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Research puts Submarine Service in the spotlight

Submarines at HMS Dolphin in Gosport, Hampshire, in the 1950s
24 March 2023
What is it to be a submariner – and what does it mean to the spiritual home of the Silent Service?

Those are questions answered in an impressive online repository of interviews, photographs and memories of submariners – and their families – to bring the Service past and present to life… and shed light on its impact on Gosport.

For 95 years, the Hampshire town was regarded as the home of the Submarine Service with HMS Dolphin at Fort Blockhouse its alma mater.

Even when it closed in 1999, the association with boats continued through the escape training delivered at the SETT and the landmark tower on the sea front.

It closed in 2020 when replaced by the new emergency training complex in Faslane, the 21st Century home to the UK’s submarine fleet.

That leaves just the Submarine Museum in Gosport… plus memories, which have been scooped up by the submarinersstories.uk project – a collaboration between the local council, historians from the National Museum of the Royal Navy and oral history experts Meeja.

They’ve recorded interviews with 15 people connected with the service, most of them from the local area, to preserve a vital part of Gosport history for future generations. They also collected personal and archive imagery and commissioned new portraits.

The subjects covered span all aspects of (un)classified life in the Silent Service – from the isolation and separation from families to the bond between crew, the challenge of the Perisher command course and being in charge of a nuclear submarine, and differences with the Surface Fleet, to the importance of food on board (stressed by more than one interviewee).

It’s difficult physically because the long days, it’s difficult mentally because you’re away from your families, without contact from you to them, or sometimes without contact at all, depending on where you’re operating.

Lt Ami Burns

"This is a superb local history resource which highlights HMS Dolphin's vital contribution to the defence of this country and – by training submariners from around the world – many other countries,” said Councillor Peter Chegwyn, Leader of Gosport Borough Council.

“This story is a crucial part of our borough's rich military heritage, and this project will help to make sure it is never forgotten."

Lesley Ure who worked as a waitress at HMS Sultan as a teenager and vowed never to settle down with anyone from the military… fell in love with a submariner and found herself raising two children with a partner frequently deployed for long periods.

“There are massive highs and lows,” she says of being a ‘naval wife’. “It’s like an emotional rollercoaster. I feel for me that’s made us stronger. We’re very close, we appreciate each other, we’ve never taken each other for granted.”

Her husband Midge (not that one) spent 24 years as a marine engineer on boats and recounts at length life in the Service, some naughty goings on by the crew of HMS Superb in Diego Garcia (which apparently earned the boat an ASBO…), camaraderie and receiving good and bad news via terse ‘familygrams’ (40/80 word messages sent to crews on deterrent patrols).

Lieutenant Ami Burns – who is still serving – was one of the first three female marine engineers in the Silent Service. She wondered if she and other female submariners would be accepted in a male-dominated world.

“All of those questions, and I think the anxiety was probably greater than the event because it transpires that submariners only care if you are competent at your job,” she says.

“It’s difficult physically because the long days, it’s difficult mentally because you’re away from your families, without contact from you to them, or sometimes without contact at all, depending on where you’re operating.”

Jim Perks joined the RN as a writer and ended up as head of the Submarine Service in a career spanning more than three dozen years. Gosport is intertwined with both his personal and professional lives - he got married in Alverstoke, enjoyed his wedding reception in Dolphin’s wardroom, loved his time on O-boats operating out of Blockhouse, the anxiety/excitement of completing submarine escape training and the misery of being stuck in traffic on the A32.

He left the RN on the cusp of the deal with Australia to build a new generation of hunter-killer boats (‘SSN-AUKUS’) as the Astute programme draws to a close and the replacement for nuclear deterrent submarines, the new Dreadnought class, moves into full swing.

It’s going to take another 10 to 15 years but we’re on the up, we’re on the ascendance again. So I see a bright future,” he says.

“I think submariners past and present need to help in that journey and just telling people what it is that we do and how much fun it is and what great people we are and help that journey.”

As for food, says Lt Burns, “it really is a source of morale, not only is it a source or morale, it’s how you know what time of day it is. You might wake up because of the watch patterns and go, ‘I don’t know what day it is and I don’t know what time it is’ and you think ‘OK, well there’s a curry on so it’s Wednesday teatime.’

“And people look forward to it – it’s part of the countdown for, seven fish Fridays until we get home.”

As well as the website, the recordings will be held by the Wessex Film and Sound Archive and the National Museum of the Royal Navy, while material from the project will soon be showcased on screens at the Submarine Museum.

 

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