO would have no choice but to deploy nuclear weapons to even the disparity, it was counter to Soviet interests to turn the country they wished to unify, Germany, into a radioactive wasteland. Probable and predicted Soviet nuclear strikes though were expected to be made against France and Britain, in order to delay any support to the main European Battlefield – and of course retaliatory strikes to counter any made at Russian cities.
Both NATO and the Warsaw Pact were aware that while modern technology would allow a soldier (and his transport) to move and fight in even the most hellish of environment, their effectiveness in combat would be massively downgraded as men struggled to breath in cumbersome respirators and sweated in hot and restrictive protective suits. Nearly all armoured vehicles would be fitted with “overpressure” systems – raising the internal air pressure of the vehicle to one greater than that outside to prevent harmful fumes entering the vehicle – but even so, crew would be required to wear their suit (if not their masks) in case they were forced to bail out. In the late ‘80s (and today) some of the vilest chemical weapons could kill within nine seconds of the smallest particle making contact with unprotected skin, or being breathed in. In situations such as this, no one was prepared to take chances and an NBC “threat level” would be decreed for the battle area. This would govern whether the suit was needed and, if so, whether protective over-boots and gloves were also needed. Suffice to say, in most exercises most armies spent considerable time preparing for the worst wearing their NBC kit for days at a time!
While NATO trained its individual soldiers to defend themselves with excellent NBC equipment (as part of a defensive doctrine the infantry would prepare to fight dismounted from slit trenches in their NBC suits), the Russians and their allied states had a wholly different approach!
The Chemical Battle
The Soviet Union expected and planned for any future war to be fought almost entirely in a hazardous chemical environment. They knew they could bombard NATO airfield and supply routes with lethal toxins and slow troops down by forcing them into their protective gear and fully expected NATO to reciprocate. To this end the entire Soviet Doctrine was based around fighting a mobile battle from NBC-protected vehicles, from which the infantry man did not have to even leave his seat. Unlike NATO APCs of the time, Soviet vehicles like the BMP1 and 2 had firing ports to allow the soldiers within to use their personal weapons while protected. This however, was not enough. Realising that a chemically (or biologically) infested battlefield would slow their forces down, the Russians invested immense amounts of money in an entire “Chemical Defence Troops” division to their armies. At its high point, with 50,000 specifically trained chemical defence troops mounted upon over 30,000 specially modified NBC vehicles, the Red Army had the most well-prepared troops for a nightmare NBC war the world had ever seen.
Soviet Chemical Troops were attached to all army groups and had a variety of important battlefield roles. Most importantly “Chemical Recce” units in BRDM2 scout cars with chemical, biological and radiation detecting equipment would scout ahead of the army marking out both clear paths and areas of extreme hazard to be bypassed or negated by clean up squads. To mark out these areas the troops would not even have to leave the safety of the scout car. A special flag launching device fitted to the rear of the vehicle could embed a chemical marker safely in the ground for oncoming forces. An equally important role for the Chemical Troops was the decontamination of formations already exposed to NBC threats. These deontamination units consisted of specially equipped high temperature jet wash and decontamination hoses fitted to both armoured and soft skin trucks. In this way a “chemical car wash” could be formed, though which exposed units could pass and be cleaned up. A third and minor role of the Chemical Troops would be to lay smoke screens to cover advances or retreats of formations; actual deployment of chemical weapons would be the responsibility of rocket and artillery troops. While the chemical troops primarily provided support to the ground forces, it is worth noting that they could be called upon to decontaminate frontal aviation’s strike aircraft and helicopters if required.
While in some ways the Soviet Army was massively prepared for a mobile nuclear or chemical war, with thousands or specially equipped men in purpose built vehicles, its field equipment for the men on the ground was sadly lacking. By the late 70s the Soviet soldier was wearing an NBC suit near identical to that which we featured in the Cold War Warriors article of East German NBC kit – a hot uncomfortable rubber suit, with hooded gas mask in which any more than an hour’s exertion could lead to serious heat exhaustion and even death by overheating! To avoid covering ground extensively dealt with in previous issues (and available to view online) we’ll look this month at the field equipment of a soldier from the chemical troops in a reconnaissance role.
Our Soviet private wears the standard M69 “Hebe” combat suit in soviet olive (a distinctive brown-green shade). By the 1970s this suit was beginning to show signs of obsolescence in a battlefield, where most nations had adopted loose fitting layer system combat suits. His attachment to the chemical troops can be seen by the black collar insignia, with the metal crest of the chemical troops (eagle-eyed readers will also note the white collar liner sewn in daily by Soviet soldiers). Our trooper’s headdress is the classic Russians Pilotka side cap, which would be familiar to this Red Army Man’s grandfather having changed little since the great Patriotic War of the 1940s!
Finishing off his basic uniform is a pair of tall leather Soviet combat boots. Soviet boots of this era had a distinctive sole pattern and NATO scouts soon learned to recognise it. The tall jackboot is synonymous with soviet force but by the late ‘70s a shorter, more western ankle boot was beginning to be issued to some formations.
Disposable Camouflage Suit
Over the top of the M69 suit our man wears a one piece KLMK scout overall (KLMK is an acronym that loosely translates as camouflage disruptive overalls in Russian) and is not, as many believe, the name of the camouflage pattern, rather the name of the garment. Suits of this nature had been issued to snipers, combat engineers and scouts since the 1940s and some late WWII examples clearly show the roots of the angular “stairstep pattern” of camouflage, akin to tetris blocks from the popular computer game. Another popular collectors name for this pattern is “sunbunnies” or “sunrays”, as the suit replicates the effect of sunlight through foliage. While the suit may look garish and an ineffective means of camouflage out of context, it is surprisingly effective in European wood or grasslands. These suits are unlike NATO camouflage outfits, in that they are both quite light weight, thin (they were intended to be disposable and were issued out on a “per mission” basis rather than as personal kit) and very shapeless and baggy. Some variants are reversible with a tiny chequered pattern on the reverse, which is believed to be designed to counter early NATO night vision. As aforementioned, the suit is one-piece and features a large section in the seat that can be unbuttoned to avoid having to take off the whole suit when defecation is necessary.
Combat equipment in true soviet style is minimal. As a chemical trooper his respirator is always by his side and, in most cases, his chemical defence suit would be rolled up and carried on his back, attached to the y-straps that secure his belt kit. Our soldier however, having just dismounted from his transport travels light, with only his entrenching tool, water bottles, bayonet for his AKMS assault rifle and magazine pouch on him.
Soviet chemical troops may not be the obvious choice when choosing a “Warsaw Pact” loadout but it’s definitely one worth bearing in mind, as these brave men would certainly be in the vanguard of any Soviet advance, providing vital reconnaissance work before the main force could even begin to move. A perfect role and scenario for a “Cold War”‘ adventure.