We are planning an interview with Edward Wilson very soon and are grateful for this contribution today.
The Man Who Saved the World
(an extract adapted from an article commissioned by The Guardian)
Copyright © Edward Wilson 2012
If you were born before the 27th of October 1962, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov saved your life. It was the darkest day of Cuban Missile Crisis and the most dangerous day in history. An American spy plane had just been shot down over Cuba while another U2 had got lost and strayed into Soviet airspace. As these dramas ratcheted tensions beyond breaking point, an American destroyer, the USS Beale, began to drop depth charges on the B-59, a Soviet submarine armed with a nuclear weapon. They were only ‘practice’ depth charges, but the captain of the B-59, Valentin Savitsky, had no way of knowing that. Nor did he know that the depth charges were merely warning shots to force the B-59 to surface and make her intentions known. The Beale was soon joined by other US destroyers who piled in to pummel the submerged B-59 with more depth charges and hand grenades. The exhausted Savitsky was now under more stress than any commanding officer in the history of warfare. Savitsky assumed that World War III had broken out. He ordered the B-59’s ten kiloton nuclear torpedo to be prepared for firing. Its target was the USS Randolf, the giant aircraft carrier leading the task force.
If the B-59’s torpedo had vaporised the Randolf, the nuclear clouds would soon have spread from sea to land. The armed forces of both super powers would have slipped their leads and no restraining order from the White House or the Kremlin would have reined them in. The first targets would have been Moscow, London, the airbases of East Anglia and troop concentrations in West and East Germany. The next wave of bombs would have wiped out ‘economic’ targets, a euphemism for civilian populations. Square Leg, the 1980 defence exercise, estimated UK casualties from a ‘limited’ nuclear attack of 131 warheads at 29 million dead with only one third of the population surviving ‘short term’. The US war plan – known as SIOP, Single Integrated Operational Plan – echoed Dr Strangelove’s orgiastic Götterdämmerung and called for the dispatch of 5,500 nuclear weapons against a thousand targets including Albania and China.
The world was saved because one Soviet naval officer, Commander Vasili Arkhipov, succeeded in reversing Captain Savitsky’s lethal decision. The regulations for launching the nuclear torpedo required the consent of all three senior officers. There was a heated argument in the submarine’s command centre. Arkhipov was the only officer who opposed launching the torpedo that would have ignited World War III. No one will ever know exactly what transpired between the three officers who held the world’s fate in their hands. But in the end, Arkhipov persuaded his colleagues not to launch and to surface under cover of darkness so they could make radio contact with Moscow. It is clear that Arkhipov’s judgement and reputation – the previous year Arkhipov had risked his life to save a submarine with an overheating reactor – were key factors.
Never before have so many owed so much to one person. On the evening of 27 October let’s raise our glasses: ‘Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, spasiba!’ Or simply, ‘Thank you, Vasya.’
Extract from The Midnight Swimmer by Edward Wilson
Copyright © Edward Wilson 2012
Now hear this: general quarters, general quarters. All hands man their battle stations. This is not a drill!
The USS Beale had scented its prey, pursued her and now had her cornered. The Beale was one of eleven destroyers in Task Force Randolf that were stalking Soviet submarines. The ship’s call to battle was a deafening combination of sirens, klaxons and bells. Several sailors held their ears as they dashed along the decks to their stations.
The Beale’s weapons officer and skipper were staring at the green sonar screen which showed the depth and location of the target. The sonar operator was wearing earphones. ‘She’s so close, sir, you can hear the propellers and the engine clanking.’
The skipper spoke first. ‘The biggest fear is that you got to make sure it’s Ivan and not one of our own.’
‘It’s definitely an Ivan, sir.’
The skipper nodded and left the sonar station for the CIC, the Combat Information Center, to begin to plan for the attack.
The damage control officer was giving a briefing in Damage Control Central, a cabin in the middle of the ship hung with diagrams of the ship highlighting the locations of watertight doors and fire hose outlets. All the men were wearing lifejackets and grey helmets. They had their sleeves rolled down and buttoned and their trousers tucked into their socks. A few of the sailors had rosary beads draped around their necks.
One of the younger sailors looked particularly nervous and tried to hide his nervousness by making little jokes. His socks weren’t long enough and his trousers kept popping out. ‘Here,’ said the damage control officer handing him a piece of string, ‘tie them.’
‘Why, sir, have we got to tuck our trousers in like that anyway?’
‘Because when a ship gets hit and the explosions start a lot of guys get nervous – and they start pissing and shitting themselves. You don’t want to be slipping and sliding on decks full of piss and shit when you’re trying to fight fires and deal with dead and wounded.’
The skipper of the Beale, like the other ship commanders involved, was authorised to conduct anti-submarine operations without much interference from above. The highest priority was to avoid losing an American warship by lack of decisive action. The skipper turned to his weapons officer: ‘Prepare practice depth charges for immediate launch.’
It was the ultimate cold war game for a US destroyer commander: finding a Soviet sub and forcing her to surface. The procedure approved for the Cuba crisis was to drop four practice-depth charges as close to the Soviet submarine as possible. The depth charges produced a loud bang, but were supposed to be otherwise harmless. It was a signal for the Soviet sub to surface and identify herself. The US Embassy in Moscow had passed on the details of the procedure to the Kremlin, but the Soviet government had not yet passed the message on to their submarine commanders.
The crew of the B-59, a Soviet Foxtrot class submarine, thought they were about to die. The practice-depth charges were exploding right next to the hull of the sub – one even bounced off the hull with a loud clang before detonating. It felt like they were trapped in a steel barrel that someone was hitting with a sledgehammer.
The B-59 was in a desperate situation. Her batteries were so low that she had been forced to switch to emergency lighting which left the submarine in a murky gloom. It was stifling hot, plus forty-five degrees Celsius, and the carbon dioxide level had become so dangerously high that crew had begun to pass out. Ironically, the most comfortable place in the submarine was next to the ten-kiloton nuclear-tipped torpedo in the forward section of the hull. It was the place furthest from the toxic fumes and heat of the engine room.
The captain of the submarine, Valentin Grigorievich Savitsky, had had enough. ‘We’re under attack,’ he shouted. ‘It is obvious that war has already started. Prepare the torpedo for firing. We’re going to blast them now. It doesn’t matter if we die, we will sink them all. We will not disgrace the Soviet Navy!’
Lieutenant Commander Pavlov was not only in charge of the nuclear torpedo on the B-59, he slept beside the polished grey tube like a fond lover. When Captain Savitsky gave the order to prepare the torpedo for firing Pavlov felt two competing pangs of regret. One, he was going to be separated from a complex piece of machinery and advanced technology that he had looked after with obsessive care for many months. Two, he was almost certainly going to die and never see his homeland or his loved ones again. But Pavlov overcame those feelings and began the final preparation rituals. It was impossible not to think of the enormity of his actions and the lives that would be extinguished. Pavlov assumed that the world was already at war and that he had to carry out his duties as part of a greater scheme that he could not question. He unscrewed a cover to make a final check on the coils and electrical connections that connected detonator and warhead. When that was done, he completed the final task. Pavlov could not keep his hands from shaking as he removed the green ‘safety connector plug’ and replaced it with the red ‘arming plug’.
The submarine’s second in command, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, came from a peasant family and had made his way up the ranks through technical expertise and calm judgement. The previous year he had helped save a nuclear submarine with a coolant leak that resulted in the deaths of eight sailors and threatened to blow up the reactor. Arkhipov received a heavy dose of radiation, but helped devise a jury-rigged coolant system that saved the submarine. Arkhipov was now trying to save the world.
The authorisation of all three senior officers aboard was needed to launch the nuclear torpedo. The Political Officer, Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, was in accord with Captain Savitsky that war had broken out. The submarine had been buffeted by four more explosions. Although the crew of the B-59 had no way of knowing, the explosions had been caused by hand grenades dropped by a destroyer that had joined the Beale. Both Savitsky and Maslennikov felt they were now bound by honour and duty to attack the US aircraft carrier leading the task group. ‘We have no choice,’ said Maslennikov, ‘we need to defend Soviet forces from further attacks. This is war.’
‘If,’ said Arkhipov, ‘the Americans were trying to sink us we would already be dead.’
‘They’re incompetent,’ said Savitsky, ‘and we’ve been taking evasive action.’
‘They may be incompetent, but they are not trying to sink us. They have not dropped fully-armed depth charges. If we are not certain that a state of war exists, we cannot take the risk of starting a war that will kill tens of millions of our citizens. I refuse,’ said Arkhipov, ‘to give my authorisation to use that torpedo. If you ignore my refusal, you are both disobeying standing orders. In any case, it will soon be night. I suggest we surface under cover of darkness and radio Moscow for further instructions.’
Savitsky looked hard at Arkhipov. He then angrily picked up the internal telephone connecting the control centre to the torpedo room.
A hundred feet forward Pavlov lifted the clanging phone off its hook. He felt a shiver go down his spine as he heard the captain’s voice bark out the crisp order. Pavlov wasn’t sure that he had heard correctly, so he asked the captain to repeat the order for confirmation. Savitsky’s voice sounded even more irritated than it had the first time. Pavlov replied, ‘Order understood. I will carry out instruction immediately.’
Pavlov put the phone back and went back to the torpedo. His hands were completely calm as he removed the ‘arming plug’ and replaced it with the ‘safety connector plug’. Tears were flowing down his cheeks as he stroked the torpedo tube. ‘Not now my sweetest, maybe never.’
In the end, the B-59 was not able to have a quiet chat with Moscow. She surfaced on to a night sea surrounded by American ships that were shining search lights at her conning tower. One of the destroyers had a jazz band on deck playing loud amplified music. The idea was to show the Soviet submarine officers that war had not broken out. As the B-59 broke the surface, the band shifted from ‘Boogie Woggie Bugle Boy’ to ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’.
When Captain Savitsky appeared from the hatch he was greeted with ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’. He ordered the sailors who followed him not to smile or make eye contact with the Americans. ‘Behave with dignity,’ he said, ‘they are trying to humiliate us.’
A large group of American sailors were dancing on the jazz band ship’s deck in time to the music. Others were throwing packages of cigarettes and Coca-Cola at the Soviet submariners. Most of the offerings fell into the sea, but the ones that landed on the submarine were ignored and left to the washing waves.