Today (16th October 2014) marks the 52nd anniversary of what is considered to be the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis; arguably the closest time in history that the world stood on the brink of nuclear Armageddon. The truth is however that there have been numerous occasions since then that actually brought us closer and I will be covering those incidents in a future article. The Cuban Missile Crisis however is the most famous of these incidents because it was certainly the most prolonged and most publicised incident. While all the glory falls on the US and in particular President John F. Kennedy it is only part of the story that involved a multi national response to the tense situation that was playing out in the Caribbean. To the US, one of the most key allies in the world was the UK.
Looking back the Cuban Missile Crisis (or indeed its nature) was an unavoidable outcome of the 1950s. During that decade both sides of the Iron Curtain began to amass vast amounts of military men and material for what many believed was an inevitable Third World War between the Capitalist West and the Communist East. The two biggest players, the USA and USSR both had vivid memories of the surprise attacks they had endured in World War II (Pearl Harbour and Operation: Barbarossa) and how close these surprise attacks brought them to defeat. They were therefore determined that the same would never happen again. Thus the rules for the Cold War were set in place; whomever could hold the technological edge with the ability to destroy the other quickest would win. With the US placing Thor nuclear armed missiles in Turkey right on the doorstep of the Soviets, the Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev felt warranted in doing the same in Cuba which had just undergone a Communist revolution. The inevitable confrontation had come.
While terrified Americans huddled around their television sets for two weeks expecting to see the President telling them war was coming in Britain the mood was more calm. That’s not to say Brits weren’t afraid, of course they were, but this was an island nation whose memories of rationing and bombing were still fresh in their minds so the prospect of war and “carrying on” came more easily than in the states. At the time Britain was under the second Conservative government of Harold Macmilan who naturally offered his support to Kennedy however the united front that was presented was in truth tainted by several incidents during Macmilan’s leadership that had strained relations between London and Washington beginning with the Suez Crisis in 1956 in which Britain and France attacked Nasser’s Egypt without US consent or knowledge. Later, the British were again angered by the US who cancelled the Skybolt missile which the British deterrent plans for the 1960s depended on. When the US offered Polaris as a replacement it was initially under a dual key system that would have left the UK without an independent deterrent capability which was totally unacceptable to Macmilan. It was only when the British government threatened to cancel the multi billion dollar acquisition did the US withdraw this requirement.
Britain was not the only ally that the US was having problems with prior to October 1962. Anti-American sentiment was getting stronger in Canada too especially over matters of defence whereby many Canadians felt that projects such as the Avro Canada Arrow fighter were cancelled at US insistence. Prime Minister Defenbaker then more or less sold Canadian defence to the Americans with a whatever-you-say attitude regarding defence acquisition and posture. In France President De Gaulle was furious that his country had been kept out of the loop with regards to NATO’s nuclear deterrence. He wanted France to have the same nuclear capability as Britain and the US but the US were reluctant to agree to release weapons and technology. This would ultimately result in France leaving the alliance in 1966 and developing its own nuclear deterrent. For Kruschev who enjoyed total control over his puppet allies in Eastern Europe the West must have looked weak in 1962 which probably encouraged him.
On October 16th 1962 a U-2 spyplane flew over Cuba and photographed nuclear missiles being assembled on the Communist island. The crisis began. Surely the US alerted their biggest ally, Britain, right away? Actually no. It was a full three days later that the British government were informed, just two days before Kennedy went on television and announced it to the world. This left the RAF, whose V-Bomber force held the UK’s nuclear deterrent, three days behind the ally they were supposed to be supporting. Nevertheless the time had come to prepare and the RAF’s V-Bombers prepared to set off for their dispersal airfields. However this order never came. Knowing that spies operating in the UK might alert Moscow that the bombers had moved to their dispersal fields Macmilan decided to keep the bombers on their main bases so as to not unintentionally escalate the situation. This was yet another example of the unique ‘language’ of the crisis in which acts were interpreted as more meaningful than direct communication.
The RAF’s V-Bomber force operated alongside their USAF counterparts who were based in the continental United States and Europe to attack the Soviets should they trundle across the Iron Curtain. The V-Bombers were part of an intricate Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP) that attempted to deliver one brutal crushing nuclear blow against the Soviets. Key to this was Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) in which the bomber crews maintained the ability to scramble their aircraft in a style reminiscent of the Battle of Britain. The aim was to get the bombers off the ground as quickly as possible to prevent their destruction from incoming missiles. Ground crews for these aircraft worked in the knowledge that if the call came to scramble, their lives no longer mattered as they would be over within the next few minutes. All that did matter was to get those aircraft in the air to retaliate. The ground crews were certainly the unsung heroes of nuclear QRA.
Now that the RAF was fully engaged the US talked more closely with the UK over the rapidly changing situation in the Caribbean. The crisis fully engaged the western allies who put all previous disagreements aside to tackle the situation. By Friday 26th October even the previous calm of Britain started to break and as the day drew to a close Kennedy called Macmilan in London expecting it to be the last time before nuclear war broke out. As the conversation drew to a close Kennedy said;
‘I will talk to you again before we do anything of a drastic nature,’
RAF personnel went about their duties that night unsure if they would see the next morning. In a typical British way they tried not to show it but it was clear to all that decisions over the fate of humanity itself were being decided by just a handful of people. One thing was certain however; V-Bomber crews were supremely confident that if the call to launch for real was given then they had a high chance of prosecuting the target i.e. delivering their nuclear weapons. Both the Vulcan and Victor had a plethora of equipment onboard coupled with performance levels that bordered on being fighter-like. How accurate that assessment was can’t be ascertained even today but what is certain is that with that confidence the crews of these aircraft felt an enormous weight of responsibility on their shoulders those dark nights.
As it has been said many times; cooler heads prevailed. Kruschev removed the missiles from Cuba while back channel deals meant that even though the crisis was seen as a victory for the US it was in fact a draw with the US having to both pledge no invasion of Cuba and to remove its own missiles in Turkey. Exact details on what targets the RAF would have hit are difficult to come by as the SIOP repeatedly changed to throw off Soviet spies. Had a nuclear conflict actually broke out however the death toll would certainly have been in the hundreds of millions dwarfing anything before it.