The Blog for Submariners their Families and Friends
Monday, 27 January 2014
Exclusive glimpse behind the scenes of the Royal Navy's gruelling submarine command course known as Perisher
LIEUTENANT Commander Dan Simmonds gave the order to raise hunter killer HMS Talent to periscope depth before launching his torpedo attack.
This was his most dangerous mission yet.
Admiral Corder was standing feet away, his eyes flicking between the young officer and classified screens on the other side of the control room.
Suddenly the enemy frigate swung round and cranked up her turbines to bear down on the 5200-tonne submarine at top speed.
Lt Cdr Simmonds had to think fast. Without warning, the words “Urgent, go deep” cut through the gloom.
The attack had been left too late by a few seconds, but it was enough to let the frigate come too close for safety.
Admiral Corder had stepped in. Lt Cdr Simmonds had failed his task.
Luckily this was an exercise off the north of Scotland and not a real skirmish.
But having made such a mistake, the 34-year-old was now convinced he would be ejected from the Royal Navy’s submarine command course.
“My legs went to jelly. I thought I was off,” he said, ashen-faced with exhaustion.
“It was one of the worst moments of my life and I was devastated. I felt everything I’d worked for slipping away.”
Lt Cdr Simmonds’ fears were actually unfounded.
He went on to pass the course and gain one of the most coveted prizes within the British military.
But two of his five fellow students didn’t. The men were called to the captain’s cabin, given a glass of whisky as the bad news was broken, then put on a boat back to land.
Britain’s submarine command course is renowned for being the toughest in the world and is nicknamed Perisher for its brutality.
The pass rate is just 60 per cent and those who fail can never serve below the waves again.
Last year, a student was removed three hours before the end.
“Perisher is relentless – it’s designed to grind you down,” said Lt Cdr Simmonds.
It has to be merciless because of the gravity of the role the men are being prepared for.
Submarines are the most complex military hardware Britain possesses.
They are able to land a lethal strike with Spearfish torpedoes and Cruise or Trident missiles.
The fact that HMS Triumph landed the first strike by British forces of the Libyan campaign was made public.
But what is less widely known is her role stopping Gaddafi’s special forces from mining Misratah’s port entrance to sink boats carrying hundreds of civilians to safety.
She also helped stop 1000kg of Semtex being placed in the path of a ship delivering humanitarian aid.
Had parliament voted to launch an attack on President Assad’s regime, a hunter killer would now be poised to fire missiles at Syria.
Cdr Ryan Ramsey, 43, in charge of HMS Turbulent during the Libya campaign, is Perisher tutor, known simply as “Teacher”. He said “In the past 15 years British submarines have been used in action off the Balkans, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan.”
“For the students who pass, there’s a real chance they’ll have to fire their weapons in anger at some point.”
On the first day of the course, Cdr Ramsey sat the six officers down and told them they had centuries of naval leadership to live up to.
The next week they visited the Houses of Parliament in uniform to be briefed by former First Sea Lord Lord West of Spithead.
“We were mobbed by peers who wanted to have their photo taken with us,” said Lt Cdr Simmonds.
The sailors spent months learning the deadly art of submarine warfare in the classroom, on simulators and in Dutch and Norwegian submarines.
One Monday was near-disaster for Lt Cdr Ben Smith, 34.
“I did a particularly bad attack run on the simulator and was told by Teacher in no uncertain terms that if I did this once we were at sea he’d surface the boat and take me off.
“I knew he was serious. He didn’t say it in an angry way – he was measured.
“But he’s the arbiter of standards. He’s been a successful sub captain and has lived by the sword. Every decision you make on the course could potentially end your career.
“You ask yourself, ‘Am I still going to be a submariner tomorrow’?”
The final test was a five-week stint off Scotland on HMS Talent during a major international exercise.
The subs are cramped, with many of the 130 crew hot-bunking and working non-stop six hours on, six hours off defence watches.
The students were kept sleep-deprived to test their character.
Then Teacher pushed them to the very limits of their endurance.
They took it in turns to practise firing Tomahawk missiles, landing troops and snooping for intelligence.
HMS Talent sailed hundreds of miles south to secretly recce the Isles of Scilly, dodging naval Hawk jets.
Cdr Ramsey piled on the pressure by suddenly making the tasks more complex, dangerous and stressful.
A Merlin helicopter would swoop in to try to track and intercept them. Other times he’d shut off the power.
“It was 24/7 and the students were ‘at war’ for the whole time we were at sea,” said Cdr Ramsey.
“A submarine’s main role is to deliver violence to the enemy and my job is to provide the crews with the best possible captains to do this.
The cramped control room buzzed as acting captain Lt Jonathan “The Hobbit” Lewis frowned, then despatched four Tomahawk missiles.
Each time HMS Talent “fired”, water was blasted from the tubes making the whole boat shudder.
“I think that emptied the bomb shop,” he muttered after the mammoth attack run.
The 32-year-old from the Midlands joined straight from school.
Spotted for his mental agility and cool head, the Navy fast-tracked him.
“I decided I wanted to be a submarine captain about 10 minutes after I stepped on board my first boat HMS Victorious at Faslane,” he said.
“I expected Perisher to be demanding and challenging – it’s all that and more. I’m exhausted.
“My body aches from head to toe because of the constant stress and sleep deprivation.
“But there are times in command when you cannot sleep for long periods so you have to get used to it.”
According to thriller writer Tom Clancy, Navy submarine commanders are the most feared in the world. He said our captains have the edge on US ones due to their controlled aggression.
“Note that I use the world ‘fear’,” Clancy wrote. “Not just respect. Not just awe. But real fear at what a British submarine, with one of their superbly qualified captains at the helm, might be capable of doing.”
Cdr Ryan Ramsay was in charge of HMS Turbulent in Libya
The US Navy respect Perisher so much they often send a top performer to take part.
This time it was Lt Cdr Tom Weiler, 35, from Minnesota.
The ship’s company usually spot who will pass within days of their arrival, often betting on the outcome. Cdr Ramsey also scrutinised how his Perishers treated the crew – he’s after leaders not just fighters.
“The buck stops with you. You alone are responsible for the lives of over 130 people,” he said. “It’s crucial that your crew follows you because they want to.”
For the final 48 hours, the Perishers had Commander Maritime Operations Rear Admiral Ian Corder watching their every move.
The officers only knew they’d passed when Cdr Ramsey called them one by one, shook their hand and handed them champagne.
“All I want to do is call my wife Marie and tell her,” said Smith.
“I haven’t been able to speak to her – or even text her – for a month.”
Simmonds said: “The last two days were by far the worst. I’m going to take my girlfriend to Nice and propose.”
Lt Cdr Weiler also received a glass of rum.
Lt Cdr Simmonds, Lt Cdr Smith and Lt Lewis have joined Faslane-based submarines as second-in-command, while Weiler has returned to the States. Cdr Ramsey will act as mentor for the rest of their careers.