The day Britain was 15 minutes from
By Sue Reid
Last updated at 10:48 PM on 26th September 2008
The Cold War was at its icy height. Mini-skirts and Beatlemania were still a
year away, but on London's streets the autumn of 1962 was marked by thousands of
militant Ban the Bomb supporters marching behind the bristling banners of the
newly formed Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Yet unbeknown to them, as darkness fell over the capital on Friday, October
26, the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, was waiting for a call from the
American President which could have led to Armageddon.
When the hotline call eventually came, the ten-minute conversation between
the two men was cordial.
Vulcan bomber: Ready to wreak havoc on
Moscow with a nuclear attack
From the tone of the two leaders' voices, there was little to suggest that
the world was on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe.
'I will talk to you again before we do anything of a drastic nature,'
promised the 45-year-old John F. Kennedy courteously, before bidding goodnight.
'Well, thank you,' responded Macmillan over the crackly line in the rich,
plummy tones of an English aristocrat. 'I will be here, so you can get me at any
time today, tomorrow or Sunday.'
Almost 46 years ago, a nerve-wracking stand-off was under way between the
world's two superpowers, America and Russia.
The U.S. had discovered that Soviet nuclear missile bases were being built in
Cuba, run by the Communist Fidel Castro, just 100 miles from the U.S. coastline
The crisis was a major confrontation of the Cold War, and the closest the
capitalist West and the Communist East have ever come to a nuclear war.
In a bar in Old Havana, the Cuban capital, 12 days before the transatlantic
call to Macmillan, 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
A few hours later, as dawn broke on Sunday, October 14, an American spy plane
was sent to check out the story.
The pilot took 928 pictures, covering a swathe of 75 miles, as he passed over
the northern beaches of Cuba.
To Washington's alarm, it was true. President Kennedy was informed on Monday
morning that sites had been prepared in Cuba and that 40 missiles with nuclear
warheads were being readied in the Soviet Union to be sent to silos there.
For the next 13 days, the world held its breath. Soviet ships carrying the
missiles were soon heading towards a blockade mounted around Cuba by U.S.
Kennedy was considering bombing the Cuban missile sites and invading the
In the end - and only after Macmillan had advised his younger American
counterpart to proceed with caution - both sides retreated from the horror they
might have unleashed.
The Soviet ships turned back, avoiding a high seas battle. The Russians
ordered the missile sites to be dismantled in exchange for an American promise
that the Soviets' tiny island ally would not be invaded.
Until now, however, there has been little to suggest that Britain played a
significant role in the stand-off between the White House and the Kremlin, other
than as a power-depleted U.S. ally watching from the sidelines.
But this week, [week ending 27th September 2008] a BBC
Radio Four programme Document revealed that Britain stood at the brink of war.
And, according to well-placed Soviets, London would have been the first place
to face a nuclear attack by Russia and her premier Nikita Khrushchev because
Britain was closer to Moscow than Washington.
Prepared: British Prime Minister Harold
Macmillan ordered Vulcan pilots to get ready
The story which emerged this week [week ending 27th September
2008] - and is confirmed in documents and transcripts seen by
the Daily Mail - shows that while CND protesters massed in London
for the first time, our capital city was lined up in the Kremlin's sights, and
we were ready to respond.
In President Kennedy's first public speech on the crisis, just four days
before the weekend call to Macmillan, he gave a key warning, which today takes
on an eerie significance.
He declared with defiance: 'It shall be the policy of this nation to regard
any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the West as an
attack on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response against the
Twelve minutes before his speech, the U.S. gave the British Government
'formal advance notice' of the escalating crisis through its ambassador in
London - four hours before it warned other Western European powers, including
the French and Germans.
A copy of the Kennedy speech was delivered to Downing Street. The photos of
the Cuban missile sites from the spy plane, together with a briefing paper from
the CIA, were included in the package to be seen only by Macmillan and his
Meanwhile, as Britain prepared for a weekend of football matches and Sunday
lunches, its people - including the growing number of CND activists - were
largely unaware of the emergency unfolding on their doorstep.
Only now has it been revealed that as many as 40 of Britain's 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.
At the time, he was an air electronics officer on a Vulcan bomber based at
RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire.
He confirmed that the aircraft were loaded with nuclear bombs, designed to
strike their targets on Soviet soil with stunning accuracy.
'We sat there with our Mae Wests on [beside the aircraft]. It was not
terribly comfortable, although we had caravans so we had somewhere to sleep and
spend a penny.'
Two other former RAF airmen have also spoken about that weekend on stand-by.
'On the Saturday afternoon [of October 27] we were on the highest alert. I
wondered what was coming through my earphones next,' said one. 'The message
could have been "Scramble!".'
President John Kennedy: He came to the
brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis
That message would have come from Sir Michael Beetham, group captain of HQ
Bomber Command at High Wycombe. His superior had a direct line to Downing
Recalling those days, he told Radio Four: 'No one in the outside world seemed
to know what was going on. I think the Prime Minister wanted to play down the
'We got the message that no overt action was to be taken. Anything we did
decide to do had to be done quietly.
'We were so successful that nothing ever appeared in the Press, despite the
fact that we had generated the entire V-Force to a very high state of readiness.
'We even put the crews in the cockpits at one stage, but basically they were
held at 15 minutes' notice.
'Once the bombs were on board, we wanted to go on to the next stage in our
alert procedures which would have dispersed the force. But we were forbidden to
'Looking back, Cuba was certainly a very traumatic experience for those
involved, but strangely enough the rest of the nation seemed to be quite unaware
there was a crisis at all.'
No wonder there was secrecy. Macmillan was facing a dilemma. He did not want
to provoke Moscow and, therefore, refused to disperse the Vulcans around the
country, in case it was seen as antagonistic and a trigger for war by
Nor did he want the British public to realise the whole truth. He refused to
call up the 300,000-strong British Civil Defence Corps, who had been trained to
react in the face of any nuclear catastrophe, to avoid panic.
But was there more to his reticence? Macmillan had nurtured the so-called
'special relationship' between Britain and the U.S. since becoming Prime
Minister in the 1950s.
His fondness for America and his closeness to Kennedy were particularly
Nearly 20 years earlier, during World War II, Winston Churchill had
dispatched Macmillan to North Africa as the Minister-Resident at American
President Dwight (Ike) Eisenhower's Allied headquarters.
As Macmillan was to comment afterwards: 'I was a sort of son to Ike and it
was the other way round later with me and Kennedy.'
He also liked to remind everyone - particularly the U.S. leaders whom he
viewed as friends - that his mother, Nellie Artie Tarleton Belles, was American,
and that because of this blood link he loved their country, too.
All-out war between Russia and America would have been unthinkable to him,
although at that moment the prospect was staring him in the face.
Macmillan's ambiguity - and his feelings as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded
- are revealed in one of the few internal documents from the time available to
Marked Top Secret, it records a meeting between the top brass of Britain's
military at 2.30pm on Saturday, October 27, less than a day after Macmillan's
hotline call from Kennedy and as the Vulcan bombers waited on stand-by.
According to the minuted notes, stored at the National Archives in Kew,
London, a defence ministry official told the Chief of the Air Staff and the
First Sea Lord: 'The Prime Minister is adamant that he does not consider the
time appropriate for any overt preparatory steps to be taken, such as
mobilisation. However, he wishes the air force to be ready to take appropriate
steps should this become necessary.'
But did Macmillan really believe that the huge Vulcans on the airfields -
their engines primed for take-off, the nuclear payloads on board, and their
crewmen by their side - had not been spotted by Moscow?
The son of Nikita Khrushchev, Sergei, was at his father's side in the Kremlin
throughout the Cuban crisis.
He said revealingly this week: [27th Sept. 2008] 'Of
course, we knew everything. We had to - we were facing a nuclear war throughout
the whole of Europe.'
Which, perhaps, makes another secret plan by the British Government that
weekend even more surprising.
While on the brink of war, it was plotting to protect the nation's most
important art treasures from nuclear attack.
Ironically, Anthony Blunt, the surveyor of the Queen's pictures who was later
to be unmasked as a Soviet spy, was among the handful of top gallery directors
informed about the proposals to safeguard the works of art. No wonder Moscow was
aware of what was happening in Britain.
Under the scheme, first codenamed Operation Goya and later changed on the
advice of Government sceptics to Operation Methodical, 11 large removal vans
were earmarked to take the cream of the collection from the National Gallery,
the Tate, the British Museum, the Public Record Office, the Royal Collection and
the Victoria and Albert Museum to Manod Quarry in North Wales and to Westwood
quarry at Corsham in Wiltshire.
The Treasury planned for troops and museum staff to be on duty.
Just what Macmillan thought of this plan is not recorded. But declassified
papers at Kew reveal how worried some Government officials were of the potential
impact on the public of hiding the art treasures.
Fears were raised that whisking away the nation's Old Masters would cause
public alarm, leading to chaos as people learned the scale of the danger and
fled London for safety.
Sir Thomas Padmore, the second secretary of the Treasury, passed down this
view. 'Personally, I have very little sympathy with all this. If this country,
and other countries, are going to be devastated and destroyed to the degree
which would be caused by an all-out nuclear attack, I cannot bring myself to
care very much about artistic treasures, however great and however
These were, of course, complicated times. In the event, Macmillan's
Government did not approve the art evacuation plan until 1963, well after the
missile crisis was over.
As for the stand-off between the West and the Kremlin, Khrushchev's son says
that his father viewed the British Prime Minister as a wise politician who tried
to calm President Kennedy during what could have become a world calamity.
A recently released sound recording of the late-night hotline call between
Kennedy and Macmillan reveals how the older man soothed the younger leader.
They discussed whether military action was needed to stop Russian ships
getting to Cuba and whether the United Nations should dismantle the nuclear
Macmillan suggested that 'if we want to help the Russians to save face',
nuclear missiles on British soil could be dismantled temporarily in exchange for
Few would have appreciated such a suggestion more than Wing Commander Peter
West - one of the young airmen who spent that weekend on a Lincolnshire airfield
thinking that orders to nuke Soviet Russia were about to come through their
He was terrified for his young family. Before his ordeal began, he begged his
wife to get in the car and take their three children to the west of Scotland,
away from any airfields, and hide.
But she refused to leave her husband. She thought that if the Kremlin was
going to fire its nuclear weapons at London and British military bases, not an
inch of this small island would escape the subsequent destruction.
This young mother wanted to remain at home, cuddling the children, so they
would all die together.
Thankfully, of course, such a fate never happened - but now we
know just how close this country came to Armageddon.