T he critical function in the Cuban rocket crisis played by a secret station of GCHQ in Scarborough has actually been exposed.
The task of the small bunker on the North Yorkshire coast, explained by personnel as dank and often smelly, had been to keep an eye on the Soviet Baltic fleet and merchant shipping in the northern hemisphere.
In 1962 this rather unglamorous task for Britain’s cyber spy agency 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, United States President John F Kennedy had been told the Soviet Union was covertly delivering nuclear missiles to Cuba, just 90 miles off America’s south eastern coast.
US forces developed a marine blockade, avoiding the arrival of any ships, but some Soviet vessels were already on their method to the island. Any confrontation between the two marine 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 just another job at the bottom of Scarborough’s top priority list, suddenly escalated to the really leading 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 was able to say exactly where these vessels were, when they stopped cruising towards Cuba and when they reversed and headed back to the Soviet Union,” Mr Comer included.
T he role of the secret hill website neglecting the North Sea is the focus of the very first part of a BBC Radio 4 series called The Secret History of GCHQ. It reveals how staff were strictly managed for security functions.
” The space had plenty of people, earphones on,” one veteran team member explained. “Your function was to not miss out on a beat.”
The present director of the base, like other personnel, still just provides her very first name to secure identities.
” If you wanted to go to the toilet, you had to put your hand up, somebody’s got to be available in and take your place,” Sheila said.
Along with the work at Scarborough, Britain made 2 further contributions that helped President Kennedy create his technique during the crisis.
First, the British ambassador in Washington, David Ormsby-Gore, a buddy of President Kennedy, was accorded the unprecedented privilege of attending sessions of the National Security Council.
On October 23, he made an essential tip: that the proposed “quarantine line” of the American marine blockade be modified from 800 miles to 500 miles off the Cuban coast. This noteworthy British proposition would offer the Soviet ships approaching from Europe more time to respond, and provide Russian President Khrushchev with a face-saver.
T he 2nd British contribution was revealed in 1993 when federal government files were launched under the 30- year guideline.
They revealed that at the height of the crisis, Prime Minister Harold Macmilan had actually provided to provide up a few of Britain’s nuclear weapons in exchange for Soviet withdrawal of missiles from Cuba.
” I feel sure that an extended period of blockade, and possibly a Russian response in the Caribbean or somewhere else, will lead us nowhere,” Macmillan had actually stated in an individual telegram to David Ormsby-Gore on the day the US enforced a naval blockade.
The declassified papers revealed a personal note from Macmillan to Kennedy in which he had stated: “I put the proposition that it might be handy to conserve the Russians’ face if we carry out during the very same period (that Soviet missiles are withdrawn) to permit the immobilization of our Thor rockets, of which there are 60, under UN guidance”.
The offer was not used up.
The crisis was solved when President Khrushchev “blinked”. He sent a telegram proposing that, if America would assure not to attack Cuba, he would pull out the missiles. It was, in Macmillan’s opinion, “a total capitulation”.
The GCHQ base at Scarborough was developed right before the First World War because its position was ideal to intercept German marine radio signals in the North Sea.
D uring the 2nd World War it helped locate German U-boats in the Atlantic and moved its focus to keeping track of Soviet interactions in the years of the Cold War. It is still a working GCHQ location.
Part among The Secret History of GCHQ is on BBC Radio 4 on Monday October 21 at 20: 00 BST and on BBC Sounds.