Submarines are the Answer to Alleged Kremlin Transgressions

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s vow in the House of Commons that Russia would receive a ‘robust response’ from the UK if it had a hand in the attempted assassination in Salisbury of an ex-military intelligence officer (and one-time double agent) would not have caused much fear in Moscow.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s subsequent demand that the Kremlin explain how a military grade nerve agent came to be used in a Wiltshire community was met with angry denials that it had anything to do with Russia. Moscow demanded that the UK stop inventing so-called fairy tales and hand over a sample of the Novichok nerve agent allegedly used in the attack for analysis in Russian labs.

Where the stand-off would go next was uncertain at the time of writing.

Strong words of condemnation, chucking a few diplomats out of Britain or withdrawing the England team from a footie tournament – the World Cup, due to be held later this year in Russia – would just make President Putin snigger at the continuing weakness of an old Cold War foe the Russians used to respect.

One of the major reasons they took Britain seriously once upon a time was its ability to carry out operations in a part of the world Moscow considers home turf, though not via alleged assassination plots in quiet cathedral cities.

The UK’s deep cover operatives were submariners, with Prime Ministers from the late 1960s to the 1990s frequently giving personal authorization to send nuclear-powered attack submarines into the Barents Sea.

The sails of the US Navy attack submarines USS Connecticut and USS Hartford break through the ice on March 10 as part of ICEX 2018, which also, for the first time in some years, involves a British submarine. Photo: US Navy.

That is where they should be today, gathering intelligence on Putin’s new sea-based missile capabilities, which he is using to threaten the West. They should be trying to detect the Russian Navy’s increasingly formidable nuclear attack submarines as they break out into the Atlantic to menace the UK directly. They also need to trail Russia’s conventional submarines as they deploy to go and fire cruise missiles into Syria or, in future, other cauldrons of war and misery the Kremlin might seek to exploit for strategic advantage. British submarines must return to the shadow game of tracking and trailing Russia’s submarines as they try to interfere with NATO operations, plus seeking out its nuclear missile craft, which are poised to strike at all times.

A submariner keeps watch from the sail of the attack submarine USS Hartford after the boat has surfaced through the ice in the Beaufort Sea during ICEX 2018. Photo: US Navy.

However, the UK no longer maintains a presence in Arctic waters with surface warships or submarines at a level that would ever worry Moscow. This is due to successive governments hollowing out the Royal Navy’s fighting capabilities, cutting its people and warships back to the bone and failing utterly to maintain a strong enough submarine force. Increasingly it is other nations – and in the case of Canada using submarines that the UK sold off as it felt it wouldn’t need them – taking up the strain and sometimes performing a job the Royal Navy did so well.

Britain’s submarine warfare proficiency was once the envy of not only the Russians but also the Americans. It is why novelist Tom Clancy said of the Royal Navy’s submarine force during the Cold War: ‘While everyone deeply respects the Americans with their technologically and numerically superior submarine force, they all quietly fear the British.’

Britain does maintain a reputation for excellence in undersea warfare – and right now it has deployed its first submarine for some years to exercise under the Polar ice with the Americans – but there remains severe lack of submarines, a shortage of people and lack of funding to stay at sea that undermines all that (and the UK’s standing in the world).

The will-they-won’t-they pantomime over the question of whether or not Britain will build a seventh Astute Class attack submarine is a good illustration of how UK governments in recent years have turned global fear (and respect) of the Royal Navy into something approaching derision (among both friend and foe). NATO allies are mystified and deeply saddened by the self-inflicted destruction of the British fleet.

The recent hokey-cokey act over the Astutes followed claims the UK’s amphibious warfare forces are to be disemboweled in yet another round of defence cuts. It was suggested that the extremely capable assault vessels HMS Albion and HMS Bulwark are to be axed and sold off – and the government has still not denied it may happen. On top of that at least 1,000 elite Royal Marine commandos might be given their marching orders. Those specialist ships and highly-trained commandos are key elements in the defence of NATO’s northern flank against potential Russian aggression, so Moscow has no doubt been delighted with the idea (at a time when it is building up its own amphibious forces).

With the future of the UK amphibious ships and Royal Marines far from settled the Astute submarine farce then unfolded.

President Putin is, as explained in the final section of my new book ‘The Deadly Trade’, deploying submarines to shock and awe the world – via missile boat diplomacy – and will have been very pleased to hear the UK might only build six Astutes. He has given orders for Russia to construct a dozen new Yasen Class attack submarines (a development of the formidable Akula) and so the dithering over the seventh Astute will have been music to his ears.

The once mighty Royal Navy, having recently been reduced to sending out plastic mine-hunters and fishery protection vessels to shadow Russian naval task groups passing close to British shores (due to a chronic lack of frigates and destroyers), was providing further evidence of a paper British lion. It can roar and bluster about ‘robust action’ but it currently has not much naval muscle left to do anything meaningful by way of conventional deterrence.

Nonetheless, on March 6, the Ministry of Defence was delighted to issue a confirmation that the seventh Astute Class submarine will indeed be built – giving the so-called good news to finally bury the potential bad news its own indecision and history of defence investment failures had created in the first place.

The Astute Class attack submarine HMS Ambush during Exercise Dynamic Manta 2015. The Arctic should once again become a major focus for British and NATO submarine operations. Photo: NATO.

In a written statement to the House of Commons, the day after the Salisbury alleged assassination story hit the headlines, defence procurement minister Guto Bebb was pleased to reveal the UK government would fund the seventh boat.

However, you have to ask what the point is of promising to construct a seventh submarine when it has been revealed by the National Audit Office that, during construction of earlier submarines, the process was badly delayed by some of their equipment being transferred to the few Astutes already in service – robbing Peter to ensure Paul can stay at sea.

And what is the point of building new submarines if you can’t recruit enough submariners to take them to sea? It is no secret that attack boat crews the UK needs to be out there – showing Russia it can’t have it all its own way – are being transferred into the Trident missile vessels just to keep them on deterrent patrol. Which means the attack boats cannot always deploy to exert their presence in waters close to Russia, or anywhere else.

It’s a disgraceful shambles and no way to manage a navy. Promises of a seventh Astute Class submarines are nothing but window dressing for a crisis in national defence that the government so far shows no inclination to really sort out.

The reality is that seven Astutes are not enough, but for the first time in more than a century Britain is not building any other kind of attack submarine as a follow-on or alternative. Ensuring the UK has enough nuclear-powered attack submarines it can send into Russian home seas – staying in international waters of course – in order to carry out some espionage on Moscow’s growing missile might and expanding submarine force is the answer. Having a dozen boats means the UK will be able to deploy up to half a dozen at a time globally, including some allocated to the Arctic.  This will not only counter Russia’s recent cheeky submarine forays close to the UK but also tell Putin that a line has been drawn against transgressions elsewhere (at sea, in the air or on land).

The Royal Navy attack submarine HMS Tireless sits on the surface of the North Pole during ICEX 2004. Back then the British fleet operated 11 attack submarines, and today it has half a dozen in commission. Photo: US Navy.

If Russian attack submarines again come into waters close to the UK – seeking out the Royal Navy’s Trident deterrent submarine as they deploy on patrol from the Clyde, or sticking two fingers up to Britain by making fast, submerged transits of the Irish Sea – it should be answered robustly alright.

Putin needs to know that the British fleet will return to its perfectly legal pursuit of sending anti-submarine and intelligence gathering frigates, plus attack submarines, into the Norwegian Sea and Barents Sea. The Russian Bear must find himself chasing his tail in his lair rather than snarling unchallenged in the face of the West.


THE DEADLY TRADE: The Complete History of Submarine Warfare from Archimedes to the Present’ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25.00, hardback) has just been published and is a follow-on to ‘Hunter Killers’ (Orion Books, 2013)  which told the story of Royal Navy submariners undertaking dangerous missions against the Soviet Union across the Cold War.

While working as a newspaper defence correspondent Iain sailed into the Barents Sea aboard a British anti-submarine frigate, during the warship’s special diplomatic mission to visit Murmansk and Archangel. At the end of the Cold War he also visited the other restricted Russian naval bases zones of Kronstadt and Sevastopol. He has twice been under the sea in nuclear-powered hunter-killer submarine and is the founding and current Editor of the globally read naval news magazine WARSHIPS International Fleet Review.

Like ‘Ice Station
Zebra’… For Real

Russian paratroopers leap headlong into the slipstream of a transport aircraft disgorging them over the vast icy wastes of the North Pole; tumbling head over heel, drogue chutes trailing behind, one-by-one the soldiers’ main parachutes deploy. They glide down to land on a drifting ice floe next to a research station.

This isn’t a scene from the late 1960s movie ‘Ice Station Zebra’ that I saw at the cinema when I was a kid, but happened a day or two ago and was filmed by highly skilled cameramen and pumped out as the latest example of Russian military derring-do propaganda.

Russians in the ice

Russian troops pose for a group shot on the Arctic ice. Photo: Russian defence ministry.

Russia is currently boosting its presence in the Arctic, progressing rapidly via commissioning of new nuclear-powered submarines, flights by far-ranging aircraft, plus deployments of paratroopers and naval infantry. The Kremlin is staking a claim to vast natural resources on the seabed under the ice. It is aiming to dominate the Arctic Ocean just like the Chinese on the other side of the world are laying claim to the entire South China Sea. It is yet another illustration of the uncanny ability of fact to mimic fiction.

Ice Station Zebra

The poster for the movie of ‘Ice Station Zebra’. Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

For those scenes of Soviet paratroopers raining down on the North Pole in the movie ‘Ice Station Zebra’, must have implanted themselves as powerfully in the brain of young Russians as much as they took hold of my imagination. Now they have turned Hollywood’s iconography back on the West by presenting a spectacular real-life adventure to show how Russia’s paratroopers can achieve extraordinary things even today, and for real.

Of course, as soon as Moscow reset its relationship with the West to one of overt rivalry, it was inevitable games of military one upmanship would unfold. The story behind‘ Ice Station Zebra’, as explained in my book ‘Hunter Killers’ (and very briefly in a previous post on this site) was even more fantastic than both the Alistair MacLean novel, published in 1963, and the 1968 movie.

In recent years it has emerged that the CIA in May 1962 was involved in exploits to counter Soviet listening stations on the Polar ice. Even if he did not know precise details of the CIA mission, MacLean certainly did plenty of research into under-ice operations by submarines and the espionage roles of ‘research stations’ on ice floes.

In real life, the USA’s Office of Naval Research, Defense Intelligence Agency and CIA put together ‘Operation Coldfeet’. This involved two ‘intelligence collectors’ being parachuted onto the ice close to a drifting, and recently abandoned, Soviet research station.

The Russians had conducted an evacuation because they believed the ice would soon crush it. After seven days collecting intelligence the two Americans were picked up in breath-taking fashion by a specially converted former B-17 bomber. Using a so-called ‘Skyhook’ it plucked them and their intelligence goodies from the ice and reeled them in.

The CIA recently revealed they brought home ‘valuable information’ on how the Soviet Union was utilising its scientific research stations. ‘The team found evidence of advanced acoustical systems research to detect under-ice US submarines,’ a CIA document reveals, ‘and efforts to develop Arctic anti-submarine warfare techniques.

And today, never mind the macho exploits of Russian paratroopers, the most interesting game of all in the so-called new Cold War, will be what transpires beneath the ice, both in terms of Russia exploiting oil and gas reserves and potentially a fresh face-off between the submarines of the West and the Russian Navy.

US Seawolf Class submarine

A US Navy nuclear-powered submarine surfaces through ice in the Arctic Ocean. Photo: US Navy.

Just a few months ago the US Navy sent a cutting edge nuclear-powered attack submarine, USS Seawolf, on a voyage under the North Pole. As defence writer and analyst David Axe wrote on his web site and in a recent edition of the magazine I run the Seawolf departed Bremerton in August 2013 and then four weeks later suddenly turned up in a Norwegian port.  Axe noted: ‘it seems Seawolf travelled to Norway along a path rarely taken by any vessel: Underneath the Arctic ice. The US Navy doesn’t like to talk about its submarines. After all, a sub’s biggest advantage is its stealth.’ And Seawolf’s main mission is intelligence gathering. The Russians can beat their chests and show off as much as they like by parachuting onto an ice floe at the North Pole, but another game is afoot out of sight. And it is far stranger, and more serious, than any fiction.


Cold War Diesel Submarines: The Unsung Heroes

One of the submarines that features in the narrative of ‘Hunter Killers’ is the Cold War veteran diesel-electric submarine HMS Alliance, which is splendidly preserved at Gosport in Hampshire as the star attraction of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum (RNSM). Alliance is big news in 2014 as she has just completed a major a £6.75 million refurbishment. An Alliance Gallery has also been constructed within the main museum building. The gallery’s aim is to immerse people in the story of Alliance from Second World War origins to her finals days of service in the 1970s (as a complement to the guided tours of the boat herself). HMS Alliance is living proof of an important side of the Cold War under the waves that is often overlooked in favour of the headlines-grabbing exploits of the nuclear-powered SSNs and SSBNs, namely the valiant efforts of the diesels across the span of the confrontation. Published here is an article that I wrote for the current (April 2014) edition of ‘Scuttlebutt’, the official magazine of the Friends of the Royal Naval Museum (Portsmouth) and HMS Victory. The piece seeks to cast a light on the adventures of British diesels of all kinds in the Cold War, drawing on elements of ‘Hunter Killers’.

If Hollywood movies and blockbuster novels are to be taken as gospel the Cold War under the sea was an affair of big beasts known as nuclear-powered submarines jousting with each other at close quarters.

This overlooks the valiant efforts of the smaller, far less powerful but equally hard-worked, diesel-electric submarines. Out of the three primary players in the undersea contest – the USA, Soviet Union and Britain – it was the British who most relied on diesels to do dangerous work the other two nations handed over to nuclear-powered boats.

The three navies began the Cold War from the same place – using captured Nazi vessels as the basis for regenerating post-WW2 submarine flotillas. They could thank British commandos for this. In the dying days of the Third Reich teams of elite green berets raced for Baltic ports where they secured revolutionary undersea craft and associated technology.

Among around 100 former Kriegsmarine submarines interned at Lishally, near Londonderry, were Type XXI U-boats. Fortunately, only two ‘electroboots’, as the Type XXIs were known, had ever deployed on combat patrol. Training crews, ironing out defects common to cutting-edge technology and intensive Allied bombing ensured the rest of Germany’s 120 ‘electroboots’ remained in port.

Type XXI Uboat

The Nazi-origin Type XXI U-boat, which provided the technological basis for early Cold War submarines used by the British, American and Russian navies. Image: Dennis Andrews. Copyright © Dennis Andrews.

Equipped with high-speed batteries capable of providing up to 17 knots submerged – eight knots faster than Allied diesels – the Type XXI possessed snort masts enabling it to remain submerged for long periods. It was invisible to the enemy while venting generator fumes, recharging batteries and sucking in fresh air. With its sleek, supremely hydrodynamic hull form, the Type XXI also looked very different to other submarines, with no external guns other than cannons mounted within the fin.

The Type XXI did not have to surface to attack a convoy and could fire 18 torpedoes (in three salvoes) within 20 minutes. This was as long as it took any other submarine to load a single torpedo. Using the snort to recharge batteries, the Type XXI was supposed to conduct an entire patrol submerged. Stealth at low speeds was aided by creeping speed motors (on rubber mountings) that soaked up noise. The Type XXI was also deep diving, managing up to 440ft (around 90ft deeper than the most British submarines of the 1940s). It reputedly had a crush depth of more than 1,000ft.

When it came time to dividing up the spoils of war, the victorious powers were keen to ensure they got their share of Nazi submarines. The British, Americans and Russians each had ten U-boats of all kinds. The remainder were towed out to sea and scuttled off Ireland.

The Americans used their two Type XXIs as the basis of new Tang Class diesels, also reconstructing some of their Second World War-era boats under the Greater Underwater Propulsive Power, or GUPPY, programme to incorporate German innovations.  Some Type XXIs were even pressed into service, the British operating two for a short period while the Russians, who had been awarded four Type XXIs, commissioned them into service with their Baltic Fleet. The Soviet Navy replicated the Type XXI in its Zulu and Whiskey classes. Without the funds to construct new boats, the British decided to incorporate Type XXI innovations into some of their T-Class submarines.

Eight boats, starting with HMS Taciturn, were taken in hand between 1950 and 1956. They had a whole new section inserted containing two more electric motors and a fourth battery. It gave the Super-Ts, as they became known, a submerged top speed of up to 18 knots but only for a short period. The guns were removed and they also acquired a streamlined casing. A large fin enclosed the bridge, periscopes and masts. Space was also made internally for specialist intelligence-gathering equipment.

Alongside the Super-Ts the Royal Navy continued to operate other Second World War-era diesels, some of which also eventually received similar design improvements, such as the A-Class.

The Submarine Service’s main effort against the Soviets in northern waters during the late 1950s saw the Super-Ts and their crews carrying the burden and taking plenty of risks. They endured marathon deployments during which both men and submarines were pushed to the limit.

In the late 1950s, Lieutenant Commander Alfie Roake, a veteran of the Arctic convoy runs during the Second World War, was appointed captain of HMS Turpin. One deployment under Roake’s command saw Turpin’s hatch shut on Trafalgar Day 1959 and not opened again for another 39 days, the boat spending most of her time carefully husbanding water and air while evading the Soviets in Arctic waters.

Roake said he felt like ‘David against Goliath, in my small diminutive “T” boat of some 1,320 tons carrying out a tiny pin prick of an operation against a colossus. We were on our own with the nearest support and succour thousands of miles away.’

On a subsequent foray into the Russian Bear’s backyard, a Soviet submarine Turpin was recording and photographing suddenly dived right on top of her. The British boat dodged quickly out of the way. Later the sound of what may have been depth charges detonating was picked up. Roake also feared the Soviets had fired torpedoes at Turpin, issuing orders for the submarine to go deep and turn in order to comb possible tracks.

On returning to Gosport from such missions the diesels got no recognition at all – senior officers Roake reported to declined to even acknowledge where he had been or what his boat had been doing. Roake observed rather drily: ‘We flew no “Jolly Roger” listing our achievements and had no special welcoming party – we left and entered harbour like “a thief in the night” … We had no feed-back as to how we had done, and a verbal enquiry elicited a non-committal reply … Meanwhile, we were all ordered not to breathe a word about our adventures …’

The Royal Navy’s remodelled A-Class boats were in the early 1960s drawn into the Cuban Missile Crisis, British naval participation in this dangerous episode going largely unrecognized (if at all).

As Prime Minister Harold Macmillan got up in the House of Commons during those dangerous October 1962 days, to explain what Britain’s response was, there was no mention of the part played by Royal Navy submarines operating from Canada and even deploying on war patrol from Scotland.

Both HMS Astute and HMS Alderney were ordered to sea from their home base at Halifax, Nova Scotia, to join a picket line attempting to detect Soviet submarines heading south for Cuba, trailing them if possible and marking them for potential destruction.

The crews of the Halifax-based submarines were Anglo-Canadian. They received instructions from the senior Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) admiral who had ordered them on picket duty that had a decidedly chilling effect. The Canadian national government was opposed to military action to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis.

However, in the event of hostilities there would be no time for RCN submariners to be taken off the British submarines when they reverted to UK national control for combat. Therefore, in the event of war, the Canadians would stay with their shipmates. The admiral order that they must ensure they were not captured with ‘CANADA’ shoulder flashes still on their uniforms. Nor could they even be caught dead with them. They must cut the shoulder flashes off.

Meanwhile, among the boats sent out from Faslane on war patrol was HMS Auriga, which was already preparing for a tour of duty based in Halifax. Her work-up off the west coast of Scotland was interrupted by a FLASH message telling her to return home immediately and store for war. Lieutenant Rob Forsyth thought it was all very exciting. Only recently promoted, his new responsibilities included being the boat’s Assistant Torpedo Officer.

HMS Auriga in Ice

The British diesel submarine HMS Auriga noses through ice in Arctic waters in the early 1960s, while operating out of Canada. Photo: Forsyth Collection. © Rob Forsyth.

Leading Seaman John Cumberpatch, the experienced rating who really ran things, assured Forsyth everything would be fine as they offloaded dummy fish and took aboard torpedoes with warheads.

Once deployed on picket duty, Auriga made several contacts – Soviet submarines heading south at speed and soon out of range. In the end, while the British submarines pulled extended war patrols they did not find themselves involved in a hot war.

Soon Auriga was herself operating out of Halifax, conducting training missions that surely tested everybody’s nerve to breaking point. She ventured under ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence to simulate lurking Soviet submarines. In that role she was hunted by nuclear-powered US Navy attack submarines keen to hone under-ice tactics. It was a risky job.

The mere thought of a fire under the ice sends a shudder through any submariner, especially if combined with battery life seeping away as a diesel boat tries repeatedly, and fails, to smash through. Not only will you have a fire consuming all the oxygen, but also your crew will be fighting for breath as the submarine fills with noxious fumes. There is no means of escape and each time you try to break through your battery gets weaker, death that bit closer. Flood is also a desperate prospect. Should a boat spring a leak she’ll swiftly fill up with water, drowning her occupants or freezing them to death.

The pressure will squeeze more and more water into the submarine until the craft sinks like a stone.  To the forefront of everybody’s minds as Auriga slid under the ice in 1962/63 was, of course, a desire for the boat to have a polynya – an area of open water – nearby at all times. Auriga endeavoured to be no more than half an hour from one.


Polynya as viewed via the periscope of HMS Auriga, while the British diesel submarine is dived under Arctic ice in the early 1960s during the Cold War. Photo: Forsyth Collection. © Rob Forsyth.

Between the end of the 1950s and late 1960s, the Royal Navy produced the excellent Porpoise and Oberon classes of diesel boats, with the Super-Ts and the modified A-Class increasingly obsolete and phased out.  The British diesels would carry on shouldering the burden of the main undersea effort against the Soviets well into the 1960s, but it was their last period at the tip of the spear.

HMS Alliance in Dry dock

HMS Alliance – commanded by the aforementioned Rob Forsyth in 1970/71 – was not taken out of the front line fleet until 1973 (and she serves on today of course, as the star exhibit of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum).

New nuclear-powered Fleet boats (SSNs, also known as hunter-killers) would increasingly take the lead role in long-range surveillance and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) operations. The diesels would still be used for close inshore surveillance, on training task and Special Boat Service (SBS) insertions, plus patrols in waters close to the UK. They would also go into shallow Scandinavian waters and conduct barrier patrols in the crucial Greenland-Iceland-UK-gap (GIUK).

HMS Alliance in dry dock at Devonport in the early 1960s. Photo: Crown Copyright/Royal Navy.

Meanwhile, some of the future nuclear submarine captains of the 1980s found themselves serving in the diesels during the 1970s, gaining valuable experience.Once such was Doug Littlejohns whose first command in the mid-1970s was the Oberon Class submarine HMS Osiris. He took her up against interfering Soviet spy vessels in waters off Dorset and Scotland and then into the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean on surveillance missions. It all required the customary grit, endurance and derring-do of traditional diesel boat operations. Both Forsyth and Littlejohns would also command the nuclear-powered Sceptre. Another graduate of the diesels, Dan Conley (who later commanded Courageous and Valiant, both SSNs) experienced the final days of gracious colonial submarining during the early 1970s. As a junior officer in HMS Oberon, he made flag flying visits to exotic ports – including Colombo, Penang, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Manila. The primary threat was to his liver, from too many gin slings, though earlier generations of Far East submariners had in the 1960s conducted surveillance and commando insertion missions during the confrontation with Indonesia.

With the sun finally setting on the surviving outposts of empire, Oberon was the last British submarine to be deployed for operations from Singapore. Conley found Oberon to be ‘absolutely pristine, well managed and well crewed – generally a happy boat and overall very professional.’

Returning to the UK, Conley and the Submarine Service forever left behind dinners of Lobster Thermidor and cold beer in the Officers’ Club and, as he put it, ‘knuckled down to the real Cold War business after our time in the sun.’

HMS Osiris

HMS Osiris, an Oberon Class diesel submarine of the Royal Navy. Photo: BAE Systems.

The diesels would, though, twice be drawn away from their Cold War patrol areas to engage in daring hot war operations. Onyx conducted a marathon 116-day patrol to the Falklands in 1982, unsupported 8,000 miles from the UK under the command of Lieutenant Commander A.P. Johnson. Though Lt Cdr Johnson has never commented on his submarine’s mission, it is believed she landed SBS troops on various raids. Her captain drew on periscope and shallow water navigation skills he had learned during the notoriously demanding Perisher submarine command course. They did not fail him, or his crew. On her return to Gosport, every ship in Portsmouth Harbour sounded sirens and hundreds of sailors cheered the tired old Onyx home.

The last of the Royal Navy’s O-boats was retired in 1993, though there had been a final opportunity to show their worth during the 1991 Gulf War. Opossum and Otus carried out covert operations not dissimilar from their reputed activities in the Baltic against the Soviets. Their presence in either the Baltic or the Gulf during early 1991 has never been officially confirmed by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

It has been claimed that during coalition efforts to evict Iraqi occupiers from Kuwait the O-boats landed SBS reconnaissance teams on the coast to scout out enemy defences. In one incident US Navy strike jets allegedly sank an oil tanker, which began to sink on an O-boat hiding underneath while attempting to recover a Special Forces team. She swiftly withdrew.

HMS Alliance, Gibraltar

HMS Alliance at Gibraltar in the early 1970s during the time Rob Forsyth was in command. Photo: Rob Forsyth Collection.

In the early 1990s HMS Dolphin ceased to be a submarine base. The four Upholder Class diesels that had been commissioned to replace the O-boats switched to Devonport. For Britain, with its Submarine Service shrinking dramatically in post-Cold War defence spending cuts, a decision was then made to go all-nuclear. The Upholders were paid off in the mid-1990s and later sold to Canada, where they continue to serve.

Gazing back across the decades of the Cold War, and weighing up the exploits of the diesels and how they produced the men who became warrior scientists in nuclear-powered boats, it’s worth considering what was fundamental to success (and survival).

Tim Hale came up through the hard school of the diesels. He commanded several conventional boats, including Tiptoe (a Super-T), and was XO of Warspite in the late 1960s. He also commanded Swiftsure, first of a new breed of SSNs, bringing her out of the builders and into service during the early 1970s. He points out that good seamanship is absolutely essential to successful operations in any submarine, which, he rightly points out, ‘operates in three dimensions.’ Hale adds: ‘If it goes to all stop, a surface ship will probably float.  Not so in a submarine or aircraft. You have to keep the thing moving and put it on the interface of the fluids – water and air – in order to achieve stability.  The need for awareness and competence is thus paramount in order to stay alive.’
In the diesels of the Cold War it also took a certain kind of luck and courage.


Hunter Killers’ by Iain Ballantyne is available in both hardback and ebook formats (£20.00) from various retailers or direct from Orion.  The paperback edition will be published in August. The nuclear-powered boats on the cutting edge of the face-off with the Soviets feature heavily in ‘Hunter Killers’ but Rob Forsyth’s time in command of Alliance is detailed in one chapter while the exploits of several other diesels are covered across the book, from the 1950s to the early 1990s.

For more about HMS Alliance visit the RNSM web site.

Find out more about the Friends of the Royal Navy Museum and HMS Victory here.

Archive by month

Archive by year