Bay of Pigs

CIA’s Cuban Disaster, April 1961

[Cold War 1945 - 1991 Series]


Phil Carradice

Barnsley, UK:  Pen & Sword Military    2018

Paperback  136pp   RRP $39.99


Reviewer: Neville Taylor, December 2020


Fulgencio Batista was a US-backed military dictator who served as Cuba’s President from 1952 to 1958. The much-hated Batista was overthrown by the popular revolutionary leader Fidel Castro on New Year’s Day 1959. Appointed head of Cuba’s armed forces by the interim President, Castro had no intention of letting his revolution stop there. He had no desire for democratic elections, removing the President in the summer of 1959 and replacing him with a puppet with Communist leanings. Show trails of Batista followers and other dissidents saw over 500 public executions and built up a large Castro following. Disaffected Cubans became militant guerrillas as counter-revolutionaries supported by Cubans who had fled to Miami, other Caribbean nations and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

After an American-based Cuban exile overflew Havana dropping leaflets, the resultant anti-aircraft fire caused four deaths, sparking a Castro diatribe against the US. Thus began tit-for-tat sanctions and after a French oil freighter was blown up and American refineries refused to unload and process Russian crude, Castro nationalized all US refineries. In retaliation the US halted the import of Cuban sugar, to which Russia responded by taking virtually all its sugar. Worried about the spread of Communism so close to the US, by March 1960 a CIA plan to overthrow the Castro regime was presented to US President Eisenhower.

The plan was to use paramilitary trained Cubans as a brigade-strength guerrilla force (2506 Assault Brigade) lodged south of Havana, uniting with local Cuban guerrillas to be supported by Cuban-flown US aircraft (FAL) out of Trinidad. The US wished to remain ‘plausibly deniable’ until called upon by a new Cuban government to assist the locals in overthrowing Castro’s regime. The number of Cuban ‘guerrillas’ and pilots able to be recruited and their training became a major problem for the CIA. In early November 1960 plans changed to training the brigade to be a conventional seaborne landing force. Castro meanwhile was inflicting heavy losses on the local guerrillas and gaining greater local support. To further complicate matters the US was undergoing a change of President as John F Kennedy was inaugurated in January 1961.

The planning of the operation simply lurched from one ‘broken military rule’ to another. Kennedy changed the landing site from Trinidad to the isolated Zapata Swamp in the Bay of Pigs on 15 March. Capturing the Giròn airstrip and flying in a new Cuban Government was to be thwarted by an unpreparedness to provide heavy armament to combat Castro’s forces and air support prior to and after the landing. Too many assumptions were made on the basis of poor and incomplete intelligence, and Kennedy’s cancellation of airstrikes that would have wiped out Castro’s aircraft were to be crucial in the outcome. No contingency plans were ever formulated, and ultimately the lodged force was doomed to be defeated in detail.

An initial airstrike by the FAL on 15 April that destroyed virtually no serviceable Cuban Air Force planes, coupled with a botched defector deception, united the Cuban population behind Castro as never before. He now had close to 200 000 fighters ready to repel what was obviously a looming US-inspired assault.

The landings took place early on 17 April, punctuated by unforeseen mishaps, a non-functioning logistics chain, ships running aground, and a virtually non-existent evacuation plan. On 18 April Premier Khrushchev made it quite plain to Kennedy that Russia would not permit US forces to land on Cuba, with an implied Russian nuclear response if the US did. By 20 April Castro was busy rounding up the remnants of 2506 Bde, and the US leadership moved into ‘damage control’ mode.

It would take eighteen months before all those wounded and captured were repatriated back to the US. The cost was $28m (for 500 heavy duty tractors) plus an additional $53m (for medicine, agricultural equipment and food). There was to be much soul-searching in the White House and defence and security departments in the subsequent months. [The stance taken by Kennedy was to be at the opposite end of the spectrum come the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 – see Carradice’s The Cuban Missile Crisis [2017] in this series.] In Miami, on 29 December 1962, President Kennedy attended a ‘Welcome Back’ ceremony, where the leaders presented the Brigade flag to the President.

As per his story-tellers’ approach, Carradice has provided an excellent concise political background, and pen (and photographic) picture of the major players and locales. Two maps place the reader ‘in-situ’ for the doomed invasion that was to unfold.

An excellent monograph for those of us who vaguely recall the invasion; but more importantly, a reminder to a current generation of a past event on the world stage from which so many lessons both politically and militarily can be learned.



The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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