Royal Navy Submarine Service

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HM Submarine Service
Ensign of the Royal Navy animated.gif
AllegianceFlag United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.gif United Kingdom
BranchEnsign of the Royal Navy animated.gif United Kingdom Royal Navy
Motto(s)"We Come Unseen"
Equipment7 SSNs & 4 SSBNs
WebsiteRN Submarine Service
Rear Admiral John Weale
Commodore-in-ChiefHRH The Duke of Cambridge

The Royal Navy Submarine Service also known as the Submarine Branch is one of the five Fighting Arms of the Royal Navy.[1] It is sometimes known as the Silent Service, as the submarines are generally required to operate undetected.[2]

The service operates seven fleet submarines (SSNs), of the Trafalgar and Astute classes (with four currently planned or under construction), and four ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), of the Vanguard class. All of these submarines are nuclear powered.

Since 1993 the post of Flag Officer Submarines has been jointly held with the post of Commander Operations.

The Royal Navy's senior submariner was for many years located at Template:Ship in Hampshire.[3] It moved from Dolphin to the Northwood Headquarters in 1978.Template:Sfnp The Submarine School is now at Template:Ship at Torpoint in Cornwall.


In 1900 the Royal Navy ordered five submarines from Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering of Barrow-in-Furness, designed by Electric Boat Company. The following year the first submarine, Template:Ship, was launched, and the navy recruited six officers for the Submarine Service, under Reginald Bacon as Inspecting Captain of Submarines. At the beginning of World War I it consisted of 168 officers, 1250 ratings, and 62 submarines.[4] During the war it was awarded five of the Royal Navy's 14 Victoria Crosses of the war, the first to Lieutenant Norman Holbrook, Commanding Officer of Template:Ship.

World War One

During the first world war The Commodore [S] commanding the submarine service was responsible for operations at Harwich, and later, from other east coast bases. He was not concerned with flotillas elsewhere at other stations outside of home waters.[5]

World War Two

Until the outbreak of war, the Rear Admiral [Submarines] at Fort Blockhouse, Gosport, was the head of the submarine service. He exercised administrative control over the service, and had operational control over the submarine flotillas in home waters. Those two tasks remained the same throughout the conflict. In September 1939 he moved the operational staff to a new headquarters at Aberdour in Fife - about six miles downstream from Rosyth. His administrative staff remained in Gosport. This move made sense when the only two operational flotillas were the 2nd at Dundee and the 6th at Blyth. This cumbersome arrangement ceased when Sir Max Horton took command in January 1940 when the headquarters moved to Northwood in Middlesex.[6]

In the Mediterranean (during the Siege of Malta), British U-class submarines began operations against Italy as early as January 1941. Larger submarines began operations in 1940, but after 50% losses per mission, they were withdrawn. U-class submarines operated from the Manoel Island Base known as HMS Talbot. Unfortunately no bomb-proof pens were available as the building project had been scrapped before the war, owing to cost-cutting policies. The new force was named the 10th Submarine Flotilla and was placed under Flag Officer Submarines, Admiral Max Horton, who appointed Commander George Simpson to command the unit.[7] Administratively, the 10th Flotilla operated under the First Submarine Flotilla at Alexandria, itself under the admiral commanding in the Mediterranean, Andrew Cunningham. In reality, Cunningham gave Simpson and his unit a free hand. Until U-class vessels could be made available in numbers, T-Class Submarines were used. They had successes, but suffered heavy losses when they began operations on 20 September 1940. Owing to the shortage of torpedoes, enemy ships could not be attacked unless the target in question was a warship, tanker or other "significant vessel".Template:SfnpTemplate:Sfnp The flotilla's performance of the fleet was mixed at first. They sank 37,000 long tons (38,000 t) of Italian shipping; half by one vessel, the submarine HMS Truant}. It accounted for one Italian submarine, nine merchant vessels and one Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB). The loss of nine submarines and their trained crews and commanders was serious. Most of the losses were to mines. On 14 January 1941, U-class submarines arrived, and the submarine offensive began in earnest.

One of the most famous Mediterranean submarines was Template:Ship, commanded for its entire career by Lieutenant-Commander Malcolm Wanklyn. He received the Victoria Cross for attacking a well-defended convoy on 25 May 1941 and sinking an Italian liner, the Template:Ship. In her 16-month operational career in the Mediterranean, before she was sunk in April 1942, Upholder carried out 24 patrols and sank around 119,000 tons of Axis ships – 3 U-boats, a destroyer, 15 transport ships with possibly a cruiser and another destroyer also sunk.

On 8 September 1944, C-in-C Mediterranean ordered that the submarine base at La Maddalena be closed, and that Tenth Flotilla be disestablished and the submarines be incorporated into the First Submarine Flotilla at Malta.[8]

Cold War

The submarine force was cut back after the end of the war. The first British nuclear-powered submarine, Template:Ship was launched in 1960, based around a U.S.-built nuclear reactor. This was complemented by the Valiant class from 1966, which used a new British-built Rolls-Royce PWR1 reactor. The UK's strategic nuclear deterrent was transferred to the Royal Navy from the Royal Air Force at midnight on 30 June 1968, i.e. 1 July. The Resolution class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) were introduced to carry out this role under the Polaris programme from 1968. These carried US-built UGM-27 Polaris A-3 missiles and were later replaced by the Vanguard class submarines and the Trident missile system from 1994.

In 1978 the Flag Officer Submarines who was also COMSUBEASTLANT, part of Allied Command Atlantic, moved from HMS Dolphin at Gosport to the Northwood Headquarters.[9]

Template:Ship made history in 1982 during the Falklands War when she became the first nuclear-powered submarine to sink a surface ship, the Template:Ship.

At the end of the Cold War in 1989 the Flag Officer Submarines, a Rear-Admiral, who double-hatted as NATO Commander Submarine Force Eastern Atlantic (COMSUBEASTLANT), commanded a fleet of 30 submarines, which were grouped into four squadrons (First, Second, Third, and Tenth (SSBN)) at three bases.

Post Cold War

In May 1991 Oberon-class submarines Template:Ship and her sister Template:Ship returned to the submarine base Template:Ship in Gosport from patrol in the Persian Gulf flying Jolly Rogers, the only indication that they had been involved in alleged SAS and SBS reconnaissance operations.[10]

In 1999 Template:Ship participated in the Kosovo Conflict and became the first Royal Navy submarine to fire a Tomahawk cruise missile in anger.[11]

During Operation Veritas, the attack on Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces following the September 11 attacks in the United States,Template:Ship was the first Royal Navy submarine to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles against targets in Afghanistan.[12] Template:Ship was also involved in the initial strikes.[13] Template:Ship launched fourteen Tomahawks during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.[14]

In 2011, HMS Triumph and Turbulent participated in Operation Ellamy. They launched Tomahawk cruise missiles at targets in Libya, firing the first shots of the operation.

In April 2016, The Sunday Times reported that Royal Navy submarines were to resume under-ice operations in the Arctic. Such operations have not taken place since 2007 after a fatal explosion on board Template:Ship. The crews of all seven active Royal Navy attack submarines will receive training on how to navigate below and "punch through" ice floes.

The Jolly Roger and the Submarine Service

Rear-Admiral Arthur Wilson VC, the Controller of the Royal Navy, has gone down in history as the officer who claimed in 1901 "[Submarines are] underhand, unfair, and damned un-English. ... treat all submarines as pirates in wartime ... and hang all crews,"[15] In actual fact he had advocated the purchase of submarines the year before, and he was actually expressing a desire to continue the policy of discouraging foreign powers from building submarines while the Royal Navy developed its own in secret.[16] The legend goes that in response to these top secret remarks of Wilson's made 13 years earlier Lieutenant-Commander (later Admiral Sir) Max Horton first flew the Jolly Roger on return to port after sinking the German cruiser Template:Ship and the destroyer Template:Ship in 1914 while in command of the E-class submarine Template:Ship.

In World War II it became common practice for the submarines of the Royal Navy to fly the Jolly Roger on completion of a successful combat mission where some action had taken place, but as an indicator of bravado and stealth rather than of lawlessness. For example, in 1982 returning from the Falklands conflict Conqueror flew the Jolly Roger depicting one dagger for the SBS deployment to South Georgia and one torpedo for her sinking of the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano. The Jolly Roger is now the emblem of the Royal Navy Submarine Service.

In Command

Inspecting Captain of Submarines (1901-1912)

Commodore Submarine Service (1912-1919)

Chief of the Submarine Service (1919-1929)

Rear-Admiral Submarines (1929-1944)

Flag Officer Submarines (1944-2004)

Rear-Admiral Submarines (2015-Present)


The Training of officers who take the 'Perisher' Submarine Command Course is better known) is a 24-week course all officers must take prior to serving as an executive officer on board a Royal Navy submarine. It has been run twice a year since 1917, usually starting on 2 July and 14 November each year. It is widely regarded as one of the toughest command courses in the world, with a historical failure rate of 25%.[17]

If at any point during the training a candidate is withdrawn from training he will be nominated for boat transfer and kept occupied until the transfer. His bag is packed for him and he is notified of the failure when the boat arrives. On departure he is presented with a bottle of whisky. A failure on Perisher means that the unsuccessful candidate is not permitted to return to sea as a member of the Submarine Service (although they are still allowed to wear the dolphin badge). He is, however, permitted to remain in the Royal Navy, moving into the surface fleet.

In more recent years, the United States Navy has sent some of its own submariner officers to undergo the 'Perisher', in order to foster and maintain closer links with the Royal Navy.

In 1995 the Royal Netherlands Navy took over the Perisher course for diesel-electric submarines, since the Royal Navy no longer operates boats of that type. The course is attended by candidate submarine commanders from navies around the world.[18]


The Submarine Service has many traditions that are not found in the surface fleet. These include slang unique to submariners (such as referring to the torpedo storage compartment as the Bomb Shop and the diesel engine room as the Donk Shop[19]), a special communications code known as the Dolphin Code and the entitlement of a sailor to wear Dolphins upon entering the service. These are only awarded after completion of training and qualification in ships' systems during the first submarine posting (Part III training).

Problems with alcohol use while on shore leave were highlighted in the inquest following the murder on board Astute in April 2011. In February 2013 there had been over 300 disciplinary incidents in the previous three years on the RN's 13 submarines, of which 42 were substance abuse-related.[20]

Current Composition of the Submarine Service

The Submarine Service consists of two classes of Fleet submarines and one class of Ballistic Missile submarines.

Fleet Submarines

There are six fleet submarines on active duty – three Trafalgar and three Astute. They are all nuclear submarines and are classified as SSNs.[21]

These submarines are armed with the Spearfish torpedo for anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare. They have the ability to fire Tomahawk cruise missiles for attacking targets on land. This capability was used by Template:Ship against the Taliban in 2001 during Operation Veritas. The Fleet submarines are also capable of surveillance and reconnaissance missions.[22] Fleet submarines are sometimes referred to as attack or hunter-killer vessels.

Name Class Pennant Number Launched
Template:Ship Trafalgar S91 1986
Template:Ship Trafalgar S92 1988
Template:Ship Trafalgar S93 1991
Template:Ship Astute S119 2007
Template:Ship Astute S120 2011
Template:Ship Astute S121 2014

Ballistic Submarines

The four ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) of the Royal Navy are all of the Vanguard class. They were all built by Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd., now BAE Systems Submarine Solutions. The SSBN flotilla or bomber 'fleet' tends to be almost a separate entity; for example, it rarely uses pennant numbers preferring to use hull numbers, thus Vanguard 05, Victorious 06, Vigilant 07 and Vengeance 08.

The four Vanguard class boats are responsible for the United Kingdom's nuclear deterrent, and use the Trident missile system. Each boat can carry up to 16 Trident II D5 Missiles, each of which may carry up to 12 nuclear warheads. As of 2015, it is UK Government policy to limit the actual number of warheads carried to 40 per boat and 8 Trident Missiles.[23] There has been at least one SSBN on patrol at all times since April 1969.[24]

Name Class Pennant Number Launched
Template:Ship Vanguard S28 1992
Template:Ship Vanguard S29 1993
Template:Ship Vanguard S30 1996
Template:Ship Vanguard S31 1998

LR5 Submarine Rescue System and the NATO Submarine Rescue System

The Royal Navy operated the LR5 Submarine Rescue System, designed for retrieving sailors from stranded submarines. Capable of rescuing up to 16 sailors at a time, the system was deployed to the wreck site of the sunken Template:Ship. The system was replaced in 2004 with the NATO Submarine Rescue System which remains based in the UK.

The Royal Navy, along with France and Norway, is part of the NATO Submarine Rescue System.

Decommissioning nuclear submarines

Nineteen nuclear submarines awaiting decommissioning have been laid-up at Rosyth and Devonport.[25] In 2014 the MOD announced a plan to decommission 7 of the submarines awaiting disposal, in a project expected to take 12 years. A site for the intermediate-level nuclear waste produced is expected to be identified by 2016.[26] A trial dismantling of a nuclear submarine is planned to start in January 2016 at Rosyth.[25]

Future Submarines

A total force of seven Astute fleet submarines is planned. As of April 2016, the first three boats are in commission and in service, while boats four to six are in various stages of construction. Boat number seven was confirmed in the October 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review and long-lead items have been ordered.[27] The Astute-class submarine is the largest nuclear fleet submarine ever to serve with the Royal Navy, being nearly 30% larger than its predecessors. Its powerplant is the Rolls Royce PWR2 reactor, developed for the Vanguard-class SSBN. The submarine's armament consists of up to 38 Spearfish torpedoes and Tomahawk Block IV land-attack cruise missiles.

The replacement class for the Vanguard SSBNs was ordered in 2016 and is named the Dreadnought after its lead boat.[28][29] The programme will seek to replace one-for-one the current four ballistic missile submarines starting sometime during the late 2020s.

Current Bases

HM Naval Base, Clyde

Her Majesty's Naval Base, Clyde, primarily sited at Faslane on the Gare Loch, is one of three operating bases in the United Kingdom for the Royal Navy. It is the navy's headquarters in Scotland and is best known as the home of Britain's nuclear weapons, in the form of nuclear submarines armed with Trident missiles.

Former Formations

The submarine service was organised in to flotillas made up of one depot ship and a flexible number of submarines. These flotillas usually operated out of a single base.[30] From 1941, it became policy to assign all new boats to the 3rd Submarine Flotilla where they would work up to full operational efficiency, and conduct at least one patrol in the flotilla's area of responsibility. A small number of these boats became permanent members of the flotilla. The majority were either sent to the Mediterranean, and to the Indian Ocean [from 1943] where they did a tour of approximately 12 months [excluding passage time], the flotillas in home waters were:[31]

Naval Formations Commanded by Location/s Dates Notes
1st Submarine Flotilla Captain (S), 1st Submarine Flotilla Atlantic Fleet 1919-1927
1st Submarine Flotilla Captain (S), 1st Submarine Flotilla Malta 1927 -1939
2nd Submarine Flotilla Captain (S), 2nd Submarine Flotilla Atlantic Fleet 1919-1927
2nd Submarine Flotilla Captain (S), 2nd Submarine Flotilla Devonport 1927 -1939
2nd Submarine Flotilla Captain (S), 2nd Submarine Flotilla Dundee 9.39- Rosyth 11.39 1939-1941
3rd Submarine Flotilla Captain (S), 3rd Submarine Flotilla Atlantic Fleet 1919-1927
3rd Submarine Flotilla Captain (S), 3rd Submarine Flotilla Harwich, Rosyth, Holy Loch 1939-1945
4th Submarine Flotilla Captain (S), 3rd Submarine Flotilla Hong Kong 1927 -1939
5th Submarine Flotilla Captain (S), 5th Submarine Flotilla Gosport 1927-1945 a training & reserve flotilla
6th Submarine Flotilla Captain (S), 6th Submarine Flotilla Portland 1919–1939 a ASW training & reserve flotilla
7th Submarine Flotilla Captain (S), 7th Submarine Flotilla Rothesay 1940–1945 a training flotilla
8th Submarine Flotilla Captain (S), 8th Submarine Flotilla Harwich 1914-1916 Mainly E class for offensive operations in North Sea
8th Submarine Flotilla Captain (S), 8th Submarine Flotilla Yarmouth 1916-1918 Mainly H class for offensive operations
9th Submarine Flotilla Captain (S), 9th Submarine Flotilla Ardrossan 1914-1916 Old boats - eventually became Clyde Periscope School
9th Submarine Flotilla Captain (S), 9th Submarine Flotilla Harwich to 1940 then Dundee 1940–1945 administrative organisation for allied boats [Dutch, French etc]
10th Submarine Flotilla Captain (S), 10th Submarine Flotilla, Tyne 1914-1916 Mainly C class for coastal defence
10th Submarine Flotilla Captain (S), 10th Submarine Flotilla Tees 1916-1918 reformed - G class & some E and L class boats for offensive patrols
11th Submarine Flotilla, Captain (S), 11th Submarine Flotilla Blyth 1915-1918 G class and then J class for offensive patrols
12th Submarine Flotilla Captain (S), 12th Submarine Flotilla Rosyth 1917-1919 K class for work with the Grand Fleet
13th Submarine Flotilla Captain (S), 13th Submarine Flotilla Rosyth 1917-1919 K class for work with the Grand Fleet
Vulcan Flotilla, Killybegs Captain (S), Vulcan Flotilla, Killybegs Killybegs 1917-1918 D, E & H boats for ASW patrols
Vulcan Flotilla, Kingstown Captain (S), Vulcan Flotilla, Kingstown Kingstown 3-10.1918 H class for ASW patrols in Irish Sea
Vulcan Flotilla, Blyth Captain (S), Vulcan Flotilla, Blyth Blyth 1918-1919 H class for offensive patrols
Platypus Flotilla, Queenstown Captain (S), Platypus Flotilla, Queenstown Queenstown 1917-1919 H class for ASW patrols in Irish Sea
Ambrose Flotilla Captain (S), Ambrose Flotilla Berehaven, Portsmouth, Devonport 1917-1919 L class and some E & H class boats for ASW patrols.
Baltic Flotilla Captain (S), Ambrose Flotilla Helsingfors 1914-1916 C & E class.

Former Bases

This section is currently empty and will need expanding.

See also


  1. "THE ROYAL NAVY'S SURFACE FLEET" (PDF). MOD UK. Archived (PDF) from the original on 18 October 2012. Retrieved 5 August 2018.
  2. "Royal Navy Submarine School". Royal Navy. Archived from the original on 25 April 2014. Retrieved 10 April 2012.
  3. "Submarine School". Diesel Weasel. Archived from the original on 1 September 2015. Retrieved 6 September 2015.
  4. Lambert. The Submarine Service, 1900–1918. p. x–xii, xxix.
  5. Watson, Dr Graham (19 September 2015). "Royal Navy Orgnisation in World War 2, 1939-1945". Gordon Smith. Retrieved 17 August 2019.
  6. Watson, Dr Graham (19 September 2015). "Royal Navy Orgnisation in World War 2, 1939-1945". Gordon Smith. Retrieved 17 August 2019.
  7. Template:Cite thesis
  8. Walters, Derek (2004). The History of the British 'U' Class Submarine. Casemate Publishers. p. 150. ISBN 978-1-84415-131-8. Retrieved 17 January 2016.
  9. "Northwood Headquarters". Royal Navy. Archived from the original on 12 December 2012. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  10. "Phil lies low..." Navy News. May 1991. p. 3. Archived from the original on 15 April 2017. Retrieved 14 April 2017.
  11. Gellman, Barton (25 March 1999). "U.S., NATO Launch Attacks on Yugoslavia". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on 19 May 2006. Retrieved 24 May 2006.
  12. "Trafalgar Returns". Warship News. 1 March 2002. Archived from the original on 21 June 2007.
  13. "Home and away over Christmas". Navy News. 24 December 2001. Archived from the original on 2 April 2003.
  14. Norton-Taylor, Richard (17 April 2003). "Cruise missile sub back in UK". The Guardian.
  15. Hill, J. R. (1989). Arms Control at Sea. Routledge. p. 35. ISBN 0-415-01280-5. Underhand... and damned Un-English... treat all submarines as pirates in wartime ... and hang all crews. cites Marder, A. J., ed. (1961). Fear God and Dread Nought: The correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher of Kilverstone (Volume I). Oxford University Press. p. 332.
  16. Lambert. The Submarine Service, 1900–1918. p. xi.
  17. Nagle, David. "Perisher Submarine Command Training in the Royal Navy". United States Navy. Archived from the original on 18 October 2013.
  18. Massie, Rich. "U.S. Submariner Qualifies for SSK Command in the RNLN Submarine Command Course". United States Navy. Archived from the original on 19 December 2012.
  19. Jolly, Rick (2000). Jackspeak: A Guide to British Naval Slang & Usage. FoSAMMA. ISBN 0-9514305-2-1.
  20. Rosenbaum, Martin (15 February 2013). "Submariners punished for drunken misconduct". BBC Online. Archived from the original on 15 February 2013. Retrieved 16 February 2013.
  21. "Submarines". Royal Navy. Archived from the original on 30 October 2011. Retrieved 19 October 2011.
  22. "Fleet Submarines (SSN) : Submarine Service : Operations and Support". Royal Navy. Archived from the original on 6 September 2008.
  23. Template:Cite Hansard
  24. "Continuous At Sea Deterrent". Royal Navy. Archived from the original on 2 June 2014. Retrieved 16 June 2014.
  25. 25.0 25.1 Morris, Jonathan (3 June 2015). "Laid-up nuclear submarines at Rosyth and Devonport cost £16m". BBC News. Archived from the original on 3 June 2015. Retrieved 5 June 2015.
  26. "How Babcock plans to decommission UK nuclear submarines". Nuclear Engineering International. 14 February 2014. Archived from the original on 24 February 2014. Retrieved 19 February 2014.
  27. "Babcock contracted to provide Astute 6 & 7 weapons handling and launch system". Babcock International Group plc. 1 February 2013. Archived from the original on 15 April 2017. Retrieved 14 April 2017.
  28. Template:Cite press release
  29. "New nuclear submarine given famous naval name". BBC News. Archived from the original on 21 October 2016. Retrieved 21 October 2016.
  30. Watson, Dr Graham (19 September 2015). "Royal Navy Orgnisation in World War 2, 1939-1945". Gordon Smith. Retrieved 17 August 2019.
  31. Watson.