In October 1962, the world stood on the brink of nuclear war.
On 14 October, United States spy planes flying over Cuba spotted sites being prepared for Soviet nuclear-armed missiles, which could threaten large areas of the USA.
To prevent further Soviet reinforcements, President John F Kennedy ordered a naval quarantine of Cuba. How would the Soviets react? Would the United States attack Cuba?
Later, as newspapers reported the developing crisis, people on both sides of the Atlantic feared it might mean war.
Far from Cuba, down remote country lanes in eastern England, Britain’s nuclear forces were quietly being prepared for action.
Nuclear-armed V-bombers were made ready, and by Saturday, 27 October, crews were in their cockpits at 15 minutes’ notice to take off. Fifty-nine of the 60 Thor nuclear-tipped missiles were readied for launch: the first strategic ballistic missiles placed in the West.
Technologically, the Thors represented the next generation of missiles beyond the wartime German V2s and the first strategic ballistic missiles to be placed, ready for use, in the West.
Symbolically, the sites reflect the special nuclear relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States, which endures to this day. The United States supplied the missiles, but RAF crews manned them. The launch procedure was based on a dual key system, one held by a British officer and the other by an American.
Sites associated with warfare, from Roman forts and medieval castles to Victorian coastal fortifications, are some of our most prominent historic monuments.
The Cold War’s missile sites and nuclear citadels may represent the final chapter in the national story of fortified structures. Whether they are or not, these modern ruins offer an interesting place to ponder a turning point in history.