Under Pressure – Book Review
£9.38 (Hardback) £9.99 (Kindle)
Another illuminating modern submarine memoir was published this year. Several recent books have documented the Cold War-era submarine service but this is the first to focus purely on the unique experience of serving onboard a deterrent boat.
Richard Humphreys was a Royal Navy submarine rating, serving between 1985 -1990 and did patrols on just one boat, HMS Resolution. He also served at a time when the service was at it post-war zenith with more than 30 boats, more than half of them nuclear powered. Much of the Humphries experience would be instantly recognised by today’s submariners and in the year the RN celebrated 50 years of CASD, the book provides a timely reminder of the sacrifices involved.
Inspired to write the book in the wake of the loss of Argentine submarine ARA San Juan in 2017, Humphries describes submarine life as “lived at the extremes, living underwater in what is effectively an elongated – if beautifully streamlined – steel tin can”. The byline “Living life and avoiding death on a nuclear submarine” encapsulates the spirit of the book which is very much about the human experience, more than the operational side.
Ineligible to join the French Foreign Legion, Humphreys saw a career in submarines as an alternative way to challenge himself. His journey through basic training, security vetting and the intense period qualifying for his Dolphins as a baby submariner is written in a direct style without over embellishment. The submarine layout and design itself is described in some detail in perhaps the most intimate unclassified portrait of a British SSBN available. “Although the biggest submarine ever built for the RN at that time [HMS Resolution] was hellishly cramped in terms of living space and moving around its tiny passageways required all manner of contortions”.
The book is made up of 28 short chapters and written in a simple and readable manner. Life in Faslane, work up and the start of a patrol is all covered before a series of chapters about specific aspects of the patrol routine onboard including; Cut off, Downtime, Booze, Snadgens (Cigarettes), Porn, Familygrams, Racked out (sleeping), Food and The Captain. Amongst these chapters are many gems and anecdotes that make a serious subject great fun and the humour and camaraderie of naval life is always core to success.
Spending 3 months underwater had its challenges but there was the added physiological pressure of knowing the crew must always be able to launch the Polaris nuclear missiles within 15 minutes of receiving the order. At one level it was taken for granted it could never happen but the crew drilled over and over for the eventuality; “the world could have ended but we would have been bored fartless doing it”. He believes the crew would have carried out the order if it had come through for real and says “I would shudder to think what we would have done afterwards – gone and wept in my bunk I suppose… the deterrent would have failed in its basic purpose – to preserve the peace”.
This book comes highly recommended as an enjoyable read that serves both as a historical record but also a helpful explainer for those considering a career in the Submarine Service. Reflecting on his time on HMS Resolution, the author says “I believe I played an important, if minor, part in keeping my country and its population safe from the threat of the Cold War… It was the most demanding job I have ever done, physically and mentally but serving to be the best team in the whole of the service got everyone through it and motivated us”.
£9.38 (Hardback) £9.99 (Kindle)