Going underwater in a submarine has fascinated me since I discovered that my grandfather served on a ‘sub’ during World War One.
Life on a submarine is also the subject of a new star-studded BBC TV drama called “Vigil” about a mysterious death at sea. And to cap it all, the British government has just announced plans for a new generation of super submarines.
What better time to visit Ocelot, a Cold War submarine on display at Chatham Dockyard in Kent.
Going on board a submarine is a chilling experience. Little is known about Ocelot’s adventures because information about its working life is still top secret. Despite this, a tour gives a sense of what it would’ve been like to serve on the ship as a submariner during the Cold War.
Cloaked in jet black, Ocelot is an impressive and terrifying ship, a large ‘whale’ of a vessel with an ominous appearance which screams out ‘danger’, ‘clandestine’ and ‘undercover’. Named after the wild cat, it shares the characteristics of being a solitary and territorial creature which is active at night.
This is a ship which lurked underwater in anticipation of Cold War threats and hid its position from opposing forces. Using the sonar dome on its front end, it was able to map its location and identify any enemies within range.
Its pulsing sonar sound navigation was a double-edged sword. It was “the ears and eyes” of the sub but could be used by other submarines to locate the Ocelot. That’s why Ocelot often sat around on the sea bed. This was, of course, in the days before sophisticated GPS systems.
Ocelot was designed to disappear, sometimes for weeks on end. It was not uncommon for its crew to be underwater for six weeks on their top secret assignments.
On Board Ocelot
I’ve always wanted to see inside a submarine but nothing prepares you for the experience. After trying my hand at sailing, canoeing and yacht handling (and feeling slightly uneasy), perhaps a submarine was going to be my preferred seafaring experience?
Watching the BBC thriller “Vigil” is nothing like the real thing. Its submarine looks palatial and super spacious compared with Ocelot. One former Ocelot submariner has described the TV series as “inaccurate beyond belief”.
But Ocelot is the real thing. As soon as you enter the interior chamber, it’s clear that space is even tighter than I’d imagined. It’s a real squeeze everywhere you go, especially if you decide to try out the loos.
Anyone who gets freaked out by confined spaces isn’t going to find this a comfortable experience. You have to have a certain psychological make-up to survive this locked-down experience. Submariners are clearly a different breed.
Scrambling down the narrow stairwell into the submarine was easy but the decks and corridors were much narrower than I’d thought. Every room is so small that it’s hard to imagine anyone working on this ship for weeks on end
The first sign that I mightn’t be completely comfortable with spending time on board a submarine came when the tour guide asked us if we were happy getting through “holes less than a metre wide”.
Having panicked a little, I managed to follow the tour guide’s instructions on the best way to climb through the five ‘hatches’. The good news is that I became something of an expert on going ‘feet first’. ‘Head first’ is definitely not recommended unless you fancy getting stuck…
Watch a video of Tammy going through a hatch on Ocelot
Sleeping with Torpedoes
The front of the submarine houses its weaponry and what a terrifying sight it is. Ocelot is armed with 8 torpedo tubes and has a payload of 24 torpedoes.
It’s a shocking to think that if the Cold War had escalated, these weapons of destruction could’ve been launched.
The crew members manning these weapons would have slept right underneath them, another sobering thought. It was at this point that I started to go off the idea of becoming a submariner.
Clearly I haven’t inherited my grandfather’s ‘underwater genes’ and his passion for working on a submarine. He volunteered for the Royal Navy during the First World War aged 16, lying about his age to get the gig.
His most vivid memories were the submarine’s claustrophobic interior, the extreme heat and a fear of being torpedoed. The darkness – he said – was strangely disconcerting at night.
The whole experience was terrifying – the confined spaces, being underwater for weeks at a time – and being attacked by German U-boats. During one German attack, his submarine was lucky not to be blown to smithereens.
At least, Ocelot was ‘modern’ by comparison and the odds of being blown up were lower unless World War Three started… and you were stuck on the ocean floor.
Ocelot looks more like a giant sea creature or giant shark than a warship – a metallic Loch Ness Monster. Frequently, it would sit near the bottom of the sea, lurking to avoid any chance of being picked up by ‘enemy’ submarines.
As the night drew on, the lighting was turned down to a red, dim glow with a limited number of men on watch, making as little noise as possible.
Some of the ex-crew members recall following a “silent routine” at night, speaking in whispers and creeping around to avoid making any noise in case they aroused suspicions.
Avoiding detection was key especially when Ocelot got involved in Nato exercises, training skirmishes and real life operations. Training exercises were known as “war games” by the crew.
The amount of kit on board is astonishing – knobs, buttons, control panels and a tangle of wires are everywhere. It reminded me of the space ship in ‘Alien” except that, under the sea, everybody can hear you scream!
My favourite area was the main control room at the heart of the submarine where I wanted to look through the periscope and shout “take her up, captain”.
Life on Ocelot was difficult and demanding. Not only was this an extremely confined space, the claustrophobic environment must have played mind games with everyone stuck deep in the ocean for weeks at a time.
It’s no coincidence that there are endless movies like “The Hunt for Red October” and “Ice Station Zebra” about people going stir crazy or losing control on a submarine.
Crew members in the 1970s have talked generally about their experiences although they can’t divulge the bigger picture or operational stories because they signed the Official Secrets Act.
They tell tales about how they were always bumping into each other but tried to naturalise this by thinking they were living inside their own houses.
Food was made by a chef in the submarines galley in very cramped and dark conditions. The meals were described by former crew members as being better than many other navy ships.
There was also a ration of rum at ‘tot time’ designed to raise spirits during long periods spent underwater.
The crew ate in the cramped mess deck while the officers took their dinners in the ward room. Fresh food supplies lasted 2-3 weeks after leaving harbour, before the cooks had to turn increasingly to tinned products.
Living on a Submarine
Life on a submarine wasn’t plain sailing and there many challenges involved in living in very cramped spaces.
The crew recall the camaraderie of living, sleeping and working with 65 other men. You got to know each other intimately living in such close conditions.
One former submariner recalls the story of a workmate who had a panic attack after being submerged in this dark “pressure pot”. Apparently he had to be sedated after screaming to be let out and attempting to open the exit hatch.
The poor man was locked up until he could be offloaded onto a passing ship. A submarine like Ocelot couldn’t afford to have anyone on board who was freaked out by the confined conditions.
This BBC News interview with the crew is fascinating. Many of them talk about the smell on board the ship. “It stank of diesel, sweat, fags and food,” said one of the crew.
The washing facilities were barely adequate with only a bowlful of water to bathe in. Rubbish also piled up and couldn’t be tipped into a skip. Clothes were rarely changed and became pretty smelly. We can only imagine the disgusting odour.
I would have been fazed by the lack of fresh air, the heat, the stench and the lack of anywhere to exercise. I can’t imagine being cooked up under the sea for long periods working under pressure.
Walking through the ship’s cabins, I was fascinated by the sleeping arrangements on board. Ocelot has the tiniest bunk beds I’ve ever seen. I’m small in build but would struggle to have got into these narrow sleeping bays.
Apparently the trick is to curl up or lie with your feet sticking out the bottom – and never turn over.
There was a system of ‘hot bedding’ which meant that someone was always ready to leap into your bunk with their own sleeping bag and pillow.
The tiny bed bunks look incredibly uncomfortable especially for anyone tall or broad in stature. I can’t imagine how they ever got a wink of sleep!
The crew worked 12 hours ‘on watch’ every day of the week, and life on board was relentless with little time off and no weekend breaks.
What did the crew do in their spare time? Card and board games were popular and there also a cinema room, showing films on a small screen. “The Hunt for Red October”, perhaps?
The confined spaces on board meant that any form of keeping fit or gym activities would’ve been almost impossible.
The total isolation would have been incredibly challenging, but the ‘Boys Own adventure’ was a magnet for many submariners. A special mind set was needed to cope with the submarine’s conditions.
Ocelot was capable of staying underwater for around 12 weeks, relying on her support systems, recyclable water supplies and being super efficient.
It’s remarkable that she could stay down for so long… and even more surprising that the men didn’t go ‘stir crazy’.
Submarine Fact File
- Built at Chatham Dockyard and launched in 1962
- Average speed of 17 knots when submerged
- 295.2 feet feet in length
- Approximately 69 crew serving on board
- Designed for surveillance in the World’s deepest oceans
- Covered 90,000 miles in her first three years at sea
- Based at Faslane in the Clyde for three years
- Undertook exercises in Scotland, Ireland, the Caribbean, Mediterranean and the Baltic
- Served for 27 years – decommissioned in 1991
- Missions still deemed ‘classified’
It was rare for Ocelot to surface above the water because that’s when she was most exposed but sometimes it was necessary for her to use her radar mast and come up.
There is something very daunting about this manoeuvre and ‘coming up for air’.
Standing on the outer deck must have been a very weird experience for the crew men. A bit like letting off steam on a pressure cooker after weeks being stuck below water.
After walking along corridor after corridor, squeezing through tight spaces and hatches, I had a new-found admiration for the men who served on board. I was desperate to know more about their adventures.
Who was Ocelot spying on? What secret missions did the crew perform? Were they ever attacked and called to “action stations’?
HMS Ocelot served on the front line in the clandestine battle against the Soviet navy but what action did she see?
Sadly, we’ll have to wait several years to discover what Ocelot got up to on its top secret missions… and perhaps then, someone will make a realistic TV film about her.
Until then, I can strongly recommend a trip on board… which lasts about 20 minutes, the perfect time to spend below deck on a submarine before escaping back to the real world outside.