Can Plymouth give its Royal Navy heritage the place it deserves?

An ambitious plan has been launched to create a new Cold War and Maritime Heritage Museum in Plymouth featuring the retired nuclear submarine, HMS Courageous, as its centrepiece. Here we look at the hurdles that must be overcome to make this exceptional concept a reality


Plymouth has the largest naval base in Western Europe and has a long association with the RN, dating back to the 1500s. Despite its history being deeply intertwined with supporting the navy, the city has somehow failed to develop a major naval heritage attraction. Chatham has a historic dockyard centred around preserved vessels that are open to the public while Portsmouth’s exhibits are world-renowned and run by the flagship National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN). Plymouth has, however, demonstrated that heritage can be done well. The city museum has been completely rebuilt and recently re-opened as ‘The Box’, a modern, first-class exhibition which has a few naval artefacts but is primarily focussed on the city’s wider history and the arts.

In the 21st Century, there have been two significant efforts to preserve a naval vessel in Plymouth. HMS Courageous was decommissioned in 1992 but a determined group of volunteers managed to persuade the MoD to allow her to go on public display. The nuclear fuel has been removed and the forward section of the boat is in good condition. Volunteers scavenged other laid up submarines to transform an empty hull with appropriate fittings, equipment, memorabilia and artefacts to represent how she appeared in service. Thousands of man-hours of work to repair, renovate and paint the boat have made Courageous a world-class exhibit. She was first opened to the public in Number 3 dry dock at Devonport South Yard in 2002. (Main photo above)

It was hoped the museum frigate HMS Plymouth could be returned to her namesake city and put on display in a dry dock adjacent to Courageous but the City Council and MoD were uncooperative. The scheme was finally torpedoed in 2007 when the MoD refused to repair the leaking 3 dock cassion and it was removed, along with the other cassions at South Yard. HMS Courageous was towed back to rejoin the other decommissioned nuclear submarine hulks back in Number 3 basin. She underwent a cosmetic refurbishment in 2016 and has remained partially open to the public, with visiting parties having to book in advance and be taken through the secure dockyard area by minibus. The boat is currently in Number 10 dry dock and undergoing a routine Survey and Docking Period (SADP) to ensure the integrity of the hull while stored afloat. She is expected to return to 3 Basin and be open to the public again in early 2021.

Another volunteer-led effort has created the Devonport Naval Heritage Centre (DNHC). This is a large collection of artefacts, badges, clothing, models and images that record the development of the Dockyard, of warships and Plymouth’s role in supporting the Royal Navy. Visitors must book at least 5 days in advance and the collection is worthy of being displayed in a more modern and accessible facility. There is an outline plan for a new NMRN (West) which would house the DNHC collection at Bonaventure House in South Yard.

Not an ideal place for a public exhibit – number 3 Basin in Devonport. HMS Courageous (Bottom right) is surrounded by the hulks of 11 other decommissioned boats. Each of these vessels was involved in daring exploits during the Cold War and since. Properly preserving Courageous as a museum for the long-term would be a fitting tribute to the submariners that manned them. (Photo: Andy Amor)

The vision

HMS Courageous would be the prime exhibit for any future naval heritage attraction in Plymouth and there are several good reasons she deserves to be kept for the nation when so many other warship preservation attempts have failed. As well as signposting the importance of maritime power for an island nation in general, she would help raise public awareness and support for the work of RN submarines, past and present. Opening her to the public will help debunk some of the safety myths and around nuclear propulsion and could be used to explain the submarine maintenance, repair and disposal processes undertaken at Devonport. She also has the potential to help promote STEM subjects to students, stimulating their interest in engineering and innovation, while also encouraging RN recruitment.

A major tourist attraction that draws additional visitors to Plymouth an established naval heritage centre would also benefit the local economy. Courageous would be the only nuclear submarine on display in the UK and one of only three in the world. (USS Nautilus in Groton, Connecticut attracts around 150,000 visors a year and FS Redoubtable on display in Cherbourg-Octeville sees over 200,000 visits annually.)

A good case

Preserving warships in a meaningful and lasting way is a very difficult proposition that is frequently underestimated by many. Not only must the vessel be obtained and a suitable berth arranged, most importantly, a viable long-term business plan must be in place. After a large initial investment, the project must generate a sustained income stream that is required to support both ongoing costs, as well as fund a major maintenance package at least once per decade.

In the case of HMS Courageous, her long term preservation would seem to be potentially viable. The MoD has said that it is prepared to work with the existing management group or others and consider innovative proposals for the future of the boat. There is also considerable support within the RN Submarine community, both serving and retired. The boat is already in the port where she will be displayed and there are at least two dry docks that could accommodate her as part of the regeneration of Devonport South Yard area. Subject to some complex conditions, eventual transfer of ownership of the boat from the MoD to a managing trust is potentially possible. Most importantly she would have little competition as there is nothing comparable in the South West region.

There are two Cold War-era conventional submarines open to visitors in the UK, HMS Alliance in Gosport and HMS Ocelot in Chatham but they are quite different and a long way from Plymouth. There are no longer any opportunities for members of the public to visit active boats, the last time a serving submarine was open to the public was HMS Torbay at Plymouth Navy Days in 2006. There is would be a considerable public appetite to visit a unique submarine on display in Plymouth which should help ensure a reliable income for decades to come.


Docks and buildings

An internal assessment made by Devonport Naval Base staff in 2017 concluded that the best option would be to make Number 1 Dock in South Yard the home for Courageous. The existing flooded dock would need to be converted into a permanent dry dock, once she has been fully stripped of declassified items and residual radioactive waste. 1 Dock is slightly too short to accommodate her the and a new dam would have to be built which would extend its length by several feet.

An approximate price for this work was estimated to be around £10million but there would be other significant costs involved. These would include moving the submarine and docking it down on a permanent cradle, modifying access and the internal layout to facilitate tours by greater numbers of people and creating or converting buildings for administration and support.

An alternative option would be to use Number 2 or 3 dock and cover the whole area to create a weatherproof space for a better visitor experience. Visitors could view the underside of the submarine and other exhibits, a cafe and shop could be housed under the canopy. (Similar to the development at the Cutty Sark exhibition at Greenwich). The conversion cost would be similar to what is involved if 1 Dock was selected but a covered dock would initially be more expensive and would place the boat further away from the proposed naval heritage museum site. The land around 2 and 3 docks is included in Phase 3 of the City Deal & Oceansgate Project, scheduled to be redeveloped into a business and marine industrial area.

This crude mock-up shows Courageous afloat in 1 Dock with a new Cold War exhibition and visitor centre building behind.

Big hurdles

Unfortunately, despite the goodwill from the RN, Courageous cannot be simply handed over to a private entity for long term preservation right away. The RN submarine dismantling project continues to progress at a snail’s pace. This process is being piloted at Rosyth where phase one declassification work on ex-HMS Swiftsure has been completed which involved removing most of the low-level radioactive waste and classified engineering systems. Phase two will begin in the next few years and should be completed by 2026. Devonport will not begin its disposal work, based on procedures developed at Rosyth, until the early 2030s. Courageous is the fourth boat in line at Devonport and under exiting timetable would be scheduled to undergo the work in the late 2030s. It is possible that Courageous could be moved up to be first in line, subject to MoD agreement, but the even in the best-case scenario, she would not be handed over, ready to be sealed up permanently in dry dock and put on display, before 2035.

As the PWR1 nuclear reactor that propelled Courageous is based on US technology, the submarine is subject to the provisions of the 1958 US/UK Mutual Defence Agreement. This requires classified material relating to the reactor plant and associated systems be removed from the vessel prior to disposal. If the rector compartment and machinery spaces are ever to be open to visitors, she would need to be fitted with dummies to represent the equipment.

Once the boat has been readied for disposal it could be cost-neutral to the MoD to hand her over for display. The approximately £2 million scrap metal value is roughly equivalent to the cost of preparing her for tow to a breakers yard. Incidentally towing submarines is difficult at the best of times and an unpowered, hulk will handle very poorly on the surface.

Courageous will reopen to the public in 3 Basin on the existing limited basis in 2021. In the medium term, she could be displayed afloat in South yard until the declassification and decontamination work is completed in the mid-2030s. In the meantime, this allows up to 15 years for fundraising to display her on a permanent basis in dry dock.

HMS Courageous ‘on the step’ in her 1980s heyday.

Finance and management

The long term case for preserving the Courageous looks sound but to prevent her being scrapped in the mid-2030s, a large capital sum, probably in the region of £15 million, will be needed. It is unrealistic to expect the MoD, Plymouth City Council or the NMRN to contribute financially, although it seems possible their support and expertise would be available to assist. A combination of National Lottery, crowdfunding and private sponsorship seems like the most likely source of finance. It should be noted that HMS Alliance secured £6 million in Lottery funding in 2011 for a major refurbishment project, although in the short term the National Lottery says it is reprioritising immediate support toward COVID-19 related projects.

For now, the project needs to establish a leadership team and source £40,000 for an initial feasibility study to look further at the business case. Currently, the Courageous Management Group (CMG) is only an informal grouping of volunteers and has no status as a legal entity. The NMRN is the most likely organisation to be able to provide leadership and experience, especially if the preservation of Courageous can dovetail with their plans for an NMRN (West) naval heritage museum at South Yard.

This plan to save HMS Courageous for future generations is inspiring and challenging but will take time. We would urge all of the major stakeholders involved to give this their fullest support. Those wishing to help make this vision a reality can donate here to help fund the feasibility study.