Submariners take centre stage at national event

The Duke of Cambridge today led tributes as the nation marked the sacrifices demanded of submariners and their families by the UK’s longest military operation

The honorary head of the Royal Navy’s Submarine Service joined veterans and serving personnel, families, people who have built and maintained vessels – described as more complex than the Space Shuttle – and naval and political leaders past and present in Westminster Abbey for a ‘service of recognition’ to mark 50 years of maintaining the nation’s nuclear deterrent on unseen and unheralded patrols.

Since April 1969, one British ballistic missile submarine has always been on patrol – collectively more than 350 have been completed – carrying the nation’s ultimate weapon as a deterrent to any foe, maintaining the safety and security of the UK and its allies.

It is a mission the Submarine Service expects to perform for another half century with the UK committed to replacing its existing flotilla of four Vanguard-class deterrent submarines – all based at HM Naval Base Clyde in Western Scotland – with four next-generation Dreadnought-class boats, the first of which is currently under construction in Barrow.

And ahead of today’s service, the nation’s most senior sailor, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Philip Jones, revealed that the fourth and final Dreadnought will carry the name HMS King George VI – the very first warship to do so.

On patrol there are no phone calls, no emails and no social media – restrictions on personal freedoms which other people take for granted.

Leading Seaman Ed Owen

The emphasis of today’s service, however – as it is throughout the 50th anniversary year – was on the human element of the UK’s longest military mission as much as the submarines and the cutting-edge technology which drives them.

This was underlined by two of the people addressing the 2,000-strong congregation: Marine engineer Leading Seaman Ed Owen, who has completed two deterrent patrols aboard HMS Victorious and Vengeance, and Isobel Fraser, who has raised a family over 38 years as a naval wife – and 29 deterrent patrols by her husband Stewart.

“Being a submariner requires a large personal sacrifice,” Ed explained.  

“On patrol there are no phone calls, no emails and no social media – restrictions on personal freedoms which other people take for granted.

“It involves extended separation from my partner, family and friends. During the past 11 months I have spent just eight days with my girlfriend.”

The strain on family life was echoed by Mrs Fraser whose husband had missed more Christmases, birthdays, anniversaries, school sports days and parents’ evenings than she could remember, “living like a one-parent family” for months at a time.

She said the end of each patrol was filled with joy and relief as she and the couple’s sons Donald and Callum were reunited – and above all pride.

“The pride I felt watching you sail home – knowing you were there,” she told the abbey of her husband’s return. “And in our dreams and our hearts and our prayers – you were always there.”

Rear Admiral Tim Hodgson, the UK’s Director of Submarine Capability, said most Britons were unaware of the huge civilian ‘army’ behind each deterrent patrol: 30,000 men and women from civil servants through shipwrights, electricians, welders, computer technicians and scientists “ready to answer the call of our country should our most desperate hour come.

“The commitment of these many thousands of people should be a source of unrivalled pride for all of us.”

The Duke of Cambridge – Honorary Commodore of the Submarine Service – read a passage from the Bible underlining the importance of peacekeeping before joining guests at a reception, chatting with families and thanking crew of all eras for efforts which are otherwise acknowledged only by special pin badges with which deterrent patrol submariners are decorated.

Protectors of Peace

2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Royal Navy carrying out the nation’s most important military mission – continuous patrols by submarines equipped with the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Immerse yourself in the history of the Continuous At Sea Deterrent – known officially as Operation Relentless – as we look at the crews, the boats, life on board over five decades, and the future with the advent of the Dreadnought-class.

Find out more