One Russian Submarine Nearly Caused the Cuban Missile Crisis to Go Nuclear

Sebastien Roblin

Key point: Thank God no Soviet submarine fired its nuclear torpedos when they were attacked with practice depth charges from the U.S. blockade.

It is commonly accepted that the world has never come closer to nuclear war than during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the United States confronted Soviet Union over its deployment of ballistic nuclear missiles to Cuba. But in popular imagination, the decisions for war would have come from national leaders sitting in the comfort of executive offices in Washington or Moscow.

In fact, that decision was nearly taken out of Khrushchev and Kennedy’s hands by a group of men in the throes of dehydration and CO2 poisoning as they sat in a malfunctioning submarine surrounded by U.S. destroyers, unable to consult with Moscow.

Two officers gave the order to prepare a nuclear weapon for launch.

Fortunately, they brought their boss with them.

The origin of the Cuban Missile Crisis in fact lay in Operation Anadyr, the Soviet plan to covertly deploy fifty thousand personnel and their heavy weapons to Cuba by sea. Anadyr remains a masterpiece of operational security. Even the name Anadyr itself, referencing a river in Russia, was meant to deflect attention from its actual goals. Soviet diplomats prepared a cover story by boasting of a major civilian development program in Cuba. Meanwhile, orders for the troop deployments were transmitted by courier, and the troops and ship captains did not learn about their actual destination until they were given letters by KGB agents at sea.

A total of eighty-six Soviet ships transferred an entire motorized rifle division to Cuba, as well as forty MiG-21 jet fighters, two anti-aircraft divisions with SA-2 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), sixteen ballistic missile launchers loaded to fire R-12 and R-14 missiles, six Il-28 jet bombers, and twelve FROG-3 tactical ballistic missile systems. The last three systems came with their own nuclear warheads. The troops and equipment were mostly concealed from sight on the ships, though U.S. Navy aircraft did spot some of the SAMs on one transport on September 4. On the whole, however, the Soviet deception was a remarkable success.

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