On 26th September 1983 the hero of the day, Colonel Stanislav Yefgrafovich Petrov, clocked on for work as normal. Petrov was in charge of the Soviet Union’s satellite warning systems and this was the height of the cold war. Everyone was on edge because NATO was carrying out its annual tactical exercises and two weeks before the Soviets had shot down a Korean airliner that had wandered into the wrong airspace.
Meanwhile in the wider picture Ronald Reagan was publicly calling the Soviet Union an ‘Evil Empire’, the warm up man at a UK Conservative party rally had opened with the call to “Bomb Russia” and we had Andropov, a former leader of the KGB, as the current ruler of the Kremlin. Things were, to put it mildly, on a hair trigger...
...Anyway, at 40 minutes past midnight on the 26th Petrov looked up and saw a missile launch from a United States silo had been detected by one of his satellites. Now you might expect panic at this point but missile command tends to attract the serious, sober type, probably the type of people who smoke a pipe and sew leather patches on their jackets, and Petrov kept his head.
He knew the satellite had been reported as suspect and decided to hold off on informing the high command. Then a second missile launch was picked up, and shortly after another, and another and another. Petrov knew that if he waited until he could confirm the launches with ground radar it would be too late for his country, he and his family would die and the Yankees would win the Cold War.
Thankfully for us he thought before acting. He reasoned that it was illogical for a surprise attack to launch missiles one after the other – instead you’d launch everything you had and hope to wipe out the enemy before they reacted. He left the launch button alone and thankfully the missiles proved to be ghosts.
Myself and millions other slept peacefully in our beds that night, blissfully unaware of how close we came to fiery death or a worse existence than we could imagine if we had lived. Had the missiles flown Britain would, according to government war plan projections, currently be at a medieval level of technology in most places, having lost 90 per cent of its population.
Petrov was reprimanded and now lives in the scientific community of Fryazino in Russia. He was honoured this year in a ceremony at the United Nations and has been honoured with two World Citizen Awards. So take some time out today and say your private thanks to the man who saved the world.
Many of you may have never heard of this guy, though some of you, like me may have heard of the incident. This man is one of the great heroes of human history. Naturally, in the old Soviet military system he was reprimanded. For all I know there is likely a similar story in our Armed Forces. Hopefully they weren't reprimanded too.
Imagine if a Soviet version of Richard Perle or Dick Cheney had been there? I think we can be pretty sure, Bush would not have been able to pass the exams to have the job, but he'd certainly be there to watch the launches.