The Florida Keys War
By Chris Oakley
Adapted from material originally posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In Part 1 we looked at the political tensions that prevailed between Washington and Havana in the days leading up to the Florida Keys War, and also reviewed the first battles of the war itself. In Part 2 we’ll chronicle the arrival of the Royal Navy’s Special Action Group Caribbean and review the battles that led up to the US-Mexican assault on Havana.
John Bull Enters The Fray: May 21st-May 30th, 1961
Like swarms of locusts, the F-100s and F-8U Crusaders1 started descending on Santiago de Cuba, unloading bombs wherever any military or industrial targets were found. Cuban anti-aircraft gunners were helpless to do much to stop them, and the MiG squadrons assigned to defend the city were caught so far off-guard that a quarter of their number were destroyed before the raid was ten minutes old.
From their barracks on the outer edge of town, the men of the city’s Soviet advisory contingent could hear the rumble of distant explosions as the American bombs found their mark. It sounded like, as one of the men would later describe it, "an erupting volcano"2.
The bombing kept up for nearly two hours before the raiders turned for home to re-fuel and re-arm; they left behind them 800 Cuban military personnel injured or dead, 65 Cuban fighter aircraft destroyed, and more than a dozen factories in ruins. But oddly enough, this would not be regarded as the most worrying development of the day for the Cuban general staff; as they were meeting to work out a plan for a counterattack against American troops occupying Baracoa, they were informed via coded dispatch from the Soviet embassy in Havana of the departure of Special Action Group Caribbean from Scapa Flow.
Though most of the aircraft attached to Special Action Group Caribbean belonged to the Royal Navy, the RAF had a number of planes of its own in the expeditionary force. Chief among these were eight Vulcan Mk. 2 strategic bombers whose assigned role would be to take some of the burden off the Americans’ B-52 force in attacking industrial and command/control facilities; a pair of Vickers Valiant tankers accompanied them on the journey to Cuba, keeping them going until they could reach one of the air bases secured by American troops.
The British task force’s approach was greeted with considerable trepidation by Castro’s generals— having to fight the Americans and Mexicans was bad enough, but dealing with Britain as a foe on top of that was almost more than they could stomach. Even though MacMillian had flatly stated that there would be no ground troops in Special Action Group Caribbean, then-Cuban defense minister Raul Castro Ruz3 was convinced that British soldiers would be marching alongside the Americans when they moved on Havana. The Cuban embassy in Moscow pleaded with Soviet defense minister Radion Malinovsky to make a move against NATO bases in Turkey or West Germany so that London and Washington would be forced to divert their attention from Cuba and Havana could at least start to catch its breath.
Though Malinovsky was sceptical about the idea of British troops fighting in Cuba, he did agree that action needed to be taken if Fidel were to be kept in power. On May 23rd, while the lead ships for Special Action Group Caribbean were making a refuelling stop at the US naval base in Jacksonville, Malinovsky met with the top generals of STAVKA4 to ask for their opinions on where the most vulnerable points lay in US and NATO defenses.
Expecting them to suggest a blockade of Berlin, he was surprised when they instead recommended an occupation of Turkey. There were fewer US personnel in Turkey, one Red Army general explained, and the Turks’ attention was focused mainly on their neighbor Greece, with whom Turkey had a long-standing feud. Therefore, a Soviet invasion could expect greater success there than in Berlin, where NATO was likely to launch a fierce counteroffensive.
Though MacMillan had declined to attach any ground troops to Special Action Group Caribbean per se, that did not preclude him from sending Royal Army garrison battalions to reinforce the defenses of Britain’s most loyal Caribbean allies, Jamaica and the Bahamas; he also consented to the deployment of a detachment of Royal Marines to the Cayman Islands.
These battalions’ mission was strictly defensive, but in the first of a series of judgement errors that was to plague the Cuban military for the rest of the war, Cuban army intelligence officers assumed they were the vanguard of a British invasion force and urged Castro to approve an attack on the Bahamas. He did, with ultimately fatal consequences for his army and his regime.
On May 24th, as American and Mexican forces were mopping up the last pockets of Cuban resistance in San Juan y Martines, Castro’s general staff hurriedly drafted a plan for putting an occupation force ashore at the southern tip of Andros Island. The hope was to gain a foothold before the garrison battalions could arrive, thus giving (or so Castro’s inner circle thought) the Cuban military the upper hand against the United States and its allies.
Their plans would backfire in the most ironic way imaginable: when word of the occupation plans got back to London courtesy of MI6, Prime Minister MacMillan quickly ordered the Queen’s Own Parachute Regiment detached from its normal duties as part of the British NATO contingent in Europe and airlifted to the Bahamas; by 5:00 PM London time that evening, the regiment was being flown en masse to the islands’ regional capital, Nassau.
Later that same night the vanguard of Special Action Group Caribbean arrived at Cabo san Antonio, now under American control and being used to deploy men and supplies to both the eastern and western battlefronts in Cuba.
On May 27th, the air arm of Special Action Group Caribbean mounted its first major tactical operation as Royal Navy Sea Vixens, backed up by RAF Lightning interceptors, bombed Cuban air bases near the town of Pinar del Rio. These strikes came just in the nick of time, given that the bases in question were to have provided air support for the proposed invasion of the Bahamas.
By May 29th, US and Mexican forces, with British naval support, had captured Puente de Cabezas and Minas de Matahambre and were making good progress towards Pinar del Rio. The sector controlled by the 82nd Airborne now extended as far south as Colon, while the 3rd MEF was beginning to engage Cuban regular forces in the Sierra Maestra mountains. The RAF Vulcans posted to SACG made their own presence felt too, striking the port of Sagua la Grande at least twice a day; on the tactical level, Hawker Hunters were proving to be just as much of a thorn in Castro’s side as the Americans’ F-100s and F-8Us.
On May 30th, Castro reluctantly called off the proposed landings at Andros Island. The Caymans, however, were still up for grabs; with a little luck, he concluded, it might still be possible to yank victory from the jaws of defeat…
Target Camaguey: May 31st-June 8th, 1961
The Florida Keys War marked television’s coming of age as a broadcast medium; though it had been a part of American life since at least the early 1950s, its capabilities had not been fully tapped until the war broke out. Now, as an entertainment source and a news-disseminating tool, TV would begin asserting the predominant place it has held in popular society ever since.
Talk show hosts like Jack Paar were quick to grasp the draw of guests who had even tenuous connections with the fighting in the Caribbean; indeed, for one Tonight Show broadcast he literally pulled a guest in off the street because that guest had made cargo flights to Homestead Air Force Base around the time of the Battle of the Florida Straits. Sitcom writers would tailor their jokes to work in topical references to the war. Twilight Zone, widely regarded as the best fantasy series of the era, aired at least four episodes which touched on the war; the soap opera As The World Turns struck ratings gold with a storyline about one of its younger female leads volunteering for front-line duty as an Army nurse.
The modern network newscast was, in many respects, a child of the Florida Keys War. From the moment the first hints had leaked out about Operation July 26th, America’s three major networks had all worked aggressively to ensure their news bureaus in Miami would be ready to cover the action when the shooting started. CBS in particular had worked closely with its Miami and West Palm Beach affiliates to guarantee that its national news programs would have up-to-the-minute information on the impending clash between the United States and Cuba; it had also expanded its Washington, D.C. bureaus to enable them to keep pace with ever-changing developments at the White House and the Pentagon.
Douglas Edwards, the network’s chief anchorman since 1949, would prove to be the ultimate beneficiary of these efforts; though his ratings had been in a sharp decline before the war began, they would soar upwards again as millions of viewers came to rely on his clear, concise accounts of the battles being fought on Cuban soil and in the waters of the Florida Straits.
Rarely would his strengths as an anchorman be more in evidence than on the afternoon of June 1st, 1961, when he announced that the US Army’s newly activated 173rd Airborne Brigade had attacked Camaguey, Cuba’s third-largest city.
The Camaguey assault was, to say the least, fraught with risk. For starters it was being mounted by a unit which had only come into existence less than a month earlier; furthermore, the men charged with conducting the operation were making the attack with much of eastern Cuba still under Communist control— a potentially fatal problem if the assault force came under siege. Last but not least, there were more than a hundred Soviet advisors in Camaguey who, though they had no heavy weapons or air support to speak of, were perfectly willing— with or without orders from Moscow— to fight the Americans to the last man.
However, General Taylor felt the risk was worth taking; with Cuban Communist forces gearing up for a counterattack against US positions at Santiago de Cuba, he believed an assault on Camaguey might take some of the wind out of their sails and split them in half long enough for the 3rd MEF to breach the enemy’s rear flanks and advance all the way to Las Tunas. His top field commander on the island, General Paul D. Harkins, was in favor of the plan as well: a protégé of the legendary George S. Patton, Harkins was eager to stick it to Castro’s army at any time and place the opportunity presented itself.
At 1:00 PM Eastern Daylight Time on June 1st, the first advance units of the 173rd Airborne landed at Camaguey and established a defensive perimeter on the western edge of the city. A second wave touched down half an hour, and by 2:00 PM both groups had made contact with Cuban regular forces and their Soviet advisors. What followed was, as one Cuban soldier would later describe it, "hell come to earth"5. The two sides exchanged automatic weapons fire in the start of what would turn out to be a lengthy siege; with the U.S.-led coalition enjoying a decided advantage in air power, however, there was little the Communist forces could do to exploit the weaknesses in the 173rd’s perimeter.
On June 3rd, making what would turn out to be his last visit to a foreign capital, Fidel Castro flew to Moscow in hopes of securing a personal guarantee from Khrushchev that the USSR would deploy combat troops to Cuba to halt the American-led invasion. To throw U.S. and allied interceptor squadrons off the scent, he had three decoy planes take off on wildly divergent flight paths while his own aircraft, an unmarked Tupolev Tu-114 transport, slipped past the Yanquis in the ensuing confusion. Once the Tu-114 had cleared Cuban airspace, it was able to fly undisturbed across the North Atlantic and make refueling stops in Sweden and Finland before reaching the Soviet Union. But no sooner did Castro’s plane touch down on the main runway at Sheremetyevo Airport than he learned that fate had dealt the Communist bloc another setback.
Khrushchev had been stricken with a heart attack shortly before Castro’s Tu-114 crossed the Polish-Soviet border. Nobody knew for sure how serious it was, but it was generally agreed the attack had been brought on by a telegram the CPSU general secretary had received from Soviet ambassador to Cuba Alexander Alekseyev which bore dire news about the Camaguey situation. The message reported that the city’s entire Soviet military advisory team had been arrested by American troops and forcibly sent home on a charter transport plane; given the steady stream of bad news which was already pouring in from Cuba, this latest fiasco had proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for Khrushchev.
His main political rival, Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, moved quickly to take over as acting CPSU general secretary; when Castro’s Tu-114 landed in Moscow, Brezhnev personally met the Cuban leader at Sheremetyevo and apprised him of the situation in Moscow. It was during this impromptu debriefing that Castro first heard about Soviet plans to invade Turkey. The Cuban president, convinced his country was in mortal jeopardy, was baffled and disappointed by the news. What did Turkey have to do with anything?
Brezhnev, however, pointed out that Western strategists did not consider Turkey as high a priority as, say, Berlin or South Vietnam. A Soviet invasion would catch NATO off-guard and force the United States to redirect most of its forces towards halting the offensive, thus allowing Cuba to catch its breath and stage a counterattack that would push U.S.-led occupation forces off the island. He was also quick to mention that Cuba’s own ambassadors in Moscow had suggested a move on Turkey as a possible countermeasure to the US invasion of their island.
In theory, the Soviet plan was ingenious, and it might have worked but for the actions of a disgruntled GRU6 colonel…
On June 4th, as the 173rd Airborne was digging in against an expected Cuban Communist counteroffensive in Camaguey, a dark- haired man in a nondescript-looking three-piece suit handed a package wrapped in brown paper to a secretary from the American embassy in Moscow. Though no one knew it at the time, the package contained preliminary Soviet battle plans for the invasion of Turkey, code-named Operation Anatolia.
Oleg Penkovsky’s once-bright promotion prospects had vanished when his superiors learned that his father had fought for the monarchist White Army during the 1918-21 civil war. That, along with nagging fears that the growing tension between Washington and Moscow could eventually lead to nuclear holocaust, drove Penkovsky to become a double agent for the West. It was in that capacity that he alerted the White House to the impending Soviet attack on Turkey; when a CIA mole in the upper echelons of the Red Army confirmed Penkovsky’s information, Kennedy immediately dispatched Robert McNamara to NATO headquarters in Brussels to confer with European defense officials about what could be done to meet this potential threat to NATO’s southern flank.
To bolster the 250,000-man Turkish army, elements of the US Army’s 11th Armored "Black Horse" Cavalry7 regiment were sent to Turkey’s Black Sea coast as a safeguard against possible Soviet amphibious assault while two West German infantry units took up defensive positions around Istanbul. RAF Fighter Command sent three Gloster Javelin squadrons to aid Turkish air defense units in guarding against Soviet bombing raids. Even Greece, Turkey’s traditional nemesis, came to her aid by deploying a naval flotilla that included two guided missile frigates capable of hitting Soviet bases on the Black Sea.
To Brezhnev’s dismay, he realized that not only had the West been tipped off to his strategy, but that Operation Anatolia might not even have that much effect on the war in Cuba. Even as the Turkish-Soviet standoff was brewing, American troops in eastern Cuba had captured Holguin and Bayamo and were on the outskirts of Manzanillo; in western Cuba US and Mexican forces had been sighted in Pinar del Rio’s outer districts while the strategically import port of Mariel was being bombed by American and British tactical fighters.
June 7th saw US and Mexican forces in western Cuba achieve their most significant land victory yet as the last pockets of Cuban Communist resistance in Pinar del Rio collapsed. Che Guevara, who had been entrusted with the task of directing the Cuban armed forces in Castro’s absence, was at his wits’ end trying to keep up the flagging spirits of his troops and cope with what seemed like an invincible war machine which now occupied close to 50% of his homeland; it was only his Marxist zeal and passionate hatred of the West that kept him from giving up the fight.
He immediately ordered a three-column attack by Cuban Communist regular forces and civilian militias against American positions at Pinar del Rio and Puente de Cabezas. The offensive was a total disaster; the first wave was wiped out literally to the last man, while the second wave fled towards Havana in a chaotic retreat. Little wonder, then, that General Harkins said in his post-battle report to the Joint Chiefs of Staff: "The time until this war is over can be measured in days, if not hours"8. Discipline within all sectors of the Cuban regular armed forces was disintegrating like the sugar cane fields Communist troops were burning as they retreated; in Havana, ordinary Cuban citizens were beginning to do the unthinkable and openly criticize the Castro regime. The situation was especially dire in Camaguey, with the 173rd Airborne Brigade controlling all but two blocks of the city and starting to move east toward Las Tunas for a linkup with the 3rd MEF.
Early on the morning of June 8th, a brief radio announcement from the BBC World Service brought all activity in Cuba to a sudden halt: "Radio Moscow is quoted as saying that Nikita Khrushchev, first secretary of the Soviet Communist Party since 1955 and premier of the Soviet Union since 1958, died late last night of complications resulting from heart failure." With that single sentence, the entire complexion of the war— and world politics as a whole –was radically changed.
Eyeball to Eyeball: June 9th-June 15th, 1961
Though he’d disliked the man in life, Leonid Brezhnev went outof his way to honor Nikita Khrushchev in death. He declared a three-day national mourning period for Khrushchev in the USSR and ordered a full military funeral in recognition of his late predecessor’s service as a commissar in the Red Army during World War II. This was partly a political tactic intended to strengthen his claim on the reins of power in the Kremlin, but it was also a shrewd means of rallying the masses to support the coming Red Army push into Turkey.
He needed all the support he could get; Marshal Andrei Grechko, Warsaw Pact forces C-in-C for the Red Army, had expressed grave doubts to Defense Minister Malinovsky about Operation Anatolia. Any NATO counterattack against the invasion forces, he warned Malinovsky and Brezhnev, could conceivably include the use of American MRBM9 launchers in that country. There was also the danger that NATO might retaliate for the Turkish invasion by sending an invasion force of its own into East Germany.
Grechko’s fears were not unfounded; President Kennedy had already given his missile commanders in Turkey orders to go to DefCon10 3 as the Red Army continued its buildup in preparation for Operation Anatolia. And even as mourners were filing past Khrushchev’s casket in Moscow, Prime Minister MacMillian— finally forced to admit that he’d have to commit his ground troops to the war whether he wanted to or not – had placed the Army of the Rhine on full alert and sent five Territorial Army divisions to bolster their numbers. Some of the B-52, B-58, and Vulcan squadrons that had been raiding Cuban military and industrial targets were reassigned to "fail safe" patrols along the Soviet border; a number of B-47 wings were also assigned to these patrols. The US Navy’s Atlantic missile submarine fleet, led by the George Washington-class USS Patrick Henry, began moving its vessels within striking range of Soviet and Warsaw Pact bases along the Baltic coast. Belgium, Holland, and Denmark sent troops to join the American, British, French, West German and Canadian units already massed along the East German border.
What had started as a relatively low-scale territorial conflict between neighboring antagonists was now threatening to escalate into World War III.
Less than a month after the first shots had been fired in the Battle of the Florida Straits, diplomats on both sides of the Iron Curtain were beginning to reach a consensus that Castro’s regime was for all practical purposes finished no matter what the result of his visit to Moscow. That view prompted many of the foreign embassies still operating in Havana to close down and the rest to petition the UN for help in arranging some of cease-fire or truce before American and Cuban troops started shooting it out on Havana’s streets11.
By June 10th, when US and Mexican forces had overrun La Palma and were starting to move on San Cristobal, Canada, Italy, Brazil, Romania, and Finland had already pulled their embassy staffs out and India was making final preparations to evacuate its own diplomats from the Cuban capital. The Argentine and Swedish embassies had cut their workforces 60% and the Honduran legation was making do with a payroll of less than 20. Even the East German embassy, where the GDR’s ambassador to Cuba issued almost hourly statements declaring his country’s never - flagging faith in Castro, was beginning to prepare a tentative plan for getting its staff out of the country.
From his office window at the Soviet embassy, Alexander Alekseyev could see that the Castro regime’s grip on Cuba was fading. On June 12th, as Khrushchev was laid to rest, the USSR’s ambassador to Havana wrote a blunt letter to Foreign Minister Gromyko describing Moscow’s position in Cuba as "hopelessly untenable" and recommending immediate withdrawal of all remaining Soviet diplomatic and advisory personnel from the country. Though he was reluctant to say it publicly, in private Gromyko had come to agree with Alekseyev’s pessimistic viewpoint— in fact, a consensus was steadily building within Brezhnev’s cabinet that the time had come for the Kremlin to wash its hands of the Castro government. Even Brezhnev himself, who had originally ordered Operation Anatolia as a means of relieving pressure on the Cuban Communists, was starting to question the value of continuing to prop up a regime which had so badly miscalculated how the United States would respond to an attempt to invade its own soil so soon after the Bay of Pigs.
The 173rd Airborne’s efforts to link up with the 3rd MEF ran into an unexpected complication on June 13th when the enlisted men at the Cuban regular army barracks in Las Tunas started a mutiny against their officers. Fed up with the lack of adequate food and water, and convinced the Americans would kill them all if the war lasted much longer, they tried to seize control of the garrison and quickly encountered stern resistance from its commanders.
One of the mutineers captured the garrison’s radio transmitter and broadcast a plea to the American forces to aid his comrades in taking the barracks. On orders from General Harkins, both the 173rd Airborne and the 3rd MEF temporarily halted their advances while a CIA covert operations team was airlifted to Las Tunas to support the insurrection.
In 1960, with the Eisenhower Administration drawing to a close, the US Defense Department instituted SIOP— the Single Integrated Operations Plan. Its purpose was to give future Presidents a specific framework for deciding when and how to deploy the significant destructive power of the American nuclear arsenal; without it, the already serious threat of the Florida Keys War escalating into global atomic conflict might have been even greater.
Under SIOP, the United States can only initiate a nuclear attack after the President and Secretary of Defense have both agreed such action is necessary and conferred with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on selection of targets. The main purposes of this plan are to minimize the risk of indiscriminate nuclear weapons use and set priorities in regard to strategic and tactical targets12.
On June 14th, SIOP would face its first significant test when a US Air Force U-2 was shot down and its pilot killed during a recon mission over the Turkish-Soviet border. An outraged General Curtis LeMay felt this warranted an immediate missile strike against the USSR and phoned Robert McNamara to demand he be given the go-ahead to bring his ICBM and MRBM launchers to DefCon 1. McNamara, however, wasn’t so sure such a step was warranted and immediately contacted President Kennedy and JCS Chairman Taylor to get their assessments of the situation…
1 The U.S. Navy’s principal tactical fighter at the time the Florida Keys War began; in addition to being a deadly strike aircraft, it had a reputation as a fearsome enemy in a dogfight. A reconnaissance variant, the RF-8, also played a part in the war, gathering intelligence for Kennedy’s military advisors. 2 Quoted from a Swiss newspaper account of the Santiago de Cuba air strike. 3 Fidel’s brother; he was also a key member of the Cuban Communist Party’s Central Committee.
4 The Soviet armed forces high command.
5 Quoted from an interview for the book Cuba Si, Castro No by Harrison Salisbury, copyright 1968 by Random House.6 Glavnoe Razvedyvatel'noe Upravlenie, or Main Intelligence Directorate; it was the Soviet Union’s military intelligence arm at the time of the Florida Keys War.
7 So nicknamed because of the black horse’s head shoulder patches on their uniforms; the regiment was first organized in 1901 as a mounted cavalry force.
8 The full text of Harkins’ report can be read in his autobiography I Served In Cuba.
9 Medium-range ballistic missiles.
10 An abbreviation of Defense Conditon, i.e. the readiness state of either a particular military unit or the US armed forces in general. DefCon 5, the lowest alert level on the scale, designates normal peacetime conditions; the highest, DefCon 1, indicates a state of war is in effect. US forces in the southeastern part of the United States and at Guantanamo Bay were at DefCon 2(the highest alert level short of actual war) when the Battle of the Florida Straits broke out.
11 The British and Mexican embassy staffs were recalled from Havana shortly after the war started, and the United States had already severed diplomatic ties with Cuba when President Kennedy first assumed office in January of 1961.
12 Further details on SIOP can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SIOP.