Missiles for Castro: How the Soviet Union tricked the U.S. in 1962

Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev.

Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev.

The secret deployment of nuclear missiles and tens of thousands of Soviet servicemen in 1962 is still considered one of the finest military operations in Russian history.

In 1962, the Cold War was in full swing and the USSR felt threatened by the U.S., which had far more nuclear weapons. The Americans had 6,000 warheads capable of reaching the USSR, which itself only had 300.

The Kremlin felt especially vulnerable because U.S. nuclear missiles were in West Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. Even more galling, however, were the missiles placed in Turkey in 1961, reducing flight time to Moscow to 10 minutes. If war broke out, the Soviets wouldn’t have time to counterattack.

Overseas ally

Fidel Castro.

At this moment Moscow began courting revolutionary Cuba, which since 1959 was ruled by the socialist revolutionary, Fidel Castro. After he nationalized American property on the island, the U.S. imposed an economic embargo. Collaboration with the USSR was Cuba’s salvation, receiving free supplies of grain, fuel, tanks, and airplanes.

With relations between Cuba and the U.S. strained, Moscow saw an opportunity and convinced Castro that only nuclear weapons could force President John Kennedy to treat him as an equal. Thus, the Cuban leader agreed to deploy Soviet missiles on the island.

Risky plan

Ivan Bagramyan, the man who planned Operation Anadyr.

The U.S. was closely monitoring every shipment to Cuba, which is why the USSR had to secretly transport the missiles. Marshal Ivan Bagramyan developed a secret operation, codenamed “Anadyr” (a city in Russia’s Far North). The name was probably chosen to confuse American spies. Soldiers were given boots and skis and were told that they were going to Chukhotka. The nuclear missiles were camouflaged as agricultural equipment.

Only a narrow circle of top Soviet officials knew the mission’s real purpose. The first to fly to Cuba were military officers responsible for assembling the missile installations. The voyages that brought the remaining servicemen (more than 50,000) were difficult ones. Ships departed from eight Soviet ports, and the men had to spend weeks below deck in order not to be spotted by U.S. surveillance planes. The first ship bound for Cuba reached the Island on July 10, 1962.

Long journey

The soldiers also didn’t know where they were sailing. “Even the ship captains only learned their true destination a week after departure. They had three secret envelopes with the routes, each opened in strict sequence. First, the captain was ordered to navigate through the Bosporus, then steer a course towards Gibraltar and only when he was in the Atlantic was he told that his final destination was Cuba,” wrote Soviet reconnaissance officer, Alexander Feklisov.

A covered Soviet ship transporting warheads to Cuba.

Major Nikolai Obidin remembers in his memoirs: “As prescribed, we opened the secret envelope. There it was written: ‘Head to Cuba, Port of Havana.’ Holy Cow! That’s why Raul Castro, their defense minister, had come to Moscow! As soon as we passed the Azores, American planes began flying over us. They were flying really low, having obviously understood that something was afoot. Then we began seeing their navy ships. First one, and then another two ships. They were flashing lights and asking through the transmitter, ‘Tell us your destination and the nature of your cargo.’ We responded: ‘The cargo is commercial, we are heading to our destination.’”

Due to the mission’s secrecy, the Soviet servicemen pretended to be civilians. After making a number of overflights, the U.S. reconnaissance planes were convinced that the ships were carrying coal and tourists. It did not even occur to them that the ships were carrying nuclear weapons and soldiers. The first missiles arrived in Cuba in early September.

Plan uncovered

A P2V Neptune US patrol plane flying over a Soviet freighter during the Cuban missile crisis.

In many ways, fortune smiled on the Soviets. On Sept. 9 the Chinese downed an American reconnaissance plane in its airspace, and American attention turned to that country. On Oct. 14, the U2 spy planes again flew over the island and finally detected the missiles.

“The photographs taken by the U.S. planes shocked the American generals. On Oct. 16, Kennedy learned of the positions of the ballistic missile launching installations. It’s considered that the Cuban Missile Crisis began on Oct. 16,” wrote Feklisov.

On Oct. 20, the U.S. decided on a total blockade of Cuba, which the navy began on Oct. 24. The next day, on Oct. 25, the U.S. showed proof of the Soviet missile deployment in Cuba during a UN session.

The Soviets then ordered all its ships in the Atlantic Ocean to turn around and return home. As a result, the R-14 missiles, which could have reached any point in the U.S. except the northwestern states, never made it to Cuba. At the start of the crisis there were 36 Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba.

Secret negotiations between the U.S. and the USSR began on Oct. 26, and a compromise was reached: Washington promised to remove its missiles from Turkey, and Moscow promised to remove its missiles from Cuba.

With American missiles now out of Turkey, the USSR considered Operation Anadyr successful, and in 1963 hundreds of Soviet officers were awarded orders.

To know more about the Soviet secret operations, read our article on the special services in this country. 

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