Undersea Warfare The Official Publication of the Undersea Warfare Community.  Summer 2003 Issue.  U.S. Submarines… Because Stealth Matters Image of magazine cover
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The "Trade"  Of all branches of men in the Forces there is none which shows more devotion and faces grimmer perils than the submarines… Great deeds are done in the air and on the land, but there is no part to be compared with your exploits.  by CDR Jeffrey Tail, OBE RN Photos courtesy of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum

Reading these words, one has no doubt about Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s overwhelming
admiration for the branch of the Royal Navy that was often out of sight and therefore out of mind. Indeed in comparison to the many lines written about the German U-boats, the “great deeds” of the Royal Navy Submarine Service during World War II have barely raised a column-inch in comparison. But great deeds there were from “a band of brothers” that never constituted more than four percent of the total strength of the Royal Navy, but who, pound for pound, punched well above their weight, and who by the end of World War II had lost 38 percent of their comrades.

The reader’s imagination probably needs little stimulation to conjure up the conditions under which submariners lived and worked, but just in case, let Signalman Gus Britton of HMS Uproar set the scene in a letter home to his parents:

“We have lockers about the size of coffins… and a small table in the fore-ends. Hanging from the ceiling there are about fifteen hammocks, so if you want to move around you have to do so in a crouched position… Potatoes and cabbages are piled in one corner and, as it is as damp as Eastney beach, after six days there is the horrible smell of rotting vegetables… and on top of that there is the smell of unwashed bodies. At the moment we are doing about eighteen hours dived every day so you can guess that it is pretty thick at night. Before I go any further, don’t think that I am complaining because I really love submarines and this sort of life, and I wouldn’t swap it for anything.”

Short of oxygen and panting because of the carbon dioxide in the air, Gus goes on:

“What a blessed relief when, at night, comes the order ‘diving stations’ and about ten minutes later ‘blow one and six.’ The boat shudders as the air goes into the ballast tanks and then up she goes! I am at the bottom of the ladder and then the captain opens the hatch and up rushes all the foul air just like a fog… Beautiful, marvelous air. We are provided with top-notch waterproof gear, but the water always seems to find a weak spot to trickle into. Up on the swaying bridge, with a pair of binoculars which you try to keep dry to have a look around between deluges of water, soaked and frozen you say to yourself ‘why the **** did I join?!’ Then when you are relieved, you clamber down the ladder, discard all the wet gear and go into the fore-ends, have a cup of cocoa, turn in and, as you fall asleep, you think ‘well, it’s not such a bad life after all.’”

What Gus didn’t mention was a daily grind in which even the simplest of functions was a challenge. LT Joel Blamey DSC DSM RN, first an Engine Room Artificer then an Engineer Officer during World War II, has much to say on this subject. His first submarine was a World War I vintage H-class, which had been designed with little concern for human bodily functions:

“Much has been written about submarine ‘heads’ [toilets], always a bit of a joke – that is until you have to use one. Weird and frightening contraptions, fitted with a mass of valves, levers, non-return flaps, and pressure gauges, all contained in a tiny space where there was hardly room to move. The system was designed to allow the user to blow his waste to sea using air pressure, but one had to very careful to follow instructions to the letter in order to prevent ‘getting your own back’ and this sometimes happened even to the most seasoned of submariners, especially if one’s predecessor had not released the air pressure correctly. In the H-class, there was one head allocated for the whole of the crew. This was situated at the after end of the engine room between the two engine clutches, and the officers had one forward. If one didn’t feel seasick on arrival, the smell of oil fuel and bilge water sloshing around one’s feet was often enough to ensure a good vomit in rough weather. There was much to be said for constipation.”

But what about the food? – always a big morale factor. Submariners had one advantage over their general-service counterparts, because a kind benefactor had at some time left sufficient capital to provide submarine crews with a free issue of food after they had been at sea for longer than 24 hours. This was termed “submarine comforts” and consisted mainly of tinned food: sardines, herrings, soup, cocoa, sausages, and even bacon. So how were these “comforts” presented? Joel Blamey again:

“And what of the poor cook? Who wasn’t a cook anyway! He was usually a seaman who either volunteered, or was pushed into the job. If the engineers and electrical experts thought they had problems – and they very often had – my heart bled for the cook. Equipped with just a small electric cooker, hardly adequate for a large family, situated in a galley not even six feet square, this stout-hearted chap would have to cook at least 48 breakfasts, dinners, and suppers each day, which sometimes included up to five or even six completely different menus, often with the boat pitching and rolling heavily, and with only the company of the thousands of cockroaches that thrived in the warm inaccessible niches behind the cooker, despite the repeated efforts of
the First Lieutenant and his henchmen to exterminate them.”

“It is essential to keep the standard high – nothing can be neglected – it is not a kindness to overlook slackness or mistakes, it is really great cruelty to do so – cruelty to wives and relatives of the man you let off and his shipmates and to yourself. There is no margin for mistakes in submarines; you are either alive or dead.”Living in miserable conditions, lightened only by a sense of humor, the daily tot of rum, and a determination to win, was an experience shared by many other naval servicemen. What added to the submariners’ experience was living in constant, all-pervasive danger, with a deeply shared dependency on each other for their individual well-being and survival, from the Captain down to the lowliest Stoker. Their daily routine on patrol was governed by one overarching rule, starkly expressed by ADM Sir Max Horton DSO (with two bars), Flag Officer Submarines in 1940: “It is essential to keep the standard high – nothing can be neglected – it is not a kindness to overlook slackness or mistakes, it is really great cruelty to do so – cruelty to wives and relatives of the man you let off and his shipmates and to yourself. There is no margin for mistakes in submarines; you are either alive or dead.”

Clearly, life in a submarine offered little job satisfaction! So why did they join, and what attracted them to this dangerous “sardine can”? A clue is provided by ADM Sir George Creasy who became Flag Officer Submarines in 1944:

“Two points stand out, I think. The constant struggle of the submariner with the element on and in which he works – the sea; and the grand companionship engendered between officer and officer, officer and man, and man and man by service in submarines.”

In the Book of Common Prayer will be found a section entitled “Forms of Prayer to be Used at Sea.” The first prayer sets out in words of wonderful simplicity and magnificent prose the naval man’s petition to God for His help and protection in the performance of his duty, and in that prayer the Sailor asks to be preserved “from the dangers of the sea and the violence of the enemy.” Note the order. The “dangers of the sea” we have always with us, in war and in peace, and the submariner has them in full measure, living as he does so close to the sea when he is on the surface, and so much in the midst of the sea when he dives.

Photo caption follows
Photo caption follows
(above) The commanding officer of HMS Unseen makes a
quick periscope observation during World War II. Launched by Vickers-Armstrong in April 1942, Unseen operated largely in the Mediterranean, where the loss rate for British submarines was over 50 percent.

(left) Dating back to World War I, the British tradition of using a “Jolly Roger” to portray each submarine’s record of sinkings and other wartime deeds prefigured the use of individual
submarine battle flags in the U.S. Navy. This is the crew
of HMS Trump in South Australia in 1945.

Comradeship. Submarine operations demand a most exacting standard of teamwork. Every man in the boat has his individual job and on the correct and efficient performance of that job, the
efficiency of the boat and the safety of all will depend. Living in inevitable intimacy and dependent each on the other, the submariner acquires a deep-rooted confidence and trust in his shipmates. Truly they are, in the Shakespearean phrase that Nelson used, “a band of brothers.”

Another clue to understanding the “submarine type” is provided by CAPT W.R. Fell, a veteran of submarine operations in the Great War, a “Teacher-Captain,” and later a mentor of Charioteers (human torpedomen) and operators of X-craft (miniature submarines), when he stated,

“To serve in submarines is to become a member of the strongest, most loyal union of men that exists. During the First War and the twenty-one years of peace that followed, the Submarine Branch was an integral part of the Royal Navy, subject to its discipline and obeying its laws. But it was still a ‘private navy,’ inordinately proud of its tradition, jealous of its privileges, and, if slightly inclined to be piratical, the most enthusiastic, loyal and happy branch of the Service.”

Joel Blamey presents the “lower-deck” assessment:

“I had been in the outfit long enough by this time to appreciate these established submariners. They were mostly a hard-working, hard-swearing, and hard-drinking lot; but I soon discovered what grand people they were. They were not only tough – toughness was an essential quality in the ‘Trade’ – as the submarine service was referred to – but they were mostly men of great principle, staunch and very loyal. This became more manifest to me as the years rolled by. There were of course the exceptions, but these were few and far between. So what prompted these men to volunteer? It certainly wasn’t for comfort, or for an easy time. Extra pay was hardly an incentive, since this was barely sufficient to cover the extra expenses incurred, and if glamour or glory was expected, they were soon to be disappointed. I think that it could only be their spirit of adventure.”

For many today, an “adventure” is undertaking a trip on a mammoth cruise liner with sumptuous cuisine. For World War II submariners it was slightly different, because they knew that ultimately the machine took precedence over the man – indeed often they had cause to bless the skill of the builders:

“The submarine hull was constructed and then filled with masses of machinery, miles of pipe work, and electric cable, then the batteries were installed, and finally the weapon systems. The accommodation was then squeezed into whatever space was left over, which was very little. As submarines were fighting units, fighting efficiency must be a paramount consideration.”

But teamwork and adventure alone, no matter how good the individuals are, would not suffice. The team had to be melded, led, and trained, and these responsibilities rested on the shoulders of the Captain. As the war went on and losses grew, so the average age of commanding officers fell from about 29 to 25, with the youngest, LT J.A.R. ‘Tony’ Troup RN – later VADM Sir Tony Troup KCB DSC (with one bar) – only 22.