So, to my very first submarine draft, I shant go into huge detail here about the vital statistics of Polaris boats. If anyone is that interested, it is easy enough to get all the information on line these days. But basically, they were 425’ long; 33’ in diameter, to house 16 Polaris missile tubes (missiles were 32’ long) had 6 torpedo tubes forward. Power was from a single pressurised water reactor and they carried a crew of 147 officers and men.
I will detail the ‘Polaris cycle here though to give a quick overview of how life worked:-
There were 2 complete crews for all the Polaris boats, known as Port and Starboard crew. They were fully manned from the Captain all the way down to the lowest rating. When a ‘boat returned from patrol, they always berthed in Royal Naval Armament Depot Coulport (RNAD). Coulport was situated on Loch Long, the opposite side of the hill from Faslane. This really was an isolated location! It was usual for representatives from the ‘off crew’ to meet the boat as it came alongside to start getting a feel for what work was required to prepare the boat to return to sea.
The following day, both crews worked together to offload whatever armament was to be returned to RNAD. Usually ALL torpedoes and 4 Polaris missiles. On completion of the offload, the boat was then ‘cold moved’ to Faslane. The reactor was shut down on arrival at Coulport, so the diesels would be started to provide power and tug boats used to move the vessel to Faslane.
The next day was crew change day! A fairly chaotic day when both crews tried to move their work and personal gear on and off the boat at the same time! The crew coming on would have moved OUT of the off crew offices in Neptune onto the submarine while the off going crew did just the opposite.
At some point during this process the off going Captain was ‘piped’ ashore following an announcement that the ON coming Captain had command of the submarine.
The (now) off crew then left on what was known as ‘patrol weekend’. This usually amounted to about a weeks ‘leave’ (holiday), before returning to Faslane to assist the ON crew with all necessary maintenance to get the boat back to sea.
There were some standard maintenance items and on occasions the boat had to be put into dry dock for some maintenance. In Faslane at the time our only dock was AFD 60. (Admiralty Floating Dock). This used to sink down having had all the correct blocks installed for the class of boat being docked. The boat then entered the dock and the dock emptied ballast, floating back to its original position with the submarine onboard.
Repulse entering the floating dock. It should be noted that this picture was actually taken several years AFTER the current timeline. It was the occasion of Repulse being the 600th boat using AFD 60. Hence the banner.
Once all maintenance was complete, the next part of the cycle, for the ON crew was a procedure known as ‘Fast Cruise’. So called as it was designed to practice all major events of the forthcoming patrol, along with as many emergency procedures which could be fitted in as well. This was normally completed within one working day and then leave was granted before the boat sailed the following morning.
The submarine now sailed on what was known as ‘INDEX’ (independent Exercise). This was nominally a week at sea, expanding on what was practiced during ‘fast cruise’. Sometimes there were variations involving other ships or submarines, torpedo firings etc. usually on completion we spent a night on the noise range in Loch Goil to check that all our machinery was quiet enough for patrol. (See Polaris patrol aims number 2. Below)
There were three aims of a Polaris patrol:-
1) Remain at 15 minutes notice to fire (Polaris missiles) at all times.
2) Remain undetected at all times.
3) Remain in constant communication with the shore. (Reception only!)
After noise ranging, the boat was then moved to berth in Coulport to reload whatever was offloaded after patrol. These boats were the only Royal Naval vessels which always went to sea in exactly the same state as if going to war. There was NOTHING practice onboard at all. It was all real and ready to go if required.
The armament loading and storing of the ship for patrol was accomplished by both crews together and the boat spent roughly a week alongside before departing on patrol. The exact date was always a closely guarded secret for as long as possible, but was finally announced and the crew that were not duty had their last night ashore.
It is worthy of note at this point that back in the mid ‘70s, eight weeks was considered to be a long patrol! By the time Polaris finished (about the same time as I retired from the RN) one boat had done just over SIXTEEN weeks!!
Within a couple of days of the boats departure on patrol, the off crew then went on ‘Patrol leave’. Usually around 4 week’s holiday. This meant that if the boat was on an ‘eight weeker’, when the off crew returned from leave the boat was still away. This was a period to be given continuation and refresher training which was job specific in preparation for going back on crew.
If there was any time left before the boat returned, then life could be fairly boring…….unless something could be found that an individual fancied doing. In fact if you could find virtually ANYTHING remotely service related to do and it was approved, then you could do it, consequently we had several fully qualified, free fall parachutists and Chieftain Tank drivers cruising around below the waves!
A lot of my spare time during off crew was spent in the Trident club where, once again I had joined the Junior rates club committee and also started helping out as one of the DJs in the disco bar. To be honest I was never going to set the world on fire as a DJ but it was fun and we always got invited to all the parties. My choices cant have been totally bad though. I note with interest that Chris Evans uses the ‘Hawaii 5 – 0‘ theme tune on his current radio show. This was also my theme tune.
One such party invite was to one of the Junior rate WRN’s 18th birthday party. Valerie Jones. Now I had already noticed this girl when she was in the disco and set my sights on spending more time with her. Definitely love at first sight!! Since I had a bit of a reputation as ‘party animal’ my approaches were not welcomed and she didn’t really expect me to appear at the party, despite having invited me.
Of course I went, much to her surprise and unfortunately someone (NOT ME) spiked Val’s drinks and rather spoiled the event for her. However, after this party we did actually spend time together…. A lot of time…..in fact, its 34 years now.
Obviously there will be MUCH more written about Val later.
The actual return date of the boat was also a closely guarded secret to most personnel ashore. Naturally it was announced to the boats crew on patrol once the boat was actually on patrol. At this point onboard, ‘tick off’ charts sprouted like weeds. Some people checked a box daily, some per watch, some ‘sad’ people, even hourly. Towards the end of the Polaris boats lives, it was prudent to leave some space at the end for expansion……but that’s a story for further on in this publication.
Eventually the off crew were gathered together again, or for some for the first time (new joiners). Off crew ‘divisions’ (parade) was held either on the Faslane helo pad or in the drill shed, we were then all told together the return date.
The boat came alongside Coulport and the whole cycle started all over again.
Once I was ‘on crew’ for the first time, this was the start of a VERY steep learning curve. Unlike general service sailors (otherwise known to submariners as ‘Skimmers’ or ‘targets’) we had a test known as ‘Part 3’ to do as soon as possible once we joined our first boat. This involved gaining a working knowledge of the whole submarine and ALL systems onboard. It was not intended that anyone could do anyone else’s job necessarily, but everyone relied on everyone else in emergency situations so this knowledge was vital. A ‘part 3 book’ was issued which had to be completed along with signatures of qualified personnel to prove that systems knowledge was of the required standard. All this was done at the same time as qualifying in your own system which may or may not also be your watch keeping position. If not, then that was yet another lesson to be learnt. Of course, your mates were relying on you to pass quickly to ease the load on them.
The culmination of the part 3, once the book was complete, was a walk through the whole boat with the ‘Jimmy’ (first lieutenant) Second in command. A lieutenant commander. He expected you to know absolutely everything, in its location, function, fall back and secondary procedure. Obviously this could be fairly nerve wracking, but I got through it and was then awarded my ‘Dolphins’. This was traditionally done by dropping the dolphins into a large glass of rum which the newly qualified submariner had to drink. Catching the dolphins in his teeth when he reached the bottom of the glass.
As a ‘forendie’ (torpedo man) my watch keeping position was in the Forends. As far towards the front of the boat as possible where the torpedoes were stowed, loaded and could be fired from. Above the actual torpedo compartment was the Junior ratings recreation space and the ships library. The whole forends was also an escape compartment, so in addition to everything else I had to be very knowledgeable in escape equipment and procedures. It was not impossible that in the event of an escape being necessary, a junior rating forendie could be expected to take charge, purely due to his knowledge of the compartment since we were there both on and off watch really.
Although I was not actually that unhappy as a forendie, it was not what I had been trained for. Having done courses for forward electrician, that was what I felt I should be, so after completing a few patrols and finding my feet a bit, I asked to be job changed. One of the other reasons for this was that the forward electrician kept watches on the fore planes, which I really fancied doing. Eventually I was allowed to qualify on ‘the planes’ which I enjoyed immensely.
Being a foreplanesman was not always easy. At this time we used to bring the submarine to periscope depth every 2 to 3 days to take a satellite fix. It was vitally important to know exactly where we were for the missile systems. Periscope depth was around 65’ depending on what the Captain ordered which was dependant on the sea state on ‘the roof’. During the winter months keeping the boat at the ordered depth plus or minus 6 inches was quite a challenge.
There were many amusing stories that came out of this of course. One famous story of a foreplanesmen bringing the boat too shallow, when asked by the Captain why he was so much off depth, shallow, he replied, “I thought you would be able to see better Sir!” There was no ‘repeatable’ record of the Captains response!
We usually went to PD (Periscope depth) at night; to assist in staying hidden and before rising to 65’ the control room would be ordered to ‘Black lighting’. This meant that ALL lights were turned off, leaving only panel lights which were usually red and even these were dimmed to almost nothing. This was done to assist the Captains night vision when looking through the ‘scope.
After one fairly arduous PD run, when the boat returned to patrol depth and lighting was restored, the Captain was horrified to find that he was all alone in the control room. In fact everyone was still there, but either sunk down in their seats or hiding behind a panel somewhere. He didn’t seem to see the funny side of that either!
I am often asked how we managed to stand spending so long underwater, particularly in the latter days. My answer is always that you must be able to sleep a lot! Which is a great help in passing the time, but we did have other diversions.
There was no such thing as DVDs and even videos were in their infancy so we used to take a fair quantity of 16mm reel to reel films to sea with us. When I first joined Repulse we were still using ‘Bell & Howell’ movie projectors. These were an absolute nightmare as they were oil cooled and great care had to be taken not to get oil on the films which would then transfer to the picture gate and the lens.
A movie was usually shown every evening and in the afternoon. Sometimes a movie was also allowed after midnight. ‘middle watch movie’. Incidentally, part threes (unqualified submariners) were NEVER allowed to watch movies until they were qualified.
Movies were shown in all 3 messes most evenings. Junior rates, Senior rates and the wardroom. The junior rates movie was shown in the dining hall which was aft of the forends but immediately forward of the senior rates mess, seperated by folding doors. When the doors were opened this made a large space which was used when the whole ships company were gathered for any reason. The normal state was to have the doors shut though. One patrol one of the projectors became terminally ill so reducing us to only two. It was decided that the JRs and SRs could share by opening the doors and using a double sided screen. This was fine until the movie ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ was being shown from the JRs mess and someone had to read the English subtitles out very loudly for the SRs. And YES the Senior Rates could have read it for themselves…………..but Arot! Arot! Arot! Just didn’t work somehow!
Other notable ‘movie events’, apparently HMs/m Renown were showing an earthquake disaster film when they hit the bottom. Onboard Repulse, ‘The Towering Inferno’ was being shown in the S/Rs mess when one of the rubber bladed fans overheated and started smoking. Definitely added a touch of realism!
During INDEX on one occasion we had particularly nasty weather off Scotland while we were exercising with a ‘target’ (surface ship). The routine was that we would surface in the morning to say hello, the ‘target’ would ‘look away’, we would hide and they would have to find us. One morning when we surfaced after a rather rough night (we went down to about 500’ before we stopped rolling) we saw that the surface ship was very badly damaged. Ships boats missing and in bits, bent guard rails etc…. Their Captain signalled. “Good morning. Rather rough last night wasn’t it?” Our Captain signalled back. “Yes it was rather……our movie projector fell over TWICE!!!”
The usual situation with the 4 Polaris boats was, one in refit in Rosyth, one on patrol, one undergoing maintenance between patrols. The fourth boat would be preparing to come into the patrol cycle following refit.
There was a contingency plan in place though in case the boat which was due on patrol could not be prepared in time for any reason. To reduce the time when there was no Polaris cover, the boat on patrol would be brought in and sent back on patrol within 24 hours. In my time I was part of a crew practicing this from both perspectives. The going off crew one was the best of course!
The boat came alongside, de-stored, changed any weapons that needed changing, performed ONLY essential maintenance, re-stored food and stores, crew changed, then sailed all within 24 hours. Quickest I was ever off crew!
I can’t remember how many patrols I did at this time, but we were next boat due into refit. So this duly happened. However, we were lucky enough to be the first and I think the only Polaris boat ever to visit Pompey (Portsmouth). We sailed down the West coast and on completion of the visit went back up the East coast to Rosyth.
While we were en-route to Pompey we had quite a rough time of it, probably compounded by the boat being so light, having removed most of the stores before we left. One night we were ‘pooped’. This is when a submarine has a large following sea which rolls along the after deck and floods down the ‘fin’ (Conning tower).
A large quantity of water came onboard into the ‘people tank’ which had to be cleaned up before arrival in Pompey since we were to be visited by so many dignitaries etc. This included an Admiral Probably FOSM ( Flag Officer Submarines) meeting the boat at sea to sail alongside onboard.
Now at this time, my Father, now a warrant officer, was serving in Portsmouth dockyard as Naval Base Liaison Officer (NBLO) in SemaphoreTower. For obvious reasons I guess, he was given responsibility for Repulse. It was quite a proud moment for me that as the Admiral left the boat, the first visiting person onboard was my Father!
Being as I lived locally, I stayed at home whenever I was not required onboard. Meanwhile my Father was getting to know my bosses rather well in the Senior Rates mess onboard the submarine. Dave Ritchie was the OA (Ordnance artificer in charge of the torpedoes) and Bungy Williams was in charge of forward electrics. My Mother reckons that Dad spent longer onboard than I did during our visit!
Eventually the visit came to an end and we sailed for Rosyth dockyard and the 2 year refit.
My relationship with Valerie had been developing well, Love blossomed and we were engaged at around this time. Val used to come to Rosyth for some weekends, occasionally staying with my boss Dave Ritchie and his family. We were saving to get married so it wasn’t a wild time but very enjoyable memories nonetheless. We also bought our first car during this period. A powder blue Triumph Toledo.
During the refit we were accommodated in HMS Cochrane which was ok. I became one of the ships drivers and spent a lot of time driving the ships van around. Often taking people to and from Edinburgh airport. Daily runs to and from the main galley in Cochrane to collect the food for the crew building and whatever else could be found for me to do.
The main duty watch during this period was fire watcher for any welding or burning being done on the submarine. Long boring periods, often freezing cold watching a docky working. It was also an interesting time though visiting ALL parts of the boat including the reactor, all the ballast tanks and compartments which were normally restricted entry to most people, even though all the equipment had been removed.
Several months into the refit, I decided I was ready to be examined for my next higher rate. Leading hand. A friend onboard, Paul Jackson also took his ‘hook’ (Leading hands) exam at the same time and a leading hand by the name of Gerry Biscombe, took his Petty Officers exam. The examination boards were oral and took place in Faslane so we all travelled across there, returning triumphant at the end of the day, all having passed!
Next:- Leading hands course at HMS Collingwood. The fireman’s strike and our wedding.