Clever Soviets – How the USSR got Missiles to Cuba Without Detection

Soviet medium-range ballistic missile in Red Square, Moscow.

One of the Soviet Union’s finest military operations was the secret deployment of nuclear missiles and tens of thousands of servicemen to Cuba in 1962.

At the time, the Cold War was at its height and the Soviets were threatened by the USA’s massive arsenal of nuclear weapons. The US had 6,000 nuclear warheads that could hit sites in the USSR. The Soviets only had 300 with which to return fire.

It wasn’t just the number of weapons the US had, but their placement. The Americans had missiles in West Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Then, in 1961, they placed missiles in Turkey. This meant that the Americans could reach Moscow with a nuclear missile in just 10 minutes. The Red Army would have no opportunity to counter.

So the Soviets began to develop a relationship with Fidel Castro, who had ruled Cuba since 1959. After the Cuban Revolution, Castro nationalized US property in his country. In retaliation, the US enacted an economic embargo of the socialist country. The USSR was offering a lifeline to the Cubans in the form of free grain, fuel, tanks, and airplanes.

Castro during a visit to the United States in 1959

The Soviets took advantage of the deteriorating relationship between Cuba and the US. They convinced Castro that having nuclear weapons was the only way that the US would respect Cuba. Thus encouraged, Castro approved the deployment of Soviet missiles on the island.

The Soviets had to be secretive of the missile deliveries because the US was closely monitoring shipments into Cuba. Marshal Ivan Bagramyan developed a plan which was codenamed “Anadyr” (after a city in Russia’s Far North). Soldiers were issued boots and skis and told that they were headed to Chukhotka. The missiles were disguised as agricultural equipment.

Current Map of Russia with Chukotka Region Highlighted – Stasyan117 CC BY-SA 4.0

Very few Soviets were aware of the true nature of the mission. The first Soviets flown into Cuba were the officers that were responsible for building the missile installations. The more than 50,000 servicemen that would man the bases were shipped secretly to the island. They had to spend weeks below deck in order not to raise the suspicion of the Americans. The first ship to reach Cuba landed on July 10, 1962.

A meeting between Soviet Premier and Fidel Castro in 1961

Even the captains of the ships did not know their true destination. They received their orders in three envelopes and were told to open them in a strict sequence. Only when they had reached the Atlantic did they know that they were on their way to Cuba.

As soon as the ships began sailing to Cuba, the US military took notice. They first flew planes low over the ships. Then they sent navy ships to determine the cargo and destination of the Soviet ships. The Soviets simply told the US ships that they were carrying commercial cargo.

The servicemen on the Soviet ships pretended to be civilians. The US military was eventually satisfied that the Soviets were bringing coal and tourists to Cuba and left them alone. The first missiles reached Cuba in the early part of September.

Map showing Surface-to-Air Missile activity in Cuba, September 5, 1962.

For the rest of September, the US was preoccupied with China after the Chinese shot down a US spy plane. It wasn’t until October 14th that a US U2 spy plane photographed the missile installations in Cuba.

On October 16th, President John Kennedy was informed of the installations. This date is considered the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis. On October 20th, the US decided to engage in a total blockade of Cuba. The US Navy began the blockade on October 24th.

One of the first U-2 reconnaissance images of missile bases under construction shown to President Kennedy on the morning of October 16, 1962

At that point, the Soviets recalled their ships that were on route to the island. As a result, R-14 missiles that could have reached anywhere in the US, except the extreme northwest states, never made it to Cuba. There were 36 missiles in Cuba when the crisis began.

Negotiations between the US and the Soviet Union began on October 26th. A compromise was reached in which the US would remove their missiles from Turkey in exchange for the USSR removing their missiles from Cuba.

President Kennedy meets with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in the Oval Office (October 18, 1962).

The Soviets considered this a success. In 1963, hundreds of Soviet officers were awarded commendations.