Leading Mechanic James McWilliams and Eric Thompson outside Buckingham Palace with the Queen's Gallantry Medal and MBE

A former commodore in charge of Her Majesty's Naval Base, Clyde in Scotland – commonly known as Faslane – has dived into the memory bank to retell this story from his time on HMS Revenge.

Cdre Eric Thompson's career in the Royal Navy spanned nearly 40 years, during which he served on HMS Vigilant, Hermes and Barrosa and HMS Andrew, Otter, Osiris, Conqueror and Revenge.

He was also awarded an MBE for leadership during an emergency on patrol.  

Life on HMS Revenge ranged from the ultra-serious to the utterly ridiculous.

One night whilst alongside at Faslane, I was back aft [towards the stern of the ship] in my overalls doing rounds of the machinery spaces, hands covered in oil when the general alarm sounded followed by the cry: "Lady in the water."

I had never heard that before.

I had heard "Man overboard!" often enough but never "Woman overboard" let alone "Lady in the water".

Nevertheless, the pipe had a ring of authenticity. So I rushed forward to investigate.

I found the control room packed solid with chiefs and petty officers with their wives and sweethearts, all queuing to disembark after a party.

As politely as possible, I clawed my way past them and started to climb the vertical ladder through the main access hatch only to find that I was climbing inside the skirt of a well-proportioned lady.

She was having a panic attack and was stuck halfway through the hatch.

As there seemed to be some sort of emergency taking place up top, I placed one oily hand in the centre of her pristine white knickers and up through the hatch, she went sitting on my hand.

The manoeuvring room of HMS Revenge. Credit Eric Thompson
The commodore on watch in the manoeuvring room of HMS Revenge. Credit: Cdre Thompson
Cdre Thompson standing by the gun of HMS Andrew in 1969
Cdre Thompson standing by the gun of HMS Andrew in 1969

Having disposed of the blockage, I rushed out on to the upper deck to find the trot sentry tending the line to the ship's lifebelt, which had been thrown into the water.

There, a petty officer and his wife were clinging to the lifebelt and having a domestic.

When I asked the young sentry what had happened, he explained that the petty officer had been too impatient to wait in the queue below and had taken his wife up the conning tower and down inside the fin to gain quicker access to the upper deck through the fin door, but had failed to warn his wife that the fin door opened only on to a narrow catwalk.

So the unfortunate wife had stepped boldly forth into the night and descended 10 feet into the icy waters of the Gareloch.

Faced with the prospect of his wife drowning, the petty officer had screamed at the trot sentry: "My wife's fallen overboard. Save her."

"She's your wife," replied the young sailor. "You save her." With that, he had pushed the petty officer into the water and thrown him the lifebelt.

That was just before I arrived.

Her Majesty's Naval Base, Clyde primarily sited at Faslane, in Scotland, where the party took place.
Her Majesty's Naval Base, Clyde primarily sited at Faslane, in Scotland, where the party took place.

As it was not possible to haul the couple up the submarine's steep side, I gave instructions for them to be towed round to the bow and pulled back on board over the bullnose.

When they had been rescued, I dispatched them in the ship's Land Rover to the sick bay in the base, where they were divested of their wet garments and given dry pyjamas to wear while an ambulance was arranged to take them home.

But the somewhat agitated petty officer's wife would not wait for an ambulance and stomped off to the main gate to take a taxi.

There she was arrested by the Ministry of Defence Police for wandering about the naval base in a nightie.

When questioned, she said that she had been to a party on Revenge.

The vice squad then came on board in search of an illegal pyjama party. 

That was the end of the episode but the thing that intrigues me still is: how did the woman stuck in the hatch explain to her husband my oily fingerprints on her pristine white knickers?

We had far more to cope with than simply intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Cover photo credit: Crown Copyright.

Cdre Thompson's book, On Her Majesty's Nuclear Service, about the secretive life of submarines and the men who serve on them, will be launched on March 13.

It is already available for purchase on Amazon and at Casemate Publishers' website.

On Her Majesty's Nuclear Service by Eric Thompson
On Her Majesty's Nuclear Service by Eric Thompson