World was just minutes from nuke apocalypse after chilling war exercise mix-up

It's November 1983. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, Billy Joel's Upton Girl was dominating the music charts and £26 million was stolen from the Brink's-Mat vault at Heathrow Airport.

But what no-one knew at the time was just how close the planet had come to all-out nuclear war.

The Cold War was still raging with the Soviet Union and the West at loggerheads.

US president Ronald Reagan had recently called the Eastern Bloc the "empire of evil" and both sides were adding to their nuclear arsenals.

The West had also recently carried out a series of provocative military exercises. In April that year, 40 US warships, including three aircraft carriers, sailed into USSR waters and jammed Soviet radar while planes simulated bombing runs over a military site 20 miles inside Soviet territory.

Now documents just released by the US State Department have revealed how another military exercise, which the Soviets thought was the start of a real invasion, put the world just minutes from a potential nuclear apocalypse.

The near catastrophe began with a major war exercise called Able Archer.

As part of the drill, the US flew 19,000 soldiers in 170 sorties from the USA to Europe. While that was not hugely unusual, for a change and to give added realism, the planes maintained radio silence throughout their flights.

At the same time, American long range B-52 bombers, which were capable of carrying nuclear weapons, were taxied onto runways and loaded with dummy bombs. The Strategic Air Command also raised its nuclear alert levels to the highest setting.

While such exercises were relatively commonplace on both sides, this time the Soviet top brass actually thought the war game was real and took steps to retaliate.

The commander of the Soviet 4th Army Air Forces in Eastern Europe pressed the panic button and ordered all of his units to make “preparations for the immediate use of nuclear weapons” and ordered nuclear bombs to be loaded onto planes.

With both sides constantly spying on each, using satellites and hacking into radio and other communications, just to show they were aware of the Soviet' actions, the USA would normally respond in the same way.

However, they USA did not know the Soviets were treating the exercise as a potential real invasion and experts say the confusion could easily have led to war breaking out.

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However, one man saved the day.

Lt. Gen. Leonard Perroots, the intelligence chief for US Air Forces in Europe, saw the moves the Soviets were making and realised something was wrong. He urged his bosses not to follow the usual tit-for-tat policy and they held fire, allowing the crisis to blow over.

It was not until some time later the West found out how close it had come to nuclear war when Oleg Gordievsky, a London-based KGB officer who had turned double agent, gave his MI6 handlers documents showing how the Soviets had their fingers "on the button."

When President Reagan read the reports he showed "genuine anxiety" about the near disaster and wrote in his diary: “I feel the Soviets are so defense minded, so paranoid about being attacked that without being in any way being soft on them, we ought to tell them no one here has any intention of doing anything like that.”

Experts say he realised the aggressive tone of his speeches, coupled with Soviet paranoia, could lead to a disaster and he called his advisors to a secret meeting – ordering them not to even tell anyone it had even taken place – and told them to set up secret channels of communication with their Soviet counterparts to stop such misunderstandings happening again.

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Just a couple of months later he also used a televised speech to send his own public message to Soviet leader Yuro Andropov, saying “If the Soviet government wants peace, then there will be peace. … Let us begin now.”

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