My relatively relaxed time at the London Stock Exchange did not last long. As Chief of Police, I had duties and so, after a couple of months' rest, I was commuting on alternate weekends between my house in Uxbridge and Barnsley, where I managed the affairs of the police from an office in Barnsley Police Headquarters. Certain officers, though, were not happy with me taking up their best office for just two days a fortnight; pressure was put on me to move my management office to Sheffield, the administrative centre of South Yorkshire Police. And so I did, but the officers in Sheffield were equally unhappy about the two days a fortnight and, as I did not want to give up the job at the Stock Exchange (it paid far better than a police salary would), the police suggested that I take “jury leave” in order to work for the Stock Exchange full-time. They issued an official letter stating that I was called for jury duty for an indefinite period and the Stock Exchange was obliged to pay me my normal salary, minus the small allowance paid to jury members. This seemed like a good temporary fix, but it was to last for over six months.
The time was spring 1975. The Foot and mouth crisis was raging in Britain. I agreed with army chiefs to co-operate and co-ordinate our efforts, with equivalent rankings liaising to avoid confusion and conflicts. Our efforts were still hampered by a lack of spare resources. In order to have enough personnel to control all the traffic and make sure that the disease did not spread, the army was brought in to a civilian situation. The army operated using a hierarchy, from the top brass down to the privates, which would roughly correspond to me as Detective Chief Superintendent, down to the constables in the civilian force. This worked out well; the general and I co-operated reasonably well. General Baxter was his name. I got on well with his men and found myself controlling the army for a few hours while he was away. I still don’t know where he went, but it turned out to be an inopportune time to be absent.
I was being escorted by one of his men, a corporal, I think he was, who was showing me around a military establishment. This was great; I was really enjoying my tour. We were in one of the control rooms when a guy in uniform rushed in.
“There’s a call for you on the telephone.” I thought it strange that anyone should call me on anything other than the police radio, but I took the call on the landline. The voice on the other end of the line identified himself as Colonel somebody and said, “We have an incident. Five foreign military aircraft are approaching airspace which is under our military control.” The colonel went on to say that we had scrambled five of our jets to go to intercept them, but what should they do when they get there? I replied rather quickly that I had no idea, not being a military man. The reply came back promptly; “General Baxter is out of the area and unavailable. He left you in charge.” Thinking quickly, I instructed the soldier to get me in touch with the Home Office and also the Ministry of Defence, so I could make sure that my strategy would be valid for the safety and security of the country. They put me in touch with both parties and the order was to stand firm. I was told to engage the enemy if necessary, but to act only if there was no other choice. I was to avoid violating international airspace. At this point I thought it might be prudent to talk to the pilots involved and so they patched me through. The army communications were brilliant in that certain people could hear me at certain times whilst others could not. All I had to do was speak. So, I got the pilots on the line and asked what the situation was. I was told that we were about four minutes away from the enemy coming within striking distance. The pilots could fire rockets now as the missiles had sufficient range. I asked how we would know that the intentions of the opposition were hostile. The wing commander replied that our first indication would be when they locked on to us. I therefore gave orders to carry on approaching and when in range to ready their weapons but not to fire unless the enemy fired first or when I gave the specific order to do so. However, they were to fire immediately if they saw a rocket burst from the enemy aircraft. I asked the wing commander what were our chances in an engagement. There were equal numbers – five aircraft – on each side. He replied that the opposition was flying old Mig fighters, so there would be little chance of defeat. I reported back to the politicians at the Home Office and Defence Ministry and was told to carry on.
At this moment I tried to contact the enemy command. I did not think anyone there would talk to me, but it was worth a try. Funnily enough, I did find someone who would communicate with me. I asked him what his intentions were, to which he replied that he was protecting his borders. I explained that we were intending to advance and asked him if he wished to engage us. There was no immediate reply. Perhaps he was as bemused by the growing situation as I was, I don’t know. We were now within one minute of contact, so I again spoke to the wing commander to get an update on the situation. He reported that the enemy planes were still coming and would be in visual contact soon. My next instruction surprised the wing commander somewhat. I said that the squadron should gain altitude in order to be above the enemy; it would not be wise to have them attacking us from above. The wing commander pointed out that to take such a position would be to take an attacking stance; I told him that was not important at the moment. The order was to get into position and lock weapons on target as instructed, but not to fire. If attacked, he and his men were to fire, but otherwise they were to fly past. Both sides locked on, but flew past with no shots being fired. I said to the wing commander, “Now it’s time for a bit of fun. Instruct your men to get as many locks on the enemy as you can, but avoid getting targeted yourselves. With two sea harriers and three tornados you should easily be able to overwhelm five old Migs without getting any further locks on yourselves. Show them what excellent pilots you really are”! The wing commander contacted his men with the revised tactical information and I listened for a minute or so whilst he filled them in and they got on with their cat-and-mouse game. I then asked for an update from him, which sounded very favourable. We had achieved twenty-three locks on enemy aircraft while they had achieved none on our forces.
When I spoke again to the enemy commander, I was relaxed and charming. What I had to say would make him very uneasy, but he could have no complaint with the way I delivered it. “Sir,” I said, “whilst this is an excellent exercise for us, were it to have been a combat situation, your planes would have been shot down several times over without damage to our own forces. I ask you again, do you really wish to engage”? The little man was not yet willing to back down; he said, “My pilots inform me that they have made several locks on your planes during the incident.” I replied that while this might be true it was only during the initial fly-past, but he interrupted me to say that they had achieved a lock since then. I sought intelligence on this from the wing commander who confirmed that a single lock had been achieved but that it had only been for a period of half a second and was of such a weak nature that it had been speedily broken by one of the methods used to dispose of such tenuous links. I went back to the foreign commander with my revised intelligence that the lock was temporary and would not have held. He disagreed with this assessment so I said, “Perhaps you would like to test whether our weapons locks work whilst your fighters take evasive manoeuvres.” Again I asked, “do you wish to engage? I strongly suggest that you break off.” Seconds of silence ticked by as I waited for the reply. It was actually the wing commander that broke it by announcing, “They’ve turned away and appear to be heading back towards their base, should we pursue”?
“No, that will not be necessary. Head for home. You have done a splendid job. You are obviously some of the best pilots that the air force has to offer!”
I continued to be in dialogue with the two political offices and they reported that the situation was under control, but in the course of the incident we temporarily violated foreign airspace, which caused quite a diplomatic disturbance.
Later, General Baxter, sounding quite agitated, contacted me. “Why the hell didn’t you contact me when this thing happened?” he roared.
“Your people tried, sir, but it was impossible to contact you. In the circumstances I took the best decision that I could.”
That wasn’t going to wash. “But you could have assigned command to any one of a number of other officers who would have been able to handle the situation!”
“But sir, I was the one who had actual command at the time and there just wasn’t time, with two minutes to actual engagement, to keep everyone advised of the situation, let alone brief a chain of command. I had all the relevant information and had to use it in the shortest possible time for maximum efficiency.” Somewhat mollified, the general had to admit that while I had triggered off something of a diplomatic incident by this action, it had actually done some good, because the country concerned had turned towards conciliatory measures. Perhaps this was in the light of the fact that we demonstrated to them that their air power was inferior to ours; the Sea Harriers had made mince-meat out of their Migs, stopping as they did in mid-air and getting a lock on the enemy as they flew past. The entire thing had made a mockery of their defence systems, so now they were turning to diplomacy. “I don’t know how you did it,” the general said, “but if you’re ever considering a career in the army, then come and see me.”
Once more, he left me in charge of the base, I suppose as we had agreed on the command hierarchy agreement. It never occurred to me when I suggested the agreement that it would cover anything other than the foot and mouth crisis, but here I was in charge of thousands of soldiers … and I still didn’t know where Baxter was. Still, surely nothing else could happen.
The telephone rang again. “One of the Migs is moving very sluggishly. It appears to be carrying something very heavy. We suspect a tactical nuclear device and so we’ve moved to DEFCON 4 as a precaution, even though it’s on its way back to base.”
It is not five minutes later, when the same guy in uniform rushed in. This time, he was red faced and sweating.
“Sir, there’s a Russian ICBM in flight. The trajectory looks like it’s headed for Britain.”
I almost shat myself. I immediately realised that this was the most important situation of my entire life. I picked up the phone. “Get me the Russian officer handling this show now.”
I turned around to the red-faced guy in uniform and asked, “Who do I say that I am? I can’t say that I’m a civilian.”
“Tell him you’re a Commander,” he said, and the title stuck.
A gritty Russian voice sounded at the other end. “Mikov.”
“General Mikov, this is Commander Marsh. You appear to have a missile headed towards Britain.” I spoke slowly, waiting for a response.
By now the phone was abuzz with military chatter, among which was: “Launch point confirmed as Smolensk, Western Russia,” and “Impact estimated to be London.” All sorts of information was coming in thick and very fast.
“Sir, we’re at DEFCON 3. We recommend raising to DEFCON 2,” they snapped.
The general responded, speaking extremely slowly compared to the background chatter. “We appear to have a problem with one of our missiles. It went off by mistake in response to the previous DEFCON 4.”
I was furious. “That’s no reason to launch. What do you think you were doing? Is it armed?”
“It was an unfortunate mistake. The missile malfunctioned. I do not know at this stage whether or not it is armed.”
The background chatter continued, and a new voice appeared. “This is General McAdams. Why are you speaking so slowly? Get on with it or pass it over to me!” I didn’t respond, but from then on I spoke as fast as I could and Mikov quickened his speech in response.
An intelligence officer reported, “Impact point now confirmed to be Trafalgar Square. Sir, we need to launch a counteroffensive. Do you want us to fire”?
“Negative! Wait on my command.”
Mikov said, “We think it is probably unarmed.”
You think so! Don’t you know?”
“Communications are difficult at this time.”
I thought of alternatives. “Can you self-destruct it or divert it?”
“Negative. There is no self-destruct, but we can divert.”
Another voice chimed in. “Try to divert the missile to one of the Outer Hebrides islands. It’s less populated there and we can’t risk a sea impact in case of a tsunami.”
I put this to Mikov, but he said it was beyond the missile’s correction limits. It had to land somewhere close to London.
Then another suggestion came over the radio. “How about Salisbury Plain?” I suggested it to Mikov.
“Yes! We can do that. We are far enough away from the touchdown. Can you assure us now that you will not launch a retaliation?” I ignored him for now.
An orderly entered the room. “Sir, you should move into the bunker now.”
Another bit of information blasted over the radio. “The missile has changed direction. It’s now heading towards Salisbury Plain.”
I needed some breathing space. “Get me the defence minister.”
He must have been listening. Immediately he replied, “Mason here. It’s up to you. You need to follow procedures.” Great help!
Another burst of chatter sounded. “We have a scan of the missile from a US satellite. There is no nuclear signature detected.”
I interjected, “what does ‘no nuclear signature’ mean?”
“It means that either the missile is not armed with a nuclear warhead, or it is somehow shielded. We don’t have shielding technology. A lead shield would be far too heavy. The missile could still be armed with a biological or chemical weapon, or it could have a conventional warhead.”
“I think it is unarmed,” I said. “I think it left the silo without a warhead.” It seemed to be the only logical scenario.
The orderly took my arm. “The bunker sir, now.”
I needed to set an example. “I’m not going to any bunker. Not now, anyway. In fact, I’d rather be in Salisbury Plain now, just to prove that the missile is a dud.”
The orderly grimaced. “You are needed here right now, close to the bunker.”
I ordered the orderly out of the room. I got onto the radio. “Right, then; let’s have some volunteers close to the impact point. Some with full chemical gear on and some without. I want air sampling downwind for signs of biological or chemical contamination. See if we can get a more precise impact point.”
“Sir, there’s a crater in the centre of Salisbury Plain. We could try to redirect it there.”
“OK,” I said, “get me Mikov again.”
The general agreed to redirect the missile towards the coordinates given, accurate to about twenty yards. I then ordered that the communications people monitor the airwaves for a short radio burst that we could identify as the direction override for the missile. I wanted to crack the Russian command codes.
Another officer entered the room. This one had red and gold banding on his epaulettes and hat. He was carrying a large briefcase. We were the only two in the room. “Sir, we are now at DEFCON 2. Procedures dictate that when a missile is flying at DEFCON 2, we move immediately to DEFCON 1.”
He placed the briefcase on a table and opened it. “This is the firing button.” He removed a kind of joystick with a red button on top. It was attached to the machine with all the buttons inside the briefcase. “The command codes have all been entered already. It just needs you to press the button and our entire nuclear arsenal will be launched towards Russia.”
I flung out my arms. “And what if the incoming ICBM is a dud? And what about the option of firing just one missile back, even if it was not?”
“The protocol is clear, sir. It requires a full nuclear retaliation.”
“And the Russians will retaliate in full. No, I will not press that button while I believe that there is no warhead on that missile.”
He took his sidearm out of its holster and pointed it at me. “My only duty at this point is to ensure that if you do not press the button, then I press it. Now press the button!”
He was standing around two yards from me. My back was against a wall. I said, “I think the protocol stinks,” and flung my arms upwards into the air, while putting my right foot against the wall behind me.
It worked. His arms imitated my movements. His aim moved away from my body just for a second. I pushed hard with my right leg and sprang forward. Desperately, I grasped his gun, wrenching it from his grip.
I could see that he was eyeing the joystick. Just as he began moving towards it, I grabbed his arms, pinning them to his ribs. My fingers locked in front of me. He couldn’t move. He protested, but I was too strong.
Another message came over the radio. “Sir, we have another observation from US satellites. They confirm there is no nuclear signature.”
“It’s a dud. I knew it!”
“Sir, the missile is about to land.” Then, “The missile has landed, no explosion.”
I released my grip on the soldier. “Are you satisfied now? No need for DEFCON 1.”
“I’m good. Just tell me, would you have pressed that button if it had been nuclear armed?”
“I’m sure that I would have. I also think that if this had been foreseen as a scenario, what we just did is what the protocol would have been.”
A final radio snippet came over. “Sir, I think you have just rewritten the book on nuclear protocol.”