On Her Majesty’s Nuclear Service

July 30, 2018
Posted by: Richard Sharpe

by Eric Thompson

Serving at the Admiralty Interview Board, I remember a candidate who did not match the criteria by which we judged selection success. This was modestly defined as the ability to be trainable as a naval officer. He had ‘other’ qualities so, after much debate, we passed him. Six months later I was rung by the Captain of the College, who said the cadet had just been withdrawn from training, and what the hell were we playing at. “We had enough sound officers under training to fill the quotas; why risk those who were potentially flaky?”
The author of this book, by his own admission, comes into that ‘other’ qualities category, although in his case he survived training and bumped his way to limited success. The first impression is of a chippy, eccentric non-conformist. Like many people who write autobiographies, he comes across as both self-serving and thin-skinned.
Submarines are not called the Silent Service for nothing. It is a lifestyle which tends to attract the more introverted type of person, with a steady temperament, who adapts to the unusual conditions of service with good humour and discretion. Which is not to say that the occasional extrovert isn’t welcome as long as he is seen as a competent team player. But if you have one eye fixed on the Navy, and this is firmly in competition with the other eye which is rigidly focused on yourself, this leads to both too much self-justification and the inclusion of a lot of domestic details which most of us really do not want to know.
In spite of this unpromising preamble, the book is well written and covers that fascinating period when we made the transition from piratical slow-moving diesel electric submersibles (once accurately described as intelligent mobile mines) to nuclear propulsion, which in turn allowed the deployment of effectively undetectable weapons of mass destruction and, quite separately at sea, covert surveillance of Soviet activity.
Thompson’s submarine career starts in the SSK HMS Otter where he is appointed as the Electrical Engineer Officer and is effectively sacked after six months. I served with his CO when we were both junior officers and also knew the First Lieutenant. Both are subjected in the book to character assassination. Both went on to have good careers and neither is recognisable to me in Thompson’s description. Leaving Otter might have been the end of his submarine career, but after rehabilitation in two other SSKs Thompson was shunted off to the Mk 24 torpedo trials development team based in Scotland. As he admits this was not a job anyone else wanted
As the nuclear submarine programme developed, there was an inevitable shortage of electrical engineers, and so the Greenwich nuclear propulsion course was his next port of call, followed by sea training and qualification in an SSN. Having moved his family to Scotland, and still having doubts about his suitability for this career, he resigned from the Navy, and to see out his time was appointed to a submarine bound for Chatham Dockyard for a two-year refit and refuel. This he refused to accept and, as we were still short of nuclear propulsion-qualified officers, he was re-appointed to the Polaris Squadron as spare crew. Having achieved his aim of staying in Scotland he withdrew his resignation and spent the next two years in an SSBN as a propulsion engineer.
There remained question marks over his temperament and nuclear W/K competence, but these were finally laid to rest when he competently handled a major steam leak- a potential show-stopper of the continuous deterrent patrols – and for this he was suitably rewarded.
That was effectively the end of his sea time, as he moved on to the Tactics and Weapon Group analysis team from where he was promoted to Commander. Various MOD and shore jobs followed, culminating in his swansong as Commodore superintendent of the Clyde Submarine Base. Clearly a degree of maturity and reliability had been achieved and this is reflected in the narrative, although the thin-skinned undertow is never far from the surface.
The ability to write well is a huge bonus in shore support jobs and he is fully committed to the principle of deterrence by assured mutual destruction. He also had a go at our media for giving all things nuclear an absurdly voodoo status. Radioactivity is all around us all the time. He also shows legitimate contempt for the anti-nuclear encampment on the road outside the Clyde base.
Some of the potential readers of this book will be retired nuclear-trained submariners, who may have known Thompson in the flesh and will have first-hand opinions of him which are better informed than mine. The written word is revealing. But ‘a man’s a man for a’ that’.