Connect with us

Featured

Seaman describes life onboard a British nuclear submarine | UK News

Published

on

Squeezed between mountains on one side and the Gareloch on the other, Faslane on the Scottish west coast has been home to the UK’s nuclear deterrent for half a century.

Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde is heavily guarded, on all sides. Royal Marines from 43 Commando Fleet Protection are on minutes notice to respond to attempted sabotage.

Royal Military police patrol the waters around the base, keeping yachts and private boats at a distance.

Inside, 7,500 military and civilian staff work to maintain the country’s ultimate insurance. The base is expanding; it will soon be home to the entire Royal Navy submarine fleet.

For 50 years,the Royal Navy has kept a submarine at sea 365 days a year without interruption
Image:
For 50 years,the Royal Navy has kept a submarine at sea 365 days a year without interruption

Every few months, a dark grey Vanguard-class submarine quietly slips off into the Clyde and out of sight.

They head for the north Atlantic, to sit silently for months. There they move slowly to avoid detection from friend and foe.

Few onboard know the exact location but draw a circle of range around Moscow and it will be somewhere within that.

Royal Military police patrol the waters around the base, keeping yachts and private boats at a distance
Image:
Royal Military police patrol the waters around the base

To some extent the UK co-ordinates submarine movements with the US to avoid collision, and there is liaison with the French, but the nuclear deterrent is a sovereign capability to the extent that even close allies are kept at arms-length.

Communication with the world above water is limited. Onboard they can listen to radio bulletins if the sea state is calm enough.

The crew receive weekly “familygrams” – 120 word messages from loved ones. But they can’t reply. Outgoing broadcasts could give the submarine’s position away. Silence is paramount.

Communication with the world above water is limited
Image:
Communication with the world above water is limited

The nuclear submarines are the only vessels in the Royal Navy to take a full doctor on patrol with them. He or she also has a number two. Medical issues must be dealt with at sea.

“What would you do if someone is seriously ill?” I asked. “We deal with it” – was the reply. “And if someone were to die suddenly?” “We’d have to deal with it”.

If there is protocol for breaking cover, then clearly even death onboard does not meet the threshold.

Most of the crew work in shifts: six hours on, six hours off. In their downtime they sleep in narrow bunk beds, little over 6ft (1.82m) long, sometimes nine to a cabin.

The very junior ranks hotbed – hopping in an out of free bunks with a sleeping bag.

There is a small gym onboard for exercise and alcohol is permitted, in limited quantities, although most abstain.

Vitamin D tablets are offered to compensate for the lack of sun. Meals are served according to a pattern, one way of keeping track on time: curry Wednesdays, steak Fridays, roast on Sunday.

“I miss having a beer the most,” one Leading Seaman told me. “But we work shifts and you wouldn’t catch my team drinking. We are professionals and we are proud to do the job.”

One Leading Seaman said: 'I miss having a beer the most.'
Image:
One Leading Seaman said: ‘I miss having a beer the most.’

As you would expect, the submarine is cramped. Two grown men can just about pass one another in the long passageways. I’m 6ft 3ins and I would not last more than a few hours without bumping my head on exposed piping.

For 50 years, the Royal Navy has kept a submarine at sea 365 days a year without interruption. This is the UK’s constant at-sea deterrent, known in the service as CASD – the UK’s number one defence priority.

Supporters of the deterrent say the threat of mutual-destruction has kept the world’s great powers from nuclear war for all these years.

Opponents, and there are many, scoff at that arguing instead that Britain is a target simply because it has nuclear weapons.

The base is expanding and will soon be home to the entire Royal Navy submarine fleet
Image:
The base is expanding and will soon be home to the entire Royal Navy submarine fleet

The order to fire would come from the prime minister. The precise chain of command is kept secret, safe to say the PM’s instructions would be relayed to the boat through a series of channels to ensure the message got through.

Targets are pre-determined: the defence secretary has quarterly target meetings.

If the government has been wiped out in a nuclear strike, the submarine commander can turn to “the letter of last resort”.

Kept in a safe within a safe, the letter was written by the prime minister on the day they took office.

It gives one of four instructions: to retaliate, to do nothing, to hand over command of the boat to the US or Australia or for the captain to do as he deems fit.

On patrol, the crew repeatedly practice the real thing. The trigger is red, as you might expect and looks like the handle of a revolver. I have held it, and it is underwhelming given its potential for mass-destruction.

Were it to come to it, the weapons officer would have the responsibility of pulling the trigger.

The UK operates on four states of readiness – a British version to the US Defcon system. It has never fallen to Ready State Four, the lowest level.

But were it to, were things to turn nasty with Russia or North Korea, then the submarine and her crew would be ready.

As you are reading this, there is a nuclear armed submarine at sea, with 150 men and women under the waves, on patrol in defence of the country, as they have been for fifty years.

Advertisement Find your dream job

Trending