HMS Vengeance

Meet the boat in the Channel 5 documentary

Submariners with their caps

Welcome aboard HMS Vengeance which, since 2001, has been one of four Vanguard-class submarines performing the nation’s No.1 military task, quietly leaving her home at HM Naval Base Clyde, returning later equally stealthily after a deterrence patrol.

No mission in the 500-year history of the Royal Navy has been longer nor carried a greater burden than Operation Relentless.

Since 1969 at least one nuclear missile-armed submarine has been on patrol somewhere beneath the waves providing the nation’s continuous at-sea deterrent, protecting the United Kingdom and her citizens from aggression and maintaining the broader balance of international peace.

For a beneath-the-waves look at the Royal Navy's Vanguard-class boats, watch Channel 5's On Board Britain's Nuclear Submarine: Trident on November 4th.

On patrol

It takes a select group of men and women to carry out a deterrent patrol.

Extensive training doesn’t just test the crew, but also ensures the submarine itself is materially ready for the nation's most important defence task.

Stealth is key to submarine operations. Metal clanging against metal is a tell-tale sign of a submarine’s presence. There’s no slamming of hatches, unnecessary hammering of tools, no music playing loudly.

The boat’s sonar operators not only listen for what foe might be lurking out there, but also to see if their submarine is emitting noise.

Ultimate mission

Each patrol carries Trident missiles which can be launched only on the instructions of the prime minister.

The commanding officer is one of just a handful of people on board who know where HMS Vengeance is during her patrol.

The two submariners on the ‘steering wheels’ – the planesmen, who use aircraft-like control columns to steer Vengeance and beneath the waves, do not know their exact location. There’s no window in front of them, just a bank of dials and buttons.

Vengeance draws all her power from a small nuclear reactor generating enough electricity to meet the demands of a small town.  

Water for washing, drinking, cooking and propulsion is produced using distillation techniques, while oxygen is added to air using machines which electrolyse water while harmful carbon dioxide is harvested using machines called ‘scrubbers’.

Both water and fresh air can be provided ad infinitum, the reactor and machinery can, in theory, run for years. Food is the only factor which limits a patrol’s length.

Coming home

A patrol ends without the usual fanfare and homecomings afforded surface ships. Vengeance sails in secret and comes home in secret.

Even when she returns to base in Faslane, there’s a lot of work to do. The reactor has to be shut down. There are unused stores to land.

And there’s masses of information and records to sift through; everything in the submarine is recorded - rather like the Black Box in an airliner.

It’s all analysed to see how well Vengeance – and her crew – performed while away to help them and their V-boat comrades on future deterrent missions.


HMS Vengeance is a small community of up to 160 men performing a demanding job in challenging conditions for months at a time.

During down-time, they are expected to eat, sleep, wash, relax, carry out any administration, study, perhaps perform some ‘phys’ (exercise) on a rowing or cycling machine squeezed into a space - there is no dedicated gym on board.

Unlike most previous classes of submarine, each crew member of HMS Vengeance enjoys their own bed – there’s no using a shipmate’s bunk while they’re on duty.

It's a tough life...

Accommodation is tight: nine people will share a space just eight feet square, with bunks stacked three high.

Additional crew - such as trainees, assessors, visitors and guests during work-up - are often accommodated in the ‘bomb shop’ (the torpedo room), catching 40 winks in sleeping bags placed on empty torpedo racks.

There is no TV, no radio, no internet. The only contact with the outside world is a daily news sheet and 120-word ‘familygrams’ sent by loved ones (crew cannot respond). If there’s any bad news (a death in the family for example), it is usually withheld until the end of patrol: the mission takes precedent over the individual.

There’s a sickbay and medical team on board who deal with everyday illnesses and can perform some operations, using the junior rates’ mess as a theatre.

Vengeance’s crew can tell the day of the week from their meals – Wednesday is curry, Friday is fish and chips, Saturday is steak and ‘seggies’ (grapefruit segments) for breakfast on Sunday, followed later in the day by pizza and a trifle dessert. 

Anyone who has been on a submarine will tell you there’s a distinct odour! Washing – and especially showering – is kept to a minimum to conserve water. Anything longer than 30 seconds in the shower (a ‘Hollywood’) is frowned upon.

...but there are rewards

There’s a unique bond between submarine crews – from the Dolphin badge which each qualified submariner wears, to their distinctive woollen sweaters and Jolly Roger flags signifying success in action, a throwback to the earliest days of the Silent Service when old-school admirals thought submariners no better than pirates.

All submariners earn extra pay compared with their counterparts in the Surface Fleet.

And acknowledging the unique pressures and challenges of a deterrent patrol, is a special badge: the ‘bomber pin’ – a small badge presented to anyone who has completed one Trident patrol.

Ten such patrols are rewarded with a silver pin and the coveted gold pin is awarded to those who have completed 20 deterrent missions.

And then there are our families, the unsung heroes of the Silent Service.  While loved ones are busy, together, and very much “all in the same boat”.  Their families have to cope with them being away for months at a time, without contact, dealing with life's trials and tribulations. Like Vengeance's crew, they too become a close-knit team, relying on and supporting each other. 

Commander Darren Mason gives us an insight into life aboard HMS Vengeance on patrol:

"The term 'Silent Service' cultivates numerous images of life beneath the waves, but perhaps it is best to think of a submarine as an un-located village beneath the surface. A village 'at one' with her environment.

Listening to whale song through the submarine's hull can drive a grown man to tears while the chatter of shrimps 'giving it something large' on the world beating sonar far below us on the seabed is a truly remarkable treat - one only afforded to a niche and highly-professional body of men and women.

This is what makes the Submarine Service what it is. Her people. While the machine in which I live and call my home is a remarkable piece of machinery - arguably an engineering masterpiece: it is the team who makes it work.

Challenges associated with the Continuous At Sea Deterrent demands their initiative, their skills and the implementation of innovative solutions to make effective and long-term repairs for extended periods of time. Support and advice to the on patrol submarine is simply not available.

My role as a submariner is more than simply team work; it is about having absolute trust and confidence in every member of the 167 members of my extended family, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year: remaining on patrol until our relief takes her turn on the front line.

It is therefore the team on board and their loved ones ashore who make the submariner. I am undoubtedly fortunate to serve my country with the best caterers, the best logisticians, the best engineers and the best warfare specialists.

To me, the Submarine Service is much more than a cliché or strapline, it is her people; their determination to success and the professionalism which delivers an absolute capability. A capability which has continued to function unabated, for the last 50 years."