Russian submariner Vasili Arkhipov who saved the world from Word War III.
- U.S.S.R. and U.S. stood on brink of nuclear war during Cuban Missile Crisis
- Four Russian submarines secretly set sail to Cuba, with nuclear weapons
- Vasili Arkhipov, who died in 1998, used last veto against firing sub’s torpedo
- The Russians instead surrendered and his action avoided World War Three
PUBLISHED: 12:34 GMT, 25 September 2012 | UPDATED: 06:45 GMT, 26 September 2012
He was the man who saved the world by single-handedly averting World War Three five decades ago, yet he died humiliated, outcast and an unknown. Only now has his story has come to light.
A documentary shown tonight told how for 13 days during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, the world held its breath as the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. stood on the brink of nuclear war.
At the height of the Cold War, when paranoia on both sides meant the slightest provocation could spark nuclear war, four submarines secretly set sail from Russia to communist Cuba.
Averted war: Vasili Arkhipoy (pictured left, and right aboard a submarine), saved the world by single-handedly averting World War Three with one decision 50 years ago, yet he died humiliated, outcast and an unknown
Only a handful of the submariners on board knew that their ships carried nuclear weapons, each with the strength of the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945.
Vasili Arkhipov, aboard the sub B59, was one of them. As his craft neared Cuba, U.S. helicopters, aeroplanes and battleships were scouring the ocean for Russian subs.
‘At that period of time it was called “special weapon”, not “nuclear torpedo”,’ said Viktor Mikhailov, junior navigator on Sub B-59. ‘At that time we couldn’t even imagine a nuclear torpedo.’
In a game of high stakes cat and mouse it wasn’t long before the Russians were spotted. Arkhipov’s sub was forced to make an emergency dive.
Remembered: Arkhipov is pictured left with his wife Olga in 1957, and right with his daughter Yelena, three years before he died in 1998
As the submariners tried to stay hidden from their US hunters, conditions in the sub deteriorated. For a week they stayed underwater, in sweltering 60C heat, rationed to just one glass of water a day.
‘Basically what we were trying to do was apply passive torture. Frankly I don’t think we felt any sympathy for them at all. They were the enemy’
Gary Slaughter, USS Cony signalman
Above them, the U.S. navy were ‘hunting by exhaustion’ – trying to force the Soviet sub to come to the surface to recharge its batteries.
They had no idea that on board the submarines were weapons capable of destroying the entire American fleet.
Gary Slaughter, a signalman on board the USS Cony battleship, said: ‘We knew they were probably having trouble breathing. It was hot as hell in there, they were miserable.
Tense: The documentary recreated the dramatic moment when Soviet sailors decided not to fire the weapon
‘They were cramped together and they had been under great stress for a long time. Basically what we were trying to do was apply passive torture.
‘They said that the person who prevented a nuclear war was the Russian submariner Vasili Arkhipov. I was proud and I am proud of my husband always’
Olga Arkipov, widow of Vasili Arkhipov
‘Frankly I don’t think we felt any sympathy for them at all. They were the enemy.’
The Americans decided to ratchet up the pressure, and dropped warning grenades into the sea. Inside the sub, the Soviet submariners thought they were under attack.
Valentin Savitsky, the captain of B59, was convinced the nuclear war had already started.
He demanded that the submariners launch their torpedo to save some of Russia’s pride.
The programme on Channel 5 revealed how in any normal circumstances Savitsky’s orders would have been followed, and World War Three would have been unleashed.
Ryurik Ketov, commander of another sub, Sub B-4, said: ‘Vasili Arkhipov was a submariner and a close friend of mine. He was a family friend. He stood out for being cool-headed. He was in control.’
‘One of the Russian admirals told the submariners: “It would have been better if you’d gone down with your ship”. Extraordinary’
Thomas Blanton, historian
Savitsky hadn’t counted on Arkhipov. As commander of the fleet, Arkhipov had the last veto. And although his men were against him, he insisted that they must not fire – and instead surrender.
It was a humiliating move – but one that saved the world. The Soviet submariners were forced to return to their native Russia, where they were given the opposite of a hero’s welcome.
Historian Thomas Blanton told the Sun: ‘What heroism, what duty, they fulfilled to go halfway across the world and come back, and survive.
‘But in fact, one of the Russian admirals told the submariners; “It would have been better if you’d gone down with your ship.” Extraordinary.’
‘Vasili Arkhipov was a submariner and a close friend of mine. He was a family friend. He stood out for being cool-headed. He was in control’
Ryurik Ketov, commander of Sub B-4
Four decades passed before the story of what really happened on the B59 sub was discovered. It was after Arkipov had died in 1998 from radiation poisoning.
But to his widow Olga, he was always a hero.
She said: ‘He knew that it was madness to fire the nuclear torpedo. In Cuba, in honour of the 40th anniversary of the crisis, people gathered.
‘They said that the person who prevented a nuclear war was the Russian submariner Vasili Arkhipov. I was proud and I am proud of my husband always.’