STUTTGART, GERMANY, MARCH 18 -- After more than 40 years of waiting for a Soviet invasion that never came -- and a year after leading the allied defeat of Iraq's Republican Guard -- the U.S. Army's VII Corps faded into oblivion tonight.

At a ceremony on the elegant grounds of Stuttgart's new castle, the VII Corps, which at the peak of its strength during the Persian Gulf War last year was described as the most powerful armored force ever assembled, bade farewell to Germany and prepared to deactivate.

The departure of the 73,000-strong force from Germany represents a major portion of the U.S. withdrawal from Europe. The American troop level of 314,000 in 1990 has been reduced to around 225,000, and Bush administration plans call for it to reach 150,000 by 1995.

VII Corps was first activated in the Vosges Mountains of France in World War I. Its soldiers landed again in France at Normandy during World War II, and the corps helped spearhead the drive across Europe.

After returning in 1951, VII Corps, headquartered here, spent 41 years spread over 250 sites in the southern German states of Bavaria and Baden-Wurttemberg.

Hundreds of German citizens pressed against barricades outside the castle courtyard today to see ceremonial cannons fired and hear marching bands play John Philip Sousa tunes. Reflecting divisions of opinion in the German population, some waved antiwar banners and cheered the American withdrawal, but many others carried VII Corps balloons and American flags and spoke sadly of the GIs' departure.

"I never would have believed VII Corps would leave so soon," said Kurt Krebs, a retiree. "The relationship was a friendship."

U.S. and German officials speaking at the ceremony said that despite the withdrawals, the United States will continue to have a strong military presence in Europe.

The VII Corps departure "is not the final word on the American commitment in Europe," said Defense Minister Gerhard Stoltenberg.

But many questions remain unresolved about the future U.S. presence here. VII Corps' withdrawal leaves the United States with one corps in Europe, the Frankfurt-headquartered V Corps, but its presence could be threatened by calls in Congress to reduce the troop level to 80,000 or less.

There is anger among some departing soldiers here over the pace of withdrawal, which they say is disrupting many lives. "The whole thing is moving too fast," said a sergeant who commanded a Bradley Fighting Vehicle during the war and now must pull his 7-year-old son out of school early to meet his unit's timetable for withdrawal.

In November 1990, with the Soviet threat greatly diminished, VII Corps, equipped with the most modern M-1A1 Abrams tanks and soldiers considered among the army's best, was deployed to Saudi Arabia to give allied commanders offensive punch. Once in the desert the corps grew to more than 145,000 soldiers and 1,500 tanks -- the largest and heaviest corps ever fielded by the U.S. Army. It destroyed more than 10 Iraqi divisions and 1,200 tanks. It suffered 252 casualties, including 47 killed in action. In World War II, by comparison, its casualties were about 90,000.

Among those bidding farewell today was Stuttgart Mayor Manfred Rommel, son of famed German field marshal Erwin Rommel, known as the Desert Fox, who commanded German armies defending against the Normandy invasion. "I did not want you to leave us," Rommel told his audience. "But it cannot be denied that the Iron Curtain which had cut Europe in two has been lifted."