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Newly Translated Documents Give Fuller Picture of Nuclear Danger During Cuban Missile Crisis

The commander of a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine panicked and came close to launching a nuclear torpedo during the Cuban missile crisis 60 years ago, after being blinded and disoriented by aggressive US tactics, according to newly translated documents.

Many nuclear historians agree that 27 October 1962, known as “Black Saturday”, was the closest the world came to nuclear catastrophe, as US forces enforced a blockade of Cuba to stop deliveries of Soviet missiles. On the same day a U-2 spy plane was shot down over the island, and another went missing over Siberia when the pilot lost his way.

Six decades on from the “world’s most dangerous day”, last week’s revelation that a Russian warplane fired a missile near a British Rivet Joint surveillance plane over the Black Sea has once more heightened concerns that miscalculation or accident could trigger uncontrolled escalation.

In October 1962, the US sent its anti-submarine forces to hunt down Soviet submarines trying to slip through the “quarantine” imposed on Cuba. The most perilous moment came when one of those submarines, B-59, was forced to surface late at night in the Sargasso Sea to recharge its batteries and found itself surrounded by US destroyers and anti-submarine planes circling overhead.

In a newly translated account, one of the senior officers on board, Captain Second Class Vasily Arkhipov, described the scene.

“Overflights by planes just 20-30 metres above the submarine’s conning tower, use of powerful searchlights, fire from automatic cannons (over 300 shells), dropping depth charges, cutting in front of the submarine by destroyers at a dangerously [small] distance, targeting guns at the submarine,” Arkhipov, the chief of staff of the 69th submarine brigade, recalled.

In his account, first given in 1997 but published for the first time in English by the National Security Archive at George Washington University, the submarine’s commander, Valentin Savitsky, lost his nerve.

Arkhipov said one of the US planes “turned on powerful searchlights and blinded the people on the bridge so that their eyes hurt”.

“It was a shock,” he said. “The commander physically could not give any orders, could not even understand what was happening.”

Read entire article at The Guardian