I volunteered for Rescue Chamber Operator. I’m just doing a job that I enjoy but I do see that this role is a special challenge

Leading Seaman (Diver) Bruce McQuillan

The £130M system can cleanse the crew from contaminants and crucially, re-compress oxygen-saturated sailors – who might have spent long, frightening hours cooped up in dark, cramped conditions in the stricken sub – in a managed, secure environment. Throughout that process, the Royal Navy and NDG provides a world-class medical capability, from triage to emergency surgical procedures, led by hyperbaric medical experts.

All 360 tonnes of equipment that makes up the TUP system is stored in a 150-metre long purpose built hanger at HMNB Clyde. Each piece of the jigsaw is stored in sequence, ready to be loaded on to trucks and then to heavy transport aircraft, for onward transit to the incident locale. There, NSRS will requisition the nearest appropriate ship on which the entire TUP system can be welded to the stern... all within 72 hours where possible.

Lieutenant Commander Steve Brown, who runs NDG at Faslane, said: “It is a quite brilliant stand-alone system designed simply to save submariners’ lives anywhere in the world.

“That said however, it is a brutal reality that if a submarine were to go down in really deep water there is nothing that anyone could do because the pressures would become too great for anything to survive.” 

“Speed is essential in getting to a stricken submarine and the fact that we can be on the move in three hours with 360 tonnes of equipment and a team of around 75 specialists from the UK, France and Norway is impressive in its own right.

“Although it is essentially a NATO asset, the brotherhood of the submariner is such that I am sure the UK Government would give favourable consideration to a request for assistance from any nation which had a submarine in distress.”

The first intervention will be the deployment of the IROV, a small, remotely operated submersible equipped with cameras. In addition to reconnaissance, it offers the chance to insert food and air tubes to the sunken sub. The Submarine Rescue Vehicle (SRV) is then launched... it’s appropriately known in the maritime community as Nemo! This vehicle acts as the ambulance, ferrying rescued submariners to the TUP, effectively the ‘hospital’ which can hold 35 rescued personnel in each of its two chambers.

One of the bravest men among the NDG personnel tasked on NSRS is the Rescue Chamber Operator (RCO), who has the huge responsibility of ensuring it is safe to connect the SRV to the stricken sub... with absolutely no idea what he might find on first opening the hatch. Step forward Leading Seaman (Diver) Bruce McQuillan.

Bruce, from Sunderland, has been with NDG for four years and shrugs off the perceived heroism of a role that demands, unlike the civilian pilots of the SRV, he is exposed to the same atmospheric pressures as the submarine.

He said: “I volunteered for the RCO. I’m just doing a job that I enjoy but I do see that this role is a special challenge. I don’t feel especially brave, I’m doing a job that we train hard for and it gives me a great deal of satisfaction. We’re potentially saving lives... just as we are when we are out on a bomb disposal shout.”

Back at the TUP, the medical team are hard at work not only processing those rescued through their recompression, but also treating any medical ‘casualties’, many of whom might also be suffering from mental trauma.

One of those taking part in last week’s exercise was Lieutenant Lizzi Ashley, who is the first female Medical Officer to qualify to serve on HM Submarines and is currently in HMS Vigilant. She explained: “This has been a truly exciting exercise for me to take part in, with a multi-national, multi-agency team delivering first aid. It’s the reason I joined the Royal Navy, to take on these kinds of challenges.

“I’m delighted to be the first female MO in the Submarine Service, and having an insider’s knowledge of the support systems like NSRS which are available is hugely beneficial to our branch.”

One man with many more years of experience in this realm is Surgeon Commander Richard Webber, a former submariner and now Head of Undersea Medicine at the Institute of Naval Medicine. He was keeping an expert eye on how the various teams reacted as the Exercise events unfolded, and added: “Medical capability is an integral part of this emergency response, and the Royal Navy contribution – through NDG and other branches – is widely regarded as being world-class.

“A sunken submarine presents great challenges to survivors and we need to appropriately manage a wide range of injuries, both physiological and psychological.”

The public will probably never know when the NSRS deploys... let’s hope it never has to in reality. But for submariners in the Royal Navy, knowing it’s there is comfort enough as they go about their duties in the Silent Service.

HMNB Clyde

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