Talking Proud Archives --- Military

Soviet Foxtrot Submarines: The Cuban Missile Crisis

May 3, 2017

Soviet transport ships on the move and the US Naval Blockade

Operation Anadyr in motion

The US and its NATO Allies noted an increase in the numbers of Soviet ships arriving in Cuban ports in the summer of 1962.

David Coleman, writing “
Tracking the Soviet Ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis,” said from January through July 1962, fourteen Soviet dry cargo ships per month called at Cuban ports, on average. By August it was more than double. In September it was 46.”

Photography of the Leningrad area, probably satellite photography, showed extensive dockside storage of some of the types of equipment later observed on Soviet ships on their way to Cuba. The first cargo ships were seen being loaded in early July 1962.

Midshipman First Class Robert M. Beer, USN, Class of 1990, US Naval Academy, wrote a Trident Scholar Project report entitled, "The US Navy and the Cuban Missile Crisis." He wrote the first to detect an increase in Soviet sealift were forward deployed USN forces operating from bases in Greece, Sicily and Spain. Their counterparts in Scotland, Iceland, Nova Scotia, the Azores and Bermuda joined with the USN to launch sea surveillance patrol aircraft.

Admiral Robert Dennison, Commander-in-Chief US Atlantic Command (CINCLANT) and the Commander-in-chief Atlantic Fleet (CINCLANTFLT), shown here, underscored this, saying:

"Of course, it wasn't limited to sightings at sea. We had intelligence sources in various parts of Europe and naval attachés all over the place … Ships that were coming through the Dardanelles and the Bosporous and through Gibraltar or through the Channel, and those that came down past Iceland and off our own coast … were photographed … (We) observed every Red Bloc merchant ship that came into our waters."

Dennison was right. Navy, Coast Guard, andMarine Corps observation flights, Turkey-based Navy detachments and 6th Fleet air patrol units photographed Soviet and Eastern Bloc vessels in the Bosporous Strait and in the Mediterranean, while Navy patrol squadrons based at Bermuda and Jackson overflew ships in the Atlantic. Coast Guard and Marine Corps aircraft photographed then as they neared Cuba. Furthermore, allies such as Canada, Norway, Argentina, Azores, and Puerto Rico helped.

Mathew Aid in his book "The Secret Sentry: The Untold Story of the National Security Agency," wrote the National Security Agency (NSA) routinely intercepted the manifests of Soviet merchant ships. On July 15, 1962 NSA intercepted manifests for ships sailing to Cuba from Russian ports on the Black Sea. NSA further intercepted the cargo declarations of these ships and analyzed they the captains were making false declarations. Aid wrote: "NSA analysts at Fort Meade quickly figured out that the false declarations indicated the ships were secretly carrying military cargoes."


He also wrote that in mid-July NSA detected 21 Russian merchant ships docking in Cuba, a "single-month record for ships docking in Cuba." He said the Maria Ulyanova brought "key staff components of the Soviet Group of Forces to Cuba." This photo shows Soviet ships docked at Mariel port on November 5, 1962, reloading the missile equipment for transport back to the Soviet Union. I wanted to give you an idea of what the unloading might have looked like.

In his book, One Minute to Midnight, Michael Dobbs wrote the first ship to depart the USSR was the Japanese-built freighter Omsk. Dobbs said it carried 60 R-12 Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBM) and some 264 men from the 79th Missile Regiment. She arrived in Cuba on September 8, 1962.

Peter Huchthausen, in his book
October Fury, wrote, “By the first of September (1962) the Soviet Navy had already shipped a full reserve supply of spare parts, ammunition, and missiles to Mariel (Cuba).” He said the next batch of ships “brought in missile-equipped small patrol boats of the Komar class for short-range coastal defense … In early September it was time for the three MRBM regiments to embark on their ships for the trip to Cuba."

I. Sidorov, a Soviet rocket squadron commander, writing,
"Cuban missile crisis: missing details" wrote the ships would first take a heading toward South Africa. Once near the Equator, they were to open their sealed envelops with directions to go to Cuba. He said the first missile unit arrived at Casilda on September 9, 1962.

By the time the situation developed into a full-scale crisis, three full regiments of MRBMs had already arrived in Cuba.


On September 15, 1962 USN aerial surveillance spotted the large-hatch ship Poltava on her way to Cuba. Huchthausen wrote the Poltava was loaded up in Sevastopol on the Black Sea with the first shipment of MRBMs. Large-hatch ships were of special interest because they could bring the ballistic missiles aboard and store them below decks. Sidorov reported the Poltava landed in Cuba on September 15, 1962.


Also in September the Navy photographed another ship. Analysts determined she was carrying crates of Komar guided-missile patrol boats on their way to Cuba.


This is the same photo, but analysts have superimposed a Komar guided missile patrol boat as if you could see through the cover employed on the ship.


On September 28, 1962 naval air reconnaissance aircraft observing Cuba-bound Soviet ships photographed ten long, think shipping crates on the decks of the Kasimov. Analysts determined the containers held the fuselages of Soviet IL-28 light bomber aircraft, technically capable of carrying nuclear bombs.


On October 3, 1962, the Soviet ship Metallurg Anosov was loaded in Nikolayev port with missiles of an unknown type. A large number of troops from the 51st Missile Division also embarked. She began her voyage to Cuba on October 3. This was her maiden voyage. This photo was taken on November 9 shows the Anosov departing Cuba and being inspected by the USS Barry (DD-933) and a VP-44 P3A Orion surveillance aircraft. The Barry closed to within 370 m and followed the Anosov until the next morning.

Polmar wrote:

indigirka Aleksandrovsk

“The 158 nuclear warheads that reached Cuba were transported in the Soviet merchant ships Indigirka (left) and Alexandrovsk (right).”

I. Sidorov commented Indirgirka was retro fitted with two 37 mm anti-aircraft guns with 1,200 rounds of ammunition. He added that 160 nuclear charges were aboard. Sidorov wrote:

"The unloading (of
Indigirka) started at Mariel port on October 4. By October 15, nuclear warheads temporarily located at the consolidated warehouse, were checked and made ready for integration with their missiles. USN submarines approached closely to her and several USN surveillance aircraft also overflew her at very low altitude, almost hitting the superstructure. She arrived at the port of Camanas, Cuba on October 22. She was then ordered to go to Mariel."

Huchthausen commented that the
Indigirka and Aleksandrovsk left Severomorsk in early September carrying nuclear warheads. Between the two they had nuclear warheads for the Komar patrol boats, the cruise missiles, the IL-28s, and Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs). He said the nuclear warheads for the MRBMs and IL-28 bombers were in Cuba by mid-September 1962. He further noted, “By the third week in September, 129 shipments had departed for Cuba, 94 had arrived at their destinations, and 35 were still en route.”

Aleksandrovsk was escorted by a US nuclear submarine halfway across the Atlantic.

By mid-September Soviet shipping became a priority target for US surveillance. US warships and patrol aircraft increased their surveillance.

Indigirka carried 36 warheads for R-12 MRBM, 36 warheads for the FKR-1 frontline coastal defense cruise missiles, 12 warheads for Luna short range artillery rocket systems, and six nuclear bombs for Il-28s. The US later found out the nuclear warheads were stored at Bejucal and Managua, south of Havana.

No decisions had yet been made in Washington about implementing a naval blockade of Cuba. Nonetheless, many in the US were worried, and on October 16, Robert Kennedy warned the US may have to sink Soviet ships and submarines to maintain a blockade.

US Naval Blockade

The US had various embargoes against Cuba since 1958. However, given the confirmations of ballistic missile deployments (discussed in the
Detection sub-section), the National Security Council (NSC) decided on October 21, 1962 to impose a naval blockade of Cuba. You'll see in a moment this was not a trivial effort: three Navy task forces involving seven aircraft carriers.

Kennedy announced the US naval blockade on October 22, 1962 to the American public. The purpose of the blockade was to enforce a “strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba.” In the
Chronology section, you'll see there was some debate over what constitutes offensive and defensive. Khrushchev certainly tried to argue they were all defensive.

Publicly, the word “quarantine” was used instead of blockade. Apparently there is or was International Law codified by the
London Naval Conference (1908 and 1909). It says a blockade was an act of war. Despite aggressive rhetoric, JFK did not want to go to war. Kennedy warned the Soviets that the US would retaliate if there were a nuclear attack launched from Cuba, and he placed US military forces in the Western Hemisphere on heightened alert.

Kennedy’s proclamation was formally known as “Interdiction of the delivery of offensive weapons to Cuba.” It authorized US naval, military and air power to block arms deliveries to Cuba. The photo shows him signing the proclamation. American units were to order any vessel or craft proceeding to Cuba to "stop, lie to and submit to search." If the vessels were found to have material banned by the order, they were to be directed to another destination. Interestingly, JFK took some 24 hours from the time he announced the blockade until he actually signed the relevant document.

Kennedy signed the proclamation, but deep inside he, his brother Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) and Secretary of Defense (SecDef) McNamara were all very worried about "what would happen if?" Like what would happen if the merchant ship skipper refused to stop, what would happen if the Russians fired weapons at the boarding crew? And the list goes on. Admiral Anderson, the CNO, when asked by McNamara, responded the Navy would destroy the ship. McNamara did not like that, told Anderson he could do nothing without McNamara's approval. That did not sit well the Anderson who told McNamara to go back to his quarters and leave this to the Navy. And that's the way it went throughout.

The blockade units were organized under Task Force 136 (TF 136), Vice Admiral Alfred Ward in command. Ward served as the commander 2nd Fleet. TF136 consisted of the anti-submarine carrier Essex, three heavy cruisers, 16 destroyers, six support ships and other vessels, plus aircraft based on the East and Gulf coasts. Robert Fournier, writing "At the Brink: Cuba 1962," published in the November 2012 edition of VFW Magazine said:

"In addition, a picket line of 32 ships based around the nuclear-powered carrier Enterprise formed an inner patrol ringing Cuba. Task Force 135, as it was designated, was reinforced by aircraft carrier patrols and was intended to defend Guantanamo Naval Station. Also on station at some point were the carriers Independence, Lake Champlain, Randolph, Saratoga and Wasp. An international fleet, called Task Force 137, comprised seven ships—one from the U.S. and the remainder from member countries of the Organization of American States. It deployed south of Puerto Rico, a relatively secure zone … Altogether, 63 U.S. vessels surrounded Castro’s bastion at the peak of the crisis. Some 30,000 sailors and naval aviators were directly involved in locating Soviet ships headed for Cuba."

The US would later learn Khrushchev’s response to the quarantine speech was to issue “orders to the captains of the Soviet ships…approaching the blockade zone to ignore it and to hold course for the Cuban ports.”

The Soviets still had about 25 ships moving toward Cuba. So, their orders were to refuse to be stopped or searched, remain on course, and if sunk, so be it. On the other side, Kennedy’s orders were to “stop or be sunk.”

That noted, there were also plenty of Soviet ships leaving Cuban ports headed back to the USSR. That presented some problems for the US, to wit, what do we do about these ships?

Kennedy was also briefed on October 21 about the regimen to be employed when a ship approaches the blockade line. This procedure would change on October 24:

  • Signal the ship to stop for boarding and inspection.
  • If no response, fire a warning shot across the bow.
  • If still no response, fire a shot at the rudder to cripple the vessel

During the early morning of October 24, there were reports that the Soviet ships headed toward Cuba capable of carrying military cargo had slowed down, altered or reversed course. Apparently some 16 of the 19 ships on their way to Cuba, including five large-hatch vessels, had reversed course and were returning to the USSR. A tanker, the Bucharest, however continued toward the line.
This is a crucial point to remember: October 24, 1962, it appears Soviet ships are stopping or reversing course.

The blockade officially went into effect at 1000 EST, October 24, 1962.

The Naval History and Heritage Command reported this as the plan for intercepting, stopping and boarding incoming Soviet merchant ships:

  • "During daylight hours and when in visual signal distance, a destroyer was to be dispatched to a position close aboard but which would not give the Soviet ship an opportunity to ram. The destroyer would then display by visual flag hoist the international signal "K" (You should stop at once) or "ON" (You should heave to at once). These signals were to be paralleled by signal light.
  • "In signifying his intent to stop a ship, the commander of the destroyer was to use all available communications, including international code signals, flag hoists, blinking lights, radio, loud speakers, etc. when hailing the ship, a Russian linguist would be used. If the ship did not stop upon being signaled or hailed, warning shots were to be fired across the bow. If this failed to halt the intercepted ship, minimum force was authorized to damage non vital parts of the ship but to refrain if possible from personnel injury or loss of life.
  • "Once the ship was stopped, a party, including Russian linguists, were to board the ship. Visit and search was to include examination of the manifest and inspection of the cargo. In the event visit was refused, the ship was to be taken into custody and forcefully boarded to control the ship's operation.
  • "If the boarding met with organized resistance, the ship was to be destroyed. If the ship submitted to custody, the boarding party was to consist of a temporary master, control and engineering personnel, and an armed guard detail. Coast Guard officers, who were expert in search-and-visit procedures, were embarked in the flagship of the Commander, Quarantine Force.
  • "Once in custody, the seized ship would be escorted by one or more destroyers and sailed to either Charleston, San Juan, Roosevelt Roads, or Fort Lauderdale. The Coast Guard established units at those ports to take custody from the Navy prize master."

As I indicated earlier, my information is that President Kennedy was briefed the ship would be crippled. This set of rules said she would be destroyed if the boarding party met resistance.

On October 24, 1962, between 1000-1115 hours EST Secretary of Defense (SecDef) Robert McNamara, shown here, briefed Kennedy that the US was planning to intercept two Soviet cargo ships, the Gagarin and Kimovsk, both of which were 500 miles from Cuba and sailing in that direction. McNamara indicated the Navy was concentrating on the Kimovsk. McNamara also said he believed there was a Soviet submarine very close to both of the merchant ships. I have also read that Admiral Anderson agreed the Kimovsk was top priority.

However … Raymond Garthoff, writing
Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis: Revised to Include New Revelations, said Admiral Ward kept a secret personal diary. Ward noted that on October 21, the day before the president's announcement, he had received orders to establish a blockade and "the first probable target would be the Poltava, expected to arrive in the Havana area on October 9. Intelligence indicated that Poltava had missiles in her hold and her cargo would be a prohibited cargo." Then he noted that on October 23 Admiral Dennison had marked the first two targets as Poltava and Kimovsk. Ward wrote that the US Cruiser Newport News with her two destroyers had been directed to intercept Poltava as the priority target. Kimovsk was also listed as a prime target because she had seven foot hatches and was probably carrying the SS-5 missiles.

The book
Naval Blockades and Seapower: Strategies and Counter-Strategies, 1805-2005, edited by Bruce A. Ellen and S.C.M. Paine, said at the time the blockade went into effect, there were “16 Soviet dry cargo vessels and six tankers in the Atlantic en route to Cuba. Nine of these twenty-two ships were estimated to be close enough to the island to allow them to reach Cuba by the end of October.”

On October 23, 1962 the Soviet freighter Leninsky Komsomol was already inside the blockade line, She was carrying IL-28s, estate at 13 or more.

There seemed to be some confusion over where the blockade line was. The British ambassador, Ormsby-Gore thought it was set at 800 miles from Cuba. He felt it should be closer to give the Soviets time to think this all over. Kennedy agreed and told McNamara to set it at 500 miles. The 500 mile line was out of the range of the IL-28 bombers. However, Admiral Ward, the blockade commander, thought the 500 mile line was “excessive,” the implication being he wanted it set it closer to Cuba.

The line was to be manned by 12 destroyers from TF 136, backed up by two surface patrol units, an ASW surveillance unit and a logistics unit.


At some point, I believe in the morning of October 24, radio direction finding indicated that some of the merchant ships were either slowing down or reversing course. There was considerable debate about what to do. For his part, Kennedy instructed the USS Essex (CV-9) aircraft carrier not to intercept the Kimovsk. As a result, the USN decided not to intercept any Soviet ships during the first day of the blockade. Instead, captains were instructed to locate the ships, sail close by, observe, and report.

Khrushchev sent a telegram to Kennedy that was released by TASS on October 24, 1962. He thought the blockade was an act of aggression and he had told Soviet ships not to observe the blockade.

On October 25 Kennedy responded to Khrushchev’s warnings by telling him that the Soviets had reneged on their promise not to install offensive missiles in Cuba and therefore Kennedy was doing what had to be done.


The USS Claude V. Ricketts (DDG-5), an Adams-class guided missile destroyer and some escort destroyers had closed on the Soviet oiler Bucharest. The destroyer Gearing (DD-710) intercepted her as well, and pulled alongside to get photos. DDG-5 was instructed not to let the Bucharest through the barrier and to take a lot of photos of all Soviet ships turning east. The Commander Carrier Division 18 (COMCARDIV 18), Rear Admiral John A. Clark in command, was aboard the USS Essex and had been in radio contact with the Bucharest for some time. He directed DDG-5 to accompany but not board or interfere with the passage of Bucharest, which countermanded the first instruction. The photos did not show any cargo on the deck. She was allowed to proceed to Cuba.

It’s only day two of the blockade. President Kennedy had directed the Navy not to intercept and board a Communist bloc ship. He did not want a US-Soviet confrontation. So much for the blockade!

Another Soviet oiler, the
Vinnitsa was on her way to Havana and I believe was also be allowed to pass through the barrier. The focus was on the merchant ships. Some other ships were permitted to pass through as well.

I must comment that I have seen quotes from several Navy combat commanders that expressed dismay at loading up their ships with heavy weaponry and putting their crews in alert only to find out they were out there to "observe." Many questioned, "what kind of blockade is this?" Early on Kennedy had been talking about sinking the merchant ships! Now he won't even board them.

By 0700 EST October 25 the Navy was manning nine of the 12 quarantine stations.

Later in the day, Kennedy instructed that the Navy not intercept or board any Communist bloc ship, but instead look for non-communist bloc ships.

John R. Pierce spotted the Lebanese freighter Marcula at about 1040 EST October 25. However that turned out to be an East German cruise ship, Volkerfreind Schaft. So Pierce broke off and headed to meet the USS Joseph P. Kennedy (DD-850) destroyer. A decision was made for the Kennedy to board the Marcula at the earliest possible time. There were some problems getting a good location on Marcula so it took time to find her. The Pierce reported at 2125 EST October 25 that she had exchanged messages with the Marcula, a Soviet charter out of Riga, and confirmed she was bound for Cuba. Pierce reported the crew verified trucks were on the deck. A decision was then made to board her in the morning.


A party from the Pierce and Kennedy boarded the Marcula in the morning of October 26. Nothing turned up so the Marcula was allowed to proceed. As events happened, the Marcula was the only ship stopped and boarded during the duration of the blockade. The photo shows the Kennedy close to the Marcela.

Now here is a most interesting point not well known to the American public. In his book, One Minute to Midnight,Michael Dobbs wrote:

"Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had ordered his missile-carrying ships to turn more than 24 hours before, on the morning of October 23, 1962 soon after Kennedy went on nationwide television to announce the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba."

Khrushchev exempted those ships already close to Cuba. He did this because they were unlikely to encounter US intercept. For the record, Dobbs said one of those "ships included the
Aleksandrovsk, which was carrying nuclear warheads to Cuba … According to Soviet records, the orders to 16 missile-carrying ships to reverse course went out early in the morning of October 23. This is consistent with a later reconstruction of the movement of Soviet ships by the U.S. Navy and the CIA."

Roger Hilsman, Director of Intelligence and Research, Department of State, said the
Aleksandrovsk carried the R-14 nuclear warheads but not the missiles. She did arrive in Cuba. He also noted, "U.S. intelligence had trouble determining whether any R-14 intermediate-range ballistic missiles had been deployed. While launch sites for the R-14s and associated equipment had been detected, U.S. reconnaissance never identified the missiles themselves…The burden of proof that there are none there … rests with the Soviets."

I believe the consensus is none of the R-14 IRBM missiles made it, though their nuclear warheads did.

Khrushchev ordered the Kimovsk and Poltava, both loaded with R-14 IRBMs and the Gargarin, carrying equipment for one of the R-12 regiments to turn around.

On October 22, 1962, a SAC B-52 was ordered to fly surveillance of the Gagarin and Komiles because they were nearing the blockade line. They flew out of Loring AFB, Maine and easily found the two ships. However, Bill Hinterthan, a superb Bomb Nav Radar operator, said he had something odd, a strong radar return in the close vicinity of the two ships, and proceeding with the ships. The crew concluded it could only be a Soviet submarine.

On October 24 McNamara briefed the ExComm that the freighters Komiles and Gargarin were approaching the blockade line. Dobbs reported that a Foxtrot submarine was between the two, and he said it was B-130 Shumkov. Dobbs wrote that B-130 had been traveling with these two freighters in the Sargasso Sea, keeping an eye on them. However, they did turn back and as a result left B-130 out there all alone.

Nigel West, in his book "
Historical Dictionary of Naval Intelligence," which can in part can be seen on the internet, wrote:

"On October 30, the B-130 broke the surface alongside the destroyer USS
Blandy 300 miles northeast of the Caicos Passage, having exhausted her diesel engines and taken advantage of the presence of the Gagarin and Komiles."

I read that to imply B-130 was trying to sneak out of the region under the cover of those two freighters which were also going home.


Now nothing here is easy, so I have to point out a mixup of some sort. The SAC B-52 on surveillance was ordered to find the Gagarin and Komiles. And the official record does say that McNamara told the ExComm the two freighters Komiles and Gargarin were approaching the blockade line. And Nigel West identified them the same way. However, Dobbs said the two freighters approaching the blockade line were the Kimovsk and Gargarin. And he shows them the same way on his graphic, shown here.

On October 27 the Soviet tanker
Groznyy approached the blockade line. The Navy had asked SAC for help and in this case SAC sent out RB-47 aircraft to conduct a seaborne search effort. One of the RB-47s crashed on takeoff, killing the crew of four. One of the others spotted Groznyy north of the Virgin Islands heading for Cuba. The RB-47 conducted a simulated bomb run against her hoping she would stop. Grozny did not stop. A Navy destroyer signaled her to stop and again she did not stop. Therefore, Admiral Dennison ordered US ships on the scene to load their five-inch guns with live ammunition. He then ordered them to fire into the sea but away from the tanker. A few star shell illumination rounds hit close to the tanker, so the Soviet skipper stopped. He radioed Moscow and turned around, leaving the quarantine zone.

Soviet ships subsequently were loaded up with what they had brought to Cuba and followed by US warships on their way out. The crisis had effectively ended by late October early November.

JFK terminated the blockade on November 21, 1962 after Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the IL-28 bombers.

The roots of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962

Soviet “Operation Anadyr” - The plan

Soviet transport ships on the move and the US Naval Blockade

Detecting key Soviet weapons systems in Cuba

Operation Mongoose and the planned US forces invasion of Cuba

A chronology of events in Washington