The silent service: Britain’s nuclear submarines

15 June 2018 marked the 50th anniversary of HMS Resolution, the Royal Navy’s first SSBN (Submersible Ship Ballistic Nuclear), commencing its operational patrol.

With this submarine at sea, shortly followed by the other three submarines of the Resolution class, responsibility for Britain’s nuclear deterrence capability passed from the RAF to the Royal Navy.

HM Submarine A1, off Isle of Wight
HM Submarine A1, off Isle of Wight. Image via virtual dive trail by 3 deep media

A continuous at-sea nuclear launch capability has been maintained since that time, upgraded with new submarines, new weapons and new technologies over the years.

Thankfully no Prime Minster has ever needed to order a nuclear attack by these submarines, but British nuclear deterrent remains a hotly debated issue. The ethics, efficacy, cost and safety of such systems are continuously in question.

Many 20th century military sites survive around the country, and a number of these sites are protected due to their special architectural or historic interest. The stories attached to these sites are rarely shared, due to the secrecy surrounding their operations.

1. HM Submarine Holland Number 5 (Protected Wreck)

Port side - Holland 5
HM Submarine Holland Number 5, off Bexhill, East Sussex. Image via virtual dive trail.

Submerged off Bexhill, East Sussex, this protected wreck was one of five of the first submarines ever commissioned into the Royal Navy, the class serving between 1903 and 1913. Holland 5 was lost under tow in 1912, and is a rare survival from the earliest days of Britain’s submarine force.

2. Vickers Ship and Engineering Ltd. (now BAE Systems) in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria.

Vickers Ship and Engineering Ltd. (now BAE Systems) company offices and works entrance, Barrow-in-Furness. Image via History of Lindal & Marton

The engineering ‘home’ of Britain’s submarines, the first British designed submarine was constructed at this shipyard in 1902. The vessel survives as a protected wreck off the Isle of Wight, and the yard continues to build submarines for the Royal Navy. A number of buildings at Barrow are listed, including the original company offices and works entrance of 1913.

3. Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE)

Lab 1, Orford. c Historic England David Lovell via Enrich the List
Lab 1, Orford © Historic England David Lovell via Enrich the List

The remote coastline of Orford Ness in Suffolk has an extraordinary story to tell of Cold War weapons research. The Atomic Weapons Research Establishment was a key testing ground for the technologies of the British nuclear deterrent. Scientists based here developed the warhead technologies of the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile system from 1963 onwards.

Orford Ness aa94_03750
Bomb Ballistics Building, Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Orford Ness © Historic England Archive AA94/03750

4. Royal Naval College ‘King William’s Quarter’

Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, London c Historic England David Lovell via Enriching the List
Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, London c Historic England David Lovell via Enriching the List

A Cold War nuclear secret used to be housed in a most unexpected location. The grade I listed, Sir Christopher Wren designed Royal Naval College in south-east London housed ‘JASON’, a nuclear reactor. JASON was used by the Royal Navy between 1962 and 1996 for experimental and training purposes, in particular for the training of future engineering officers on nuclear-powered submarines.

Control panel for the Jason nuclear reactor, Royal Naval College, Greenwich, 1962. Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

5. HMS Dolphin, Gosport, Hampshire

‘Submarine Escape Training Tank’ (SETT), HMS Dolphin in Gosport, Hampshire

This grade II listed structure is the only escape training tank in the country and one of only a handful internationally. It was used to train emergency escape procedures to every Royal Navy submariner from 1954 to 2009. It only stopped being used due to increased safety mechanisms in modern submarines, alongside the reality of submarines now operating in areas (and depths) where escape of this nature would not be possible.

6. Prime Minister’s Rooms and Operations Rooms at MoD Corsham in Wiltshire

Corsham map_room_2
Underground bunker, cabinet room. Basil Hill Barracks, Corsham, Wilts. © Historic England

At the height of the Cold War, had a Prime Minster ever needed to order an attack by these submarines, one possible location for that terrifying decision would have been the Prime Minister’s Rooms and Operations Rooms at MoD Corsham in Wiltshire. The site is a scheduled monument and would have been central to the operation of the Central Government War Headquarters (CGWHQ) in the event of all-out nuclear war in the 1960s and 1970s. The site was de-commissioned in the early 1990s and de-classified in 2004.

Detail view showing triangular metal signs reading 'gas', 'atom' and 'bio'
Triangular metal signs reading ‘gas’, ‘atom’ and ‘bio.’ at Basil Hill Barracks, Corsham, Wiltshire© Historic England DP153084

7. National Submariners’ War Memorial at Embankment Wall

Embankment war memorial 2
National Submariners’ War Memorial at Embankment Wall, Westminster. © Historic England Charles Watson via Enrich the List

Although not specifically commemorating more recent service, the National Submariners’ War Memorial in Westminster, London, is the official national memorial to the Submarine Service of the Royal Navy. Listed at grade II*, the memorial was unveiled in 1922 to commemorate First World War losses, with later additions for the Second World War unveiled in 1959. The memorial was designed by the architect AH Ryan Tenison, with a bronze sculpture by Frederick Brook Hitch.

As part of the 50th anniversary commemorations, the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth is launching a new permanent exhibition with a conference. Find out more here.

Further reading 

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