Protectors of Peace

Recognising 50 years of Royal Navy submariners providing the nation's continuous nuclear deterrent.

No mission in the 500-year history of the Royal Navy has been longer nor carried a greater burden than Operation Relentless: at least one submarine on patrol somewhere beneath the waves providing the nation's continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent. Only five of the world's navies possess this capability.

More than 350 patrols have been conducted collectively by eight nuclear submarines since the spring of 1969, demanding the skill, dedication and expertise not merely of several generations of submariners, but a huge 'army' of sailors and civilians standing behind them, supporting each mission.

Though technology, governments, the economy and UK and global political climate have changed repeatedly since HMS Resolution conducted her first patrol, the mission itself has remained unchanged: to protect the United Kingdom and her citizens from aggression and maintain the broader balance of international peace.

Cold War Guardians

In the 1950s, the nation's nuclear deterrent was delivered by the RAF and its V-bomber force, ready to strike at targets just as their predecessors had done in World War 2 - only with far more powerful weapons.

Missile and air defence technology meant the bombers were increasingly vulnerable, so the UK Government turned to newly-developed nuclear-powered submarines and cutting-edge ballistic missiles to deliver a deterrence which was almost invulnerable.

The result was the Resolution class of nuclear submarines - Resolution, Repulse, Renown and Revenge - each armed with up to 16 Polaris nuclear missiles.

Their design, construction and delivery is one of the triumphs of British industry and defence in the 20th Century. Four submarines, each as complex as the rockets aiming for the moon at the time, with a weapon system never before operated by the Royal Navy, and two new naval bases - one at Faslane for the submarines, one at nearby Coulport for the missiles - delivered inside seven years... and on budget.

While shipwrights and engineers toiled on building the submarines themselves at Cammell Laird on Merseyside and Vickers at Barrow, a small town with supporting facilities sprang up on the right bank of Gareloch which would become HMS Neptune.

Just weeks after the Royal Navy's new base on the Clyde opened in the spring of 1968, HMS Resolution conducted the first deterrent patrol (round-the-clock patrols did not begin until 1969 as the remaining R-boats entered service).

Submerging for up to three months at a time, the crew were almost entirely cut off from the outside world for the duration of the patrol.

No personal communications off a boat was permitted - an order which persists to this day. They received a regular update from their loved ones, known as a 'familygram', restricted to just 40 words.

If the messages contained bad news (such as the death of a family member or a request for a divorce), it was withheld from the intended recipient: the mission was more important than the man.

These hardships aside, life in an R-class submarine was considerable cleaner and more spacious than the old diesel-powered boats. Living in apparent luxury, deterrent boat submariners were dubbed 'bomber queens' by their contemporaries or 'Polaroids' after the popular make of instant cameras.

The only limit to a deterrent patrol - apart from the endurance of the men on board - was the amount of food which could be stored aboard. The longest patrol - 108 days - was completed in 1991 by HMS Resolution.

By the time of that mammoth patrol, the R-class and their missile system were nearing the end of their active lives and a new generation of deterrent boats was taking shape in a huge ship hall in Barrow.

When the final R-boat patrol ended in 1996, the class had completed 229 missions, 69 by HMS Resolution alone.

  • For more information about the Polaris era, visit the Silent and Secret exhibition at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport:

Guardians of today

Today the Royal Navy's No.1 mission is carried out by one of four Vanguard-class submarines, the largest, most powerful submersibles ever built for the Royal Navy.

From Polaris to Trident

Barely a decade after deterrent patrols had begun, the Navy and Government began to look at replacing both the submarines and the ultimate weapon.

The American-designed successor to Polaris was selected as the 'delivery system': Trident.

Taller, fatter, heavier than Polaris, Trident has three times the range of Polaris. Each missile can carry up to eight independently-targeted warheads.

A bigger missile required a much bigger boat to carry it. The Vanguard class displace more than twice as much as their predecessors - nearly 17,500 tonnes when submerged or nearly as heavy as flagship HMS Albion.

And a bigger boat meant a whole new generation of support facilities, everything from the gigantic Devonshire Dock Hall in Barrow where the V-boats - the V names are a nod to the RAF strategic bombers of the 1960s - would be constructed.

Similar work was required at Faslane to accommodate the new class of submarines, including the construction of the 'ship lift', capable of raising a Vanguard entirely out of the water so maintenance can be done drily and securely and a new electrical supplies capable of meeting demands equivalent to a town of 25,000 people. In addition, a new refuel/refit complex was built in Plymouth.

It took between four and six years to build each of the boats - Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilant and Vengeance - over a 12-year-period. Vanguard began her first patrol at the end of 1994, with her youngest sister entering service in early 2001.

At least once every commission a ballistic missile submarine must conduct a DASO - Demonstration And Shakedown Operation - or, in simple terms, a test firing, carried out in the western Atlantic using a special-modified version of a Trident missile, crammed with sensors, to test the accuracy of the system.

As with the first generation of ballistic missile submarines - and the Dreadnought class which will follow today's boats - one Vanguard-class craft is on patrol, a second is training to take over from her, a third is undergoing routine maintenance and repairs, with the fourth undergoing long-term overhaul/refit/refuelling (currently HMS Vanguard in the special facility in Plymouth).

"You have to be ready to launch at any time. If that order does come, you know the decision has been made under the most extreme of circumstances."

Commander Andrew McKendrick, former Commanding Officer of HMS Vengeance