ON HER MAJESTY’S NUCLEAR SERVICE
Reviewed by: J. R. Stocker
Commodore Eric Thompson will be known to many older NR members – he retired from the Service in 1998. This is a personal memoir, but a superior one. As well being a cracking read, Thompson puts his professional experiences in their wider context which is why this book should have broad appeal. There is much to learn here about the RN’s submarine service and about the UK’s nuclear weapons policy.
Thompson sets the tone with an opening chapter on a steam leak in Revenge while on deterrent patrol in 1978. For his part in dealing with the emergency Thompson was awarded the MBE. One of his Killicks got the Queen’s Gallantry Medal. Revenge stayed at sea for another eight weeks to complete her deterrent patrol, on reduced power.
By way of a fairly typical engineer submariner’s career progression – Dartmouth, fleet training in a Battle-class destroyer, Manadon, marriage, submarine school then HMS Otter – Thompson describes the contemporary strategic context of the Cold War and nuclear deterrence. The latter, more senior part of his career gives him a perspective and insight that makes these early chapters a useful addition to existing literature on the post-war history of UK submarines and the winning of the Cold War.
Thompson’s time in Otter was unhappy and he ended up being relieved early, bullied by an old-style SSK CO and his fellow engineer who he describes as “…poisonous…determined to make me look stupid at every opportunity”. The author’s willingness to be honest and scathing about himself and others is a refreshing aspect of this book.
A sideways move to Andrew – “She even had a 4-inch gun on the casing – in the age of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles” – was much more successful and tales of her ship’s company’s antics will be familiar to all. A third appointment as Electrical Officer in Osiris was his last conventional boat. It was time for a shore job and a visit to the Appointer – “Appointers were handpicked for their charm, diplomacy and communication skills but I was never fooled.” Amen to that!
After a job on the Type 24 Tigerfish torpedo project Thompson ‘went nuclear’ at Greenwich and then in Conqueror. Having decided to put his family ahead of career, he resigned before being appointed to Courageous. After a frosty introduction to his new CO, he annotated the letter acknowledging his appointment in a manner that made him “unappointable”. Having done that, would an officer today make it to 1*?
After, on his own initiative, assisting Warspite who suffered a fire whilst alongside in Liverpool (May 1976) Thompson was offered Revenge and persuaded to withdraw his notice. Being ‘unappointable’ didn’t alter the Navy’s shortage of what today we call WESMs. And Revenge was in Faslane, where his family had made their home. In introducing this phase of his life, the author makes a rare slip, describing Polaris as an ICBM whereas of course it was an SLBM (of much shorter range but greater mobility). But apart from that Thompson provides a brief but informative background to nuclear deterrence as well as an insight to life on deterrent patrol. And thus to the incident with which he starts the book.
Subsequent shore jobs are well described, including involvement with the ‘trouserlegs’ problem with welded joints in nuclear steam plants, and the introduction of the Vanguard-class Trident SSBNs. His career ended with 1* command of Faslane, and a fascinating insight into the intricacies of dealing with local Trade Union leaders on the one hand and Government ministers on the other.
This reviewer is neither a submariner nor an engineer, but thoroughly enjoyed this book. Recommended.