Thursday, 16 June 2011

Royal Navy Submarine Life


Life on a Nuclear Submarine

Life aboard a nuclear submarine isn't for everyone -- a submariner must undergo a battery of tests to determine his physical and mental abilities as well as his psychological and emotional well-being.

After passing The Initial Training at HMS Raleigh, a Submariner receives Trade training for their Chosen Branch. Then He goes on to the Submarine School at Raleigh (used to be HMS Dolphin)
He  learns about the history of submarines, the different classes and types of submarines, engineering aspects, submarine weaponry, damage control measures (such as fire fighting) and team dynamics aboard Submarines.
­Depl­oyments on a submarine can vary in length, depending on the type of submarine. Overall assignments last Two to three years. On a ballistic missile sub (SSBN), two full crews rotate shifts to allow the vessel to remain at sea as often as possible. Each crew may serve for about 3 Months before resurfacing and rotating Crews. This schedule is established for the entire Two to Three-year submarine assignment, this allows Submariners and their families a chance to plan their lives around the deployments.

On a Hunter Killer Submarine (SSN) surveillance Patrols may last a few weeks -- or has been mentioned recently (HMS Tireless) six months Plus. Today, sailors can use e-mail (with some restrictions), but in times past, submariners weren't allowed to communicate with the outside world while aboard their sub.

What is life in the Submarine Service really like?

Everybody has heard the Newspaper accounts of what its like on Boats when a Reporter is allowed access (limited) but the reality is a lot Different.They dont have to leave their Family and Friends behind for the Full patrol or work in the Engine Room or Control Room.

"In the gloom of hunter-killer submarine HMS Tireless's pulsing control room of glowing red switches and ranks of dials, came the barked order of "diving now".
We slid slowly down into the murky depths below the waves"

I have served on two classes of Royal Navy Submarine the "Swiftsure" Class (SSN) and the "Resolution" Class (SSBN) ... Two different life styles with two different purposes and Missions.
It is always hard to explain what it is like because to be Honest with you a Submerged Submarine on a patrol can be a very Boring place to be at times.

However when Alongside in its Base Port its a totally different story it can be a very busy time ... Like any other Machine it has to be Maintained,Serviced, Refitted and Upgraded the crew has to be Trained and kept up to date with new Procedures .. Leave has to be taken and Family Ties have to be re-established.

My first Boat was HMS Sovereign Construction of the boat began on 18 September 1970; she was launched on 17 February 1973, and commissioned on 11 July 1974.I joined her in 1979 after years of Serving in the Surface Fleet so i was not exactly inexperienced in the RN however this was a new experience for me in many ways.I was to rejoin her 30 years Later to Lay her up after she was Decommisioned in 2006.

A lot has been mentioned recently in the Media about a Servicemans life in the Army, Air force and Royal Marines and the seperation that life brings as part of the Job,i dont know what it is like for them but i suspect its a similar experience to a Submariners with a few exceptions.

Preperations for a Long patrol Start a long time before sailing there are Stores, Munitions, Food and a host of other things to get Onboard. 

Everyone gets involved for instance when Food has to be Loaded Junior,Senior Ratings and Officers Muck in, we all have to eat and its a time consuming job..When the Fridges and Freezers are full the Dry Goods are squeezed into every nook and cranny,Beer and Soft Drinks (Goffa) are stuffed into Seat Lockers and in the case of Barrels of Beer they are converted into Stools ...its surprising what Seat covers and Cushions can be used for on a Boat.
The Canteen has to be Stocked up with Nutty.and all the Luxuries that a Man could wish for at Sea, However unlike Surface Ships Submariners run it and not NAAFI.

Similar thing for spare parts once all the Lockers are full they too are stowed in some very unusual places is at a Premium on submarines and  all spaces are used.

Back Aft and throughout the Boat work is in full swing to get all the Systems in a Sea going lineup along with Backup systems they are Tested Tested and Tested again until everyone is satisfied and yes you guessed it they are indeed Tested again just to make sure.

The Reactor is slowly but surely brought up to Operational readiness well in Advance of sailing, the Back Aft full Sea Going Watch system is already in full swing well before the rest of the Submarine.My Wife never understood i dont think why i was still in Port and was coming home for a Few Hours then returning Onboard not to be seen for a couple of more days ... Its a Stressful time for all the Family.

Right now we have got that bit out of the way its time to go to Sea all the Family Business has been Taken care of Bank Accounts,Car Etc,NOK Details filled in Tearful Goodbyes said when we arrive at the Dockyard  and i Mentally switch off from Family life.All i carry is a Pussers Grip (most of my Kit is already onboard).

There are still a few Hours to go before we set sail but being a Back Aftie i have to turn too with the others preparing the Sub and securing it for Sea. The Boat has been in the Self Sustaining state for the past few days all that is needed now is to remove the Electrical  Umbilicals.(Shore Supply)

Typical Shore Supply Cable
Once these are Removed all that is left is the removal of the Gangway and Ropes and the Tugs then pull us away from the Berth Wall.It is at this Point i take my Watch keeping position on the Throttles (Throttle Jockey) Calls are given for Revolutions (Revs) of the Shaft and we are underway escorted by two Tugs until we reach the Plymouth Breakwater.

Plymouth Breakwater
Obviously due to Depth of Water we do not Dive straight away, we have to stay on the Surface for a while (remember what i said about Sea Sickness) well this is bucket time for me i have taken the Tablets but already i am starting to feel a bit Queasy so its a bit of a Relief when my Opposite number turns up to take over and i go and lay down on my Bunk for a while.

Some time later i hear Diving Stations piped and its time to go back Aft to my Diving Station.(everyone onboard has a Diving Station) Its very Choppy on the Surface and Submarines are round bottomed i think you can image just how much we Rock and Roll ... We open up for Diving open up Main Vents and Slowly start to go below the surface once below we Shut vents and maintain Periscope Depth and check for leaks And check the Submarines Trim.

The trimming Officer has got his figures almost correct and we only have to compensate by Shifting a small volume of water from Forward to Aft before the Boat is on an even Trim. A couple of small Leaks have been detected but that was only to be expected after being in a maintenance Routine for a few months.

First dive acheived without any mishaps and we fall out from Diving stations and some of us head to the Mess for a well earned cup of Coffee/Tea.Its at this point it starts to hit me and others that we have left our Family at Home for a few months, its extremely quiet which is unusual but expected.We all know that the reality will hit us later when we get in our Bunks,draw the Curtains and are left with our own Thoughts.


Submariners do it Deeper


New Astute Class Submarine Schematic

Click on all Images to Enlarge

Before we go any further there are obviously some Restrictions as to what i can share with you above is a Schematic of an Astute class Submarine it will give you a rough idea as to the Living and Working Conditions on most class of Nuclear Submarine ... I have served Both Forward and Aft on Swiftsure Submarines so for the sake of simplicity and now we are underway and submerged i will be talking about that class of Boat.

We are now Producing our own Oxygen,Fresh Water and Steam from Sea water through the Process of Electolysis, Evaporation and Heating the Fresh Water with the Reactor to Produce the Steam ...  in effect we have become a Small Self sustaining Submerged Village.

One of the first things noticeable is the Mouth becoming dry and sore throats are not uncommon in the first few days at Sea, this is caused by the Dryness of the Artificial Atmosphere and one of the other effect is Constipation.There is one consolation though there are only 5 Heads cubicles (no Urinals) onboard for the 100+ Crew.  

A Typical Submarine Crapper

Lets move on quickly there are only 5 Showers Available for the whole crew as well and Hand basins are Limited also.We do have a Laundry that has two Washing machines and one tumble Dryer all crammed into a very small Compartment (we do not Iron our Uniforms at Sea) This is operated and Maintained by the Forward Wreckers Crew < (Fwd engineering Dept)  at a nominal charge and the Proceeds go to the Welfare fund onboard.Life in Luxury at its best.

The submarines galley is situated Forward here the chefs have too produce in excess of 300 Meals per day On either side of the Galley are the Junior and Senior Ratings mess where the Meals are served through Hatches The Wardroom Pantry is supplied by a Dumb Waiter pulley type Lift.

JRs Mess
SRs Mess showing Servery hatch

In all these Messes Crew members who are off watch eat, read and study,  A wide variety of activities are available during free time. Movies are watched, Card games and various board games, such as Uckers,Backgammon or Cribbage are played.In Todays Submarines Computer Games are played as well.

Lets now move on to my Favourite Space on the Submarine the Bunk Spaces Forward of 29 Bulkhead door.

 The Bunk Spaces are split between Port and Starboard forward of the Bulkhead where 48 + Bunks are situated when there are not enough Bunks available the Weapons Stowage Compartment (WSC) it used for All trainees (Men and Officers) or Hot Bunking is implemented ... one man out one man in.Not using the same Sleeping bag i may add.

This is the only place on the Submarine where i could get some privacy there is nothing like diving in your Bunk,Farter,Crib and a few other names which for the sake of decency i wont mention here.
Moving on quickly again once the Curtains are drawn i am in my own little world onboard ... in the first few days at sea my mind would always wander and Ponder about the Family Life i had left behind but by the second week i was able to put that to the back of my mind it was just the way i dealt with it others coped with it differently.

Coffin Dreams are not uncommon if a Man has a Nightmare and wakes up the Confined Sleeping space coupled with drawn Curtains make it feel like you have woken up inside a Coffin, i always tried to get the bottom bunk that way i was Kneeing the bloke in the Kidneys above me and not Vice Versa.

One Survey done onboard a Sub i served on was a Civilian sitting in the Bunk Space just prior to the General Alarm going off ...He was amazed that the majority of the Crew were already out of their Bunks and starting to get dressed before the Alarm went off ... nearing the end of the tests we eventually told him why ...  just prior to the Alarm going off the Ventilation was crashed Stopped or Failed we had become so conditioned to the difference in noise levels our own internal Body alarms told us there was something wrong.

Whilst we are Forward of 29 Bulkhead lets take a look at what else is there

Escape Hatch (OOPS) wrong picture

There are a few Compartments/Spaces here on the same level as the Bunk Space there are the Freezer and Fridge spaces and the Compressor space that houses the Machinery to keep everything Frozen and chilled ... All the Perishable goods are kept in the Freezer and Fridge enough hopefully for a full patrol ... non Perishables are as explained crammed into every place onboard that is available. 

On the Level above is the Escape Compartment with Emergency Oxygen Generators and CO2 Filters The Escape Tower is also in this Compartment.

A Typical Two Man Escape Tower
(Not Swiftsure class)

ALL Submariners are trained on how to use the Equipment in this area as well as Escaping Via the Tower they must be able to take control of the Escape procedure (they could be the most senior crew member there)

SETT Explained here in Blog >> Royal-Navy-Sett.

All the compartments i have shown and talked about could have been seen at any Navy Days when The Boats were Active .. Sadly that is not now the case they have all been De-Commissioned


29 Bulkhead Door

Click on Images to Enlarge

Lets move out of the Bunk spaces some idiot decided to Carpet the Area thinking it would be a good idea he took the "Run silent run Deep" idea to the extreme and frankly with so many men in one area it is starting to get a little bit smelly.

Weapons Stowage Compartment (WSC)

This is on the other side of the Bulkhead this is where the Torpedoes are stowed the eagle eyed among you will spot the non Perishable food stowed down the centre, for obvious reasons we had to remove all Smoking Materials (Lighters) before Entering.All Trainee Submariners will have to Know the Hydraulic,Pneumatic,compartment Valves and Isolation's.

They will also have to know what Tanks,Hull Valves and Standard/Emergency operating Procedures (SOP/EOPs) that are applicable to this compartment ... this also applies to all compartments onboard a Submarine.

Each crew member continues to learn and gain more expertise after they are assigned onboard a submarine. As a Submariner gains operational experience, they receive advanced training in equipment maintenance, troubleshooting, and advanced operational techniques. Training continues throughout a Submariner's career to keep pace with technological developments. Regardless of their specialty, everyone also has to learn how everything on the Boat works and how to respond in emergencies to become a "qualified submariner" and earn the right to wear the coveted Dolphins on their uniform.

Right thats the Compartment Part 3 Lecture over lets go back onto 2 Deck and move Aft ... there are some compartments that are Restricted on this Deck that i cannot take you into ... However you will have to know what is inside the Chief in Charge will be more than happy to show you at a later date .. Just knock and ask.

Just Past the Junior rates Mess is the Ladder down to 3 Deck in this area you will find the Auxilliary Machinery Space (AMS) and also the Air Production and Purification Plants ... There are two main problems of life support in the closed environment of a submarine:

When we breathe in air, our bodies consume its oxygen and convert it to carbon dioxide. Exhaled air contains about 4.5 percent carbon dioxide. A submarine is a sealed container that contains people and a limited supply of air. There are three things that must happen in order to keep air in a submarine breathable:
•Oxygen has to be replenished as it is consumed.
•Carbon dioxide must be removed from the air.

Oxygen is supplied from electrolysis of water it is either released continuously by a computerized system that senses the percentage of oxygen in the air, or it is released in batches periodically through the day.Carbon dioxide can be removed from the air chemically by devices called scrubbers.There are also Onboard 2 CO/H2 Burners that help with purification.

2 Deck to 1 Deck (Control Room) Ladder

We are now in the Control Room this is the Command Centre of the Submarine

Control Panel
Diving and Surfacing
A submarine can control its buoyancy, thus allowing it to sink and surface at will.
To control its buoyancy, the submarine has ballast tanks and auxiliary, or trim tanks, that can be alternately filled with water or air.When the submarine is on the surface,the ballast tanks are filled with air and the submarine's overall density is less than that of the surrounding water. As the submarine dives, the ballast tanks are flooded with water and the air in the ballast tanks is vented from the submarine until its overall density is greater than the surrounding water and the submarine begins to sink (negative buoyancy). A supply of compressed air is maintained aboard the submarine in air flasks for life support and for use with the ballast tanks. In addition, the submarine has hydroplanes that help to control the angle of the dive and Surface.

Chart Table
Sleeping Control Room Chairs ZZZZ
Search Periscope

Although it is difficult for most people to imagine living on a submarine, challenging submarine living conditions actually build strong Bonds among the crew. The crews are highly motivated, and quickly adapt to changing conditions. It is a busy life of specialized work, watches, and drills.
There are Three meals a day: Breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Crew members usually get about six hours of sleep per day; most people fall to sleep very quickly after their Watch.
The days pass without sunrises and sunsets, because on a submarine operating at sea, the only view of the sky is through the periscope.

Compared to life on a surface ship, submarines are quieter and the ride is smoother because the submarine is rarely affected by the surface waves. The air is cleaner than the air outside, and many submariners notice the strong smell of the ocean when the hatch is opened after a long time.



     Submariners do it Deeper



  1. Hi,

    Excellent, Brings it all back.Looking forward to the next part.


  2. The very first photo on this page. The angle on the bow makes the boat look like a sports car. It's difficult to make a boat look sexy, that one does though!

  3. I spent all my naval career on boats, T's, U's + V's, 84 - 06, never served on O boats but remember them and many of their crews ( Snowy Harman, great guy ) this web site is top notch, cheers for the dits, memories, old faces, ports and boats.

    Andy Manning

  4. Thanks for the Kind Comments Guys its nice to get Feedback about the Blog ...Glad you enjoy it



  5. If you are to use a copyrigthed image, it would be nicer to include the name of the owner and the link to it.

    Michel Lalonde "Plymouth Breakwater" taken from

  6. I also was on Sovereign from 75 to 79 nice to read and remember. also remember falling down that flight of steps being late for a watch on 3 deck in comms. Keep up the work found by accident

  7. Got to aree. The Bomber is a V Boat not the Reso. Reso was alot different when I was on it. Billy

  8. the v boat is Vanguard the fwd capstains a state of disrepair ahem!! and it took ages before they worked properley.

    served on all 4 more than once either crew do I miss it not really but the people I do miss. cheers shippers.

    RJN ex RNSM

  9. for those who were on reso take a look at

  10. I served on P&O Diesel boats,as a forendy,torpedo operator,in the 80's and believe me what ive seen and read above makes life on a nuclear submarine '5 star chusdy!! compared to what I experienced,a proper submariners life!

  11. Anonymous above is me,steve pennicott,member of diesel boats on facebook,different world serving as a submariner nowadays,alot more 'comfort' makes life easier but we all earned and wear our dolphins with pride

  12. I'm currently working in Germany and stumbled across this site by accident. When I was in Dolphin in 84 I wanted P&O boats but the only options were S or V boats and bombers, after weighing up the options of Guzz or Faslane I spent the 80's as a forendy on the Superb and Splendid, the images and comments above have brought it all flooding back!

  13. I too served on hms/m sovereign from build in barrow up to 1976, finishing my submarine service career, serving on hms/m renown, leaving the service in 1989, 25 years spent in the submarine service. In my humble opinion the only way to travel.

  14. Was a back aftie on Revenge and Renown. Saw a photo of them recently rotting away in Rosyth, really made me sad to see them like that. Still life goes on and I'll always remember my good buddies.

  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. not having served in the RN I was a MN electrical engineer but I was an apprentice and helped build the Cachalot and Walrus in Scotts of Greenock. I done sea trials went to join up at Glasgow but the chief wanted me to enter the FAA and I didn't fancy that so joined up in the merchant where I spent many happy years there. I enjoyed this site and hope to hear more from others