Thirteen days when the world held its breath

By Tom Masters

The 1962 Cuban missile crisis was the most perilous moment of the cold war. The author looks at the secret soviet operation that brought the world to the brink of mutually assured destruction

“If even a tenth of our missiles survived . . . we could still hit New York, and there wouldn’t be much of New York left. I don’t mean to say that everyone in New York would be killed — but an awful lot of people would be wiped out.”

Nikita Khrushchev, Memoirs.

FORTY YEARS AGO today, President Kennedy told the world of U2 spy plane photographs proving that there were Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuba, 145km (90 miles) from the American coast. While panic reigned in the White House, the Soviet Government was quietly congratulating itself as it neared its goal of full military readiness on the island.

In the following 13 days American shops would be emptied by panic buying and roads gridlocked as people tried to flee big cities, while the rest of the world watched, powerless and horrified. In the wake of the first anniversary of September 11, it’s easy to forget that four decades ago New York and many other American cities faced a threat from a legitimate government far greater than anything a terrorist group could come up with: the Cuban missile crisis could have ended in the deaths of tens of millions in both the United States and Europe. But how did such a situation arise? Why did the Soviet leadership decide to place nuclear weapons under its enemy’s nose, and how did they manage to do it in secret?

The spring of 1962 was not a comfortable time for Nikita Khrushchev, the capricious Soviet leader. The break with Mao’s China threatened his undisputed hegemony over the communist world and prospects for accommodation with the Americans over Berlin and arms control looked bleak.

Khrushchev wanted desperately to reassert Soviet power, and following the Cuban revolution realised that the island would take on enormous strategic importance for both superpowers, given that Castro’s was the first communist regime in the Americas.

Indeed, the importance the US accorded Cuba had been shown in 1961, when CIA-backed insurgents landed at the island’s Bay of Pigs in a prelude to a rout that seriously embarrassed the Kennedy Administration: they were defeated within 72 hours and had more than 1,000 prisoners taken.

General Anatoly Gribkov, the last living member of the special group set up by Khrushchev to co-ordinate the delivery of warheads to Cuba, maintains that the USSR’s purpose was solely defensive. “The distance between Cuba and Russia is enormous . . . if a US attack had been launched against Cuba, the USSR would have been unable to help. Therefore the question of creating a more powerful force in Cuba was raised — along with missile capability to contain any aggression.

“The balance of strategic power between the USA and the USSR was far from being favourable to the Soviet Union . . . the Americans and their allies had 5,000 nuclear warheads, whereas we had just 300.”

By placing Soviet intermediate-range missiles on Cuba, the Soviet capability to strike at the continental US would be hugely enhanced. Khrushchev also wanted to counter the threat of American missiles in Turkey, from where they could hit Moscow in eight minutes, with something similarly close to the US.

A plan was born. As Khrushchev admits in his memoirs: “I had the idea of installing missiles with nuclear warheads in Cuba without letting the United States find out they were there until it was too late to do anything about them.” The name Operation Anadyr was chosen — named after a river in the Soviet far east to confuse any spies — and the mission was given the go-ahead. This huge misjudgment set the stage for the greatest crisis of the Cold War.

The ports of the Black Sea, the Baltic and the Arctic ocean were busy in the autumn of 1962, as Soviet boats snaked their way towards the Caribbean carrying top-secret cargoes. “We didn’t know where we were going,” recalls Yury Petrov, then a young sergeant in the Soviet Army. “Perhaps Indonesia, maybe Iraq. They gave us both summer and winter clothing and I even took ski boots, as I had no idea what our destination was to be.”

Even commanding officers were kept in the dark, and rumours were spread deliberately to confuse everybody. Ship captains leaving from Black Sea ports were given three sealed envelopes and told to leave Soviet waters before opening the first, which would instruct the ship to sail through the Bosphorous Strait. The second would tell the captain to make for Gibraltar before opening the final envelope that would detail the destination as Cuba.

“We were worried,” says Anatoly Stepurko, an anti-aircraft defence officer who had previously been based in Stalingrad. “We understood that we were in a complicated situation as American planes began to fly low over our boat once we got out into the Atlantic. There were also missiles and an enormous amount of fuel on board, which itself was dangerous. We were definitely unsettled, but refused to be gloomy.”

Mikhail Kuzevanov, vice-chairman of the Cuban missile crisis veterans association, remembers the three-week long journey from the port of Poti in Georgia to Havana. “These cargo vessels normally have a crew of 50 to 60 people, but there were more than 1,000 men on board. During the day soldiers were forbidden from going above deck, and the temperature below was 50C (122F) — almost unbearable.”

The soldiers dubbed themselves the “check-shirt army” as no uniforms were worn at any level to preserve the illusion of the men being tourists or agricultural assistants. Instead the men were issued with a variety of brightly coloured lumberjack shirts.

Despite the possibility for confusion the strict adherence to rank quickly reimposed itself. “A few of the officers, as professional military men, were embarrassed at first,” recalls Igor Kurinoy, an officer with a strategic missile unit. “But given that there were differences between the shirts worn by the officers and the conscripts — quality and colour, for example — military discipline was soon restored, only subordinates would nod to their superiors instead of saluting as usual.”

The US Air Force flew low over all Soviet ships, photographing what was on board. “I remember one time,” says Kuzevanov, “when an American helicopter flew down and started taking pictures — it was nearly touching the deck. There were some sailors on deck peeling potatoes for lunch and I told one of them to throw a potato at the helicopter. He was only too happy to oblige, and thinking a grenade was being thrown, the helicopter pilot flew off and didn’t come back.”

Having reached Cuba, however, the Soviet troops found the pace of life was relatively relaxed. Yury Petrov, now a retired banker, spent much of his year there learning to speak Spanish and playing music with local villagers in the evenings. “Externally there was no great secrecy — only the fact that we were in civilian clothing. As our battery was several kilometres away from the others on our base, we walked around in our underwear all day, enjoying the wonderful climate. “We did not have the possibility of writing home. My parents despaired — my mother wrote a letter to the regiment I had been serving in before I went to Cuba, and received a strange letter encouraging her to calm herself down. They could write to us only by addressing an envelope ‘Moscow D400’ — of course this meant that they thought we were in Moscow, and the troops were routinely asked to buy things for their families from a certain department store, or visit some ageing relatives.”

While getting nuclear weapons to Cuba undetected was a feat, preparing them for deployment in secret would prove to be quite another thing. This made Khrushchev’s plan to announce their presence to the world only after they were in a state of readiness in late November a virtual impossibility, as low-level reconnaissance flights and a daily U2 mission threatened to reveal the scale of the Soviet presence.

Anatoly Burlov, whose travel papers had him down as an irrigation expert, was actually head of a missile regiment and was responsible for choosing locations for nuclear missile launch sites. “It was very difficult to camouflage those missiles. We had special camouflage nets, but nets are only nets and cannot disguise an entire missile launcher. It’s wrong to assume that local people didn’t realise what was going on — we drove missiles through several Cuban towns with very narrow streets, and even though we did this only at night, locals would be sitting outside on their porches, and you cannot hide the fact that you are driving a missile down a dirt road.”

The 42,000 Soviet soldiers — obvious to everyone as either very white or very sunburnt — enjoyed good relations with the Cubans. “As soon as they saw that I was Russian, they would shout ‘Fidel, Nikita, Peace!’ — so the set-up was a friendly one,” Kurinoy says. “We were warned very severely not to break any Cuban laws or to allow any kind of inappropriate behaviour to occur that would bring dishonour to the Soviet people ... . we understood that the Cubans were the bosses.”

However, while the semblance of a quiet life on Cuba continued, the rest of the world was being whipped into a panic. The daily overflight by an American U2 spy plane would prove to be the eventual downfall for Operation Anadyr, and after seeing the aerial shots of missiles on Cuba, Kennedy announced a naval blockade of the island — a move that shocked the Kremlin and threatened to spark off nuclear war as Soviet ships and submarines continued to sail for Cuba.

Given the scale of the operation and the risks involved, the Soviet Army’s hoodwinking of the Americans was impressive — they managed to transport 42,000 troops as well as anti-aircraft missile launchers and both tactical and strategic nuclear missiles before the CIA noticed anything. While senior officers in Cuba were kept fully up to date with developments in Moscow and Washington, to the average Soviet soldier, rumour and tension were the only indicators that anything was amiss.

“We did not realise how dangerous the situation had been or the horror of what could have happened,” Petrov says. “We would be sitting in our trenches reading Pravda’s account of how our ambassador at the UN was claiming that an American photo of a Soviet military force on Cuba was a fake. We sat and laughed at that.”

Kremlin insiders were not so complacent. “I was deeply indignant at how it had all been done,” says Fyodor Burlatsky, an adviser and speechwriter for Khrushchev. “This lie was in the tradition of the Soviet leadership and reflected a part of our Russian mentality — a rather Eastern one, and a very dangerous one in relation to more civilised governments.”

Tom Masters is associate producer of Cuba: The Other Side of Armageddon for BBC4