Fifty years ago this month the world held its breath as the Cuban missile crisis brought us to the brink of nuclear catastrophe writes Mike Haynes.
In Shropshire, as elsewhere, people opened their morning newspapers to find pictures taken by a US spy plane of Russian missile bases being built in Cuba, just 90 miles from the Florida beaches.
America believed that Soviet missiles were being placed against its back door. But the threat was mutual. When President Kennedy was woken with the news of the missile sites he said it was ‘just as if we suddenly began to put a massive number of missiles in Turkey’.
‘Well, we did, Mr President,’ said his national security adviser.
Both countries seemed determined to go to the brink – the question was would either Kennedy or Khrushchev, the two leaders, give the order to press the button.
For days people listened nervously to radio broadcasts and watched the flickering black and white news bulletins on their televisions. The first live Atlantic satellite broadcasts had been made months before using the newly launched Telstar satellite. But the technology that was bringing the world together was also in danger of being used to blow it apart.
People in 1962 seemed to be living in good times. In Shropshire there was still no large supermarket to shop in. Planners were still discussing whether a new town was a good idea, and it would be almost exactly another two years before the first edition of the Shropshire Star would be published.
But incomes were rising, unemployment hardly existed. Tory Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, had been elected after telling people that they ‘had never had it so good.’ The better off were even daring to think of a first foreign holiday.
Yet the threat of war was never far from people’s minds. Remembrance days still brought back vivid memories of those who had been lost in two world wars. Travelling to big cities you could still see bomb sites. The rebuilt Coventry Cathedral had only just been opened. But the threat now was of a different kind of war and destruction on an unimaginable scale. Macmillan wondered in his diary why the Americans were worrying about 20 to 30 missiles off their coast when 500 were waiting to be launched in Europe.
If they were launched, then there would have no more time than it takes to soft boil an egg before their effects were felt. Counties like Shropshire could not escape.
This was not how it had seemed in 1939. Then, the more distant and rural areas escaped lightly. Thousands of children were evacuated to Shropshire in the first months of the war. The county became a major munitions centre with Woolwich Arsenal moved to Donnington. Troops were trained here and planes took off from hurriedly built airfields. But air raids only killed eight people in the county in the whole war.
Perhaps in 1962 people still climbed The Wrekin on summer days and looked in the direction of the high cities believing that nature and distance still gave them some protection. But at the start of 1962 MacMillan had told the Cabinet that, ‘It was no longer true that the danger to individuals in the event of war would be greater in major centres of population than it was in rural areas.’
Britain had 7,000 warning sirens that were tested several times a year. Older readers will still remember them on the top of large buildings in Shropshire. For the rural areas there were another 11,000 warning points. They were all linked by a system run by the Royal Observer Corps as part of the national Warning and Monitoring Organization.
In January 1962, in Holywell Street Shrewsbury, ROC Group Headquarters no 16 was secretly opened with the latest technology. (It is still there today, with its equipment gone, as the Abbey Veterinary Centre). The monitoring system was put on high alert and the RAF’s V bomber force was ready to take off at four minutes notice to deliver its bombs in any retaliation.
But if the bombs had dropped what would have happened? We now know that the government had estimated that, at that point, around half the population would die. A select few would be better protected in shelters but no-one was quite sure who was on the local and national lists.
Publically it suggested that the rest could survive with the aid of the local civil defence forces.
The national Civil Defence Corps had been set up in 1949 and there were units of it in Shropshire under the control of the local authorities. The county’s bigger factories also had some workers organised in the Industrial Defense Corps. The Auxiliary Fire service had members in the county and access to new ‘Green Godess’ fire engines with specially designed water pumps not only to put out fires but to help decontaminate people.
Some doctors and nurses were also part of the local National Health Service Reserve. Beyond them there were even official hopes that the Women’s Voluntary Service, Red Cross and Boy Scouts could give a hand.
But the government did not want to cause panic and it held off putting local authorities on high alert too. Those who asked what should be done were told to do nothing. So people waited – perhaps unaware of the extent to which the fate of the world lay in the decisions of Kennedy and Khrushchev. In the end it was Khrushchev who blinked. He agreed to withdraw the missiles and in return Kennedy agreed to more quietly remove the American ones from Turkey the following year.
To supporters of nuclear weapons it seemed that deterrence had won. But to its opponents, including Shropshire members of CND which had been formed in 1958, it seemed an example of nuclear madness against which there was no protection.
They were right about this. Although the secret communications centre in Shrewsbury would remain operational for another two decades, the civil defence forces in the county were stood down after 1968 as the Government stopped believing that any real protection was possible.
Mike Haynes, from Shifnal, is a professor at the University of Wolverhampton. He will be giving two free 30-minute talks on the Cuban Missile Crisis at the National Cold War Museum, RAF Cosford, on Monday, at 11.30am and 2.30pm.
Re-enactor Jed Jaggard will be running interactive workshops throughout the day, and visitors can enter the unique Cuban Missile Crisis ‘audio visual hotspot’ which contains interviews from members of the public living through the crisis, plus pictures and news reports of the day.
For more details, log on to www.nationalcoldwarexhibition.org