(above) HMSTrenchant.Photo Courtesy of Royal Navy.
“Did Christopher Wreford-Brown postpone the sinking of Belgrano to conduct a meeting?”
This was one of the many questions thrown at me by Cmdr. Phil Titterton, OBE*, Royal Navy (RN) during the first four months of 2008. This one was unwelcome as it meant I was currently ‘adrift,’ that is, not where I, as the attack coordinator (AC), or my fellow student who was the duty captain (DC), were supposed to be while aboard HMS Trenchant at this exact time. We should have been in control supervising the hunt for the enemy submarine that we were tasked with finding and sinking.
I was on the final portion of my participation in the Royal Navy’s Submarine Command Course 108 (SMCC 108), also known as the Perisher. Cmdr. Titterton (now Capt.) was Teacher, the course’s instructor and evaluator. One week earlier my course mates and I had stepped aboard HMS Trenchant (S91), were briefed on the submarine’s material state, and the first of us ‘relieved’ Cmdr. Kevin Gomm as captain of the ship. For the next four weeks, we rotated through the positions of DC, AC (effectively acting as the executive officer—XO), and duty navigator (DN) until we either passed the course on 4 May or were unexpectedly sent off the ship earlier with a bottle of whisky. We were tasked to take HMS Trenchant through some of the most challenging operations she would undertake short of war in order to prove we were capable of commanding a submarine in a stressful environment. For my four RN counterparts it was a necessary step to advance their submarine careers any further; for me it was a remarkable opportunity to participate in one of the world’s most distinguished military courses.
The Royal Navy has been running Perisher to train its future submarine commanding officers for nearly 90 years. They have also trained the potential commanding officers of a number of other submarine nations. Until about 14 years ago Perisher took place on a diesel submarine (SSK), since then, the RN has become an an all-nuclear submarine force and the Dutch and Norwegians have assumed the role of training commanding officers from nations who operate SSKs. (My course ran parallel to this year’s Dutch course, and we saw, and heard, a fair amount of each other.) The U.S. first sent a student to Perisher in 2002, and a continuing exchange was established between the U.S. and UK submarine command courses. I was the 14th U.S. Perisher student.
I was lucky. I had asked the detailer about Perisher opportunities early in my post-department head shore tour. One year later an opportunity arose, and the timing for my relief worked. I had been interested in Perisher ever since I first learned about it, and I didn’t have to think very long about whether or not to go. I have no particularly different background than any other U.S. submariner of my level, nor am I different than any of the other U.S. submariners who have passed Perisher. I served my junior officer tour aboard USS Santa Fe (SSN-763) out of Pearl Harbor, making two deployments to the Western Pacific and Arabian Gulf, followed by six patrols as Navigator for USS Pennsylvania (SSBN-735)(BLUE). I was working as an action officer in the Submarine Warfare Division (OPNAV N87) when I was offered to go to Perisher.
Orders were produced and I started a journey that would last nearly seven months. It would take nearly all of my energy, skill, and willpower to get through, but also take me to new places, introduce me to new people, expose me to new methods, and greatly broaden my submarining horizons. I would gladly do it again and wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone given the opportunity.
I started in Groton, Conn., refreshing some dormant periscope skills with the in-session U.S. Submarine Command Course (SCC) prior to going over to the UK, the first U.S. Perisher student to do this with the intent of making it standard practice. I parted ways with SCC 14 when they left for the at-sea portion of their course, boarded a plane to London followed by a train to Plymouth, England, site of Her Majesty’s Naval Base (HMNB) Devonport and where I would spend the majority of my next four months. I undertook a RN submarine familiarization program, standard for U.S. students, spending three weeks ashore receiving quick tutorials in RN navigation, casualty procedures, and weapons. I spent some time in Talisman, the ashore command team trainer in Devonport, learning to conduct periscope observations (called set-ups) using RN litany and working through some of their ‘eyes only’ scenarios. My indoctrination also included two weeks underway on Trenchant, which was especially helpful, as I was able to spend a lot of time in the control room with no responsibilities simply immersing myself in the orders, information, and visual displays in order to better acclimate. I drove the ship on the surface and to periscope depth, which helped me learn the conning orders I would later need as part of the course. I also became familiar with the Trenchant’s crew, most of who would still be there in April when I returned as a Perisher student.
I was glad to have this time, because there were certainly lots of small differences. None were particularly hard, but I was amazed at how intrinsic my U.S. training truly was and how difficult it could be to get the right words out in a stressful scenario. RN helm orders are given “Port 15” vice the U.S. order of “Left 15 degrees rudder.” This sounds short and sweet until you learn that RN angles on the bow (the aspect of another vessel relative to your ship, usually estimated by the person looking out of the periscope) are called “15 Port” vice the U.S. version of “Port one-five.” (I turned the shore-based trainer a number of times while calling angles on the bow until this nuance was hammered home.) Want to change the submarine’s depth? Then try “10 down keep 60 meters” vice the US “make your depth 180 feet.” If you need to send out a “message”, draft a “signal.” Ask the “sound room” about the new sonar trace, not “sonar.” You can put extra bunks in the “bomb shop” vice the “torpedo room.” The RN “fires” torpedoes whereas the USN “shoots” them. The RN “stands by” to do something where the U.S. Navy (USN) “prepares.”
During the at-sea phase of the course, this manifested itself in a game between Teacher, his relief (Cmdr. Jim Perks, who spent a lot of time with our course), and Trenchant’s CO called “Yank bingo.” I wasn’t privy to all of the rules, but whenever I said something that was obviously U.S. terminology, I would hear a “bingo” in the background from one of those three. I wasn’t the only one feeling my way forward though, as I learned Trenchant’s crew spent some time getting ready for me by watching movies such as “The Hunt for Red October” and “Crimson Tide” to better understand ‘yank’ submarine-speak.
SMCC 108 started at 0845 on January 7, 2008 in the wardroom of HMS Neptune. (HMS Neptune is the name of the shore establishment at HMNB Devonport.) I was in the course with four RN candidates: Lt. Cmdr. Dan Knight, Lt. Craig Ballantyne, Lt. Dave Whitehouse, and Lt. Nick Samuels, all of whom had recently served as watch leaders aboard RN submarines and had about the same time as an officer under their belts as I did. (They spent more of it at sea, however.) We were met promptly by the course’s leading writer (similar to a yeoman) and a film crew from SKY News to escort us to begin our training. The film crew filmed our course for several short segments that aired in June on their news broadcast. We had known we were going to be filmed, but seeing the cameras and doing interviews only added to our first day jitters. We finished up the day with a rules of the road test, some introductory lectures and tips, and the class photo.
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