My journey to the Submarine Museum started by taking the Gosport Ferry (which I now appreciate is a skimmer, in that it travels on the surface of the water, not beneath it) to join my maritime colleagues on the mainland of Gosport. A short walk, which involved crossing Pneumonia Bridge, took us to the museum itself where the irrepressible Peter V (PV, our guide) greeted us. By the way, I’m informed that ex-matelots will know why the bridge got that name but it was lost on me. OK, it was a tad chilly as we crossed the water there but I didn’t think it warranted such serious nomenclature; perhaps Sniffles Bridge would have been more appropriate?
Anyway, getting back to PV and the tour. We eventually grouped together at the Museum and were promptly loaded into the blunt end of the boat (HMS Alliance) where we immediately found some beer cans stored in an aft torpedo tube. We were told these tubes were for a stern attack, one stage up from a rather miffed attack I suppose. We were then told about escaping from this vessel in the event of being sunk. Very scary stuff which involved a chap known as Senior Survivor (not necessarily decided upon rank but on knowledge of this perilous drill) getting the rest of the survivors out through an escape cowling and up through the sea, constantly exhaling until they reached the surface. It’s that or you die so it’s all pretty serious and is the result of a lot of training.
Then it was forward to the Engine and Motor Rooms. Lots of noise and even smells were piped in to make this as genuine an experience of the real thing as it could be. In the ultra-confined space it must have been a demanding working environment at the best of times. When a foe is lobbing depth charges at you it would have been 100 times worse!
Alliance was built at the very tail end of WWII when the latest designs were for war in the Pacific. She very soon became a Cold War vessel, back in the days when we were face-to-face with the Russians. She could sit on the seabed (a practice known as Bottoming) for up to 36 hours but the air left inside after a day and a half would have been almost non-existent. Smoking was much more popular back then but I bet nobody lit a cigarette at a time like that! Coming up for air and the Captain saying “One all round” when everybody lit up, must have been a wonderful feeling.
On the way to the Control Room we passed the tiniest of galleys where the duty cook made decent, if not large meals for 60-70 people in cramped conditions. These guys were wizards at their trade, they had to be. If you fed poor meals to the men working down there you probably wouldn’t have to wait for the enemy to take you out.
In the Control Room we saw the tubes which resembled upwardly curved spirit levels with a bubble showing what sort of angle you were moving forward at. The Helmsman had control of these and, if the bubble was just running from one end to the other of the tube, the boat would be going up and down (called Porpoising) instead of making a direct line ahead. This gave rise to expressions like “Nightmare on the Helm St” – don’t blame me, it wasn’t my line!
There was so much more we were shown or told about. Towed Array, sonar, doppler and torpedo operating panels. The delivery of Special Forces (more often the SBS) who used the boats as an early Uber cab to take terrorists out on hijacked oil rigs. The main role remained in the hunting of Russian submarines of course.
Back outside in the fresh air, it suddenly became apparent just how oppressive it was in the cramped interior of the submarine that was still operational until the mid-1970s. Not everyone’s cup of tea. You didn’t want to be even slightly claustrophobic in that job! PV handed us over to Tom Cornwell who gave a good delivery of the earliest history of submarines as we know them. He also walked us through the Holland 1 annex to the Museum where you can still see and go inside – a boat from the 1800s.
After this Peter took control again and walked us through the Memorial Garden where the names of deceased submariners are displayed in respectful commemoration. A relatively recent addition to this rather long list of names is the officer Molyneux who was shot dead by a RN crewman on 8 April 2011. This gave rise to the design of Moly Pins, lapel badges which are given to the next of kin. I also found my namesake, PO Kimber who died on Alliance when the air in his working space became so volatile during battery charging that he tragically died in an ensuing explosion. To see so many who have passed on during both times of conflict and peace is a firm reminder of those who gave so much. None more so than now when we think back to those we lost in the Falklands campaign.
Then, all too soon, the private tour was over and the regular visitors to the museum were pouring in. We thanked Peter and Tom then slipped away. For the duration of the return to Pompey on the Gosport Skimmer, I did keep a weather eye out for the telltale periscope or, even worse, the unmistakable wake of a launched torpedo, until we reached the terra firma of Portsea Island; such was the effect this visit had on me.
(Written by Chris K)
If you’re a veteran from the UK Armed Forces or the Merchant Navy (from any time of service) or a partner to one, VOS would love for you to join our community. We are here to offer our support: call us on 02392 731 767, visit an upcoming drop-in, or email email@example.com.
VOS is immensely grateful to the Armed Forces Covenant Fund Trust and the Royal Navy & Royal Marines Charity, as without their support and funding we would not be able to provide activities such as this one.