It was June 1978, the Cold War was in full swing and the Polaris submarine, HMS Revenge, was on patrol somewhere so sensitive that 40 years later we still cannot be told.
A sudden roar that “sounded like a jumbo jet taking off” was followed by the cry of “Steam leak in the TG (turbo generator) room”. The scene was set for the most serious crisis in the history of Britain’s nuclear fleet – as far as we know.
The detailed story of that event is told for the first time in a book by Eric Thompson, the Senior Engineer on watch aboard HMS Revenge that day. He went on to become Commodore in charge of the Faslane base and the submarines it served.
“I knew the emergency drill by heart,” he writes. “‘Shut Both Main Steam Stops’. That would shut off all steam to the engine room. At a stroke, it would kill the leak… it would also scram the reactor, the pumping heart of the submarine; the plant would automatically go into emergency cooling and there was no recovery from that at sea.
“We would have lost our power source, be reduced to a dead ship. We would have to surface and signal for a tug. Unthinkable… We were in our top-secret patrol position. Our number one priority was to remain undetected.”
The undignified prospect of Britain’s nuclear deterrent limping back from wherever-in-the-world to Faslane on the end of a tug-line would, as Thompson points out, have had considerable political ramifications: “It would mean national humiliation. The credibility of our nuclear deterrent was at stake… Jim Callaghan’s government was riven by anti-nuclear sentiment… if the deterrent appeared to fail, Britain’s nuclear strategy would be holed below the waterline.”
In the end, crisis was averted by deploying an “obscure dockyard procedure never used at sea.” This involved by-passing the main engines so that the steam was fed directly into the condenser. For the benefit of the lay audience, Thompson helpfully equates this to “emptying the domestic hot water tank straight into the toilet”.
He writes: “For what seemed like an eternity, nothing happened. The roaring of the steam continued. The humidity was unbearable. Then there was a mighty whoosh down the starboard steam range behind my back… The boiler had been deflated. The roar of steam had stopped.”
Damage had been done and the vessel lost much of its power. “We could launch our missiles if necessary but our maximum speed was severely reduced… For the next eight weeks we would be walking a tightrope; one machine failure could bring everything tumbling down.
“Submarines on deterrent patrol do not break radio silence. No one knew of our plight. Nobody would for another eight weeks.” One member of Thompson’s team was given a bravery award for his efforts to isolate the leak. “He had been within three metres of it before being driven back by the heat… he had ripped his back open whilst squeezing through a jungle of pipework.”
But let’s cut to the chase. While steam leaks and the derring-do required to address them are all very exciting, they also beg a bigger question. Was there at any point a threat of a nuclear accident? Eric Thompson remains adamant in his denial.
“Absolutely not. The worst that could have happened was that we would have had to surface – and maybe I would have been poached alive.” You get the impression he might not have regarded this as a worse fate than being towed back to Faslane in the full glare of publicity and political outrage.
Thompson grew up in Coatbridge and his destiny was set when his father spotted an advert for scholarships to Britannia Royal Navy College, Dartmouth. In the face of intense competition, mainly from the public schools, he gained admission and embarked on a stellar naval career which coincided with the hottest years of the Cold War.
Another of that Dartmouth intake later became Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Boyce. The two became lifelong friends and Boyce provides a foreword in which he encapsulates an argument which goes to the heart of the debate about nuclear weapons.
“The secrecy of the Submarine Service means that few outsiders know what life was like or what kept us busy. Yet we were performing the greatest public service of all, making a hugely significant contribution to the prevention of a third world war. In this, history shows that we succeeded: the Cold War ended peacefully.”
Boyce continues: “It is no coincidence that in the first half of the 20th century there were two horrific world wars but none in the second half; one could argue that the difference was that in the second half, we had a strategic nuclear deterrent.”
One could also argue, of course, against that proposition. What is unusual about this book is that it provides a perspective that often goes unrepresented – that of a professional practitioner who lived for decades in close proximity to nuclear weapons, while regarding them as instruments of peace rather than war.
In the aftermath of the crisis aboard HMS Revenge, Thompson recalls how he “staggered through the Reactor Compartment into the eerie tranquillity of the Missile Compartment, as if I had entered another world in which 16 one and a half metre diameter vertical tubes each containing a Polaris intercontinental ballistic missile stood like silent sentinels…The order of the day in the Missile Department was serenity.”
Eric Thompson, who now lives in Craigendoran, has spent much of his career in Scotland. He courteously sent me an advance extract from his book because of a nice reference, dating back to the early days of the West Highland Free Press and the decision to establish a torpedo testing range in the Sound of Raasay.
His superiors thought that local opposition would be ill-informed and easily brushed aside. Thompson, whose father-in-law was from Lewis, knew better and probably enjoyed the spectacle as his superiors were taken apart at a public meeting in Kyle of Lochalsh, where the Commodore finally expostulated: “You should all count yourself damn lucky. If you were in the Soviet Union, you wouldn’t be allowed to ask these questions!”
The range was established and complaints these days are only heard if there is to be a loss of civilian jobs. In the same way, the public assimilate most of what the military want and decide, on balance, that it is probably for the public good. Thompson’s down to earth memoirs and practical insights will probably help to reassure them.
At root, nuclear weapons involve a moral issue more than a political one. The case against is that it is wrong to possess weapons which cannot, under any conceivable circumstances, be used. The case in favour is Lord Boyce’s – that it is possession which guarantees that they will never be used. Take your pick.
Thompson says that he has written the book because, at 75, he is one of a diminishing band who saw the Cold War from his end of the periscope. As international tensions threaten to return to Cold War levels, he remains confident about the power of deterrence. “There will always be surrogate wars,” he says, “but ultimately, no regime is prepared to risk its own destruction.”
- On Her Majesty’s Nuclear Service by Eric Thompson is out now, published by Casemate at £19.99, tel: 01226 734350, www.casematepublishing.co.uk