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2018 has seen the release of 3 separate new titles with a big focus on Royal Navy submarines. After The Deadly Trade comes On Her Majesty’s Nuclear Service, a fascinating personal memoir from Eric Thompson, a submarine engineer officer who served from 1961-1998.
This is an intensely enjoyable read, one man’s journey in the navy from schoolboy to commander of Faslane Naval base. The majority of naval officer memoirs are written by those who commanded ships or submarines but Eric Thompson was a naval engineer and leader, but not in command at sea. The book provides an alternative perspective on stories that overlap with other recent titles, in particular, Dan Conley’s Cold War Command which also covers the troubled development of RN torpedoes. There is also much discussion about the merits and failures of commanders that Thompson served under, echoing some of the leadership themes of Ryan Ramsey’s SSN14.
Thompson was initially reluctant to become an engineer but his eyesight ruled out a career in the warfare branch. He studied for 5 years at RENC Manadon before graduating to join the fleet as a submarine electrical officer. He modestly glosses over his obvious ability with the complexities of naval and nuclear engineering which are mastered only by an elite minority.
His first appointment in conventional submarine HMS Otter nearly ended his career, undermined by a bullying captain and unsupportive wardroom, Thompson attempted to resign. Further appointments to conventional boats – the elderly HMS Andrew and then HMS Osiris turned his career around, inspired by officers who understood real leadership and were keen to help and nurture others.
At the time those serving conventional submarines were seen very much as the second XI as the nuclear submarine fleet became the RN’s priority and Thompson feared being left behind. However, he developed a passion to improve the RN’s hopeless anti-submarine torpedoes which left the whole fleet almost toothless. He made the naval appointer’s day by requesting to go to Faslane to work on torpedo development. Although it was a frustrating process complicated by commercial pressures, Civil Service politics, bad weather and unhelpful locals he played a part in the eventual success of Tigerfish. The modern and highly effective Spearfish that arms today’s submarines owes a lot to the work done by this team.
Thompson later trained as nuclear propulsion specialist and then served in HMS Conqueror on demanding missions in Soviet waters. Unwilling to take up a job in Chatham, he resigned from the navy and spent a very uncomfortable period working out his notice. During this time he played a part in the recovery of HMS Warspite when she suffered an engine room fire whilst alongside in Liverpool in 1976. (The most serious incident the RN’s nuclear fleet has ever experienced).
Short of people to crew the Polaris submarines, Thompson was offered a rare second chance to stay in the RN and serve aboard HMS Revenge. While the MEO of Revenge, she suffered a major steam leak and he was awarded an MBE for his actions that saved the boat from the disastrous consequences of having to terminate a nuclear deterrent patrol.
After coming ashore for good, Thompson spent time at the MoD, conducting further torpedo development work and finishing as a Commodore in command of the nuclear submarine base at Faslane, where diplomatic and political understanding were as important as technical skills.
An clear thread that comes through in his story is a very strong relationship with a loving and supportive wife that gave him a confidence and bedrock that helped him endure tough times. On at least two occasions he put his naval career on the line for sake of his wife and family but managed to bend the Navy to his will, benefiting from being an experienced engineer which are always in short supply.
Thompson is an articulate and strong advocate of the nuclear deterrent which he gave a large part of his life to serving. The book devotes several pages of the closing chapter to making the case for Trident and its successor. Speaking about the CND protestors camped out around Faslane, he says:
“In the base we regarded ourselves as the true peace camp; theirs was a protest camp… As a member of the Armed Forces I was not allowed to engage in political activities, but boy did I want to remind the protestors that we had been at peace since 1945 thanks to our Nuclear Deterrent”.
This is a compelling story of a man’s life with high, lows and plenty of humour. Another recommended read for anyone interested in submarines, life in the navy or the Cold War period.