by Lt. Cmdr. Rich Massie, USN
SSK Command in the RNLN Submarine Command Course
In 1917, the Royal Navy (RN) established a formal submarine commander’s qualifying course in response to unacceptable British submarine losses in WWI. Informally known as “Perisher” because of its high attrition rate, the RN Submarine Command Course (SMCC) was credited with reducing United Kingdom submarine losses in WWII. After WWII, the Royal Navy began training command candidates from allied navies, including the Royal Netherlands Navy. When the Royal Navy shifted to a fully nuclear-powered submarine force in the 1990s, the demand from allies for a challenging diesel-electric (SSK) command-qualifying course remained. In 1995, the Royal Netherlands Navy (RNLN) began its SSK Submarine Command Course to meet this demand, conducting it once annually in parallel with the spring Royal Navy Course. Since its inception, the RNLN Perisher Course has trained foreign officers from Australia, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Israel, Korea, Singapore, South Africa, and the United States.
“DCO, Sonar, active transmissions from inside the harbor! The dipper is still active to the south!” calls the Lead Sonar Operator.
The Duty Captain responds, “Roger, all-round look coming down on point TWR.”
“TWR should bear 320,” replies the Tactical Plot operator.
“Raise attack!” The attack scope rockets up until the Duty Captain (DCO) grabs the handles, stopping the scope’s ascent just below the water line. With the adjustment switch on the periscope, he nudges the scope optics to just centimeters above the glassy water. At less than two knots, the scope wake leaves only a slight ripple. Taking a steady 25-second, 360-degree low-power sweep, he sees the faint shadow of the rugged coast less than two miles away. He also sights a small southbound merchant vessel passing 1,500 yards to the east. Struggling to make out the navigational aid, he finally identifies the microwave tower rising above the coastal fog. Bearing, that! Down scope!”
The navigation plotter responds immediately, “322. Fix on, safe. Hold you 1,500 yards from the first sensor drop. SOA required is four knots.”
The DCO pauses to brief the attack team quickly, “Due to poor visibility along coast, the enemy warship in the harbor, and high SOA required, intend to lay the three sensors deep. I will turn parallel to land after crossing the 50-meter contour and proceed to lay the sensors in front of the harbor via estimated position.”
“Helm, 10 degrees down, keep 26 meters. Propulsion, set revolutions for four knots.”
Standing watch in the COMSUBGRU SEVEN Command Center in Yokosuka, Japan in December, I could not have imagined myself in June conducting littoral operations as the Duty Captain of a Dutch SSK. Permanently assigned to Fleet ASW Command (FLTASWCOM) in San Diego, Calif., I was visiting CSG-7 to participate in an ASW command exercise. As I paused one morning to check my unclassified inbox, an email from my detailer with the subject line “OPPORTUNITY” caught my eye. After conferring with my wife via telephone and receiving some on-the-spot encouragement from CSG-7, Rear Adm. David Gove, I accepted this late-notice opportunity to attend the Royal Netherlands Navy Submarine Command Course.
“There’s a legendary reputation to overcome from the outset,” stated Lt. Cmdr. Todd Cloutier, the first U.S. officer to complete the Netherlands Submarine Command Course successfully, in his 2003 UNDERSEA WARFARE Magazine article. I too, was apprehensive about attending the course, especially on such short notice with so little time to prepare. A few short weeks after being offered the opportunity, I departed on a six-month journey that would open my eyes to the world of diesel-electric submarines and teach me to challenge and respect my own limits in the most difficult submarining I have yet experienced.
I arrived at HMAS Stirling, the RAN submarine base near Perth, Australia, for three weeks of pre-Perisher training under the tutelage of Lt. Cmdr. Phillip Stanford, Royal Australian Navy (RAN). Lt. Cmdr. Stanford is a 2004 graduate of the Netherlands Perisher Course. He became CO of HMAS Dechaineux, the fourth Collins-class SSK, shortly after teaching the pre-Perisher course. Phil was extremely patient in teaching me the correct way to deliver helm orders and communicate in the “Queen’s English.” He spent hours each day in the Collins-class attack trainer, instructing me in eyes-only attacking – a skill that would be necessary for the successful completion of the Safety Phase in the Netherlands.
During the second and third week at HMAS Stirling, I was joined by Australia’s candidate for the 2005 Perisher Course. When we weren’t conducting eyes-only exercises, we picked Lt. Cmdr. Stanford’s brain in order to gain the most from his experience. Having also participated in the U.S. Submarine Command Course, Lt. Cmdr. Stanford was able to prepare us for the differences between USN, RAN, and Royal Netherlands Navy submarine operations. While three weeks certainly didn’t allow me to master any of the skills that Lt. Cmdr. Stanford introduced, I did gain a healthy appreciation of what to expect during the coming months in the Netherlands.
I arrived in the Netherlands in early February and immediately got underway for a Walrus-class familiarization cruise onboard HNLMS Dolfijn. During the weeklong voyage from the RNLN base in Den Helder to Trondheim, Norway, I became acquainted with general operational procedures onboard the Walrus-class and with my new course mates. The 2005 Netherlands Perisher Course was widely regarded as the most international ever conducted by the RNLN. It included students from Australia, Israel, the Netherlands, Singapore and the U.S. In addition, we were joined by a post-CO observer from India who participated as if he were a full-fledged student. Another post-CO observer from Germany also joined us periodically throughout the course.
Stepping onboard a Dutch SSK for the first time, I immediately noticed some differences – most notably, the more liberal regulations for hair length and ear and facial jewelry. However, I soon realized that Dutch submariners are not all that different than their counterparts in the USN. On the three Dutch boats we rode, the sailors were extremely knowledgeable, motivated, and professional, especially considering that they were operating in a foreign language (English).
Upon our arrival back on base in Den Helder, we met “Teacher,” Cmdr. Marc Elsensohn, who was beginning his third and final year as the instructor of the SMCC. His previous assignments included Commanding Officer of a Walrus-class submarine, XO of an M-class frigate, and an exchange tour in the United Kingdom evaluating the tactical readiness of submarines. After a day of having the students brief each other on our respective submarine forces, we departed for the United Kingdom to visit the NATO Submarine Headquarters and to meet the Royal Navy Perisher-class. Interaction with the RN Perisher-class at multiple stages throughout the course, both at sea and ashore, would prove both educational and enjoyable.