CHAPTER 1 - 'ON HER MAJESTY'S NUCLEAR SERVICE'
'Nobody knows where the submarine goes. And nobody gives a damn.' (Graffiti in a Fleet Tender)
June 1978 - HMS Revenge on patrol
The sudden roar came as a shock. It sounded like a jumbo jet taking off.
Steam leak in the TG room!' a voice shrieked over the intercom.
The roar said it all. This was serious.
Frank Hurley and I exchanged glances. 'Whot-da-fock!' he exclaimed.
We were in the tail end of a nuclear submarine, locked-in behind the massive steel doors of the reactor compartment. Our space was filling with steam. I was Senior Engineer and on watch. My moment of truth had come.
I pressed the general alarm three times - baaaa baaaa baaaa: 'Steam leak in the TG room,' I screamed over full main broadcast. There were one hundred and forty men for'ard, not least the Captain. They needed to know; this was a whole boat emergency. In the heat of the moment I forgot to cancel full main broadcast. The entire crew would now be entertained by my new soprano voice - strange how panic reacts on the testicles.
I knew the emergency drill by heart: Shut both Main Steam Stops. That would shut off all steam to the Engine Room. At a stroke, it would kill the leak. It was no more difficult than switching off the bedroom lights but it would also scram the reactor, the pumping heart of the submarine; the plant would automatically go into Emergency Cooling and there was no recovery from that at sea. We would have lost our power source, be reduced to a dead ship. We would have to surface and signal for a tug. Unthinkable. Revenge was a Polaris missile submarine on Strategic Nuclear Deterrent patrol. She was the country's duty guardian. We were the nation's assurance that World War Three would not happen, not on our watch. We were in our top-secret patrol position. Our number one priority was to remain undetected. Surfacing and calling for a tug would mean breaching one of the country's most highly guarded secrets - where we were. It would mean national humiliation. The credibility of our Nuclear Deterrent was at stake.
If I got it wrong now, the political ramifications would be incalculable. Jim Callaghan's Government was riven by anti-nuclear sentiment. Many of his Labour MPs were proud to flaunt CND badges in public, none more so than Michael Foot, the left wing leader-in-waiting; this could be their golden opportunity. If the Deterrent were seen to fail, British nuclear strategy would be holed below the waterline. Britain could lose its place in the UN Security Council. The Americans could end our Special Relationship. These lofty anxieties flashed through my mind as I prepared to be poached alive.
The Main Steam Stops were operated by push buttons behind my head. I hit the starboard button first. Then a split-second thought occurred. There was a fifty-fifty chance I'd got it right first time. 'Which side?' I yelled into the microphone.
'Starboard,' came a strangulated reply, the voice of Leading Mechanic 'Bungy Mack', a twenty-year-old Liverpudlian on watch below.
Thank God I had not hit the port button; we could survive on half power. But the roar had not stopped. Holy shit! The leak was on the boiler side of the stop valve! One massive, nuclear-powered steam generator was discharging its steam into my airspace and could not be stopped. We were in a race against time. The boiler had to be emptied before it killed us.