On patrol HMS Sceptre 2007 Jim Perks 250323 CREDIT ROYAL NAVY
One of the interviewees, Jim Perks, with other submariners onboard HMS Sceptre in 2007 (Pictures: Royal Navy)
Naval History

Portrait of a submariner: Life with the Silent Service recorded for future generations

On patrol HMS Sceptre 2007 Jim Perks 250323 CREDIT ROYAL NAVY
One of the interviewees, Jim Perks, with other submariners onboard HMS Sceptre in 2007 (Pictures: Royal Navy)

Submariners and their families have been sharing their experiences of life with the Silent Service as part of a project to preserve a vital part of history for future generations.

The Royal Navy Submarine Museum in Gosport has recorded interviews with 15 people connected with the Submarine Service.

It is hoped this will preserve Gosport's place as the spiritual home of the Silent Service for years to come and give future generations an insight into what it is to be a submariner and explore the service's connection to the town.

For 95 years, the Hampshire town was regarded as the home of the Submarine Service.

Along with the interviews, they have also collected personal and archive imagery and commissioned new portraits. 

The project aims to shed light on the question of what it must be like working for the Royal Navy Submarine Service, after the team behind the project spent time with former submariners, who shared stories across a range of subjects, including joining the service, training and working their way up the ranks.

Subjects covered in the interviews span all aspects of life as a submariner, from the isolation and separation from families to the bond between crew, and being in charge of a nuclear submarine to the importance of food on board.

Lesley Ure – who worked as a waitress at HMS Sultan as a teenager and vowed never to settle down with anyone from the military – fell in love with a submariner and found herself raising two children, with a partner frequently deployed for long periods.

She said "there are massive highs and lows" to being a naval wife. 

"It's like an emotional rollercoaster. I feel, for me, that's made us stronger. We're very close, we appreciate each other, we've never taken each other for granted."

Her husband Midge spent 24 years as a marine engineer on boats and recounts life in the service, some naughty goings-on by the crew of HMS Superb in Diego Garcia, camaraderie and receiving good and bad news via 'familygrams' – 40-80 word messages sent to crews on deterrent patrols.

Submarines at HMS Dolphin in the 1950s 250323 CREDIT ROYAL NAVY
For 95 years Gosport was regarded as the home of the Submarine Service with HMS Dolphin at Fort Blockhouse its alma mater. (Pictures: Royal Navy)

One of the interviewees, still serving, is Lieutenant Ami Burns, one of the first three female marine engineers in the Silent Service. 

She spoke about being a female submariner in a male-dominated world.

"It's difficult physically because of the long days, it’s difficult mentally because you're away from your families, without contact from you to them, or sometimes without contact at all, depending on where you're operating."  

Jim Perks joined the Royal Navy as a writer and ended up as head of the Submarine Service in a career spanning more than 36 years. 

He left the Royal Navy on the cusp of the deal with Australia to build a new generation of hunter-killer boats (SSN-AUKUS) as the Astute programme draws to a close and the replacement for nuclear deterrent submarines, the new Dreadnought class, moves into full swing.

He said, "It’s going to take another 10 to 15 years but we're on the up, we're on the ascendence again. So, I see a bright future.

"I think submariners past and present need to help in that journey, just telling people what it is that we do and how much fun it is and what great people we are, and help that journey."

And, of course, they touch upon what the food is like on board a submarine.

Lieutenant Burns says:"It really is a source of morale, not only is it a source or morale, it's how you know what time of day it is. You might wake up because of the watch patterns and go, 'I don't know what day it is and I don't know what time it is' and you think 'OK, well there's a curry on so it's Wednesday teatime'.

"And people look forward to it – it's part of the countdown for, seven fish Fridays until we get home."

All the interviews are available on the Submariners' Stories website and will be held by the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

Material from the project will also soon be showcased on screens at the Submarine Museum.

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