10 Enduring Cold War Mysteries & Conspiracy Theories
By Morris M, Urban Ghosts Media, 17 December 2015.
By Morris M, Urban Ghosts Media, 17 December 2015.
The Cold War was the tense time when ‘mysterious’ became the default setting for international affairs. Two great superpowers stood toe-to-toe, each with the ability to obliterate the world as we know it. Spies slunk through iron curtains, bodies washed up in rivers and no-one was really sure what was going on.
Today, that frigid climate has thawed and released archives have given us a reasonably accurate historical record of those years. Yet some Cold War mysteries still loom large in the public consciousness. Because they were so shocking, or because they still remain unsolved, here are ten mysteries and conspiracy theories that are both chilling and compelling.
1. The Death of the UN Secretary General
Image: via Wikipedia
On September 18, 1961, UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold boarded a plane for the town of Ndola in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). The Swedish diplomat was on his way to meet spokespeople from the breakaway Katanga state in the Congo. He never made it. Just before midnight, his plane crashed nine miles from Ndola. Everyone onboard died.
At the time, it was reported that pilot error had caused the crash. But in the years since, some have come to suspect foul play. Hammarskjold was in favor of Katanga remaining part of the Congo - a move that seriously upset the Belgians, who wanted to mine its resources. He also backed the decolonized Congolese state, upsetting the pro-colonialist Rhodesians and the Americans, who were terrified the Congo was going to enter the Soviet sphere.
There’s some evidence of foul play. Just before Hammarskjold’s plane went down, an NSA operative at a listening post was reportedly told “something interesting is going to happen.” The crash site was sealed off by Northern Rhodesian forces, and no-one allowed in. Villagers reported hearing explosions and seeing another aircraft.
It’s now thought Hammarskjold’s plane was likely shot down, possibly by a Belgian mercenary. But who they were working for, what their exact motive was, and what twisted alliances lay at the plot’s heart remain unknown.
2. The Sinking of the Gaul
Image: British Sea Fishing
In February 1974, the super-trawler FV Gaul was caught in a storm off the Norwegian coast and sank without a trace. Strangely, the crew at no point broadcast a distress signal. Nor were any bodies found. Perhaps more-pertinently, that was the decade in which British intelligence routinely used trawlers to spy on Soviet ship positions. Had the Gaul uncovered something the Russians wanted kept secret?
In the years afterward, that was certainly the leading theory. Many thought a radio signal had been intercepted, causing a Soviet sub to sink the trawler. Others assumed the crew had been taken away for interrogation behind the iron curtain, and their boat scuttled to provide cover. For a long time, the fate of the Gaul and the location of its crew remained one of the Cold War’s most enduring mysteries.
Then, in 2002, new evidence came to light. The trawler had finally been found, with no signs of Soviet foul-play. Russian involvement has since been ruled out, and human remains recovered. However, that still leaves the lesser-question of why the ship went silent before it sank. Did everything happen too quickly for a distress signal to be broadcast, or are we looking at another mystery here, one in which Soviet involvement was only ever a red herring?
3. Herbert Norman’s Suicide
During the Cold War, many diplomats’ lives were ruined by blackmail attempts or false accusations of spying. E. Herbert Norman, a representative of the Canadian government stationed in Cairo, may have been one of them. On the cool, clear morning of April 4, 1957, Norman took an elevator to the 9th floor of the Swedish embassy. Moments later, he jumped to his death. What drove him to suicide is still the subject of endless speculation.
It’s known that Norman was a former member of communist organizations, and had worked with the Japanese Communist party during the post-World War Two American occupation. It’s also known that he had been relentlessly hounded for this by the McCarthyist State Department. He protested his innocence, but the United States Senate Subcommittee opened a hearing on him only a few months before his suicide.
Today, it is unknown if Norman was a Soviet-sympathizer who took his own life rather than be discovered, or an innocent man driven to death by an overzealous witch hunt.
4. The Identity of the ‘Lost Cosmonauts’
Image: Untitled Plot Project via YouTube
Everyone knows the year Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space: 1961. But what if Gagarin was not the first man in space, but simply the first man to survive? That’s the question underpinning the chilling ‘lost cosmonauts’ theory.
Not long after Gagarin’s historic mission, a Czech agent allegedly leaked information to the Allies about a failed spaceflight. Nothing odd about this, until you look at the date. According to the notes passed on, the Soviets had sent a man into orbit in December 1959.
Unlike Gagarin, though, that man had died a gruesome death. According to the informant, there were many others who had suffered similar fates. In a creepy twist, there may even be some evidence to back this up.
Two months before Gagarin’s flight, a listening station in Italy picked up a brief Russian transmission, broadcasting the words “everything is satisfactory, we are orbiting the Earth.” A few days later, they picked up what sounded like a scream of terror, followed by empty silence.
If that wasn’t creepy enough, a later transmission was heard featuring three people sobbing and one of them saying “Conditions growing worse, why don’t you answer?... We are going slower...the world will never know about us...” The source of these transmissions remains a mystery. Were they hoaxes, or did Russia really abandon failed cosmonauts to an unimaginable fate?
5. The Death of Georgi Markov
Image: Fred the Oyster; diagram of an umbrella gun.
Georgi Markov was an exiled Bulgarian playwright, best-known during his life for writing works that stuck it to the Soviet regime. Today, though, it’s his disturbing death that constitutes his legacy.
On September 7, 1978, Markov was walking across the Waterloo Bridge in London, when he felt a sharp pain in his leg. When he turned around, he noticed a man with an umbrella quickly walking away. That evening, the pain in Markov’s leg became unbearable. He was admitted to hospital, where it was discovered he had been poisoned by ricin. A metal pellet had been shot from the umbrella into his leg, where it released the toxin. With no known treatment existing, Markov died in agony.
It’s known today that the KGB were responsible for Markov’s murder. Beyond that, we’re in the dark. A man known as Francesco Gullino is considered the “prime suspect“, and has even been traced to Austria. But with no proof existing that he murdered Markov, and Gullino himself furiously denying the rumours, the playwright’s killer remains an enduring Cold War mystery.
6. The Fate of the USS Scorpion
Image: US Navy
May 22nd marks the anniversary of one of the US’s worst naval disasters. That’s the day the nuclear submarine USS Scorpion sank, taking all 99 crewmen down with it. To this day, we have no idea what caused its destruction.
One leading theory states that a torpedo accidentally detonated while onboard, destroying the sub instantly. Others suggest that a trash disposal unit was activated at depth and caused the submarine to flood. But there’s another, more-sinister theory out there. According to some historians, the USS Scorpion may have been involved in a lethal encounter with a Soviet sub.
The theory goes that the Scorpion had a run in with a Soviet submarine, possibly ending in a stand-off that only resolved when the Soviet captain opened fire. To stop the Cold War dramatically heating up - and possibly killing millions - the US and the Soviet Union supposedly colluded to keep the true cause of the sinking a secret.
Freakishly, the Scorpion isn’t the only nuclear sub to have suffered an unexplained accident in 1968. An Israeli sub, a French sub and a Russian sub all also sank that year. No-one knows for sure what caused them to go down, leaving them Cold War mysteries to this day.
7. The Mysterious Signal
UVB-76 has been freaking out the world for nearly 40 years. A radio signal that occupies 4625 kHz and has been broadcasting since the late ’70s, UVB-76 is Russian in origin and survived the end of the Cold War. Beyond that, all we know is that it’s incredibly creepy.
For decades now, UVB-76 has been broadcasting nothing but a repeated buzzing noise, over and over again. This in itself wouldn’t be that weird, except we know for a fact that the noise isn’t automated. Movements have been heard in the background, as have the opening and closing of doors, and occasionally even muffled voices speaking in Russian. The buzzing is generated by a microphone being manually held next to a speaker. And someone has been holding it there for nearly 40 years.
It gets stranger still. Every few years, the buzzing is unexpectedly broken by the sounds of a voice reading out a list of names and/or numbers. One typical message from Christmas 1997 read “Ya UVB-76, Ya UVB-76. 180 08 BROMAL 74 27 99 14. Boris, Roman, Olga, Mikhail, Anna, Larisa. 7 4 2 7 9 9 1 4.” Eerily, the station has actually gotten more active since the end of the Cold War. At one point in 2010, messages were coming out on an almost-monthly basis. They included things like a snippet of Swan Lake, a woman counting down from nine to one, and a question mark in Morse code.
The station itself has been located at a former military base. But still no-one knows what the signal is for. Given its mysterious Cold War origins, some have speculated that it’s a nuclear retaliation code. If the signal ever goes dark, those listening will know Russia has fallen and it’s time to launch the missiles.
8. The Disappearance of Buster Crabb
Image: Coote, R G G
In 1956, the Soviet cruiser Ordzhonikidze took Nikita Khrushchev on a diplomatic mission to Britain. While the cruiser was docked in Portsmouth harbour, MI6 realized this was too good an opportunity to miss. They recruited former Navy frogman and celebrity diver Lionel “Buster” Crabb to spy on the vessel underwater and get information about its design. On April 19, Crabb dived into Portsmouth harbour. He was never seen or heard from again.
What happened to Crabb remains a mystery. After a body in a frogman suit surfaced 14 months later, it was presumed the Soviet Union had caught him spying and killed him. But the body was missing its hands and head, meaning it couldn’t be identified. As a result, some began to suspect a more-sinister motive.
One conspiracy theory holds that Crabb was secretly looking to defect, and chose the dive as the perfect moment to do so. Others think the Soviets captured him rather than killing him, and the body was a fake left behind while they hauled the diver away for interrogation. Did Crabb die in some remote Russian gulag after being tortured? Like other Cold War mysteries, we may never know for certain, though in recent years a retired Russian sailor admitted to taking Crabb’s life.
9. The Missing Nuclear Material
Image: via Wikipedia
Imagine discovering that you’d misplaced hundreds of kilograms of uranium - enough to make a dirty bomb. In the US State of Pennsylvania, this literally happened. In the 1960s, the government discovered piles of weapons-grade material missing from the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation (NUMEC). No-one knows what happened to it.
The answer could be mundane or it could be terrifying. Mundane because nuclear material gets lost all the time. Sometimes it simply seeps into walls and floors and disappears. Other times, it gets let out into the local environment. In other cases, it may have disappeared into the hands of another state.
The founder of NUMEC was known to have close connections with Israeli intelligence. While the company was in operation, Israeli defense experts reportedly turned up unannounced and concealed their identities. There are reports, too, of Mossad shipping hundreds of kilograms of uranium across the Atlantic Ocean. Today, some experts think NUMEC may have secretly helped Israel build a nuclear bomb. While no-one has ever been charged with a crime, the fate of the missing uranium remains one of the most perplexing Cold War mysteries.
10. The Dyatlov Pass Incident
Image: Soviet Investigators
The bizarre fate of nine Russian cross country skiers in winter 1959 is one of the creepiest of all Cold War mysteries. Known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident, it remains unsolved to this day.
The basic facts are these. A group of Russian skiers took part in a multi-day trek in temperatures reaching minus 30C. On the night of February 2, 1959, some of the party ripped their tent open from the inside, and ran off into the tundra wearing almost nothing. Five of them were later found dead at the bottom of a slope. The other four were discovered a short distance away. Weirdly, the four were wearing clothes belonging to the semi-naked five.
It gets stranger. Multiple members of the party suffered from broken bones and internal damage, far beyond what a fight could have caused. The injuries are consistent with being hit by an avalanche, except for one disturbing detail. All those dead appeared to have been blasted by ultraviolet rays before they died. Some were said to look almost completely brown. When Soviet investigators looked into the incident, they found insanely high levels of radiation on some of the bodies.
Thanks to the reported presence of balls of light flying through the area, some now consider this the remains of an alien encounter. More realistically, others think the skiers accidentally wandered into a secret Soviet WMD testing ground. But with the KGB archives now open, no-one can find any evidence that weapons were ever tested there. The fate of the skiers remains one of the most chilling mysteries of the Cold War.
Top image: Mock-up of the Soviet spacecraft Vostok-1 (1961). Credit: Pline/Wikimedia Commons.
[Source: Urban Ghosts Media. Edited.]