SSN14 – Book Review

£23.99 (Hardback) £13.99 (Paperback)  £2.99 (Kindle)

Former Royal Navy submariner, Commander Ryan Ramsey recently self-published this unique book that tells the story of HMS Turbulent’s eventful last deployment in 2011. Commanding a highly capable, but ageing Trafalgar class submarine tested Ramsey’s management skills to the limit and the book is structured around the leadership principles he employed.

Cdr Ramsey witnessed some of the very best and worst examples of leadership during his naval career. Drawing on this experience he developed his own style that ultimately proved highly successful. Defects and breakdowns proved to be amongst the biggest challenges that faced Ramsey during his time as CO. Although still very effective SSNs, the four Trafalgar class submarines that remain in service are similarly afflicted.

Laid down in 1980, Turbulent had already been in commission for 27 years when he took command and she had built a fearsome reputation for operational success. She fired 30 Tomahawk land attack missiles during the 2003 Gulf War but presumably much of her success had been gained while operating in Northern waters against the Russians. It is interesting to note that although hundreds have served on the Trafalgar class boats over the years, each gained a distinct reputation and ethos, partly due to some unique mechanical idiosyncrasies and partly shaped by the personalities of those who serve onboard.

Ramsey worked the crew up to pass Operational Sea Training but then had to endure an extended unplanned docking period while many of his crew were reassigned. The remaining core of the crew were kept motivated by a variety of team-building events, VIP visits, charity work and generally promoting the RN. Eventually the crew was built up again, underwent further sea training and was ready for deployment but faced further delays caused by mechanical problems. This unpredictability is part of naval life but the impact on personnel and families becomes more acute for navies with an inadequate number or unreliable vessels, faced with unrelenting demands to deploy. There is always pressure on the CO to keep the team focused when the programme is uncertain, things go wrong or even during the periods of boredom.

Submarine Patrol DVDThere are not many COs who would have to confidence to embark a TV crew in the confines of a submarine on an operational deployment but Channel Five was allowed to film aboard Turbulent. The resulting Royal Navy Submarine Mission documentary (Now available on DVD as Submarine Patrol) allows a rare and valuable glimpse into modern submarine life. Ramsey should be commended for a major contribution to promoting the work of the Service. It is always difficult for a Service that is instinctively secretive to strike a balance between security and the need for public recognition (and resulting political support).

Despite being of national importance, the book is unable to tell the full story of what Turbulent actually did during her 286-day deployment, of which 237 were submerged. It is understandable but frustrating that the most important aspects of the patrol must remain shrouded in secrecy. Turbulent conducted patrols off the Libyan coast during the conflict but was relived after a few weeks to go East of Suez which was her primary task. Apart from being the on call platform to fire Tomahawk missiles, intelligence gathering and counter-terrorism is clearly the primary role. Ramsey described a fast transit across the Indian Ocean for one such mission that was making a real difference and at times, “saving lives”.

Much of the story is about overcoming unexpected problems, and the toughest moment for Ramsey was on what came to be known as “sweaty Sunday”. Shortly after leaving Fujairah in the UAE there was a total failure of the air-conditioning systems caused by blocked water intakes. Internal temperatures quickly rose to 60°C with 100% humidity. 26 of the crew were incapacitated by heat exhaustion, 8 of them so serious as to be life-threatening. The fierce summer heat provided little cooling on the surface and the ambient water temperature was also high. Ramsey had to deal with multiple system unavailability due to the extreme temperature and was too far from port to get back before all aboard would succumb to the heat. Managing to keep calm and reassure the crew he eventually was able to find deeper water which cooled the submarine sufficiently for return to normal conditions. This near-disaster experience had a variety of effects on people and he had to deal with this during the remainder of the patrol.

HMS Turbulent Ship's company 2011

HMS Turbulent’s ships company, Devonport, March 2011. Ramsey’s attachment his boat ran deep and like many naval COs before him, found it painful to relinquish command.

After command of HMS Turbulent Ramsey’s achievements were endorsed by the plum appointment of Persisher (Submarine Command Course) Teacher. Enjoyable as this was, faced with the reality that he would never get another boat he decided to leave the RN.

Although the total tonnage of the RN fleet is set to increase in the coming years there will be fewer ships or submarines that can give officers the opportunity of command. Many good officers will never get the chance at all and the few that do will probably have a maximum of two drives. This is a source of frustration and people like Ramsey with years of expensively accumulated training and experience may choose to leave the service at the peak of their powers, rather than be promoted into what are essentially desk jobs. Issues around lack of command opportunities and the development of talent are frequently overlooked when it comes to consideration of vessel numbers. Ramsey was, however determined to leave the RN with a good legacy by mentoring and developing the people he led to the best of his ability.

Speaking about the teamwork and kinship of submarine life he says “if the world was like submarines, there would be no need for submarines” and of the service in general; “We are very good at what we do”. There are few who would disagree.

Literature of any kind about RN submarine operations in the last decade is rare, giving this book added importance. This should be recommended reading for all RN officers but it has broad appeal beyond naval circles as a guide to successful people management and leadership.