Eighty-fifth Chapter in a Series Chronicling the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
Author’s Note: Because the climactic days of the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred 50 years ago this weekend, when this blog does not publish, we must work one day ahead of events this week in order not to fall hopelessly behind.
Day 11: Friday, October 26th, 1962
Soviet Forces in Cuba Go to Combat Status
At about 6 PM, unbeknownst to the United States until years later, Castro visits General Pliyev’s command center near Havana and hears this report of the combat status of Soviet forces in Cuba:
- The motorized rifle regiments are ready.
- The air force MiG-21 units are ready.
- The SAMs are ready.
- Most importantly, five out of six MRBM batteries are ready to launch nuclear warheads against U.S. cities and bases. The sixth MRBM unit might be able to launch some missiles but not with complete accuracy.
Castro then asks Pliyev to activite the SAM sites’ radars. He tells Pliyev that he is fed to the teeth with the U.S. Navy’s nerve-wracking low-level missions over Cuba, which cannot be distinguished from a real attack. Castro says he intends to shoot down any more Yankee intruders.
During the evening General Pliyev takes these actions:
- Authorizes air defense commanders to activate their radars and to fire at any enemy airplanes which attack Cuba.
- Orders that the land approaches to the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo be mined (an act of war).
- Orders two FKR batteries, one at Mayari Arriba and one near Mariel, to move from their reserve positions to their advance firing positions.
- Orders that some of the nuclear warheads for the MRBMs be transported to the missile sites from their reserve storage areas, which the CIA never located.
The firing position for the FKR batteries near Mariel overlooks the landing beaches where we know US troops would certainly come ashore. (See map of planned landing areas for air-and sea-borne troops.)
The firing position for the Mayari Arriba battery is in the hills about 10 miles north of the Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay. That battery cannot fire until it receives orders from Moscow to destroy the American base. That will take a single cruise missile.
American Forces are Ready for Combat
Invasion force: Some 150,000 troops are assembled in the southeastern United States or are already at sea ready to invade Cuba on orders from Washington.
Aerial strikes: The invasion would be preceded by at least three days of low-level aerial strikes intended to destroy the strategic missile sites, the 24 antiaircraft missile sites ringing Cuba, and the Soviet-Cuban command and control capability.
Two Navy task forces based on the attack carriers Independence and Enterprise are waiting south of Jamaica to move in and the conduct low-level attacks on Soviet and Cuba installations that would precede an invasion. Hundreds of land-based attack aircraft are waiting at southern airfields to fly similar missions.
Antisubmarine hunter-killer forces: Unbeknownst to anyone in the United States except the Pentagon, Navy hunter-killer forces are tracking three of the four Soviet Foxtrot submarines in the Atlantic northeast of Cuba.
Americans Ignorant about Soviet Strength
As Friday ends, the Americans know some things about the Soviet-Cuban troop dispositions—but they don’t know the crucial things.
The Americans know, for example, that the Soviet strategic missiles in Cuba can be launched—but they don’t know the missiles have been aimed at their American targets.
The Americans also know that 24 antiaircraft SA-2 missile sites are ready to shoot down any enemy aircraft flying above 3,000 feet. They don’t know, however, what provocation will trigger a shoot-down. From the 15th through the 25th inclusive, SA-2 fire control radars have not locked onto a single one of the 21 U-2 missiles flown over the length of interior Cuba, well within range of all 24 sites. What will provoke them to fire?
The Americans have no idea that there are close to 90 tactical nuclear warheads in Cuba. And they certainly do not know that these tactical missiles have been ordered to their forward firing stations to destroy the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo as well as to incinerate the massive American force poised to invade Cuba by sea.
The Americans have no idea that there are four Soviet motorized infantry regiments in Cuba totaling 10,000 trained troops, each regiment equipped with tanks and field guns. They know about only one of these regiments, photographed on the 25th near Remedios, with some crude unguided Luna missiles (NATO name FROG). They have no idea that three of the four regiments are equipped with Luna missiles that can deliver three nuclear warheads per regiment.
The Frail Flower of Diplomacy: Still Alive?
At 6 PM a long, rambling telegram to President Kennedy from Nikita Khrushchev begins to clatter out of the teletype machines at the White House and State Department. After accusing the U.S. of “threatening us with war,” Khrushchev proposes that a) the USSR “will declare our ships bound for Cuba are not carrying any armaments” if b) Kennedy will declare that the United States “will not invade Cuba” or support any other forces which might do so.
Interestingly, Khrushchev does not mention his old bête noir, NATO’S Jupiter missiles in Turkey aimed at “his” dacha in Georgia.
As dark falls over Washington, Kennedy and his advisers begin to analyze this unexpected overture. There must be a catch…
Where Are We Going? How Will It End?
By nightfall on the 26th, the only thing separating the “fell incensèd points of [these] mighty opposites” is Khrushchev’s rambling response to Kennedy’s ultimatums of the 22nd.
“Black Saturday” Looms
Tomorrow we look at the worst day of the 13-day Cuban Crisis: Day 12, Saturday, October 27th, 1962. Three events on Black Saturday came close to precipitating a nuclear conflict between the USSR and the United States.
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Sources and Notes
Castro’s visit to Pliyev’s headquarters is described p. 159ff of Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. For the operational status of the MRBM batteries, Dobbs cites Blight et al’s Cuba on the Brink: Castro, the Missile Crisis, and the Soviet Collapse. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2002, p. 111. For Castro’s request that Pliyev activate the SAM system’s radar grid Dobbs cites ibid, p. 113.
Re the number of MRBMs in Cuba: the original Soviet General Staff deployment memorandum approved by the Presidium on May 24, 1962, specified three R-12 (NATO SS-4) MRBM regiments, each regiment with eight launchers for a total of 24 MRBM launchers. The memorandum unfortunately does not provide the exact number of missiles and warheads assigned to the three MRBM regiments. It says only that the deployment would include “1.5 missiles and 1.5 warheads per each launcher” for both the MRBM and the IRBM missiles to be sent to Cuba, for a total of 60 missiles and 60 warheads. Given that three MRBM and two IRBM regiments were designated in the June ANADYR deployment order, it seems logical that 60 percent of the missiles and launchers, or 36 of each, would have been slated for the MRBMs. How many were actually trucked to the MRBM sites the night of the 26th I do not know.
As we have seen, the ships carrying the IRBMs were ordered back to Cuba early on Oct. 23rd, and their warheads, which had arrived in Cuba, followed them ho,e/
With respect to Castro’s determination to shoot down the Navy’s low-level photo reconnaissance aircraft: the 26th was the fourth straight day the Navy had flown these frightening forays over Cuba. If you have not experienced a combat aircraft snarling unexpectedly close overhead at 500 knots, you cannot imagine how terrifying that experience can be, especially if you are expecting to be attacked—as the Cubans were on October 26th. If you aren’t looking in the direction of the aircraft, you know it is there only when it screams over you, scaring the daylights out of you and everyone else nearby. In that split-second you have no way of knowing whether this is the last sound you will ever hear. The Navy F8s carried only cameras, of course—but the Cubans whom they terrified, repeatedly, did not know that.
Dobbs also provides details of Pliyev’s orders to move R-12 warheads to the missile sites: . pp. 170-171 in One Minute. Most of Dobbs’s sources are Russian.
Pliyev’s actions the evening of the 26th are described in One Minute, pp. 170-171.
One Minute also provides a moving description of Cubans’ fatalistic acceptance of their imminent deaths in the invasion to come on pp. 183 and 239. General Gribkov describes Soviet soldiers on October 26th preparing themselves for the imminent battle through “old Russian… ritual purification” of bathing, either in showers or the sea. Anatoli I. Gribkov and William Y. Smith, Operation ANADYR: U.S. and Soviet Generals Recount the Cuban Missile Crisis. Chicago: edition q, inc., 1994, 65.
Dobbs was the first Westerner to break the story that an FKR battery had actually been moved into firing position on Oct. 26th to destroy the Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay. See One Minute, p. 178ff.
Details of the U.S. forces poised to strike Cuba appear on pp. 309-10 of Norman Polmar and John D. Gresham, DEFCON-2: Standing on the Brink of Nuclear War during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2006.
Khrushchev’s October 26 letter to Kennedy is document 84 in Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume XI, the Missile Crisis and Aftermath (http://www.state.gov/www/about_state/history/frusXI/76_100.html).
“Fell and incensed points” comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act V Scene ii.