The story of Totskoye Nuclear Exercise, the deadliest military exercise in history where Soviets dropped an atomic bomb on their own soldiers

The Totskoye Nuclear Exercise, the deadliest military exercise in history where Soviets dropped an atomic bomb on their own soldiers

By Dario Leone
Sep 10 2023
Sponsored by: Helion & Company
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Just few days before the exercise, the Tu-4 crew members were informed that they would not only drop a live nuclear weapon but that friendly troops would be close to its point of detonation.

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Between 1949 and 1962, the Soviets set off 214 nuclear bombs in the open air.

One of such training exercises was called the Totskoye nuclear exercise.

The exercise (codenamed ‘Snezhok,’ meaning light snow) was conducted by the Soviet army on Sep. 14, 1954. According to Large Stanford Edu, the event was conducted in the Totskoye ground in the Orenburg Oblast, located in the southern region of Russia. The significance of this event was that this military exercise was the first of its kind to utilize nuclear weaponry in preparation for a nuclear war. In fact, the military exercise greatly emphasized the use of nuclear technology as a means to break through the oppositions defense. The location of the military base was specifically chosen because the lay of the region is very similar to that of Western Europe, which Georgy Zhukov (the army general responsible for the training) believed was the most likely location for the beginning of the Third World War.

The exercise involved 45,000 soldiers and 10,000 citizens of from local regions. As explained by Krzysztof Dabrowski in his book Tsar Bomba: Live testing of Soviet Nuclear Bombs, 1949-1962, those living within a radius of up to 8km from the intended point of explosion were evacuated, while people residing further away were for the most part left but advised to vacate their homes, take cover or lay flat and face down.

The story of Totskoye Nuclear Exercise, the deadliest military exercise in history where Soviets dropped an atomic bomb on their own soldiers
The Tu-4 en route to the test site with the a-bomb inside, with the Il-28 chase plane behind it.

Training flights for the mission started on Aug. 12. Initially the airmen were not aware of the precise nature other that it will involve the dropping of a nuclear bomb. They were to find out more just few days before the planned date of the exercise when the crews were informed that they would not only drop a live nuclear weapon but that friendly troops would be close to its point of detonation. Learning this responsibility, the airmen felt burdened. Meanwhile, training proceeded, including the dropping of practice bombs. Impacts were registered about 50-60 metres from the target, which were deemed to be good results.

Finally, Sep. 14, 1954 came. The weather forecasted was favourable with only weak winds and few clouds. Early in the morning the command to man the aircraft was given. A small aerial armada compromising two Tu-4 bombers (one of which was armed with a nuclear bomb), two Il-28 jets which were to observe as well as record the ongoing events, and finally two escorting MiG-17 fighters prepared to take off. By 06.00hrs the bomber with the nuclear weapon was in the air and shortly thereafter the second also took off. All the aircraft set course for the target in Orenburg Oblast. The target aiming point was clearly marked on the ground with a 150m rectangle which had a cross in its centre, supplemented by chevrons at a distance providing additional visual reference – all these markings being in white. Navigational aids were also placed along the ingress route starting at 72km from the target. All this was necessary as the nearest troops were only 5km away from the target aiming point and thus the Soviets could not afford to miss or the result could be an unimaginable disaster.

The story of Totskoye Nuclear Exercise, the deadliest military exercise in history where Soviets dropped an atomic bomb on their own soldiers
Taken from either one of the escorting MiG-17s or the Il-28, this photo shows the Tu-4 prior to the bomb bay doors being opened.

By 09.20, when the bomber was already nearby, the weather in the target area started to unexpectedly somewhat deteriorate. In particular the speed of the wind, an important factor when dropping bombs, increased and was recorded as 20m/s. Meanwhile the Tu-4 with the nuclear bomb reached the target. At 09.34 navigator-bombardier V. Babiec released its deadly cargo from an altitude of 8,000 metres. Slowed down in its descent by a parachute, the bomb detonated 48 seconds after being dropped at an altitude of 350 metres. Unfortunately, the bomb exploded some 280m in the north-western direction off the intended target aiming point (the coordinates 52.64418°N and 52.80547°E are given), though this did not compromise the safety of the troops on the ground.

Before that – 10 minutes to be precise – the code-word `Molniya’ (Lightning) was transmitted over the radio, this being the signal to take cover as a nuclear explosion was imminent. Thus warned, the troops huddled in the trenches and dugouts, lay flat on the ground next to artillery pieces and other crew served weapons which they manned or sat still in buttoned-down armoured vehicles. Minutes seemed to be hours but finally a blinding white flash literally eclipsed the sun as the bomb exploded. The explosion’s effects were also experienced in the aircraft which dropped the bomb and when the shockwave caught up with the Tupolev it was lifted by some 50 to 60 metres, though the bomber did not sustain any serious damage.

The story of Totskoye Nuclear Exercise, the deadliest military exercise in history where Soviets dropped an atomic bomb on their own soldiers
The bomb leaving the Tu-4.

While detonating the nuclear bomb could make for a dramatic climax, it was just the beginning from a tactical point of view. Five minutes after the nuclear blast a preparatory artillery barrage commenced — in fact two barrages each lasting 25 minutes. Numerous shells, rockets and mortar bombs were fired onto `enemy’ positions. Meanwhile a large formation composed of 86 Il-28 bombers escorted by 42 MiG-17 fighters appeared overhead at an altitude of 5,000 metres. Armed with 250kg bombs, the Ilyushins were to deliver a conventional aerial bombardment and in all dropped 688 bombs, of off which 583 were said to have impacted ‘enemy’ positions. According and to a post-exercise evaluation about 44 percent of `enemy’ positions thus treated were ‘destroyed’ with corresponding `enemy’ casualties estimated as amounting to 25 percent. While performing the mission, because of the need to maintain formation, 39 bombers and six fighters had to fly through the mushroom cloud. However, this had no effect on the workings of their engines or instruments as it was noted. Subsequent to the artillery and aerial bombardment 30 MiG-15Bis fighters strafed ‘enemy’ positions for good measure.

After the impressive display of conventional firepower ended, at noon, the main body of the ground forces went onto the offensive – armour and mechanised formations first, though because of obvious tactical requirements attacking infantry accompanying tanks were dismounted and moved on foot a short distance behind the armour, while second wave infantry formations following on were transported by trucks. It should be noted, that of the many thousands of officers and men taking part in the manoeuvres, about 3,000 directly crossed the zone of the nuclear blast, with all of them having been issued with protective equipment. As to the exercise’s overall conduct, rather unsurprisingly the ‘enemy’ was ‘forced into a retreat’ and the manoeuvres concluded in a manner which satisfied Soviet military officials observing them.

The story of Totskoye Nuclear Exercise, the deadliest military exercise in history where Soviets dropped an atomic bomb on their own soldiers
The mushroom cloud 42 seconds after the detonation. It rose to an altitude of about 3 miles before beginning to drift away in the wind.

The immediate aftereffects of the nuclear explosion were subjected to study. The radioactive cloud was propelled by the wind with a speed of 84km/h at an altitude of 7,000-9,000 metres, and was followed by an appropriately equipped Li-2 aircraft. Of obvious interest were the effects of the nuclear weapon detonation upon vehicles and military equipment positioned in the target area. Not surprisingly tanks, in particular when dug in, while not indestructible proved to be most survivable. In contrast, thin-skinned vehicles and aircraft were much more prone to damage.

Of even greater importance were the nuclear explosion’s effects on living organisms. Farm stock suffered death at a distance of 1,200 metres from the point of detonation, serious injury at 1,500m and burns at 4,000m. However, those shielded by woods had a much higher chance of survival, with death occurring at 600m, while serious injury and burns occurred at 1,200m. Similarly, occupying dugouts, trenches and even being on the opposite slope of a hill substantially increased the chance of survival for the animals – thus one can assume for men too. At this point one cannot but pause to ponder about death and suffering. Images of carcases as well as of surviving but burned or injured animals recorded after the explosion inevitably make one think of the terrible suffering men would have to endure had they been subjected to a nuclear explosion.

The story of Totskoye Nuclear Exercise, the deadliest military exercise in history where Soviets dropped an atomic bomb on their own soldiers
A WWII-vintage T-34-85 of the “eastern” force advancing across the radioactive test area.

However, this was by far not the end of the story: there was a noticeable increase in the number of cancer patients among the populace living in the vicinity of the nuclear explosion. Unfortunately, exact numbers are hard to come by because the Soviet authorities ensured there were no relevant statistics and records kept. In addition, the troops participating in the manoeuvres were also affected. The protective measures and subsequent decontamination were not always fully implemented or properly carried out. Thus, while numerous officers and men who took part in the war games described lived to see an old age, many also developed various health alignments which could be traced to the effects of radiation exposure during the manoeuvres.

Yet hardly anyone knew about all of this. A few days after the events took place the Soviet daily Pravda published in the pages of its Sep. 17 issue a communiqué stating that a nuclear test was conducted. It was asserted that the test’s purpose was to examine the effects of a nuclear explosion with the aim of protecting the country from nuclear attack. Afterwards the event disappeared in a proverbial memory hole. All the officers and men participating in the exercise signed a 25-year pledge not to disclose information regarding what they had taken part in. There were hardly any venues to discuss such events in the Soviet Union anyway, but some information began to emerge in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, finally leading to its declassification and in December 1991 all the participants of the exercise were given official veteran status. Subsequently a stela was erected in 1994 to commemorate all those who suffered from the radiation after effects of the nuclear explosion. Ten years later, in 2004, a tablet was placed in honour of those who participated in the creation of the Soviet Union nuclear shield.

Tsar Bomba: Live testing of Soviet Nuclear Bombs, 1949-1962, is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.

The story of Totskoye Nuclear Exercise, the deadliest military exercise in history where Soviets dropped an atomic bomb on their own soldiers
Infantry advancing on foot through the burning test area. Smoke, fires, and craters from the conventional artillery and bombings slowed down infantry.

Photo credit: wwiiafterwwii


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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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