Chapter 23 (1961-1966)

The Cuba Crisis

We settled down rapidly into our new routine. Carolyn went to the Breakspear Primary School, only yards from our house, whose playing field directly opposite us afforded a pleasant green outlook. I dug up three small birch trees from the Buckinghamshire woods and surreptitiously planted them at the edge of the school field where they still stand today, magnificently waving to our bedroom window. But she was there for only a matter of months and in 1962, having passed the "11-plus" examination, went to Harrow County School for Girls, a splendid Grammar School lying at the foot of Harrow Hill across whose summit spread the ancient buildings of the famous Harrow School, which Lord Byron, Winston Churchill and so many other famous men had attended. She, too, then travelled by Underground to school.

Freda meantime found time on her hands and obtained a job as Secretary to a small private school in Ickenham run by a gracious and capable lady known as Miss Howard, an Oxford MA, to whom Freda became quite attached. The school occupied a large Victorian house in spacious grounds, which had at one time been the vicarage but was now quite unsuitable for the small and impecunious families of today's clergy. Miss Howard's father had bought it and opened the school which his daughter had inherited. It was approached by a winding, laurel-lined road from Ickenham village where a large notice ambiguously proclaimed "Ickenham High School For Girls. Preparatory for Boys". The latter observation meant that it prepared boys for the public school entrance examinations (in Britain the term "public" school denotes certain prestigious and expensive fee-paying establishments, for which there is keen competitive entry). But I have no doubt that Miss Howard was well aware of the alternative sense of the words and they served to rivet the eyes of passing motorists and potential clients.

Brian and Carolyn had become entranced by the idea of riding and, aided financially by Freda's mother, they took lessons at a nearby school in quaintly-named Ducks Hill Lane, cantering through the even odder Mad Bess Wood on the edge of Ruislip. After a time, Joan Desprez joined them and eventually I was persuaded to do the same. I had only mounted a horse once in my life and boasted that I liked my horsepower under the bonnet of a car; but it was an enthralling experience to discover a means of transport which did not respond predictably to controls but was a living thing, with mind and intentions which frequently differed from my own. Our rides were kept under careful control by the school and the horses knew where they were expected to trot, canter or (rarely) gallop, giving us a false sense of command. We later found a man in Black Park at Iver, in Bucks, who kept hardy Welsh ponies which he allowed us to take out on our own, and we soon learnt how to control the beasts by being otherwise thrown off them. Sadly, he became ill and had to give it up, whereupon we went to an ex-Indian Army man on whose splendid Arab horses we were introduced for the first time to some of the real skills of this captivating pastime. We continued thus for some years but when Brian left school and Carolyn became more absorbed in her studies the incentive faded and we gradually allowed our riding to lapse. I still look back with nostalgia on the sheer exultation of galloping through woods and unbroken countryside in the saddle of a powerful horse.

From this blissful environment I would return refreshed to the unnatural fantasy which enveloped my work. Our tiny group were casually informed that we were "dispensable", and that in the final analysis would be expected to stay at our posts in the Admiralty doing what was required of us until we were obliterated. Most of the Government and everyone else who mattered would go to prepared outposts underground in other parts of the country. We belonged to a select and secretive band inhabiting a make-believe world, living, thinking and breathing the ultimate horror - nuclear war. But someone had to do it. Our schizophrenic life was bearable as long as it was just a game.

In late October 1962 it suddenly became no longer a game. I was peacefully raking leaves in the garden on a glorious Saturday afternoon when the phone rang. It was the Resident Clerk at the Admiralty who lugubriously complained that he knew he would be the one on duty when the balloon went up. Well, it had gone up. I must repair at once to the office. We had been aware that the USA had discovered the Russians furtively installing large missiles in Cuba and had complained forcibly, with little effect. More missiles were in fact on the way by sea and ships had been photographed with sinister crates on their decks. Cuba lies quite close to the American shoreline and since 1959 had been ruled by the revolutionary dictator, Fidel Castro, whose hatred of all things American was nothing short of paranoid. The US Government were not prepared to allow long-range missiles, almost certainly with nuclear warheads, within striking distance of their country. Discussion had turned to threat, and the US Fleet had put to sea to divert and, if all else failed, to sink the Russian ships.

The crisis began on 23rd October when the Russian ships set sail, but to our surprise the British Government ordered no preparatory steps be taken to initiate the British war plans lying in readiness. Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was adamant that nothing should be done to alarm either the British public or the Russians, and he was undoubtedly wise to keep the temperature down. By 27th October, however, the two fleets were about to make contact and British war staffs went to red alert.

I took an emotional farewell of Freda and the children, saying that if I did not return that evening she was to get into the car and take them to Wales. She could not then drive and Brian was still only 16, but he was capable of driving the car and this was no time to worry about legality. I sped to the Admiralty where a group of us gathered in the office of the Director of Naval Operations ready to clear the necessary communication channels and set the wheels in motion. But still no orders came from the Cabinet and about 6.30pm the Director, a diminutive Scottish Naval Captain, and I snatched a meal at Lyons Corner House in the Strand. As we sat eyeing the happy crowd enjoying their Saturday evening, the Captain sighed heavily and said with intense sadness, "If they only knew what lies ahead". A deep sense of an impending tragedy of awful dimensions filled us both.

Back at the Admiralty we sat and rapidly consumed a bottle of whisky wich I had rescued from the entertaining allowance for an international naval conference I had been asked to set up some months previously. Still there came no word and to our surprise at about 10pm some of us were advised to go home. I did so with confused feelings and immense relief mixed with continued apprehension, and slept fitfully. Next day, Sunday 28th, I reported early to the Operations Room, to be shown a signal saying that the Russian ships had turned back. The world could breathe again but, as MacMillan told the House of Commons, "We were very near the edge". Just how near gradually emerged over the ensuing years.

Both President Kennedy and the Russian leader, Krushchev, were faced with intense pressure from their military advisers not to give way but to meet force with force. Both realised the appalling consequences and resisted as long as they could. The problem lay in lack of means of direct communication between them. They were used to dealing with Ambassadors and the slow, turgid Diplomatic machine, while the ordinary telephone could only be used through interpreters via international exchanges. Somehow, the President's brother Robert fixed up a meeting in New York with a Russian who made direct contact with Krushchev through the Embassy radio, enabling a deal to be made whereby the US would within six months withdraw its own missiles from the territory of its NATO ally, Turkey, which had a border with Russia. Honour was satisfied but both sides saw how nearly had the awful genie escaped from the bottle, through actions easily begun but immensely difficult to stop - a familiar story.

Afterwards, a "hot-line" was set up between the White House and the Kremlin so that never again would the fate of the world depend on two people who could not talk to each other. No less than thirty years later, in 1992, Russian records revealed a staggering piece of information of which the Americans were even then blissfully unaware. The Russian Commander in Cuba had been given authority from Moscow to retaliate on his own initiative if Cuba were attacked - precisely what the US Military had urged Kennedy to do. And that same man, now old and retired, firmly stated that he would unhesitatingly have done so. His missiles were armed with nuclear warheads and he considered that the major US cities could have been devastated within minutes. Why the Russians, normally so resistant to delegation, allowed such a hostage to fortune no-one will ever know. Although later interest in John Kennedy has centred around assumed failings in his personal life, my own humble yet firm belief is that the hand of Providence can be detected in his brief Presidency. His genius almost alone among strident hawks saw how the US Navy could be used to move the centre of the crisis to a point far from anyone's territory, where there was at least effective communication by both Governments with their own sides, and where precious time could be gained for a solution to be reached. His assassination a year later on 22nd November 1963 left the world stunned and desolate. His brother Robert, shortly afterwards also tragically assassinated, must share the World's gratitiude for his vital role in setting up the mechanism by which the US and Russian leaders were able to communicate. 

Life went back to normal, with war planning staffs across the globe shaken from having stared into the abyss but most others happily unaware. Brian now reached the age of 17 and immediately applied for a driving test. He was given a date in early January 1963. On the very morning of his test the whole country was covered in a blanket of snow which to his annoyance and later despair clung till the 5th of March. By that time a huge backlog of tests had built up but he eventually obtained a slot and passed with flying colours. He then found someone who sold him a pre-war Austin "Big 7" painted orange and black, which he was allowed to take to school and park in the senior boys' area. Maintaining this vehicle in a roadworthy condition was an unmitigated pleasure to Brian, if not to me, to whom some of the more difficult, and expensive, jobs fell. But I too rejoiced in his enthusiasm.

One day while looking for a parking place in Ruislip I noticed that the car behind me seemed unwilling to overtake me. I found a place, the car pulled in ahead of me and the driver came to my window. "Would you like to swap cars?", he asked. My mind raced over possible lunatic or criminal intentions on his part, but in fact he was serious. He was looking for a large, reliable old car for his growing family and offered in exchange a more modern little Ford Anglia painted bright blue. After some discussion we agreed to exchange cars for a day's trial and I brought the Ford home to a totally incredulous family. But I fell for the delightful, dashing ease of its controls and performance, and so did everyone else. The other man being equally satisfied with my old Morris Oxford, we did a deal whereby I settled an outstanding payment on his car and the Ford became mine. It was a notable event, because from that time Freda became aware that she would like to learn to drive. Suiting action to words, she took lessons and within months obtained her licence.

I was now becoming restless at both the nature of my job and the lack of promotion. On the first opportunity for an interview I was delighted to be advanced to Senior Executive Officer and to be appointed Admiralty Training Officer in succession to Jock Telfer. The Training Centre had now moved to a magnificent building in the Earls Court area of London. At school we had been taught that the skyscrapers of New York were made possible by the rocky sub-stratum on which they were built, and that London's clay ruled out anything much above eight storeys. British Engineers had evidently mastered this problem, for the Empress State Building, as it was grandly called, rose to the dizzy height of thirty storeys. My suite of rooms was on the 26th Floor from which I had a truly stupendous view of London from Heathrow Airport to St Pauls Cathedral.

The contrast with War Planning was like release from prison and I entered fiercely into a programme of active and constructive work, providing central training courses to an ever-widening sphere of people from the huge Admiralty machine. There was an urgent need for both management and vocational training and I had support from the highest levels in the Department in expanding the fine programme which Telfer had left me. To improve my own skill I began a 3-year course in my own time at Ealing Technical College (now Thames Valley University) for a post-graduate Diploma in Management Studies, and gained acceptance as a Member of both the British Institute of Management and the Institute of Personnel Management. I was now in my forty-first year and felt none of the apprehensions which allegedly strike that age; on the contrary, I was bursting with energy and confidence in a job which was challenging and rewarding.

A feature of some courses was a visit to a representative Naval or Government establishment and I constantly marvelled at the great variety of work which civil servants of all kinds were engaged in. Among many others, we visited the small training nuclear reactor at Greenwich College, the Admiralty Engineering Laboratory at West Drayton which specialised in submarine engines and possessed the largest storage battery in Europe, the thriving Naval Dockyards at Chatham and Portsmouth, and even the revealing museum of the Drugs Enforcement Division of the Home Office. On one occasion I was invited to join HMS Lion for a week's visit to Casablanca. The Lion was one of three large cruisers fitted with what were believed to be the world's first computer-controlled six-inch gun turrets. Each gun was loaded and fired automatically, and the barrage of six guns each rapidly firing high-explosive shells at a distant target was awesome.

Such visits used to be called "Showing the Flag" but this was considered to smack of Imperialism by the intelligentsia and they became "Courtesy Visits". Nevertheless, we had the Commander-in-Chief Home Fleet on board and it was a heart-stirring experience as the great ship, rolling in the heavy Atlantic swell, sailed majestically into Casablanca Harbour firing a crashing salute to the King of Morrocco. We were royally entertained there and in return held a party on the quarterdeck. I was unprepared for the sight of the wives of local dignitaries, normally drably attired and often with faces hidden, now beautifully coiffured and wearing long graceful robes of dazzling colours as they moved smiling and confidently among the Naval Officers. The journey in this trim, tidy ship with shining brass and bright lights brought back memories of dark silent nights on black, heaving seas with guns at readiness and eyes straining for the sight of a torpedo track speeding towards us. There were also the traditional Divisions and prayers on Sunday morning, while the daily ceremony of a Royal Marine bugler playing the haunting strain of "Sunset" as the White Ensign was hauled down on the quarterdeck of a British man-of-war, alone on the immense ocean with its white wake foaming behind, invoked images of generations of our sailors who had crossed these waters long before us.

On 1st April 1964 another piece of British History ended, when the Admiralty, along with the War Office and the Air Ministry, was incorporated into a single Ministry of Defence and ceased to exist as an independent authority. The change was inevitable in the light of the growing inter-depenbnce and combined operations of all three Services, but it was a melancholy moment for us when most of the staff assembled on the Horseguards Parade to witness the Flag of the Admiralty Board being struck for the last time. The shades of Lord Nelson, Captain Bligh of HMS Bounty, Admiral Jellicoe and countless heroes of our Island story, who suffered the harsh and unforgiving rule of "Their Lordships", could at last turn and rest in peace.

Brian was now ready to leave Ealing Grammar School and, a University place being unlikely, was persuaded by Freda to enter the teaching profession. This was an enlightened, not to say inspired, decision on her part because it gave him a career in which he excelled and which provided him with a permanent, invaluable skill. He went off to Worcester Teacher Training College for three rewarding and enjoyable years. We eventually became accustomed to the absence of his boisterous, challenging and endlessly enquiring personality, and settled down to a quieter way of life. He and Carolyn had always been good friends and played happily together throughout their childhood in spite of - or perhaps because of - the difference of six years in their ages. I think she missed him greatly at first but soon acquired friends of her own at her new school.

Freda herself was suddenly inspired by an advertisement for mature students to fill a growing shortage of teachers, and in 1965 applied for a place at a London training college. She was accepted at Sydney Webb College, located behind Selfridges Department Store in Oxford Street, in the heart of the West End of London. She threw herself into this new life with the utmost vigour and henceforward developed a passion for Education which has occupied her mind for the rest of her life. She had deep social convictions and strongly approved of post-war policies for abolishing the system of selecting children at the age of 11 for higher (Grammar) or lower (Secondary Modern) education. Labour Governments had set out to create "comprehensive" schools for children of all abilities and many of these were now in being, though they tended to be rather large and inevitably some had problems of management and organisation which opponents were quick to seize upon.

This was also a time when "new" teaching methods swept through the profession, encouraging children to think for themselves rather than learning by rote. Errors were made, of course, and teachers' over-enthusiasm sometimes led them to disdain basic skills, but on the whole the new approach was an honest attempt to prepare both children and teachers for the different needs of the coming 21st Century. Unfortunately it also coincided with a period of very low pay for the profession, resulting in a shortage of younger recruits, some of whom were not able to face the hard work and planning needed to achieve results. Again, there were those who preferred to blame the methods rather than make them work. This is not the place to try to describe the subsequent upheavals in British education, for which the teachers' unions and reactionary politicians both bore a heavy responsibility, but the dismantling in the 1980s and 90s of many of its best features in favour of "market forces" left Freda and most of her colleagues embittered and frustrated.

However, for the present, life in the Smith household reflected a frantic and inventive round of activity - myself trying to define and meet training needs of the still vast Naval administration, Freda in her tutorial homework and Carolyn grappling with the advanced level of work at her new school, where she found an enthusiasm for Classical languages which was to influence her life profoundly. We also about this time undertook an adventure which had long and pleasurable consequences Freda, Carolyn and I decided to take a motoring holiday in Europe. It had become obvious that one car would not be sufficient now that Freda could drive, and I began to look for another. I found a Hillman Minx, not too old, beautifully made and very comfortable, with leather upholstery. It cost me, I believe, œ269. It possessed a novel form of transmission called "Easidrive" by which the gear-changing was performed electrically under the control of a kind of early computer. Its clutch was also electric and consisted of a disc rotating in iron filings which became solid when magnetised. At that time automatic gearboxes absorbed considerable power and were only suitable for cars with large engines; the Easidrive overcame this problem by using electric power from a larger battery. The device ran beautifully but like so many British inventions was not supported by proper marketing or servicing; minor faults became major problems for owners and the system was abandoned. I believe the design was later sold to the French and is even used today in some Japanese products.

We boldly sallied forth across the Channel and spent our first night at Ypres, just inside Belgium. This town was part of the Western Front in World War I and was so bitterly fought over that it was reduced to rubble. The surrounding countryside contains many small cemetaries where British soldiers of that war still lie, their graves beautifully tended by the Imperial War Graves Commission and preserved for ever by the French and Belgian Governments. But most moving of all is the huge Menin Gate, at the edge of Ypres ("Wipers" as the soldiers called it), whereon are inscribed the names of tens of thousands of men who died in that War and have no known graves. We stood in silent despair at the folly of civilised people who did this not once but twice in living memory.

We pressed on through Luxemburg and into Germany, where names like Saarbrucken, Cologne and Dusseldorf, now peaceful and thriving, brought strange memories of the nightly RAF raids which we had followed so enthusiastically twenty years ago. Signs of the appalling destruction they suffered were now nowhere to be seen, in contrast to many British towns which still had large derelict bomb-sites. We made our way to the Black Forest area, just across the Rhine from Strasburg, and were fortunate in finding a small guest house called the "Salmen" in a tiny village named Ringelbach. The owner, one Heinz Meier, spoke excellent English having worked for some time at the Guards Club in Piccadilly. We were made most welcome and I was particularly struck by the apparent absence of resentment of British people, either there or indeed anywhere we went in Germany. From the Black Forest we journeyed into Switzerland where the gallant Minx clambered over Alpine passes with great ease, changing gears with great rapidity on its own initiative. But we all decided we wanted to see Germany again so returned to Ringelbach where we were treated as honoured guests. Driving back through France, we decided to visit Paris which, like London, was still bearable for motorists, and I was thrilled to drive down the Champs Elysees from the Arc de Triomphe. Our visit coincided with the English football team's narrow victory over West Germany to win the 1966 World Cup and our British number plates brought frequent toots from passing French cars and joyful "V" signs from their occupants.

Next page . . .

Previous page . . .


Website © Brian Smith 2015