Five days aboard one of Britain's silent warriors, the submarine HMS Talent

Discussion in 'Americas' started by RAM, Oct 13, 2010.

  1. RAM

    RAM The southern Man Senior Member

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    How long could you go without daylight, family contact, or any precise idea of where you are? A submariner on HMS Talent can do it for three months. Andrew Preston survived five days - and surfaced with a new respect for our silent service




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    The only way into the 2ft-wide bunk is to commando-crawl headfirst into the darkness. To one side lies a Tomahawk land attack cruise missile. To the other is a no less menacing Spearfish heavyweight torpedo.


    There’s no way of knowing whether it’s night or day, or where, or how deep underwater you are. The only way to distinguish the days of the week is by remembering what you have eaten. Saturday is steak night; if it was a roast lunch then pizza in the evening it’s Sunday. Curry means it’s Wednesday.


    Nine inches above my nose is a steel rack, which holds in place four more 20ft-long missiles ready for loading, while just a few feet below me, beneath the submarine’s pressure hull and steel outer casing, is the Red Sea.


    This is the weapons stowage compartment, or ‘bomb shop’, where I am trying to sleep alongside £20m-worth of live weapons. They do at least provide comfort from the heat – my left leg is slumped over the aluminium capsule of the Tomahawk while my right arm hugs the cool torpedo. All I can see, looking back past my feet, is a round steel door surrounded by illuminated dials and marked ‘Torpedo Tube 2’. It’s one of five loaded and ready.


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    Sonar operators track ships and submarines in the sound room; they can tell just by the sound the class of vessel, and can sometimes even identify a particular ship




    [​IMG]The weapons stowage compartment, where the Tomahawk cruise missiles and Spearfish heavyweight torpedoes are kept




    The only sounds are the whirring of the ventilation and snoring from young trainees who have just come off shift at 1am. The air smells surprisingly fresh, although there are hints of oil, wet towels and stale feet. Water is at a premium, and only the chefs and some crew from the engine room are allowed a shower every day. There’s also only one washing machine and tumble dryer. The ‘bomb shop’ is an overflow sleeping space. Most of the 125-man crew live crammed into three-tier bunk spaces, their only privacy a tiny green curtain they can pull across. Many of the junior submariners still ‘hot bunk’ too, sharing with someone on an opposite shift.

    The bunks are so cramped that submariners talk of ‘coffin dreams’. The most common are that the beds above are collapsing and set to crush you, or that you have been buried alive as you turn expecting to open the curtain and instead your hand hits steel. But working six hours on and six hours off, you soon learn to try to catch any moments of sleep whenever you can. At 3.20am, there are three short, loud blasts of the ship’s siren. ‘Harbour Stations. Harbour Stations’ blares out. Within minutes the whole crew are up and alert. We are about to enter the Suez Canal.



    ‘She carries some of the most advanced weapons, and is also one of the quietest submarines in the world,’ says Simon Asquith, the commanding officer on Talent.
    Just as a ‘bomber’ submarine carrying our Trident nuclear deterrent is at sea every day of the year, and has been since 1968, so too the Royal Navy now always has a hunter-killer submarine such as HMS Talent ‘east of Suez’. They are reticent about exactly where they go, but look on a map and you’ll see Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Iran and Afghanistan.


    ‘It’s great PR for surface ships if they have a success while doing counter-piracy, or if they board a boat and carry out a big drugs bust,’ says Cdr Asquith. ‘But lots of these operations have a submarine input and that’s never discussed, and rightly so.
    ‘They call us the silent service, but the danger of that is that we become the
    forgotten service, as very little of what we do can be reported. Even my wife has no idea what we’re doing 90 per cent of the time.’

    With the Strategic Defence Review imminent, the Navy is concerned that it will take hits. It seems a decision over a replacement for Trident will be fudged, while some hunter-killer subs may be retired early or not have their lives extended, as replacements from the new Astute class, at £1 billion each, start to come on line.
    Fast attack boats have been seen as a danger to navies since the suicide attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden in Yemen. But Cdr Asquith soon relaxes – it turns out to be an Egyptian army boat. HMS Talent is leading a convoy northwards up the Suez Canal. Stretching out behind us is a long line of enormous container vessels and tankers, each separated from the one behind and in front by half a mile of clear water. It’s slow progress and will take us more than 12 hours from one end of the canal to the other. Dotted every couple of hundred yards on both banks, facing away from us, are what look like toy soldiers. Each carries a rifle across his chest, standing alone on top of a sand dune in what will soon be ferocious 40-degree-plus heat. Occasionally one dares turn to sneak a glance at the menacing black whale-like shape slowly gliding up the canal behind them
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    Monitoring the submarine's systems at Ship Control and the Planesman steering the submarine and keeping depth using the wheel
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    Overflow sleeping quarters between torpedoes in the bomb shop; most of the 125-man crew live crammed into three-tier bunk spaces


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    The 29-bulkhead watertight door, which shuts off the forward escape compartment



    Considering the tiny galley, the lack of storage space and a budget of only £2.28 per person per day, the three substantial meals a day are impressive. Fresh fruit and veg and milk are a rarity, though. The junior ratings mess, senior ratings mess and wardroom all have the same food and, according to Cdr Asquith, the crew ‘choose not to drink’, although they make up for that on their boisterous trips on shore.

    There are limited opportunities to exercise: there are a few dumbbells, a bike tucked away among the sonar computer equipment, and one rowing machine at the aft end, the back half of the sub, which holds the turbine-generators, main engines and nuclear reactor. To get there is a trek in itself. You walk through thick steel airlock doors at either end of a tunnel over the reactor (look through a porthole in the floor and you see the wheelie-bin-sized core). Then go past the manoeuvring room, lined with reactor control panels and dials, and down a deck where the crew are doing a ‘Row The Suez’ challenge in aid of a children’s hospice.


    Temperatures hit 45°C, so rowing just one mile while jammed between rows of grey cabinets in the switchboard room (basically an electricity substation), and knowing you’re just ten feet from a nuclear reactor is both exhausting and unnerving.
    Otherwise they relax watching recorded TV series (Californication and The Inbetweeners are favourites on this deployment) and films, or just read. Other boats have had an aquarium and a pet python, while the crew of a ‘bomber’ submarine built a crazy golf course.

    But on this deployment there’s been little time for leisure. As the threat of submarines grows so does the importance of anti-submarine warfare, and Talent has engaged in exercises and manoeuvres with US aircraft, Type 23 Frigate HMS Northumberland, and a Los Angeles Class submarine, USS Alexandria, and also, for the first time in recent years, with an Indian Navy submarine. This was on top of their covert work, keeping the boat running, and constant training and practice against fire and flood. On Saturday night they switch off the nuclear reactor, hoping to restart it after ten minutes.

    ‘Think of it as like a jumbo jet switching off its engines and then starting them again,’ says the deadpan XO (Executive Officer) Ian Surgey. ‘With a bit of luck we won’t sink to the bottom… anyone fancy a hot chocolate?’ Banter fills a lot of the time, much of it about the surface navy fleet, which they semi-jokingly call ‘skimmers’ or ‘targets’. While it is a source of great pride that all submariners know how their boat works so they can react in any emergency, and they all do multiple jobs (the wardroom steward, for example, does a 90-minute stint driving the boat), they like to suggest that their surface colleagues are less well informed.


    ‘They get up, go to the gym, train and do a write-up and get a cracking tan then finish by 4pm, and can phone or email home any time they like,’ says Leading Seaman Hackett.Differences became clear when some of the crews swapped for a day with HMS Northumberland.

    ‘Their Captain has a day cabin, an evening cabin and a three-piece suite,’ says Cdr Asquith. ‘The captain on aircraft carrier Invincible even has a Range Rover on board for him to drive away on. I’m lucky if there’s a Daihatsu hire car waiting for me when I get to port. I do have a space back at Devonport, though, where I park my Ford Ka, to the embarrassment of some of my crew.’


    here’s little luxury for the commanding officer on Talent. He and the XO have napkins in silver rings laid out for them, and he also has his own cabin, but it’s tiny, with a sofabed, a desk and a wash basin. For a shower or the lavatory he has to walk down a deck and share the two loos and one shower with the other 17 officers.
    If they don’t exactly see themselves as an elite, submariners do recognise they’re different.


    ‘My wife and I were introduced to Prince Philip at a drinks party,’ says Cdr Asquith. ‘I told him I was just back from six months in the Middle East, most of it spent underwater. He looked at me and said “You’re mad.” He turned to my wife and said “He’s mad.” Then he just walked on.’

    Once out of the canal, the sub comes into its own when it dives. Unlike in the films, this is a slow process. First the back goes down at a steep angle as the aft ballast tanks are opened. The front follows as the forward tanks are allowed to flood and the boat drives down. This is all managed from the control room. While Sean Connery in The Hunt For Red October had space to stride around, here the commanding officer sits on a tatty chair jammed in by the ladder to the conning tower.


    When underwater the boat is driven using a wheel that allows you to steer and change depth. It feels responsive turning to port and starboard but to dive or rise you have to pull and push surprisingly firmly. As you get faster, the controls get twitchier.


    ‘A nuclear reactor, 125 crew, and half a billion pounds worth of boat… no pressure then,’ says the XO as I have a go 300ft down in the Mediterranean.


    The other cliché that’s absent is the pinging. The submarine uses passive sonar, so it listens rather than transmitting sound and waiting for it to bounce back. While at periscope depth, the search and attack periscopes can see as far as the horizon, but once dived the sonar operators become the eyes and ears of the boat. They can tell just by sound the class of vessel, and sometimes even narrow it down to a particular named shi

    ‘Each vessel has its own signature,’ says Chief Operator Golby. ‘For example, merchant vessels have one shaft, warships have two, and each will have its flaws, which you come to recognise.’ When I listen I can hear a merchant vessel 50 miles away, as well as a lot of ‘bio’ – dolphins and shrimps.

    ‘It was a good feeling to hide from Northumberland and send a green grenade at their bridge to simulate a torpedo, but to go up against an American sub in an exercise and win is even sweeter,’ admits Leading Seaman Hackett.
    On returning to the surface after a dive, going up the conning tower is a true assault on the senses – the sunlight burns your eyes, but it’s the pungent smell of salty seawater and fish that really hits you.

    ‘Quite often the first one up will throw up,’ warns Lt Richard Holland, smiling, as he sends me up the three metal-runged ladders that lead to the bridge.
    Once used to the light and the rolling of the boat, it’s a relief to be in the open air. ‘Yes, it can be beautiful, but less so in a force seven off Stornoway or in the Irish Sea,’ says Lt Holland.


    The crew can send and receive a limited number of emails when near to the surface, when they also get a news summary and the football scores, but once back home they will still have plenty to catch up with. HMS Talent set sail under a Labour government but returned to a coalition, and they are keen to know how this is going. Their knowledge of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is sketchy, and they also ask about the long-finished World Cup
    ‘I left with my children in one school year and will come back with them in another, having missed various birthdays and the whole of the summer holidays,’ says Cdr Asquith. ‘It’s very difficult for families – they really are the unsung heroes.’


    While on deployment, the crew (average age 25) become a surrogate family, looking out for each other. Six more trainees qualify while we are on board. As they queue to get into the junior mess the new submariners can read Cdr Asquith’s message to the crew on the noticeboard. British hunter-killer submarines have fired in anger in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan.



    It says: ‘We must always be ready to conduct operations and know that, in time of war, this will require us to inflict extreme violence on the enemy. It is in the darkest moments that resilience and a sense of humour are most needed.’ In that his crew will certainly not let him down.


    Read more: HMS Talent: Five days aboard one of Britain's silent warriors | Mail Online

















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  3. Rebelkid

    Rebelkid Regular Member

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    Submariners are really true heroes, especially the sailors in nuclear submarines.. I have read lot about them and have an absolute respect for them ..

    Especially for those German U-Boat Sailors who went to man the submarine without proper training during late 1944-45 at teenage years
     
    Last edited: Oct 13, 2010

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