Geoff Bainbridge & The Cuban Missile Crisis

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On a wing and a prayer: Geoff Bainbridge, former RAF pilot

Flight Lieutenant Geoff Bainbridge (1924-2022) served with the RAF from 1942 for the duration of the war. He ultimately pursued a successful career with the RAF and by 1962 Geoff was stationed with the new V-Force. Having completed flights tests beyond the sound barrier on the new Avro Vulcan, he served as a test pilot, flight instructor, and demonstrated the airplane for royalty and dignitaries at multiple airshows.

The RAF medium bomber force – the so-called ‘V-Force’ of Valiant, Victor and Vulcan aircraft, together with sixtyThorIRBMs (intermediate range ballistic missiles), comprised the British contribution to the strategic nuclear deterrent of the NATO alliance. The 1958 US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement had enabled British scientists and industry to collaborate with the USA to produce more powerful weapons to arm the ‘V-Force’ with Yellow Sun megaton warheads. On 1 February 1962, with tensions rising, ‘Quick Reaction Alert’ (QRA) status mandated each operational V-force squadron provided one fully armed aircraft and crew at fifteen minutes readiness to ‘scramble’ to deliver its weapon on pre-planned targets beyond the Iron Curtain.

In October of that year, the world was on the verge of nuclear war. The Cuban Missile Crisis culminated in a thirteen day standoff between the Soviet Union and the USA along with its allies. The Americans attempted to blockade the communist island nation of Cuba which had recently been armed with Soviet ballistic missiles. The United States were not happy with offensive nuclear weaponry less than 100 miles from its shores.

Geoff’s squadron were the first line of defense for NATO forces in Europe, alongside the US-supplied Intermediate range Thor nuclear missiles stationed in the North East of England. England would be decimated with the first volley of Soviet missiles but the Vulcan bombers and nuclear missiles would be inflight on a one-way mission to inflict damage upon the enemy.

Nato was placed on high alert and the world watched the confrontation unfold on television. As many as 40 RAF Vulcan bombers were on 15-minute stand-by at four airfields waiting to unleash nuclear warheads at the heart of the Soviet Union.

Sleeping under the wing of their nuclear armed Vulcan bomber, Geoff and his crew knew their target and were fully aware that there would be no return. We cannot begin to imagine how the crews handled this knowledge and the imminent threat to their families.

‘If you hear us take off, take the kids to Scotland’ – What one Vulcan pilot told wife at height of Cuban Missile Crisis

LincolnshireLive, Paul Whitelam, 2 Apr 2018

The official government records do not align with front line witness accounts who recalled that the whole V-force, not just its QRA element, were brought way beyond the reported fifteen minutes readiness of the QRA force. First hand accounts state that all available, fully combat ready, crews across the Command were brought to five minutes, or cockpit readiness, for several hours on the afternoon of Saturday 27 October 1962, before being reverted to fifteen minutes readiness – to the great relief of all involved. Therefore, unbeknownst to a wider public, UK nuclear deterrent crews had been sitting in their aircraft ready to start engines for what would have been for many their final mission in a nuclear war.

“That was very, very nearly the Third World War… There were just four minutes to go and I had the plane on the runway with an atomic bomb on board ready to go. Thankfully the Russians withdrew. That experience made a big impression on me, especially when I knew where I was going.”

Geoff Bainbridge, Belfast Telegraph, 3 Sep 2015

After a long period of tense negotiations, an agreement was reached between US President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev. Publicly, the Soviets would dismantle their offensive weapons in Cuba and return them to the Soviet Union, subject to United Nations verification, in exchange for a US public declaration and agreement never to invade Cuba without direct provocation.

Never short of great story, Geoff could hold the attention of a room, regaling them with tales of his many exploits — let me tell you about the Ford Mustang he borrowed from a freshly promoted Flight Lieutenant in Florida Keys! I last visited my great uncle Geoff & great aunt Peggy in Portrush over St Patrick’s Day 2012 while visiting friends in neighboring Coleraine. Unbeknownst to us, our friend’s father, Mick Rafferty, knew Geoff and had performed on stage with him a few years earlier… but of course he had.

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