His nose wrinkled in disgust. The stink was overpowering. As 18-year-old Able Seaman Richard Humphreys climbed down into the nuclear submarine and headed for the crew quarters on the bottom-most deck, he was hit full in the face by a pungent cocktail of human gases — ‘the ghosts of farts long dead’, as he recalled — mixed with oil, chemicals, carbon dioxide, clouds of cigarette smoke, stale socks and the collective sweat of the 143-man crew.
There would be no escaping that distinctive ‘submarine smell’ for the next two to three months, the duration of each underwater patrol. It was even more gag-inducing than usual on days when the sewage tanks were full and the lavatories weren’t flushing, a not unusual occurrence in Britain’s nuclear fleet.
Coupled with that rancid aroma was the clawing claustrophobia of the ‘cigar-shaped tin can’ he was serving in, the perilously low ceilings pitted with protruding pipes and tubes, the hellishly cramped living space, the squeeze of corridors and hatches so tight that only one person could fit through at a time.
HMS revolution, the first nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine to be equipped with Polaris missiles, seen underway on the surface around 1970
A submariner in a torpedo. While Ronald Reagan in Washington and Margaret Thatcher in London were belligerently staring down the leadership of the Soviet Union, Britain’s fleet of four nuclear-powered submarines, carrying an arsenal of Polaris missiles with nuclear warheads, was on a permanent war footing. At least one was always at sea
If he stretched out his hands, he could just about touch both sides of the passageways of the sub. Not that there was much hope of stretching, given the shortage of space and the large number of men occupying it. His bunk was little more than a coffin, his nose squeezing against the bottom of the one above. Privacy was non-existent.
Yet it was in this crowded, fetid, frenetic environment that he and the crew of HMS Resolution loitered unseen in the depths of the North Atlantic ocean for months on end, knowing that at any minute they could be required to fire their nuclear missiles and obliterate millions of people in Moscow.
This was the Eighties, a time of international brinkmanship, the Cold War in one of its potentially red-hot periods. While Ronald Reagan in Washington and Margaret Thatcher in London were belligerently staring down the leadership of the Soviet Union, Britain’s fleet of four nuclear-powered submarines, carrying an arsenal of Polaris missiles with nuclear warheads, was on a permanent war footing. At least one was always at sea.
They weren’t there to be aggressors. They were Britain’s nuclear deterrent, the second-strike force whose presence — according to the military doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) — would stop the Russians acting rashly and launching a nuclear onslaught on the West.
‘Theoretically,’ Richard writes in a new book about his part in this strange and secret battleground, ‘we were 15 minutes from Armageddon — the time it would take between receiving the firing signal from the Prime Minister and the warheads being launched.’ No pressure, then.
His account is fascinating and eye-opening. It reveals submariners such as him as unsung warriors, front-line fighters in a bizarre war of silent menace that anyone outside the tight-knit community can barely comprehend.
Proud: Able Seaman Richard Humphreys
It was an unreal half-life for these men on doomsday patrol (and they were all men in those days). Not surfacing for 90 days, in constant artificial light, breathing recycled air around the clock, cut off from the rest of humanity (except for contact with the fleet’s command centre in the UK) and trying to do their vital and exacting duty without cracking up.
‘Goodbye world,’ Richard would mutter apprehensively at the start of every patrol, as ‘diving stations’ was called, the top lid battened down, the periscope retracted and the boat glided into the depths. It seemed like an eternity before he’d see the sky, sun and stars again and feel the wind on his face. His world was now a totally self-contained cocoon.
For the crew, there was just the slow throb of the nuclear-driven turbines, giving an unnerving sense of always being on the move but going nowhere.
There were long periods of excruciating Groundhog Day boredom, playing a waiting game and praying silently that the dreaded call to launch the nukes would never come.
No wonder body-clocks went haywire as endless days and nights fused into one. Bowels were erratic, colds and fatigue endemic. A small cut would take an age to heal because of the reduced oxygen content on board. Unable to communicate with family and friends, they lived in a psychological as well as a physical bubble. News from home came in weekly telegrams (40 words max) censored by Submarine Command for anything untoward that might affect a sailor’s state of mind.
Even the death of a loved one would be kept from him until the boat was safely back in UK waters at the end of the patrol.
Some couldn’t take the strain. A fellow recruit who joined Resolution at the same time as Richard flipped, rushed at the main access hatch and tried to force it open.
And that was just on a training exercise, not even on a proper patrol. He was restrained, taken off by helicopter and never seen again by the rest of the crew.
Richard found a way of dealing with the hell of other people, all squashed together in close proximity. Backbiting and banter could get out of hand and turn into confrontation and bullying.
It didn’t always help that, surprisingly, the sub’s stores included copious amounts of beer, dished out pretty freely on board since drinking when off-duty was a way of relieving the monotony.
‘We couldn’t be expected to live like monks,’ writes Richard. ‘We needed a release, a sense of freedom, even for a few precious hours. It kept our spirits up.’ (Not any more. Drinking is now strictly regulated — since 2011 when a boozed-up submariner went berserk and shot dead a brave officer who was defending the crew.)
It wasn’t all gloom. The camaraderie among the men was strong, there was lots of laughter and lashings of high-quality food turned out in the tiny galley.
Richard put his own down-time to good use, studying for A-levels, which in turn got him a place at university when he left the Navy.
Another escapist pursuit on board was the frequent showing of porn films on a screen rigged up in the dining hall.
‘All of us staring at something that was simply unattainable under the ocean. The last thing I needed to be thinking about all the time was sex,’ says Richard.
Lots of regular films were shown, too. Top Gun went down well but everyone’s favourite was the World War II epic Das Boot, about life on a German submarine.
Where these modern submariners differed from their Forties counterparts carrying simple torpedoes was in the awesome firepower of those 16 Polaris missiles, whose silos took up the entire middle section of the boat.
The submarine carried more destructive power than all the bombs dropped in World War II.
It weighed on everyone’s mind. How could it not? They were operating a weapon that could wipe out humanity.
Richard always felt deeply uncomfortable when his duties took him to the missile compartment. If it came to it, though, he and his shipmates would follow the firing drill without question. They practised it at least once a week, each exercise beginning with a coded signal from headquarters that was authenticated using code books locked inside a double safe in the submarine.
A checklist of safeguards was ticked off meticulously before the submarine was brought to action stations and a senior officer took up his position in the missile control centre, with the handheld trigger that would commence the firing sequence. The submarine made its way to launch depth, where it slowed right down and then hovered completely still and level, while, on a console on the bridge, the captain monitored the status of the individual missiles.Then he gave the officer in the missile control centre permission to fire. A high-pressure pump forced gas into each missile tube, opening the hatch and propelling the missile out and upwards.
When it broke through the water surface, the motor ignition kicked in with a mighty roar and it became a rocket. Launched into outer space on a predetermined flight path, it would then re-enter the earth’s atmosphere and fly towards its target. Decoys would launch, teasing Moscow’s air defences, and the actual warhead would sneak through, stealthily homing in on its target with devastating effect.
‘None of this happened, thank Christ,’ says Richard. ‘But we practised until it became second nature. The world could have ended, and we would each one of us have been bored doing it.’
And what if it had been the real thing? What they did would then depend on secret instructions from the Prime Minister locked away in the captain’s safe.
These were to be opened if there was a period of international tension and, hidden away in the depths of the oceans and unaware of outside events, the submarine had received no communication from Submarine Command in the UK for four hours or more.
Another option was if the BBC’s Radio 4 or World Service stopped broadcasting.
The letters told the captain how to proceed in the event of a Soviet first strike that devastated Britain, wiping out all our government and military departments, including the PM.
This would be the last symbolic act of HM Government.
For the sub’s crew to launch the missiles would be to sign their own death warrant. Richard says: ‘Enemy satellite equipment would instantly pick up our position and it would be just a matter of time before we were hunted down and destroyed.’
He makes a convincing case that the deterrent made the possibility of nuclear conflict almost non-existent. He says: ‘I believed wholeheartedly we would never receive the firing signal. It would simply never have happened.
‘In my five years as one of Britain’s nuclear submariners, as I ate, slept and kept watch no more than 100 ft away from the most powerful weapon Britain had ever produced, this thought made everything more bearable.’
- UNDER Pressure: Living Life And Avoiding Death On A Nuclear Submarine by Richard Humphreys is published by Mudlark at £14.99 © Richard Humphreys 2019. To order a copy for £12 (offer valid until 29/10/19; p&p free), visit www.mailshop.co.uk or call 01603 648155.