The day Feltwell stood on nuclear brink
The 60 green lights glowing in the Bomber Command ops room told their own terrifying story. Britain was on the brink of launching the world's first nuclear missile strike with potentially catastrophic consequences.
The 60 green lights glowing in the Bomber Command ops room told their own terrifying story. Britain was on the brink of launching the world's first nuclear missile strike with potentially catastrophic consequences. Armageddon in the form of nuclear annihilation was only minutes away.
At Feltwell, the country's first operational ballistic missile site, the squadron commander was in no doubt that “something really was going to happen”. From his base on the edge of the Fens, Sqd Ldr Ken Hayes phoned his wife and told her to “to get the kids and necessary supplies and be ready to get under the stairs”.
And he wasn't alone in fearing the worst. Convinced a nuclear conflict was certain, another senior officer, Wg Cdr Stanley Baldock, returned home, saw his wife and children off to school and then knelt and prayed. “I thought it was the end,” he says. “I prayed to God he would step in and that this disaster would not come about.”
In the event, his prayers were answered, but never before nor since has the world come closer to mass destruction than it did during that fateful October 46 years ago when the Cuban missile crisis threatened to turn the Cold War into a hot one with potentially lethal consequences for millions of people across eastern England.
The dramatic story of super-power rivalries that catapulted the world to the edge of disaster has been told many times before, but now, for the first time, a book has been published that fully explores the British role in the East-West clash that came within an ace of exploding into total war.
And at its heart is the extraordinary saga of the RAF's 'rocket men', the crews who manned the missile launch sites, many of whom had never previously spoken openly about their experiences which would culminate, in the words of one of them, in “the most frightening” days of their lives.
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Launch Pad UK: Britain and the Cuban Missile Crisis, by former EDP and Anglia TV journalist Jim Wilson, is, indeed, the scariest of stories. It charts the development of the Thor missiles, their controversial deployment in eastern England and examines how close they came to being fired in anger in the autumn of 1962.
“Looking back,” says Wilson, “it's really frightening to discover just how near we came to the most terrible of wars imaginable without actually realising we were just minutes away from disaster. It's amazing how they've managed to keep a lid on this for so long.”
Though two years in the researching and writing, the genesis of Launch Pad UK may be traced back half or century or more to when a young Jim Wilson was working as a news reporter for the EDP based at Thetford.
The former RAF national serviceman, who had spent months at the eastern region air defence headquarters in the vast underground bunker at Bawburgh plotting Russian aircraft near the east coast, found himself an unwitting observer to the creation of Britain's first strategic ballistic missile force.
But through all that period, when he'd reported on the construction of the first launch sites, centred on the former wartime bomber base at Feltwell, and the CND protests that followed, he admits to having been oblivious as to the drama that eventually unfolded and the threat that the missiles' presence actually posed to those living nearby.
“When I consider it now,” he says ruefully, “I feel pretty annoyed that I didn't pick up a whisper of this. Our first child was born in 1959 and as a young married couple with a kid I remember we were extremely concerned about what happened in '62. I recall watching on a flickering black and white television the reports about the blockade of Cuba, the Russian ships approaching, and feeling concerned about what might happen, but having no idea that what would happen was just down the road from where I lived… It's really scary, looking back, to see how vulnerable East Anglia was.”
What made the region such a dangerous place to be almost 50 years ago was the presence, in addition to the rash of nuclear bomber bases, of the RAF's original ballistic missile complex, centred on Feltwell but with four satellite launch sites at North Pickenham, near Swaffham, Shepherd's Grove and Tuddenham in Suffolk and Mepal in Cambridgeshire.
From the moment it became operational in 1959, the complex, with its 15 American-built intermediate range Thor missiles targeting cities and military installations in the Soviet bloc, became an obvious target for Russian missiles.
In other words, a weapon hailed by the government as a “megaton-rocket deterrent” actually made Britain a more likely target. Or at least that's what the military chiefs thought. “They took the view that the siting of the missiles here was far more in the interest of the Americans than it was in ours and that rather than protecting us they made the UK far more vulnerable.”
But that, as Wilson has discovered, was not the only danger posed by the arrival of the Thor missiles. There was another hazard inherent in the weapon itself. In short, there were serious concerns about the missile's reliability. “One of the scariest aspects of the whole episode,” says Wilson, “is the way Thor was rushed into service because the Americans feared, erroneously as it happens, that they were falling behind the Russians in the development of missiles.
“The British chiefs of staff were pretty anxious about it. It had been rushed in so fast and there had been so many testing accidents and malfunctions that they considered it wasn't a fully developed weapon when it was based here.”
The statistics cited by Wilson would tend to bear them out. In theory, a 65ft Thor missile launched from the UK could hit Moscow within 18 minutes of the order to fire, but out of 18 research and development test firings between January 1957 and October 1958 only seven had been successful and some had resulted in “spectacular explosions”, at least two of them within 90 seconds of lift-off.
“If a missile went astray in testing it could be blown up,” says Wilson, “but there was no way of destroying a live missile from an operational base in this country, so if one had gone astray it doesn't bear thinking about what would have happened.”
Given their wretched testing record and the fact that each missile was over a hundred times more destructive than the atom bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, it is easy to see why some feared that the missiles posed almost as a great a risk to the launch crews and the people living nearby as the Russians.
“Initially,” says Wilson, “there was a suggestion that the missiles might be sited in the centre of the country, but that would have meant their flight path going over parts of London or Oxford. So they decided instead to use sites along the east coast which had been earmarked for Britain's own ballistic missile, Blue Streak. Presumably, the population there was more expendable.”
Political will, however, over-rode military concerns and public protest. By May 1960 four missile complexes boasting 20 launch sites and 60 Thor rockets were operational, representing, on paper at least, a deterrent force of far greater destructive power than all the bombs of all the wars that had gone before.
But with such enormous might came huge responsibility and no little psychological strain on the men charged with launching the rockets. Sqd Ldr Frank Leatherdale, a veteran of the second world war bomber offensive who was CO at North Pickenham, tells of the “mental burden” of being responsible for the “safety” of three nuclear warheads and adds: “We were working all the time to perfect the technique, but if ever we had to launch this deterrent weapon we knew we would have failed in our primary duty.”
Few among the launch crews had a clue where the missiles were directed, the targets being represented merely by 15-digit numbers contained in sealed envelopes. And as Les Pettman put it to Wilson: “Frankly we really did not want to know.”
High-levels of security and intense training were the order of the day for the 'rocket men', the object being to be able to react at a moment's notice to any call for action. It was a call few seriously imagined would ever come until events in the Caribbean in 1962 threatened to explode into a nuclear conflagration.
The crisis that would lead to Britain's missile bases being placed on their highest alert began with Russia's covert operation to install nuclear missiles in Cuba in retaliation for the siting of American missiles in Turkey.
Initial scepticism about Russian intentions eventually turned to anger and hostility when spy flights discovered the launch sites and their apparent operational readiness. By October, what might have been intended as a display of brinkmanship and sabre-rattling threatened to escalate into full-scale conflict.
On October 22, President Kennedy announced an immediate blockade of Cuba and American forces around the world were placed on high alert, just two stages below actually going to war. Two days later, conflict moved a perilous step nearer when the US Strategic Air Command moved to the highest state of alert short of all-out war.
By then, and contrary to official statements at the time, the RAF's V-bomber force at bases, including Marham, were on “quick reaction alert” beside their nuclear-armed aircraft and the Thor missile crews were ready to launch within minutes.
Three days of unremitting tension culminated in what became known as Black Saturday when RAF Bomber Command ordered its V-force and Thor missile squadrons to the unprecedented Alert Condition 3. Whether this was the government's intention remains unclear. Wilson says Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's instructions were “pretty ambiguous”.
Whatever the truth, it is clear that as a result of the decision 59 of the 60 Thor missiles were brought to a peak of readiness. Theoretically, this meant they would be ready for launch within 15 minutes, but in practice many were fuelled-up and set up to be fired within as little as eight or even, in some cases, four minutes.
Senior Technician Ian Killick, based at Feltwell, called it “the most frightening three days of his life”. “It was an experience that will hopefully never be repeated,” he is quoted as saying. “We were convinced that this would be it.”
Brian Jennings, a member of the launch crew at North Pickenham, recalls being assigned to Pad Thirteen. “After carrying out initial checks on our missile… we carried out a countdown to the end of Phase Two, which in effect checked out all the basic systems.”
The shelter housing the missile was then retracted, the missile being raised on its launch mount and locked in place with the countdown put on hold. “The only thing left to do was to fuel the missile, which would take approximately three minutes, and from then on she would be ready to launch,” he adds.
Later, Jennings remembers returning home to find his children playing with toys bought for them as Christmas presents. Asked why, his wife replied: “I gave the toys to them because if we are all not going to be here much longer they might as well enjoy Christmas now.”
It was a doomsday scenario shared by others who knew that the launch sites were, as Wilson puts it, “one trick ponies”, almost certain to be wiped out before a second wave of missiles could be sent on their way. As one base commander put it: “Perhaps the worst thing was to realise that the station and dispersed sites would be hit and destroyed shortly after we had fired our own missiles, or before if the Russians chose to make a pre-emptive strike.”
Such grim realities, however, were in total contrast to the mood in the country at large. “What was truly amazing,” says Wilson, “is that while all this was going on, the rest of the country was carrying on in a state of blissful ignorance.”
The air of unreality that existed beyond the V-bomber bases and Thor sites was summed up by Marshal of the RAF Sir Michael Beetham, who was then a group captain serving at Bomber Command HQ. “Strangely enough,” he told Wilson, “the rest of the nation seemed to be quite unaware that there was a crisis at all. When we went out for a meal or took a break outside, the sun was shining and the media were obsessed with some football match…”
Just as incredible, believes Wilson, was the fact that none of the contingency plans, which included mobilising Civil Defence teams and instituting evacuation procedures, were ever put into effect to protect the civilian population. “In point of fact,” says Wilson whose book also examines the political fall-out of the crisis, “the senior Civil Defence officer in Norwich was asked by the town clerk what they were supposed to do and he had to admit he'd had no instructions. Asked to contact Regional HQ, he was told that they'd had no instructions either. So, he contacted the Home Office who virtually told him to 'go away and not to worry'.
“But, of course, the concern in Norwich was very real indeed, because the city was downwind of a whole lot of target sites that were bound to be hit by nuclear weapons had we gone to war.
“I can only imagine the government felt public ignorance would prevent public panic.”
In the event, both sides pulled back from the brink. Within 24 hours of Black Saturday, America and Russia had reached agreement and, although portrayed by the West as a Soviet climbdown, it is now clear the crisis was ended by a trade-off with Russia withdrawing its missiles from Cuba in return for American missiles being pulled out of Turkey.
As for the Thor squadrons in eastern England, the writing was already on the wall even before the Cuban crisis. In May 1962 a decision had been taken to disband the missile squadrons that had once seemed to represent the future of the RAF and, within nine months of what some regard as their finest hour, they ceased to exist.
“The fact is,” says Wilson, “we never came closer to nuclear war than on this occasion and, while the whole thing demonstrates how easy it was pull the wool over people's eyes back then, it also shows how much people trusted in the deterrent. And, at the end of the day, I imagine that this proves the deterrent worked.”
Launch Pad UK: Britain and the Cuban Missile Crisis by Jim Wilson is published by Pen & Sword, priced £19.99.