Dreadnought – history in the making

Today (17 April) marks the 60th anniversary of the commissioning of HMS Dreadnought – the UK’s first nuclear-powered submarine.

Today (17 April) marks the 60th anniversary of the commissioning of HMS Dreadnought – the UK's first nuclear-powered submarine.

Dreadnought (pennant number S101) was also the first British submarine to break through the ice and surface at the North Pole.

We're honoured to be building on that proud heritage by delivering the next generation of Dreadnought Class nuclear submarines – the first Royal Navy submarines to feature innovative day/ night lighting on board.

Here, we chat with one of our current Dreadnought engineers – whose Dad served on board the first HMS Dreadnought submarine when it was commissioned on 17 April 1963 – to discover more about that day and another great moment in history, as well as considering the part we're playing in this truly incredible national endeavour.

What did your Dad do on board HMS Dreadnought S101?

He was a Petty Officer; an Engine Room Artificer (an ERA) – we don't have these rates any more – watch-keeping on the propulsion plant and the electrical generation plant back-aft (everything after the reactor compartment). He was in the propulsion section so he looked after feed pumps and the steam range and things like that.

What are your Dad's memories of HMS Dreadnought's Commissioning Day in 1963?

He was a trainee on the boat and he tells me it was all about prepping; getting his uniform ready, practice, practice, practice for divisions where everyone stands out in a nice line and marches into position and gets inspected. He would've only been about 22 – he'd just come into the Royal Navy as a "direct entry". He was an apprentice in a chemical company in Widnes and then he joined the Merchant Navy in Liverpool to finish his apprenticeship. You used to be able to do a direct entry from the Merchant Navy into the Royal Navy, and he'd just done that the year before. So he'd done his basic training and it was literally his first draft. He tells me it was a case of getting everything ready – practice, practice, practice – marching up and down loads of times and then getting ready for the Queen to come. And there was a big party afterwards.

Serving on board the UK's first nuclear-powered submarine must've been a momentous achievement. How did he feel about it?

He was in the Navy for 30 years. After Dreadnought, he went to a surface ship to get a steam qualification – remember Dreadnought was the first nuclear submarine and it was steam-driven. He went to a big aircraft carrier called Victorious in the Far East for two years. Then he got drafted back into submarines to go on the Navy's second nuclear submarine, which was called HMS Valiant – just like the second of our Dreadnought class submarines is called Valiant. He was on that for a long time and then he went and joined HMS Renown in build at Birkenhead. He took that all the way through build and test and commissioning – just like we're going to do with Dreadnought – through sea trials and over to DASO (demonstration and shakedown operation). So it's the same then for Renown, one of the first SSBNs, as it's going to be for Dreadnought; we still do what's called a DASO.

He's proud looking back on his naval career because he did a lot of good stuff. He was on Dreadnought for the commissioning and then Renown. He said the most difficult thing he did was Renown – taking it out of build and going over to DASO. And then he was on lots of submarines; Valiant, Churchill, Warspite and Splendid. He was on HMS Splendid and then I was on HMS Splendid 20 years later – so we both served on the same submarine, albeit separated by 20 years.

Tell us about where your Dad was when he witnessed the Apollo 11 moon launch in July 1969?

He was out there in the summer of 1969 and he was on the boat (HMS Renown) when they launched Apollo 11 in the July, and he saw it on the boat. The submarine was alongside, in Port Canaveral, which is just south of Cape Canaveral. They'd been out and done some exercises and they were in for a short maintenance period for seven days and it just coincided with the launch.

They were up on the casing – loads of them – all the duty watch; because where the submarine was berthed in Port Canaveral, the US naval base, was closer than anyone in the public could get. The public viewing point was something like 5 miles away from the launch site, whereas they were maybe only two miles away. So they had a really good view of it across flat open land to the launch site. They could virtually see the whole of the Saturn 5 rocket.

They were sat on the aft-casing of the submarine drinking tins of beer – CSB (Courage Special Brew) which sailors used to get. Back in those days, sailors still got a tot of rum every day – that only stopped in 1971. They had a tot of rum and a can of beer and they were watching this moon launch. I say to him every time I talk about it: 'There can't be many people alive that saw it live – that were there when it actually happened.'

What did your Dad think when you started working on submarines yourself?

He always knew that I wanted to join the Royal Navy as a submarine engineer but he was extremely proud when I got all the way through my training and passed my first Cat A Board (an exam for nuclear watchkeepers in charge of the nuclear reactor). Then I could actually understand his 'back-aft dits' and spin some of my own.

What does it mean to you to be working on the next generation of Dreadnought Class submarines, given your Dad's history with the first Dreadnought submarine?

All I've ever known in my professional life is submarine engineering and I've already served in a submarine that my Dad had also served in 20 years previously (HMS Splendid). He was very much a Cold War warrior and some of the things they did operationally back then would make your hair curl however some aspects of our submarines are exactly the same! I'm now in a position where I can influence the design and operation of the Royal Navy's next class of SSBN and always have the men and women who will go on patrol in these boats at the forefront of my mind when making engineering decisions.

What did your Dad make of the changes in submarine technology over the years?

Although Combat Systems, the Manoeuvring Room and Ship Control have changed immeasurably over the years because of technology advances and control systems improvement, I could take my Dad in the engine room of Dreadnought and he would still be able to recognise and name components and probably be able to tell me how to make some things better!