From February 1962 onwards two jets in every major RAF base, armed with nuclear weapons, were on standby for Quick Reaction Alert (QRA). QRA is a permanent state of readiness to “scramble” when an alert is received. Britain was applying ‘deterrence theory’, the idea being that nuclear weapons are intended to deter other parties from attacking with their nuclear weapons, through the promise of retaliation and possibly ‘mutually assured destruction’ (MAD).
During a 13-day period, 16 to 28 October 1962, the world held its breath during what would become known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is now believed that 27 October 1962 (aka ‘Black Saturday’) was the closest the world has ever come to nuclear Armageddon. It was the closest the Vulcan came to taking part in potential nuclear conflict. Bomber Command moved to Alert Condition 3, which was an increased state of readiness from normal operations. Thankfully it stood down in early November.
Most literature about the Crisis is written about the involvement of Cuba, the United States and the USSR. However, Bomber Command’s place should not be ignored. Although British participation was less than the key players, the V-Force was at the heart of the Government’s response to the crisis.
On 17 April 1961, leading up to the Crisis, the US had attempted to overthrow Fidel Castro and his Cuban government with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. At the time the US had several nuclear missile sites in Turkey and Italy, with the range to strike Moscow…
In response to the Bay of Pigs invasion and the missile sites, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to Cuba’s request to place nuclear missiles on the island to deter any future invasion by the US. This also provided the Soviet Union with missile sites that could reach the United States. The agreement was made at a secret meeting in July 1962, and the construction of the nuclear launch facilities started later that summer.
In a bar in Old Havana, the Cuban capital, an American secret agent had overheard a local air force pilot gossiping that the island was about to get nuclear weapons sent to them by Russia. A few hours later, as dawn broke on Sunday 14 October, US spy planes captured pictures of long-range Soviet missiles in Cuba.
The United States considered a number of options from diplomacy to a full-scale attack and invasion on Cuba. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff voted to invade. They felt this was the only viable option. However, President Kennedy was concerned that this would start World War III between the US and the Soviet Union. President Kennedy chose to set up a naval blockade to stop deliveries of offensive weapons to Cuba.
In the background, Britain was being consulted on the situation despite news reports at the time saying otherwise. As many as 40 RAF Vulcan bombers were on 15-minute stand-by at four airfields waiting to unleash nuclear missiles at the heart of the Soviet Union.
‘The aircraft were all ready to go. We were fully kitted out with our flying gear. All we had to do was get in, put our straps on, press the button and the engines would start up,’ recalled former Wing Commander Peter West, speaking publicly for the first time about the events of 1962
In the end, after Macmillan had advised his younger American counterpart to proceed with caution, the US held back from the horror they might have unleashed. This was despite an American U-2 plane being shot down over Cuba on 27 October, by a Soviet-supplied surface-to-air missile. The pilot, Major Rudolph Anderson, was killed.
Although the Soviet Union was publicly saying they would never back down, they were secretly negotiating with the United States. Eventually the two sides reached an agreement. The Soviet Union would remove the missiles from Cuba as long as the United States agreed to never invade Cuba again. In secret, the US also had to agree to remove their nuclear missiles from Turkey and Italy. The crisis was over.
In more recent years the role of Britain during the Crisis has come to light. Air Power Review is the professional flagship publication of the Royal Air Force. In the ‘Deterrence Special Edition’ published in summer 2017, they provided a case study of ‘The Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962’. On page 98 a Witness Seminar, from 2009, on Bomber Command’s role during the Cuban Missile Crisis is transcribed. It records the views of those who were intimately involved in the crisis from the UK’s and, in particular, the RAF’s perspective.
Squadron Leader Roger Atkinson: Was Mike Robinson’s Navigator Radar on 100 Squadron (Victor B2) at RAF Wittering during the crisis.
Marshal of Royal Air Force Sir Michael Beetham (1923-2015), GCB, CBE, DFC, AFC, DL
Air Commodore Norman Bonnor: A specialist navigator. In 1962 was a Navigator Radar on XV Squadron (Victor B1A) at RAF Cottesmore.
Squadron Leader Jock Connelly: Flew several tours as a Vulcan pilot and captain. During the crisis he was a co-pilot on 617 Squadron (Vulcan B2, Blue Steel).
Peter J Hudson, CB: Was a senior civil servant in the Air Ministry.
Air Vice-Marshal Michael Robinson: In 1962 commanded No 100 Squadron (Victor B2) at RAF Wittering. During the crisis he captained his crew with Roger Atkinson as his Nav Radar.
Wing Commander Peter West: Flew Valiants on 214 Squadron under the then Wing Commander Beetham, then converted to Vulcans. During the crisis he was the Air Power Review 100 Electronics Officer on the crew of the Commanding Officer of No 12 (B) Squadron (Vulcan B2) at RAF Coningsby.