T he critical role in the Cuban rocket crisis played by a secret station of GCHQ in Scarborough has been revealed.
The task of the small bunker on the North Yorkshire coast, explained by personnel as dank and often stinky, had been to keep an eye on the Soviet Baltic fleet and merchant shipping in the northern hemisphere.
In 1962 this rather unglamorous job for Britain’s cyber spy firm was thrust into the centre of world affairs as stress between the West and the Soviet Union threatened to escalate into nuclear war.
On October 16, 1962, US President John F Kennedy had actually been told the Soviet Union was covertly shipping nuclear missiles to Cuba, simply 90 miles off America’s south eastern coast.
United States forces established a naval blockade, avoiding the arrival of any ships, however some Soviet vessels were already on their way to the island. Any confrontation in between the 2 naval forces risked escalation into nuclear war.
The operators in the Scarborough bunker had the ability to obstruct the Soviet ships reporting back their position and develop where they were heading.
” Typically simply another task at the bottom of Scarborough’s top priority list, unexpectedly intensified to the extremely top priority for British intelligence,” Tony Comer, GCHQ’s historian told the BBC.
” Were the Soviets going to call Kennedy’s bluff or not? Scarborough was the organisation that had the ability to say exactly where these vessels were, when they stopped cruising towards Cuba and when they turned around and headed back to the Soviet Union,” Mr Comer added.
T he function of the secret hill website overlooking the North Sea is the focus of the first part of a BBC Radio 4 series called The Secret History of GCHQ. It exposes how personnel were strictly managed for security purposes.
” The space was full of individuals, headphones on,” one veteran staff member explained. “Your role was to not miss out on a beat.”
The present director of the base, like other personnel, still just offers her given name to secure identities.
” If you wished to go to the toilet, you had to put your hand up, somebody’s got to can be found in and take your location,” Sheila stated.
Together with the work at Scarborough, Britain made two additional contributions that assisted President Kennedy develop his method during the crisis.
Initially, the British ambassador in Washington, David Ormsby-Gore, a buddy of President Kennedy, was accorded the unmatched benefit of attending sessions of the National Security Council.
On October 23, he made a crucial recommendation: that the proposed “quarantine line” of the American naval blockade be customized from 800 miles to 500 miles off the Cuban coast. This notable British proposition would offer the Soviet ships approaching from Europe more time to respond, and supply Russian President Khrushchev with a face-saver.
T he 2nd British contribution was revealed in 1993 when government files were released under the 30- year rule.
They showed that at the height of the crisis, Prime Minister Harold Macmilan had offered to quit some of Britain’s nuclear weapons in exchange for Soviet withdrawal of rockets from Cuba.
” I feel sure that a long duration of blockade, and potentially a Russian response in the Caribbean or in other places, will lead us nowhere,” Macmillan had actually said in an individual telegram to David Ormsby-Gore on the day the US enforced a naval blockade.
The declassified documents revealed an individual note from Macmillan to Kennedy in which he had stated: “I put the proposal that it may be helpful to conserve the Russians’ face if we carry out during the same duration (that Soviet rockets are withdrawn) to enable the immobilization of our Thor rockets, of which there are 60, under UN supervision”.
The deal was not used up.
The crisis was resolved when President Khrushchev “blinked”. He sent out a telegram proposing that, if America would guarantee not to invade Cuba, he would pull out the missiles. It was, in Macmillan’s viewpoint, “a complete capitulation”.
The GCHQ base at Scarborough was established prior to the First World War due to the fact that its position was ideal to obstruct German naval radio signals in the North Sea.
D uring the Second World War it helped locate German U-boats in the Atlantic and shifted its focus to keeping track of Soviet interactions in the years of the Cold War. It is still a working GCHQ place.
Part one of The Secret History of GCHQ is on BBC Radio 4 on Monday October 21 at 20: 00 BST and on BBC Sounds.