27 October 1962
At 1.00 pm on 27 October 1962, Air Marshal Sir Kenneth Cross placed RAF bases, housing sixty H-bomb tipped missiles and over 100 RAF nuclear V bombers, on to alert level three. It was the highest state of alert Britain ever went to during the entire Cold War. Its nuclear strike force was ‘all systems go’ and ready to obliterate Soviet cities at just a few minutes notice.1
This perilous military escalation, of which Moscow was fully aware and which took the country to the brink of terminal nuclear war, was carried out without the public being notified. According to Dennis Healey, who later became Secretary of State for Defence, even the Ministry of Defence had been unaware of Bomber Command’s preparations for a nuclear assault. It was only on 18 February the following year that the Daily Mail finally broke the news, under a front-page headline – ‘When Britain went to the Brink.’ When Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister, was later questioned in parliament he insisted that he had merely taken normal ‘precautionary steps’.2
Some MPs did not feel reassured. Stephen Swingler, Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, reasoned that the prime minister was either suggesting that the Daily Mail correspondent’s detailed allegations were lies or alternatively he was using the banal turn of phrase ‘precautionary steps’ to cover what was in fact ‘a national suicide pact.’ Tom Driberg, the Labour MP for Barking, was also skeptical and asked why if these were indeed normal procedures, the government had at the time issued ‘categorical denials’ that any such precautions were being taken.3
Macmillan’s responses were evasive, and he left unmentioned the near certainty that Britain would have been in the front line or any retaliatory strike by Soviet bombers, which would have annihilated every major urban settlement. This enormous risk had been taken, alongside the mobilisation of America’s nuclear armed bombers and missiles, to force the Soviet Union to back down over its stationing of nuclear missiles in Cuba.
Moscow had placed missiles there to deter repeated CIA backed terror attacks on the island and what at the time seemed like the likelihood of an imminent American invasion, and which we now know was being planned. The Soviet Union’s action was also a desperate attempt to redress the balance of nuclear terror, as it already faced a significant first strike threat from American Jupiter missiles based in Turkey.
- Jim Wilson, Britain on the Brink: The Cold War’s Most Dangerous Weekend, 27-28 October 1962, Pen and Sword Military, Barnsley, 2012, p. 10.
- ‘Premier Explains “Cuban Alert”,’ The Belfast Telegraph, 28 February 1963, p. 1.
- ‘Nation not told of H-Alert,’ The Birmingham Post, 1 March 1963, p. 5.
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