T he essential role in the Cuban missile crisis played by a secret outpost of GCHQ in Scarborough has actually been exposed.
The task of the tiny bunker on the North Yorkshire coast, described 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 firm was thrust into the centre of world affairs as stress in between the West and the Soviet Union threatened to intensify into nuclear war.
On October 16, 1962, United States President John F Kennedy had actually been informed the Soviet Union was covertly shipping nuclear missiles to Cuba, just 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 currently on their way to the island. Any fight in between the 2 naval forces risked escalation into nuclear war.
The operators in the Scarborough bunker had the ability to intercept the Soviet ships reporting back their position and establish where they were heading.
” Typically just another task at the bottom of Scarborough’s priority list, unexpectedly escalated to the very leading concern 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 state 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 included.
T he function of the secret hilltop website overlooking the North Sea is the focus of the very first part of a BBC Radio 4 series called The Secret History of GCHQ. It exposes how staff were strictly controlled for security purposes.
” The room was complete of people, headphones on,” one veteran team member discussed. “Your function was to not miss a beat.”
The present director of the base, like other staff, still only provides her very first name to secure identities.
” If you wished to go to the toilet, you needed to put your hand up, somebody’s got to can be found in and take your location,” Sheila said.
Along with the work at Scarborough, Britain made two more contributions that helped President Kennedy create his technique throughout the crisis.
First, the British ambassador in Washington, David Ormsby-Gore, a buddy of President Kennedy, was accorded the unprecedented privilege of sitting in on sessions of the National Security Council.
On October 23, he made an important suggestion: that the proposed “quarantine line” of the American marine blockade be modified 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 provide Russian President Khrushchev with a face-saver.
T he 2nd British contribution was revealed in 1993 when federal government files were released under the 30- year rule.
They revealed that at the height of the crisis, Prime Minister Harold Macmilan had used to quit a few of Britain’s nuclear weapons in exchange for Soviet withdrawal of missiles from Cuba.
” I feel sure that a long period of blockade, and possibly a Russian response in the Caribbean or somewhere else, will lead us nowhere,” Macmillan had actually stated in a personal telegram to David Ormsby-Gore on the day the United States enforced a marine blockade.
The declassified papers revealed an individual note from Macmillan to Kennedy in which he had stated: “I put the proposal that it might be useful to conserve the Russians’ face if we carry out throughout the very same period (that Soviet missiles are withdrawn) to permit the immobilization of our Thor rockets, of which there are 60, under UN supervision”.
The deal was not used up.
The crisis was fixed when President Khrushchev “blinked”. He sent a telegram proposing that, if America would promise not to get into Cuba, he would take out the rockets. It was, in Macmillan’s viewpoint, “a total capitulation”.
The GCHQ base at Scarborough was established just before 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 assisted locate German U-boats in the Atlantic and moved its focus to monitoring Soviet interactions in the years of the Cold War. It is still a functioning 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.