Cuban Missile Crisis in the UK
The Cuban Missile Crisis
For almost half a century the world stood on a knife edge in the depths of the Cold War. Tensions between the East and West were controlled in part simply by the concept of détente, or mutually assured destruction. That said there were several flair ups and most people would agree that the Cold War hit its coldest point in October 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The discovery of Russian nuclear missile situated on an island just a stone’s throw from mainland USA suddenly brought the threat of nuclear annihilation on to the doorstep of the American people and the World stood on the brink. However, it would be easy to simply overlook the fact that had war broken out, it would not just be the US and Russia impacted. For example, the UK homed both US troops/aircraft as well as nuclear missiles and bombers with targets already defined in the USSR. If war had been declared, some of the first bombs would have fallen on these shores, all over an issue occurring across the Atlantic Ocean.
This all occurred years before I was born, indeed my parents were so young at the time that they don’t remember. However, it is a fascinating subject that I have already touched upon in another review here as it really does shape the world today and with recent political events, there is always the nagging fear of the cold times returning.
Britain On The Brink
This hub was inspired by my reading of this book by the author Jim Wilson. As mentioned above I do have an interest in this period of history but I actually stumbled across this book almost my accident when searching for a different subject on Amazon. I was drawn in by the artwork of a majestic Vulcan bomber on its cover and was soon grabbed by the synopsis so downloaded to my kindle. Like many I had always wrongly assumed that the Cuban Missile Crisis was something that impacted the Caribbean and had never thought of its impacts on the UK. Part of this will have been it occurring well before I was born but I think part will have also been born out of the clandestine nature of government policy during the crisis that this book looks in to in some depth that led to many in the UK completely unware and unprepared had the worst have occurred. At xx pages long and being quite in depth, it did take me several weeks to work my way through but I think this says a lot more about me and my reading style than the book itself that I found informative and well written.
If you enjoy the rest of this hub then I would wholeheartedly suggest checking it out and if like me you are UK based then you can buy here.
A Brief History
The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred towards the end of October 1962. The early 60’s were a tense time in the Cold War period, the Berlin Wall was erected in August the prior year and following Fidel Castro’s assumption of power in Cuba, the US President JFK had sanctioned an ill-fated invasion at the Bay of Pigs to try to reclaim control. Russia had quickly looked to build relationships with this island nation, first shipping arms to the country in 1960.
Then in April 1962 the Soviet Leader, Nikita Khrushchev, made the decision to send Soviet nuclear missiles to Cuba. Whilst it could be seen as provocative to have based them so close to the US mainland, in many ways it was no different to the US Jupiter missiles stationed in Turkey or the Thor missiles stationed along the East Coast of the UK. However, where it differed was that the US had always been open about the siting of these missiles, Khrushchev instead wanted to wait until they were fully installed before announcing their existence and in mid-July the first missiles set sale for Cuba under false cargo declarations.
The on 14th October a U2 reconnaissance pilot overflying was able to obtain photographic evidence of the missile sites on Cuba which Kennedy’s advisors inform him look to be in a state that they would be ready within a couple of weeks. However, despite having the photographic evidence, when JFK meets the Soviet Foreign Minister two days later he is categorically told there are no such missiles or plans to place them. American chiefs start to make plans for war and on the 23rd October 1962, President Kennedy goes on US television and informs his nation of the missiles existence and that a ‘World Crisis’ is at hand. He orders a blockade of Cuba’s waters which many fear will start the Third and Final World War and over the following two days US military is ordered first to DEFCON Three and then DEFCON Two, the highest state of readiness before war itself. As the week continues the situation becomes tenser with several potential triggers coming close to igniting war, leading in to Black Saturday when the question of war seemed more of when rather than if. For example, on a Russian submarine, fearful of being attacked by American depth charges tense discussions meant the crew came close to launching a loaded nuclear torpedo before surfacing to get instructions from Moscow. Meanwhile another U2 accidentally flew in to Russian airspace near Alaska and a colleague was shot down and killed over Cuba itself.
However, behind the scenes discussions were ongoing and finally, and surprisingly, on Sunday October 28th Khrushchev goes on National Radio to confirm that all missiles will be withdrawn. What he doesn’t mention is a secret agreement made to remove the US missiles from Turkey in exchange. Over the next few days the situation starts to calm down and by the end of November the US blockade is ended.
Meanwhile In The UK
Meanwhile in the UK the situation was no less tense, not that the public were fully aware. Early on in the crisis the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was informed of the situation. With the two nations enjoying a “special” relationship and with US aircraft stationed at RAF airbases and troops protecting the nuclear warheads of the Thor missiles, any decision to escalate to war would have to include the UK. This also meant that if war did break out, some of the first missiles would rain down on these very locations.
However, Macmillan seems to have been reluctant to fully embrace the situation. His own civil servants had prepared a “War Book” outlining step by step what should be done in such an instance. The senior government should have been evacuated to an underground bunker “city”, aircraft dispersed to remote airfields to minimise the risk of them being destroyed before they could take off and retaliate, yet the Prime Minister seem to have been fearful that such an escalation would have been seen as provoking the Russians and exacerbating the situation. Therefore, much of the decision making was made in central London by himself and the foreign secretary Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Even as US troops based in the UK were ordered to higher alert statuses, Macmillan was determined to try and keep a level of calm. This did lead to the bizarre situation of soldiers at the same bases being at different states of readiness. The US soldiers unable to leave their posts whilst their British colleagues were able to continue as if nothing was going on.
Finally on the Saturday the RAF was raised to alert condition three (its highest state of alert throughout the entire Cold War) yet even this was done with maximum discretion. Rather than interrupting broadcasts on TV and Radio as commanders would have liked, airmen were contacted at their own homes by Police and told to report for duty. At the very peak aircrews were stationed at the ends of runways across the country, ready to depart with their deadly loads at less than 5 minutes warning.
One can only try to imagine what must have been going through these men’s minds at the time. They had trained for years for this job but all of them must have known that if war did start, the very bases they were launching from would be targeted. If they had taken off they would be knowing that it was most likely a suicide mission as there would be nowhere to come home to. What’s more, their families and friends would still be within the vicinity of the base and be killed. For me it is fascinating to read the location of these bases along the East Coast as many are either close to where I live or signs that I see each time I drive North to see family.
It is hard to say in hindsight if Macmillan did the right thing by the British public. As it was war was averted and he did avoid mass panic and perhaps by not publicly readying his troops, the situation was kept a slight bit calmer. However, had a trigger seen the missiles fly, would the country and its people have been in a worse position? Thank goodness we never had to find out.
After the Crisis the world never quite got as cold as it had that week. The two main leaders were both out of power within two years, Kennedy assassinated in Houston just a year later and Khrushchev “retired” in a bloodless coup in October 1964. However, both sides had had a taste of what could happen if the situation worsened again in the future and started to take steps to avoid it again. A hot-line was established so that in such a situation the parties could contact each other directly. It seems hard to imagine in this modern world but at times the time difference between Moscow, London and Washington threatened to cause miscommunication. Even by the end of 1963 the Thor missiles in the UK were dismantled and the Jupiter missiles in Turkey had also gone. Even the British V-Force bombers found themselves replaced by the end of the decade by submarines, the Vulcans only seeing service in the non-nuclear Falkland’s War.
The world came close to Armageddon and I for one hope it never gets close again.