Royal Navy Submarine Service

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Royal Navy Submarine Service
CountryUnited Kingdom
AllegianceQueen Elizabeth II
BranchRoyal Navy
Motto(s)"We Come Unseen"
Equipment7 SSNs & 4 SSBNs
WebsiteRN Submarine Service
Commodore-in-ChiefHRH The Duke of Cambridge
White Ensign
(1801 – present)
Naval Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg
Naval Jack
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg
Dolphin Badge
Royal Navy Dolphins.jpg

The Royal Navy Submarine Service is the submarine element of the Royal Navy. It is sometimes known as the Silent Service, as the submarines are generally required to operate undetected.[1]

The service operates seven fleet submarines (SSNs), of the Trafalgar and Astute classes (with four currently planned or under construction), and four ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), of the Vanguard class. All of these submarines are nuclear powered.

Since 1993 the post of Flag Officer Submarines has been dual-hatted with the post of Commander Operations.

The service was for many years located at HMS Dolphin in Hampshire.[2] It moved from Dolphin to the Northwood Headquarters in 1978.[3] The Submarine School is now at HMS Raleigh at Torpoint in Cornwall.


HMS Holland 1, the first submarine to be commissioned by the Royal Navy. She can be seen at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, Gosport.

In 1900 the Royal Navy ordered five submarines from Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering of Barrow-in-Furness, designed by Electric Boat Company. The following year the first submarine, Holland 1, was launched, and the navy recruited six officers for the Submarine Service, under Reginald Bacon as Inspecting Captain of Submarines. At the beginning of World War I it consisted of 168 officers, 1250 ratings, and 62 submarines.[4] During the war it was awarded five of the Royal Navy's 14 Victoria Crosses of the war, the first to Lieutenant Norman Holbrook, Commanding Officer of B11.

On 30 August 1939 Rear Admiral Submarines, Rear Admiral Bertram Watson, moved his headquarters from Gosport to Aberdour, Scotland, though the administrative staff remained at Gosport. The RN started the Second World War with 60 submarines.[5] On 31 August 1939 the Second Submarine Flotilla at Dundee (Forth and ten submarines) and the Sixth Submarine Flotilla at Blyth (Titania and six submarines) were part of the Home Fleet. The submarines Clyde and Severn, part of the Seventh Submarine Flotilla, were at Freetown under the orders of the Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic. Ten submarines were in the Mediterranean along with the depot ship Maidstone (First Submarine Flotilla); and the submarine depot ship Medway and the Fourth Submarine Flotilla were under the Commander-in-Chief, China, split between Singapore and Hong Kong.[6] Roskill writes that the effective naval strength of the British Empire on the outbreak of war included 38 submarines.

During the war the major operating arenas were the Norwegian waters; the Mediterranean where a flotilla of submarines fought a successful battle against the Axis replenishment route to North Africa; and the Far East where Royal Navy submarines disrupted Japanese shipping operating in the Malacca Straits.[7]

In January 1940, Vice-Admiral Max Horton was made Rear Admiral Submarines. Horton's biographer, Rear Admiral William S. Chalmers, cites the opinion that a new regulation, which required the post holder to be an officer who had served aboard submarines in the Great War, was forced through for the sole purpose of ensuring that Horton was on a very short list of qualifiers for this post, almost ensuring his rapid transfer to Aberdour, so great was the desire of some within the Admiralty to have Horton revitalize the submarine arm.[8]

In the Mediterranean (during the Siege of Malta), British U-class submarines began operations against Italy as early as January 1941. Larger submarines began operations in 1940, but after 50% losses per mission, they were withdrawn. U-class submarines operated from the Manoel Island Base known as HMS Talbot. Unfortunately no bomb-proof pens were available as the building project had been scrapped before the war, owing to cost-cutting policies. The new force was named the Tenth Submarine Flotilla and was placed under Flag Officer Submarines, Admiral Max Horton, who appointed Commander George Simpson to command the unit.[9] Administratively, the Tenth Flotilla operated under the First Submarine Flotilla at Alexandria, itself under the admiral commanding in the Mediterranean, Andrew Cunningham. In reality, Cunningham gave Simpson and his unit a free hand. Until U-class vessels could be made available in numbers, British T-class submarines were used. They had successes, but suffered heavy losses when they began operations on 20 September 1940. Owing to the shortage of torpedoes, enemy ships could not be attacked unless the target in question was a warship, tanker or other "significant vessel".[10][11] The flotilla's performance of the fleet was mixed at first. They sank 37,000 long tons (38,000 t) of Italian shipping; half by one vessel, the submarine Truant. It accounted for one Italian submarine, nine merchant vessels and one Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB). The loss of nine submarines and their trained crews and commanders was serious. Most of the losses were to mines.[12] On 14 January 1941, U-class submarines arrived, and the submarine offensive began in earnest.[13]

One of the most famous Mediterranean submarines was Upholder, commanded for its entire career by Lieutenant-Commander Malcolm Wanklyn. He received the Victoria Cross for attacking a well-defended convoy on 25 May 1941 and sinking an Italian liner, the Conte Rosso. In her 16 month operational career in the Mediterranean, before she was sunk in April 1942, Upholder carried out 24 patrols and sank around 119,000 tons of Axis ships – 3 U-boats, a destroyer, 15 transport ships with possibly a cruiser and another destroyer also sunk.

On 8 September 1944, C-in-C Mediterranean ordered that the submarine base at La Maddalena be closed, and that Tenth Flotilla be disestablished and the submarines be incorporated into the First Submarine Flotilla at Malta.[14]

Cold War

The submarine force was cut back after the end of the war. The first British nuclear-powered submarine, Dreadnought was launched in 1960, based around a U.S.-built nuclear reactor. This was complemented by the Valiant class from 1966, which used a new British-built Rolls-Royce PWR1 reactor. The UK's strategic nuclear deterrent was transferred to the Royal Navy from the Royal Air Force at midnight on 30 June 1968, ie 1 July. The Resolution class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) were introduced to carry out this role under the Polaris programme from 1968. These carried US-built UGM-27 Polaris A-3 missiles and were later replaced by the Vanguard class submarines and the Trident missile system from 1994.

In 1978 the Flag Officer Submarines who was also COMSUBEASTLANT, part of Allied Command Atlantic, moved from HMS Dolphin at Gosport to the Northwood Headquarters.[15]

HMS Conqueror made history in 1982 during the Falklands War when she became the first nuclear-powered submarine to sink a surface ship, the General Belgrano.

At the end of the Cold War in 1989 the Flag Officer Submarines, a Rear Admiral, who double-hatted as NATO Commander Submarine Force Eastern Atlantic (COMSUBEASTLANT), commanded a fleet of 30 submarine, which were grouped into four squadrons (First, Second, Third, and Tenth (SSBN)) at three bases.

Post Cold War

In May 1991 Oberon-class submarines Opossum and her sister Otus returned to the submarine base HMS Dolphin in Gosport from patrol in the Persian Gulf flying Jolly Rogers, the only indication that they had been involved in alleged SAS and SBS reconnaissance operations.[16]

In 1999 Splendid participated in the Kosovo Conflict and became the first Royal Navy submarine to fire a Tomahawk cruise missile in anger.[17]

During Operation Veritas, the attack on Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces following the September 11 attacks in the United States,Trafalgar was the first Royal Navy submarine to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles against targets in Afghanistan.[18] Triumph was also involved in the initial strikes.[19] Turbulent launched fourteen Tomahawks during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.[20]

In 2011, HMS Triumph and Turbulent participated in Operation Ellamy. They launched Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets in Libya, firing the first shots of the operation.[21]

In April 2016, The Sunday Times reported that Royal Navy submarines were to resume under-ice operations in the Arctic.[22] Such operations have not taken place since 2007 after a fatal explosion on board Tireless. The crews of all seven active Royal Navy attack submarines will receive training on how to navigate below and "punch through" ice floes.[22]

The Jolly Roger and the Submarine Service

Rear-Admiral Arthur Wilson VC, the Controller of the Royal Navy, has gone down in history as the officer who claimed in 1901 "[Submarines are] underhand, unfair, and damned un-English. ... treat all submarines as pirates in wartime ... and hang all crews,"[23] In actual fact he had advocated the purchase of submarines the year before, and he was actually expressing a desire to continue the policy of discouraging foreign powers from building submarines while the Royal Navy developed its own in secret.[24] The legend goes that in response to these top secret remarks of Wilson's made 13 years earlier Lieutenant-Commander (later Admiral Sir) Max Horton first flew the Jolly Roger on return to port after sinking the German cruiser Hela and the destroyer S-116 in 1914 while in command of the E-class submarine E9.[25]

In World War II it became common practice for the submarines of the Royal Navy to fly the Jolly Roger on completion of a successful combat mission where some action had taken place, but as an indicator of bravado and stealth rather than of lawlessness. For example in 1982 returning from the Falklands conflict Conqueror flew the Jolly Roger depicting one dagger for the SBS deployment to South Georgia and one torpedo for her sinking of the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano. The Jolly Roger is now the emblem of the Royal Navy Submarine Service.[26]


The "Dolphins" badge, issued to all British submariners on completion of training. It is worn on the upper left breast, just above any medal ribbons.

'Perisher' (as the Submarine Command Course is better known) is a 24-week course all officers must take prior to serving as an Executive Officer on board a Royal Navy submarine. It has been run twice a year since 1917, usually starting on 2 July and 14 November each year. It is widely regarded as one of the toughest command courses in the world, with a historical failure rate of 25%.[27]

If at any point during the training a candidate is withdrawn from training he will be nominated for boat transfer and kept occupied until the transfer. His bag is packed for him and he is notified of the failure when the boat arrives. On departure he is presented with a bottle of whisky. A failure on Perisher means that the unsuccessful candidate is not permitted to return to sea as a member of the Submarine Service (although they are still allowed to wear the dolphin badge). He is, however, permitted to remain in the Royal Navy, moving into the surface fleet.

In more recent years, the United States Navy has sent some of its own submariner officers to undergo the 'Perisher', in order to foster and maintain closer links with the Royal Navy.

In 1995 the Royal Netherlands Navy took over the Perisher course for diesel-electric submarines, since the Royal Navy no longer operates boats of that type. The course is attended by candidate submarine commanders from navies around the world.[28]


The Submarine Service has many traditions that are not found in the surface fleet. These include slang unique to submariners (such as referring to the torpedo storage compartment as the Bomb Shop and the diesel engine room as the Donk Shop[29]), a special communications code known as the Dolphin Code and the entitlement of a sailor to wear Dolphins upon entering the service. These are only awarded after completion of training and qualification in ships' systems during the first submarine posting (Part III training).

Problems with alcohol use while on shore leave were highlighted in the inquest following the murder on board Astute in April 2011. In February 2013 there had been over 300 disciplinary incidents in the previous three years on the RN's 13 submarines, of which 42 were substance abuse-related.[30]

Active submarines

The decline in attack submarine numbers since 1970 and the concentration on nuclear-powered vessels.

The Submarine Service consists of two classes of Fleet submarines and one class of Ballistic Missile submarines.

Fleet submarines

HMS Astute, a nuclear-powered fleet submarine.

There are six fleet submarines on active duty - three Trafalgar and three Astute. They are all nuclear submarines and are classified as SSNs.[31]

These submarines are armed with the Spearfish torpedo for anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare. They have the ability to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles for attacking targets on land. This capability was used by Trafalgar against the Taliban in 2001 during Operation Veritas. The Fleet submarines are also capable of surveillance and reconnaissance missions.[32] Fleet submarines are sometimes referred to as attack or hunter-killer vessels.

Name Class Pennant Number Launched
Trenchant Trafalgar S91 1986
Talent Trafalgar S92 1988
Triumph Trafalgar S93 1991
Astute Astute S119 2007
Ambush Astute S120 2011
Artful Astute S121 2014

Ballistic submarines

The four ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) of the Royal Navy are all of the Vanguard class. They were all built by Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd., now BAE Systems Submarine Solutions. The SSBN flotilla or bomber 'fleet' tends to be almost a separate entity; for example, it rarely uses pennant numbers preferring to use hull numbers, thus Vanguard 05, Victorious 06, Vigilant 07 and Vengeance 08.

The four Vanguard class boats are responsible for the United Kingdom's nuclear deterrent, and use the Trident missile system. Each boat can carry up to 16 Trident II D5 Missiles, each of which may carry up to 12 nuclear warheads. As of 2015, it is UK Government policy to limit the actual number of warheads carried to 40 per boat and 8 Trident Missiles.[33] There has been at least one SSBN on patrol at all times since April 1969.[34]

Name Class Pennant Number Launched
Vanguard Vanguard S28 1992
Victorious Vanguard S29 1993
Vigilant Vanguard S30 1996
Vengeance Vanguard S31 1998

LR5 Submarine Rescue System and the NATO Submarine Rescue System

The Royal Navy operated the LR5 Submarine Rescue System, designed for retrieving sailors from stranded submarines. Capable of rescuing up to 16 sailors at a time, the system was deployed to the wreck site of the sunken Russian submarine Kursk. The system was replaced in 2004 with the NATO Submarine Rescue System which remains based in the UK.

THe Royal Navy, along with France and Norway, is part of the NATO Submarine Rescue System

Decommissioning nuclear submarines

Nineteen nuclear submarines awaiting decommissioning have been laid-up at Rosyth and Devonport.[35] In 2014 the MOD announced a plan to decommission 7 of the submarines awaiting disposal, in a project expected to take 12 years. A site for the intermediate-level nuclear waste produced is expected to be identified by 2016.[36] A trial dismantling of a nuclear submarine is planned to start in January 2016 at Rosyth.[35]

Future submarines

A total force of seven Astute fleet submarines is planned. As of April 2016, the first three boats are in commission and in service, while boats four to six are in various stages of construction. Boat number seven was confirmed in the October 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review and long-lead items have been ordered.[37] The Astute-class submarine is the largest nuclear fleet submarine ever to serve with the Royal Navy, being nearly 30% larger than its predecessors. Its powerplant is the Rolls Royce PWR2 reactor, developed for the Vanguard-class SSBN. The submarine's armament consists of up to 38 Spearfish torpedoes and Tomahawk Block IV land-attack cruise missiles.

The replacement class for the Vanguard SSBNs was ordered in 2016 and is named the Dreadnought after its lead boat.[38][39] The programme will seek to replace one-for-one the current four ballistic missile submarines starting sometime during the late 2020s.

See also


  1. "Royal Navy Submarine School". Royal Navy. Archived from the original on 25 April 2014. Retrieved 10 April 2012.
  2. "Submarine School". Diesel Weasel. Retrieved 6 September 2015.
  3. Conley (2014), p. 136.
  4. Lambert. The Submarine Service, 1900–1918. p. x–xii, xxix.
  5. "Royal, Dominion & Allied Navies in World War II: Beginning and End, 1939 and 1945". 2010.
  6. Roskill, Stephen W. (1954). "Chapter 4: Allied and Enemy War Plans and Dispositions". History of the Second World War: The War at Sea 1939-1945: The Defensive. London: HMSO. pp. 47–49. Unknown parameter |chapterurl= ignored (help)
  7. "Submarine History: Submarine Service: Operations and Support". Royal Navy. 2008. Archived from the original on 13 September 2008.
  8. Chalmers (1954), Chapter X.
  9. Gill, Stephen P. (October 2011). Forging the Flotilla: The Royal Navy's Submarine Campaign from Malta 1940-1943 (Thesis). National University of Ireland Maynooth.
  10. Spooner (1996), pp. 26–27.
  11. Holland (2003), pp. 84–85.
  12. Spooner (1996), p. 29.
  13. Spooner (1996), p. 30.
  14. Walters, Derek (2004). The History of the British 'U' Class Submarine. Casemate Publishers. p. 150. ISBN 978-1-84415-131-8. Retrieved 17 January 2016.
  15. "Northwood Headquarters". Royal Navy. Archived from the original on 12 December 2012. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  16. "Phil lies low..." Navy News. May 1991. p. 3.
  17. Gellman, Barton (25 March 1999). "U.S., NATO Launch Attacks on Yugoslavia". The Washington Post.
  18. "Trafalgar Returns". Warship News. 1 March 2002. Archived from the original on 21 June 2007.
  19. "Home and away over Christmas". Navy News. 24 December 2001. Archived from the original on 2 April 2003.
  20. Norton-Taylor, Richard (17 April 2003). "Cruise missile sub back in UK". The Guardian.
  21. "British Armed Forces launch strike against Libyan Air Defence systems". Ministry of Defence. 19 March 2011. Retrieved 19 March 2011.
  22. 22.0 22.1 "UK attack subs return to Arctic". The Sunday Times. 10 April 2016. Retrieved 10 April 2016.
  23. Hill, J. R. (1989). Arms Control at Sea. Routledge. p. 35. ISBN 0-415-01280-5. Underhand... and damned Un-English... treat all submarines as pirates in wartime ... and hang all crews. cites Marder, A. J., ed. (1961). Fear God and Dread Nought: The correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher of Kilverstone (Volume I). Oxford University Press. p. 332.
  24. Lambert. The Submarine Service, 1900–1918. p. xi.
  25. "The Jolly Roger". Royal Navy Submarine Museum. 2010.
  26. "A Tribute to the Past". Royal Navy Submarines.
  27. Nagle, David. "Perisher Submarine Command Training in the Royal Navy". United States Navy. Archived from the original on 18 October 2013.
  28. Massie, Rich. "U.S. Submariner Qualifies for SSK Command in the RNLN Submarine Command Course". United States Navy. Archived from the original on 19 December 2012.
  29. Jolly, Rick (2000). Jackspeak: A Guide to British Naval Slang & Usage. FoSAMMA. ISBN 0-9514305-2-1.
  30. Rosenbaum, Martin (15 February 2013). "Submariners punished for drunken misconduct". BBC Online. Retrieved 16 February 2013.
  31. "Submarines". Royal Navy.
  32. "Fleet Submarines (SSN) : Submarine Service : Operations and Support". Royal Navy. Archived from the original on 6 September 2008.
  33. Michael Fallon, Secretary of State for Defence (20 January 2015). "Written Statements: Nuclear Deterrent". Parliamentary Debates (Hansard). House of Commons. col. 4WS.
  34. "Continuous At Sea Deterrent". Royal Navy. Retrieved 16 June 2014.
  35. 35.0 35.1 Morris, Jonathan (3 June 2015). "Laid-up nuclear submarines at Rosyth and Devonport cost £16m". BBC News. Retrieved 5 June 2015.
  36. "How Babcock plans to decommission UK nuclear submarines". Nuclear Engineering International. 14 February 2014. Retrieved 19 February 2014.
  37. "Babcock contracted to provide Astute 6 & 7 weapons handling and launch system". Babcock International Group plc. 1 February 2013.
  38. "New Successor Submarines Named". UK Government (Press release). 21 October 2016. Retrieved 21 October 2016.
  39. "New nuclear submarine given famous naval name". BBC News. Retrieved 21 October 2016.


Further reading

  • Hackmann, Willem (1984). Seek & Strike: Sonar, anti-submarine warfare and the Royal Navy 1914-54. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office. ISBN 0-11-290423-8.

External links