The Underwater Cuban Missile Crisis

Soviet Submarines and the Risk of Nuclear War – Published on The National Security Archive, Electronic Briefing Book No. 399, by Thomas Blanton, William Burr and Svetlana Savranskaya, October 24, 2012.

… The newly published documents in the posting include the original Soviet Navy map of the Caribbean showing the locations of the four “Foxtrot” diesel submarines that had deployed from the Kola peninsula northwest of Murmansk on October 1, 1962, bound for Mariel port in Cuba to establish a submarine base there. Unknown to the U.S. Navy, each of the subs carried a nuclear-tipped torpedo, with oral instructions to the captains to use them if attacked by the Americans and hulled either above or below the waterline.  

The documents include the never-before-published after-action report prepared by Soviet Northern Fleet Headquarters after the four commanders’ return to Murmansk in November 1962, describing the atrocious conditions aboard the subs, which were not designed for operations in tropical waters.

The posting also includes the U.S. Navy message on October 24, 1962, detailing the “Submarine Surfacing and Identification Procedures” to be followed by U.S. forces enforcing the quarantine of Cuba, including dropping “four or five harmless explosive sound signals” after which “Submerged submarines, on hearing this signal, should surface on Easterly course.” The State Department communicated this procedure to “other Governments” including the Soviet Foreign Ministry, but the Soviet submarine commanders, in a series of interviews in recent years, report they never received the message.

A fascinating sub-plot of the underwater missile crisis involves U.S. efforts to locate the Soviet submarines. Since 27 September 1962, the U.S. Navy had been tracking the subs using listening posts that detected electronically-compressed “burst radio transmissions” between Soviet Navy command posts and the submarines themselves. The messages could not be deciphered but the location from where they were transmitted could be identified. While U.S. Navy analysts had assumed that the subs were on their way to the Barents Sea for exercises they discovered that they were in the North Atlantic on their way to Cuba. [1] Another high-tech method for tracking subs was the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) that detected the noise made by submarine engines. [2] The Navy also used “mad contacts”, referring to magnetic anomaly detection (MAD), and “Julie” and “Jezebel” sonobouys. [3]

The Archive’s publication also makes available:

  • Anatoly Petrovich Andreyev, excerpts of diary entries, October 1962.
  • Photographic images of the evocative diary of submariner Anatoly Petrovich Andreyev, who wrote his account as a letter to his wife describing the equipment breakdowns, the elevated temperatures, the lack of ventilation or fresh water, skin rashes, 30-40% weight loss, and a crew stripped down to their skivvies to deal with the heat.
  • Video of Soviet signals intelligence officer Vadim Orlov from the historic 2002 40th anniversary conference on the Missile Crisis, in Havana, Cuba. Orlov served on the B-59 submarine and witnessed how close the sub’s commander came to arming the nuclear torpedo aboard.
  • Video of Capt. John Peterson (USN retired) at the 2002 Havana conference, describing the hunt for Orlov’s submarine, acknowledging that the “signaling depth charges” he and his crew dropped on the Soviets might have sounded very different to the Soviet sailors down below Peterson’s destroyer … //

… (full text, Docs, Maps, Photos, Videos and Notes).

follow up tomorrow, Oct. 31, 2012.

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