How nuclear missiles based in UK nearly destroyed the world on ‘Black Saturday’

We are always hearing stories about how the end of the world is nigh.

But historians believe the closest we have actually come to nuclear Armageddon was on October 27 1962 – aka ‘Black Saturday’.

And not many people realise that the end of the world could have started on British soil – and how close we actually came to playing our part in the annihilation of mankind.

The US nearly destroyed the Soviet Union at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis with weapons based near the peaceful Lincolnshire town of Caistor.

The American missiles were installed in the UK at the height of the Cold War in a deal intended to strengthen Nato’s nuclear deterrent.

How the missiles got there

It was 1958 and the allies were suffering a crisis of confidence, the Grimsby Telegraph reports.

The Russians had taken a firm lead in the space race by launching the first satellite, Sputnik, and military leaders warned that a “technology gap” might extend to nuclear weapons.

If the Soviets had effective intercontinental ballistic missiles, they might be able to launch a massive first strike.

Britain had its own nuclear arsenal but, in the event of a war, would rely on jet planes – the V Force – to carry freefall bombs to the enemy.

One answer was to move America’s existing intermediate-range missiles to bases within striking distance of Moscow, including in Turkey and the UK.

So in September 1958, under the codename ‘Project Emily’, the first Thor IRBMs arrived at RAF bases, along with their 1.4-megaton warheads.

Black Saturday

The NATO alert level had already been raised to DEFCON 2 – just one below full-blown war – when events of that day unfolded.

Thor missiles were erected on their pads at their Lincolnshire bases, and experts believe they may have been brought to full readiness.

It means they could have been fired towards the Soviet Union within just eight minutes, had the order come by telephone.

Meanwhile, Vulcan bomber taxied on to runways, fuelled, armed and ready to take off within 15 minutes.

Thankfully – not least in part to a Russian submarine officer who refused to fire on the US Navy at the blockade around Cuba – after much deliberation between the Soviet Union and Kennedy’s cabinet, the two powers agreed to scale back their missiles, and nuclear war was averted.

Top secret deployment

A total of 20 launch sites were chosen in eastern England, grouped around four hubs in Lincolnshire, East Anglia, Rutland and East Yorkshire.

The Lincolnshire command and control station was set up at RAF Hemswell, an old Bomber Command base 15 miles south of Scunthorpe .

Satellite sites were chosen at RAF Caistor, Ludford Magna and two villages near Lincoln: Bardney and Coleby Grange.

When installed on their launch pads, the 65ft-high Thor missiles looked like miniature moon rockets but their purpose was much more sinister.

When brought to readiness, they could be fired within 15 minutes and would climb at supersonic speed to an altitude of 280 miles, on the way to hitting a target up to 1,500 miles away.

If detonated in the sky above a target such as Grimsby, the 1.44-megaton warhead was powerful enough to kill everyone and destroy everything within five miles of the town centre, cause third degree burns up to nine miles from the blast zone and smash windows more than 13 miles away.

How Lincolnshire was nearly destroyed

At Ludford Magna, a now-forgotten RAF base between Louth and Market Rasen, the unthinkable almost happened when a missile came close to blowing up.

Firefighters described how an accident with leaking rocket fuel left the launch pad shrouded in a cloud of evaporating liquid oxygen, according to the Grimbsy Telegraph.

Had the worst happened, a ground-level nuclear detonation would have wiped out everything for a radius of three miles and caused third-degree burns to victims in the nearby towns.

And it would have devastated Grimsby and wider Lincolnshire, contaminating between 100 and 300 miles of the country with radiation.

The accident, which happened in 1960, was only revealed to the BBC by the base commander in 1999.

It reportedly horrified US Air Force personnel, who had joint-control of the missiles with their RAF colleagues, and remained a little-known secret for decades.

Transporting the weapons

Nuclear warheads were distributed from the top-secret storage site at Faldingworth near Market Rasen.

Incredibly, according to the leading military history website , the weapons were transported at night in trucks, accompanied by only a military policeman and his trusty guard dog, in order to avoid raising suspicion.

Fighter planes took to the skies from RAF Binbrook, south of Grimsby, and at North Cotes, Bloodhound surface-to-air missiles were prepared to seek out and destroy any Russian bombers that might approach the coast.

Volunteer members of the Royal Observer Corps were trained to report detailed information about a nuclear explosion, should they survive one – for despite its rural character, Lincolnshire’s military bases would have made prime targets for a Soviet first strike.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4 in 2008, former Wing Commander Peter West, who at the time was part of the V Force and based at Coningsby, confirmed that Lincolnshire’s nuclear forces had been brought to full readiness.

"The aircraft were all ready to go,” he said. “We were fully kitted out with our flying gear. All we had to do was get in, put our straps on, press the button and the engines would start up.”

He pleaded with his wife to drive their three children to Scotland and hide but she refused to leave him, believing, probably correctly, that a nuclear war would spare no one in the long run.

She decided to remain at home with their kids so they would die together.

That same day, thousands of miles away off the coast of Cuba, an American destroyer depth-charged a Russian submarine armed with nuclear tipped torpedoes.

Fortunately, the crew of the Soviet vessel decided not to act on a standing order to fire their missiles if attacked.

The end of the missiles

Politicians on both sides stepped back from the brink of war and the Cuban Missile Crisis marked the beginning of the end for the Thors.

At the height of the drama, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had been prepared to offer a secret deal to the Soviets by which the missiles would be immobilised.

The suggestion was effectively vetoed by President Kennedy, according to historians Stephen Twigge and Len Scott.

However, the Labour Party also strongly opposed what was seen as a first-strike weapon and the cost of maintaining them was becoming prohibitive. The following year, the Thors were returned to America, where they were employed in controversial nuclear “space shot” tests.

Today, little remains of the RAF bases at Caistor and Ludford beyond a few cracked-up roads and old huts.

But stare across the rural landscape of the Wolds and it is possible to imagine the day when those menacing missiles pointed towards the skies, just minutes away from the beginning of the end of the world.

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