Portsmouth and Gosport submariners remember the good old days of life at sea

There is a great sense of pride in Portsmouth when it comes to the city’s armed forces veterans.

From left, Bill Williams, Stanley Butler and Les Catlin from the Gosport Branch of the Submariners Association sit on a Mk VIII torpedo at the Armed Forces Day event at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Picture: Steve Reid (122251-804)
From left, Bill Williams, Stanley Butler and Les Catlin from the Gosport Branch of the Submariners Association sit on a Mk VIII torpedo at the Armed Forces Day event at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Picture: Steve Reid (122251-804)

With a rich naval history and a key role in the D-Day landings in 1944, there are countless veterans living in the city who have remarkable stories to share.

But one branch of life in the forces is perhaps less well-known, despite playing a crucial role.

The life of a submariner can be a tough one – spending months underwater in a metal box, not quite knowing what the future may hold.

Dennis Wade, Kevin Moore, Paul Jevons and Robert Lewis, all of Portsmouth Submariners Association

Regardless, their stories are worth preserving and they need just as much support as other veterans out there.

The Submariners’ Association brings together past and present service personnel, giving them the opportunity to form new friendships and talk about their time at sea.

Both Portsmouth and Gosport have associations, though Gosport’s is significantly larger in terms of members, with 180 servicemen both veterans and service personnel in its ranks.

Les Catlin, Gosport’s chairman, spent 35 years in the navy – 26 of which were spent as a submariner.

Submariners outside the Submarine Escape Training Tank (SETT) at Fort Blockhouse in Gosport which is being retired. Picture: LPhot Barry Swainsbury/MoD/Crown Copyright/PA Wire

He says: ‘It was previously a voluntary service, but when the nuclear submarines came in I ended up being drafted across.

‘It was far less comfortable; that was something which wasn’t taken into consideration.

‘But it was also a more friendly atmosphere with better camaraderie. You’re all helping one another to keep on going.’

Portsmouth’s chairman, Kevin Moore, says veterans often feel lost when they leave the forces.

Les Catlin, chairman of Gosport Submariners Association. Picture: Sarah Standing (13043-9083)

‘When people leave the armed forces, they like to stay in touch,’ he explains.

‘They miss the comradeship and want to talk about the good old days.

‘We are predominantly older submariners, but we get together once a month to talk about anything and everything – it’s a way to remember what we did in days gone by.’

Les adds: ‘I joined the submariners’ association in 1995 and because of it I’ve been able to stay in touch with many of the people I served with over the years.

‘For some people it’s some of the only interaction they get with other people, so it plays a crucial role in their lives.’

Kevin says that in typical naval fashion, the submariner meetings tend to deal with official business quickly, before members head towards the bar.

During the year, the submariners meet not only on a national level, but also around the globe.

Last year’s international meeting was held in Russia, with a national event in Leicester.

Kevin says: ‘Most of the talk is about our time in the forces – we were young and are proud to have been submariners.’

The Portsmouth Submariners’ Association has around 130 members, though many are unable to attend meetings.

With Portsmouth and Gosport being the only associations in the surrounding area, members come from as far out as Waterlooville and Hayling Island.

Kevin, who spent 18 years as a submariner, says the battle against social isolation in ageing veterans is a difficult one to win.

‘You hear all the time about veterans who have ended up on the streets, or have found life outside the forces tough to adjust to.

‘Social isolation is a problem and so it's important to stay in touch with other veterans. Fortunately we do have things easier in Portsmouth because there's so many of us – people came to Portsmouth when they joined up and have stuck around because it's such a lovely place to be.’

Kevin worked as a chef during his service, and says he sailed on at least 12 different vessels in that time.

‘I have some incredible memories of my time in the forces,’ he says. ‘We all do.

‘Hearing from the other guys and their experiences is what it’s all about for me.’

But it’s not all about meetings – the submariners also do work for others in the community.

Just before Christmas, the Gosport branch of the Submariners’ Association arranged for widows to enjoy a free Christmas lunch at The Crofton, a pub in Stubbington.

The lunch was paid for by donations from members and others.

Chairman Les Catlin says: ‘It’s an annual thing we do for the widows. This time around we also invited the guys from HMS Sultan to come and help.

‘They had raised some money from another event which was presented to the association.’

The dinner is something organised by the branch to keep the families of veterans who have died from being left on their own.

Submariner associations also do a fair amount of charity work, with members helping out wherever they can.

For Les, it's the reminder of what life was like on board the submarines – and the lifelong friendships that have been formed both on land and at sea – that have kept him in the Gosport Submariners’ Association for so many years.

He says: ‘To me, it’s absolutely about the companionship and close bonds that make the association so important to me.

‘Most of us were all on the same boats together and it’s a very unique sort of service because of the environment you are placed into.

‘It’s an exclusive club, but above all it’s great to know so many wonderful people as a result of my time in the forces.’

Both the Gosport and Portsmouth branches of the Submariners’ Association meet on the first Thursday each month.

For more information go to submarinersassociation.co.uk.

Farewell to training tower

A tower where tens of thousands of submariners have been trained in emergency escapes has been used for the last time.

The Submarine Escape Training Tank (SETT), found in Fort Blockhouse, has now closed its doors after more than 65 years of training exercises.

The tower is ascended to teach submariners how to escape from a stricken boat, with the 100ft climb simulating what it’s like to escape a sunken submarine.

It was built between 1949 and 1953, forming part of a revamp in submarine escape training inspired by Captain Phillip Ruck-Keene and driven by the loss of HMS Thetis on the eve of the Second World War and the sinking of HMS Truculent in January 1950.

Inside the tank, submariners must escape without the use of breathing apparatus.

Lieutenant Commander Gareth Griffiths, who is in charge of the submarine flotilla, said: ‘2020 marks the end of an era, so it’s a poignant moment for all of us.

‘We’re looking forward to carrying the lessons of our past many years into the future of submarine escape, rescue, abandonment and survival training.

‘Our success is due, in no small part, to our commitment to one another and the unique perspective of being submariners.’

The building will not be demolished, as it will be preserved for the future as a listed building.

All of the UK’s submarine flotilla will be moving to HMNB Clyde in Faslane.

It is believed that the tank has been used more than 150,000 times since it first opened on July 13, 1954.

How unwilling volunteers ended up living under the sea

Living away from home for months at a time in a pressurised metal box, life on board a submarine is not glamorous.

Diving down to more than 250 metres under the sea, submariners have often talked about how important camaraderie was in getting through each deployment.

On board nuclear-powered submarines like HMS Sceptre, junior rates would sleep in bunk beds stacked in threes, just 50cm high. Most rooms in general were thin and cramped.

Many servicemen didn’t even want to be on a submarine at all, but when the nuclear-powered submarines were launched in the 1960s, a shortage of manpower led to sailors being drafted in to help.

A significant level of substance abuse among submariners has been recorded, particularly on shore leave.