First British Polaris Submarines

HMS Resolution breaking the surface of the sea.

On 26 February 1964, about a year after the project started, the keel for the first Ship Submersible Ballistic Nuclear (SSBN) was laid at the Vickers yard at Barrow, but it was not quite the normal keel-laying ceremony in this case. A 250-ton section of the pressure hull was moved from the welding bay in the massive construction shed to the slipway where eventually it would be joined by the other sections required to build the submarine. Also on the same day, the Government finally approved the building of the fifth Polaris submarine.

As if CPE didn’t have enough on his plate, in April 1964 the three separate armed service ministries were combined into a new organisation, the Ministry of Defence. Despite the turmoil caused by the move across Whitehall from the old Admiralty Building to the new MoD main building, there were several advantages. At last CPE had ample dedicated office space and conference facilities, security was much improved and his team finally got its own teleprinter network. As an added bonus, Mackenzie got his own official car; before this he had been using public transport. On the downside, the new organisation made getting things done more difficult for CPE; in the old Admiralty organisation he had direct access to the ‘board’. Now the path was longer and certainly more tortuous.

The keel for the second Polaris submarine was laid at Cammell Laird on 26 June 1964, exactly on time as detailed in the Longcast. A shortage of suitably qualified specialised welders who could work with the QT35 steel used for the submarine hulls caused concern. This was only partially relieved after a nationwide recruiting campaign. Added to this was a series of strikes or threatened stoppages that jeopardised the overall programme. Also, CPE felt that the fitting out of Valiant was not progressing satisfactorily and the shipyard needed to allocate more manpower to the task. There was no easy solution to this, the specialised skills required to meet the very high cleanliness and quality standards that were required in both the SSBN and SSN build programmes were in short supply. A great deal of time and money was expended on rectifying this problem.

Within a few days of the General Election on 15 October 1964 CPE and his staff gave a presentation on the Polaris programme to the victorious Labour ministers who might have any involvement with the Polaris programme. Among them was Denis Healey, the newly appointed Secretary of State for Defence. Although CPE did not receive the hostile reception he had been expecting, the Labour Party had made no secret of its opposition to the project prior to the election, pledging that it intended to renegotiate the Polaris Arrangement or cancel the project outright. However, no decision was forthcoming. When Healey first examined the ‘accounts’, he could not believe the cost of Polaris; he could not understand why it was so cheap. He also recalls that certain senior naval officers expected him or actively encouraged him to cancel Polaris. They told him that although two submarines were laid down, they could be converted to hunter-killer submarines at no extra cost. Wilson told Healey not to brief the Cabinet as he intended to continue with the Polaris project on the grounds that the financial penalties would be colossal if the Government cancelled at this stage.

By mid-November both shipyards were reporting that the political uncertainty was causing key workers to leave the project. Regardless of the Government’s dithering, work continued on major parts of the project, the proposed home port for the submarines at Faslane and the armaments depot at Coulport. Suitable terms of reference and pay had to be agreed for the Coulport staff, many of whom would be very highly qualified technicians the likes of whom had not been seen in the civil service. They were men who would soon be undergoing training on the new systems in America; these would require the necessary increases in pay to allow for the higher cost of living in that country. In both these cases the Treasury was not particularly helpful and CPE was involved in long and difficult discussions.

After a weekend at Chequers at the end of the year, at which defence matters were top of the agenda, the Government announced it intended to keep Polaris as the national deterrent, although it failed to mention the size of the force. For CPE this meant that the programme was to remain as it was and the first submarine was to be operational by mid-1968, with the remainder following at six-monthly intervals. The Government finally seemed to have grasped the enormity of the task when in early 1965 the Minister for the Navy, when announcing the naval estimates, acknowledged that the Polaris project was the most challenging peace-time task the Navy could have been given.

In January 1965, CPE addressed a meeting of the Defence Council chaired by the Secretary of State for Defence. He stressed that five submarines were required to ensure that one would always be available on patrol. He also stressed that he felt that five submarines would not overstretch the crews or the personnel required to maintain the submarines; morale was a very important factor in the admiral’s eyes. After his presentation, CPE was thanked by Healey but was told that his views were largely immaterial. The Treasury had demanded that the Polaris force be cut to three submarines, but after a meeting between the Cabinet’s Overseas Policy and Defence Committees a compromise was reached and it was agreed that the force should consist of four.

As a result of this all, work and contracts associated with the fifth submarine were cancelled. Where contracts could not be cancelled the parts concerned became spares.

One has to agree with Mackenzie, who was never convinced that the cancellation was a Treasury-driven decision. He felt that it was a move to appease the left wing of the Labour Party, and it had the potential to have a detrimental effect on crew welfare. He later wrote: ‘All that their (the Labour Party) clamour achieved was to lay an almost intolerable burden on the men, and the women, responsible for the efficiency of the deterrent.’

Finding the manpower to crew the new submarines was going to be a major problem because many of the posts would require highly specialised technicians. This would require a 40 per cent increase in submarine manpower during the mid-1960s, not the easiest of tasks as Healey was busily reducing the overall naval manpower by 10 per cent. Although there were many volunteers for the Polaris Squadron from both serving submariners and general service to meet the growing requirement, for the first time since the Second World War personnel were drafted into the Submarine Service. The number of volunteers had remained remarkably constant from the 1950s at around 450. While this number could meet the requirements of the conventional submarine squadrons and the rapidly expanding nuclear fleet. Also, new accommodation blocks at HMS Dolphin were built.

With the election out of the way and the project, admittedly now a smaller project, the future was secure and life in the CPE became more routine. All the major requirements of the programme were identified, milestones were defined and work was progressing well on building the submarines and their new base on the Clyde. Admiral Mackenzie and his team now found themselves monitoring progress and, although not everything ran smoothly, the management systems that were put in place highlighted areas of concern and allowed them to be addressed at the earliest opportunity. Despite the new Government’s aversion to nuclear weapons, CPE found the newly installed ministers generally helpful and willing to assist. Notwithstanding this, the Polaris project remained a somewhat delicate subject with the Government, as Mackenzie was to discover. At the launching of HMS Resolution at Barrow in October 1967 the admiral was asked by a member of the press what he thought about the decision not to build the fifth submarine. Mackenzie was rather blunt and truthful in his reply; he was told to keep his mouth shut in future. On 8 December 1967, Frank Allaun, the MP for Salford East, asked the Secretary of State for Defence in the House of Commons whether Mackenzie’s public speech was made with his authority, and if he would give an assurance that there not be an expansion of the Polaris programme. Healey replied that Mackenzie had not made a speech but had answered questions from the press at a briefing arranged by the shipbuilders. He added that decision not to proceed with the construction of a fifth Polaris submarine, of which he had informed the House on 15 February 1965, was unchanged.

Although there was still much work to be done, 1966 saw the first major milestones of the programme achieved. The Royal Navy Polaris School at Faslane was completed and formally opened on 30 June; at the end of the following month HMS Valiant was accepted into the Fleet; the first Polaris submarine, HMS Resolution, was launched on 15 September; and by the end of year the reactor test bed HMS Warspite had successfully completed her contractor’s sea trials.

Meanwhile, Cammell Laird was falling behind schedule with its two submarines and there were still problems with procuring the steel for the hulls of the Fleet submarines. However, these problems were to fade into insignificance when hair-line cracks were found in the welds in the pressure hull of HMS Dreadnought. This had the potential to be disastrous and seriously disrupt the whole nuclear submarine building programme. A comprehensive ultrasonic survey of the affected welds was quickly implemented and fortunately showed that this was not a significant or generic problem.

During the year there were several changes in the management team. Admiral Mackenzie was more than aware that both naval personnel and civil servants normally changed post every two or three years and not to do so might affect their future careers. It says a lot about the admiral’s generosity of spirit that he allowed his very successful team to be broken up to allow people to pursue their careers. Captain McKaig was relieved by Captain P. Higham as Deputy CPE; the Chief Administrative Officer, Bob Lewin, was replaced by Peter Nailor; and Captain La Niece was relieved by Captain C.H. Hammer in Washington. CPE made an exception to this with Charles Shepard, who was Head of the Polaris Weapon Section, and who, Mackenzie felt, was irreplaceable and should remain in post until the project was completed.

In the 1966 Defence Review the Wilson Government made significant cuts in the defence budget, and the review saw inter-service rivalries reach a new height. In the early 1960s the Navy had started planning the replacement for its aging aircraft carrier fleet, which was designated CVA-01. The RAF submitted a paper to the Treasury that compared the histories of carrier-borne and land-based bomber campaigns. Needless to say, the paper suggested that the new carriers and their supporting escort, the Type 82 destroyers, should be cancelled and the RAF could supply all the required support from land bases. There were also substantial reductions in the country’s worldwide commitments but the Polaris project remained unaffected.

On 9 November 1967 Healey told the Commons: ‘We have no intention of increasing the Polaris Force beyond its present planned strength of four submarines,’ and on 6 December 1967, he emphasised that, ‘the decision not to proceed with the construction at the fifth submarine … is unchanged’. On 14 February 1968 Healey said that he was quite satisfied that the Polaris submarines would provide an effective contribution to the Western nuclear strategic deterrent and reiterated, in answer to a supplementary question, that the contribution made by the four Polaris boats ‘was a very substantial one indeed’.

During 1967 both HMS Renown and HMS Repulse were launched. Unfortunately, Repulse ran aground in the Walney Channel. Several CND anti-nuclear protesters had wedged themselves into the lock gates, delaying the launch by half an hour, which left insufficient clearance for Repulse to clear the mud. The launch was carried out by Lady Joan Zuckerman; wife of Sir Solly Zuckerman, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government, who was also caught up in the CND demonstration. Despite this unfavourable start, Repulse went on to be the longest active survivor of the class; finally being decommissioned in 1996.

On 10 August 1967, the Clyde Submarine Base was officially commissioned (the formal opening was held on 10 May 1968 by HM Queen Elizabeth, where it became officially known as the Clyde Submarine Base, HMS Neptune). HMS Resolution successfully completed contractor’s sea trials and was accepted into service in October 1967. She then commenced a work-up period that culminated in her demonstration and shakedown operation (DASO), which involved the live firing of a missile in February 1968. Both HMS Resolution crews successfully completed DASO and the submarine was ‘handed over’ to her operating authority, C-in-C Home Fleet in June. Towards the end of the year it became apparent that the progress on the fourth submarine at Barrow, HMS Repulse, was so advanced that she would be completed before the third boat, HMS Renown, at Birkenhead. The programme was adjusted to take account of this. Also during 1967, as a consequence of the accidental flooding of SSBN02, the future HMS Renown, a further major readjustment of PMPs had to be undertaken in order to achieve recovery of the programme.

In August 1968 Admiral Mackenzie handed over to Rear Admiral A.F. Trewby, who became Assistant Controller (Polaris). He would ensure that the original build programme was completed and the submarines once in service had the necessary resources and facilities needed to keep them operational.

After an amazing five-and-a-half years of development, on 30 June 1969 the RAF formally handed over the responsibility for the nuclear deterrent to the Royal Navy.

In late 1973, Edward Heath’s Conservative Government approved an upgrade to the Polaris missile. The early beginnings of studies to increase the likelihood of successful penetration of the Polaris warheads to Moscow began in 1964, even before the Polaris system was deployed, in order to preserve this capability in the face of anti-ballistic missile batteries around Moscow. This very secret project became known as ‘Chevaline’ and was the culmination of a year-long project that explored various possible solutions. These were to build more Polaris submarines; use a hardened missile, use a hardened missile with penetration aids, use an MIV warhead option, or – the Navy’s preferred option – adopt the new American Poseidon missile, which had a greater range and carried more warheads than Polaris. Chevaline used a variety of penetration aids and decoys so that an enemy ABM system would be overwhelmed attempting to deal with them all, ensuring that enough warheads would get through and thereby guaranteeing an acceptable level of deterrence. This project remained secret through four different governments and was not disclosed until 24 January 1980 when Francis Pym, Secretary of State for Defence, speaking in a House of Commons debate on nuclear weapons, announced the existence of the Chevaline programme.

In 1982 Thatcher and Reagan reached an agreement to replace the British Polaris fleet with American-supplied Trident missiles. This was the culmination of a process started by the Callaghan Government a few years previously. It is interesting to note that during this period the same arguments that were raised during the Polaris project surfaced again, including how many boats would be required. David Owen, Defence Secretary in the Callaghan Government, wrote a paper that suggested, much to the horror of the Navy chiefs, that Fleet submarines could carry nuclear-armed cruise missiles, thereby doing away with the need for a dedicated missile submarine.

As the newer Vanguard-class submarines entered service, the Resolution-class vessels were gradually decommissioned. After 229 patrols, the Polaris fleet was finally decommissioned. HMS Repulse carried out the final Polaris patrol and was decommissioned at the End of Polaris Ceremony at Faslane on 28 August 1996. The Polaris Stone was dedicated and placed at the entrance to the Northern Area.

On 22 and 23 April 2013, a ceremony was held at Faslane to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Polaris Agreement. During this ceremony, the Polaris Stone was moved to its new position in front of the Tyne Building and rededicated; perhaps to make room for a Trident Stone. Gerry McFeely’s recalled the ceremony:

Having arrived in the Base in August ’87, Resolution Class ‘bombers’ were a fairly common sight to me from that time through to the final decommissioning of HMS Repulse in August ’96. Whilst my main focus, by far, was the installation of Trident Vanguard as part of the Directorate of Naval Infrastructure & Environment (DNIE), which had emerged from Directorate of Quartering (Navy) subsequently to materialise as NBSA, and then reinvented as WSA; Reso Class was never far from my office window. Between the morning brief and the Wardroom back-bar scuttlebutt they kept me very much abreast of the ‘ongoings’ of our mutual affection and respect for the United Kingdom Independent Nuclear Deterrent. Reso with Polaris, if not a direct part of my desk work, was most definitely part of my life.

I fully supported their move from the Southern Berths at 1 & 2, which had been their natural home for so many years, from 1968 I think, to 10, 11 & 12 Berths in the Northern Area. I believe I was instrumental in identifying and establishing the Squadron in Belmore House as the new Squadron HQ. The hardest part of that exercise was persuading Captain JWR (JOHN) Harris RN to leave the Command Building in Red Square and move north to Belmore House. John left the Base in late November 1996 and since he invited me to his RPC (leaving drinks) I must have been forgiven! This was just some four months after the end of Polaris with the decommissioning of HMS Repulse and the unveiling of the ‘Polaris Monument’ in the largely completed Northern Area of the Base.

Ten years after I retired, in April 2013 I was absolutely delighted to receive an invitation from the Squadron Cdr to attend the 50th Anniversary of the signing of Polaris Sales Agreement between the governments of the United States and our United Kingdom. I was honoured to accept as I saw it as a pleasant opportunity to catch up with some former colleagues, friends and RN stalwarts. The important event was scheduled to take place at Faslane (in the Supermess) over the Tues/Wed 22nd and 23rd April 2013. Transport was to be generously provided and Base access organised, but as I was an Hon Member of the Wardroom HMS Neptune, I did not need to avail myself of these essentials.

The two-day event was largely funded (95 per cent at least) and sponsored by the main and involved contractors over the last fifty years, with such illustrious names as AWE, Babcock, BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, Mass, Qinetiq and Rolls-Royce. I understand that these industry partners were ‘proud to support’ the event. To balance the scales on that particular point I can state with some confidence that CSB/HMNB Clyde Staff were equally proud to have programmed, maintained and managed the unbroken Deterrent Patrol, which had brought us to the present date. The Polaris Sales Agreement event was well organised throughout the two days and executed with military precision. The first evening, a superb buffet supper was provided in the Neptune Supermess from 1900–2200 and presented an ideal opportunity to seek out and catch up. In fact, for most of the guests the evening passed too quickly. Among the luminaries I met up with, bearing in mind I had been away for some ten years, included John Howie of Babcock, Ashley Lane of Mass, Cdr Don Milton of Coulport, Cdr J.H. Leatherby RN; Ron Laley and Ivor Jones, both of the Squadron, as well as Richard ‘Taff’ Evans [1st boat 1st patrol in Resolution] and many, many more of the ‘Trade’. Cdr James ‘Revenge’ Richards RN was one of the many who could not appear due to operational commitments – a sense of duty!

We as Neptune Guests, all did our bit on the ‘circulation front’, ensuring none of the USN guests were abandoned and were completely at ease in the Neptune environment. Throughout the evening DVDs of the history of Polaris were viewed and ‘thank you’ speeches made with the evening concluding with the issue of commemorative tokens (very posh!) being issued to all attendees.

The following day, under the guidance of Lt Cdr (later Cdr) Simon McCleary RN the plan was to marshal at the Chief’s Mess and travel by Base Bus [310] along Maidstone Road to Belmore House for the rededication of the resited ‘Polaris Monument’. The Service was conducted by the Rev Chaplain Richard Rowe with Cdre Steve Garrett Comfasflot escorting Rear Admiral Mark A. Beverstock Chief Strategic Systems Executive and his American counterpart T.J. Benedict USN Dir SSP. Several long retired Naval personnel including Cdre F.G. Thompson (with Dany) and COs both ashore and afloat also in attendance ‘in full rig’.

If I have praised the organisers of the event highly enough and the buffet providers likewise, my compliments must be recorded for the balanced and thoughtful Rededication Service. It included, along with Readings from Psalm 107 etc, the Polaris Prayer, the Naval Prayer and the Prayer for World Peace, concluding with the Benediction and the joint unveiling of the Polaris Monument by CSSE & Dir SSP.

A moving ‘moment of silence’ finalised the ceremony and all moved off to admire the ‘stone’, say fond farewells and leave to meet their transport arrangements for the journey home. For my own part I was honoured to be present on such an important occasion in the history of the Base – proud to be part of it, a lifelong memory.

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