Secret GCHQ listening post in Scarborough helped end the Cuban missile crisis by revealing Soviet ships were turning back from the blockade, declassified files reveal

  • A GCHQ listening post monitored Soviet merchant ships from North Yorkshire
  • US president John F Kennedy blockaded the island to prevent deadly deliveries
  • Details of the base's involvement have emerged after the declassification of the secret report 

The Cuban missile crisis was brought to an end thanks in part to crucial intelligence work... in Scarborough.

A GCHQ listening post monitoring Soviet merchant ships from the North Yorkshire resort in the Cold War took centre stage in 1962 after it emerged that the USSR was secretly shipping nuclear missiles to Cuba, just 90 miles from the US.

Rather than invade, US president John F Kennedy blockaded the island to prevent more of the deadly deliveries.

A general view of GCHQ Scarborough. The Cuban missile crisis was brought to an end thanks in part to crucial intelligence work here

A general view of GCHQ Scarborough. The Cuban missile crisis was brought to an end thanks in part to crucial intelligence work here

It became essential to know the position of Soviet ships on their way to beat the blockade – a job that fell to the GCHQ base. Pictured: San Cristobal base in 1963

It became essential to know the position of Soviet ships on their way to beat the blockade – a job that fell to the GCHQ base. Pictured: San Cristobal base in 1963

Rather than invade, US president John F Kennedy (pictured) blockaded the island to prevent more of the deadly deliveries

Rather than invade, US president John F Kennedy (pictured) blockaded the island to prevent more of the deadly deliveries

However, it became essential to know the position of Soviet ships on their way to beat the blockade – a job that fell to the GCHQ base. 

Its operators were the first to report that one, the Kislovodsk, turned back to the USSR on October 24.

Soviet cargo ship, the Fizik Kurchatov, carrying six canvas covered missile transporters with missiles, leaves Cuba en route for Russia during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962

Soviet cargo ship, the Fizik Kurchatov, carrying six canvas covered missile transporters with missiles, leaves Cuba en route for Russia during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962

A P2V Neptune US patrol plane flying over a Soviet freighter during the Cuban missile crisis

A P2V Neptune US patrol plane flying over a Soviet freighter during the Cuban missile crisis

The Soviet freighter Anosov, rear, being escorted by a Navy plane and the destroyer USS Barry, while it leaves Cuba probably loaded with missiles under the canvas cover seen on deck

The Soviet freighter Anosov, rear, being escorted by a Navy plane and the destroyer USS Barry, while it leaves Cuba probably loaded with missiles under the canvas cover seen on deck

Tony Comer, GCHQ's historian, said: 'Just another task at the bottom of Scarborough's priority list suddenly escalated to the very top priority.

'Were the Soviets going to call Kennedy's bluff or not?'

Details of the base's involvement have emerged after the declassification of the secret report 'Soviet Merchant Ship Changes Course' – which was sent straight to the White House 'situation room', assuring the Americans that the missile crisis would not escalate.

Part one of The Secret History of GCHQ is repeated on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday October 23 at 11:00 BST and available on BBC Sounds here

Secret GCHQ listening post in Scarborough helped end the Cuban missile crisis

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