It was October 1962. The submarine was cruising deep beneath the Atlantic on its way to Cuba. Suddenly, the crew felt the sickening sledgehammer blows to the hull as an enemy warship dropped depth charges. A scene from ‘Crimson Tide’, or maybe ‘Das Boot’? No. This was the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Soviet vessel being bombarded was almost at its destination.
Unknown to the Americans in the warship above, it carried a single torpedo tipped with a nuclear warhead. A torpedo if launched, was capable of igniting World War Three.
Unable to contact his superiors, and shaken by the explosions, Captain Valentin Savitski ordered the missile prepared for launch. But although the crew had official clearance to launch the warhead if provoked, the orders were very specific ( and familiar to those who watched ‘Crimson Tide’), approval of the three most senior officers on board was needed.
One man, commander Vasily Arkhipov said ‘nyet’.
Arkhipov was commander of four submarines dispatched to Cuba after America proclaimed a naval blockade of the island. Their mission was to reach the harbour of Mariel to protect Soviet supply vessels. They knew they could use the nuclear torpedo if necessary, but only if political officer Maslennikov, Captain Savitski, and commander Arkhipov agreed. In the chaos of the American attack, the first two men quickly agreed to launch the torpedo, only Arkhipov kept his nerve and refused to give the go-ahead.
They were puzzled by the effectiveness of the American anti-submarine defences. They considered whether there might be a spy in the naval HQ in Moscow. The submarine was faced with another disadvantage. The engines were electric, not nuclear, and so the batteries needed a daily charge. For this they had to surface, and use diesel engines.
On October 27, even as the Americans were forcing them to surface, using the depth charges, the batteries and the oxygen supply was running low. In the end, they surfaced just 500 yards from an American cruiser. American planes flew overhead, firing their weapons, but without intention to kill. Incredibly, the incident ended without further escalation, with hindsight, both sides must have realised how close to a nuclear holocaust they had come, and the story was not confirmed until 40 years later, by US defence secretary, Robert McNamara, and Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive.
After the Cuban Crisis Arkhipov continued in Soviet Navy service, commanding submarines and later submarine squadrons. He was promoted to Rear-admiral in 1975 and became head of the Kirov Naval Academy. He was promoted to Vice-admiral in 1981 and retired in the mid 1980’s. He subsequently settled with his family in a small apartment outside Moscow where he died of cancer in 1999.