• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
HMS Resolution was the first Royal Navy submarine to carry ballistic missiles. Photo/Getty Images

Life on a nuclear submarine

A former sailor’s warts-and-all story of life on a Royal Navy nuclear submarine is prosaic and chilling.

In the midst of the “neither confirm nor deny” game the US Navy and the New Zealand Government played in the 1980s, I spent an afternoon on the USS Enterprise, a nuclear-powered and -armed aircraft carrier moored in Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong. My abiding memory is not of the captain’s carefully scripted words, but of visiting below decks where the sailors, most barely older than 21, whiled away their off-duty hours playing first-person shooter games and giving no thought to nuclear Armageddon.

Richard Humphreys was a more thoughtful young man when he decided to become a submariner, crewing on the Resolution, one of four Resolution class submarines equipped with Polaris missiles that were Britain’s main nuclear deterrent of the 1980s. For decades, the Resolution, the Renown, the Repulse and the Revenge played cat and mouse with Soviet hunter-killer craft.

With 15 minutes’ notice, they were capable of unleashing an obliterating force equivalent to 800 times the power of the A-bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, more than enough to level the Soviet Union’s major cities. The Resolution had one mission, to stay undetected anywhere within striking range of Moscow. This meant the crew spent up to 100 days beneath the waves, with no daylight, breathing recirculated air, sleeping next to a nuclear power plant and 16 nuclear missiles.

The result, which Humphreys describes with detailed glee, is an atmosphere of sweat and other bodily fluids, farts, stale nicotine and recycled oxygen. When “running silent”, often for days, toilets could not be flushed, so the crew crapped on overflowing bowls, retching.

Since this was the 1980s, submariners expected to be able to smoke and drink. A necessary part of provisions was about 10,000 cans of beer for the crew of 143. Since not all of them drank, the alcohol became currency. Those who did drink could boost their ration and often sink between nine and 12 cans a night to handle the monotony. But after a crazed sailor got hold of a gun and killed his commander in 2011, the Royal Navy imposed stricter drinking rules.

The other monotony beater was regular screenings of pornographic films. Humphreys does not say, but with technology, pornography has presumably become a solo rather than shared experience.

Despite these conditions, the submariners, selected for temperament, intelligence and the absence of claustrophobia, endure their tours, saving their pay for legendary blowouts on shore. Humphreys’ style is more that of a mate telling a story than considered analysis of the Cold War. The result is prosaic and chilling, especially when he writes of the letters of last resort. Each British PM writes a letter with final instructions to the captains of their nuclear subs. If the letter needs to be opened, it means Britain has been annihilated. Whether the instructions are to head to New Zealand to help rebuild civilisation or fire off a retaliatory strike remains unknown except to the current British PM. Long may that remain so.

UNDER PRESSURE: Living Life and Avoiding Death on a Nuclear Submarine, by Richard Humphreys (HarperCollins, $29.99)

This article was first published in the January 18, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

For more on the political, cultural and literary life of the country, follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram or sign up to our weekly newsletter.