Military Wiki
Royal Navy Submarine Service
Founded 1901
Country United Kingdom
Allegiance HM The Queen
Branch Royal Navy
Motto(s) 'We Come Unseen'
Equipment 7 SSNs & 4 SSBNs
Website Royal Navy - Submarines
Commodore-in-Chief HRH The Duke of Cambridge
White Ensign
(1801 – present)
Naval Ensign of the United Kingdom.png
Naval Jack
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg
Dolphin Badge
Royal Navy Dolphins.jpg

The Royal Navy Submarine Service is the submarine element of the Royal Navy. It is sometimes known as the "Silent Service",[1] as the submarines are generally required to operate undetected.

The service operates seven fleet submarines (SSNs), of the Trafalgar and Astute classes, and four ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), of the Vanguard class. All of these submarines are nuclear powered. The service also owns the LR5 Submarine Rescue System.

The Royal Navy's use of submarines began in 1901, and for many years of the late 20th century was associated with HMS Dolphin in Hampshire. Flag Officer Submarines moved from Dolphin to the Northwood Headquarters in 1978. In the early 21st century Flag Officer Submarines lost his solely submarine role and is now Commander Operations on the staff of Commander-in-Chief Fleet. The Submarine School is now at HMS Raleigh at Torpoint in Cornwall.



HMS Holland 1, the first-ever submarine to be commissioned by the Royal Navy. She can still be seen at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, Gosport.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of submarine warfare was considered by senior personnel in the Admiralty to be "Underhand, unfair and damned un-English"[2] (Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson VC, 1901). However, those in favour of experimenting with submarine technology eventually won the argument, and the Royal Navy launched its first submarine, Holland 1, in 1901.

The Submarine Service proved its worth in World War I, where it was awarded five of the Royal Navy's 14 Victoria Crosses of the war, the first to Lieutenant Norman Holbrook, Commanding Officer of HMS B11.

During World War II the major operating arenas were the Norwegian waters; the Mediterranean where a flotilla of submarines fought a successful battle against the Axis replenishment route to North Africa; and the Far East where Royal Navy submarines disrupted Japanese shipping operating in the Malacca Straits.[3] The RN started the war with 60 submarines.[4]

The first British nuclear-powered submarine, HMS Dreadnought (S101) was launched in 1960 based around a US-built nuclear reactor. This was complemented by the Valiant class from 1966, which featured the Rolls-Royce PWR1 reactor.

Royal Navy submarines became an important part of the strategic nuclear deterrent with the introduction of the Resolution class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) under the Polaris programme from 1968. These carried US-built UGM-27 Polaris A-3 missiles and were later replaced by the Vanguard class submarines and the Trident missile system from 1994.

HMS Conqueror made history in 1982 during the Falklands War when she became the first nuclear-powered submarine to sink a surface ship, the ARA General Belgrano.

In May 1991 Oberon class submarines HMS Opossum and her sister HMS Otus returned to the submarine base HMS Dolphin in Gosport from patrol in the Persian Gulf flying Jolly Rogers (see below), the only indication that they had been involved in alleged SAS and SBS reconnaissance operations.[5]

In 1999 HMS Splendid participated in the Kosovo Conflict and became the first Royal Navy submarine to fire a cruise missile in anger.[6]

After Operation Veritas, the attack on Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces following the 9/11 attacks in the United States, it emerged that HMS Trafalgar was the first Royal Navy submarine to launch Tomahawk cruise missiles against Afghanistan,.[7] HMS Triumph was also involved in the initial strikes.[8] On 16 April 2003 it was reported that HMS Turbulent, the first Royal Navy vessel to return home from the war against Iraq, had launched fourteen Tomahawk cruise missiles.[9]

The Jolly Roger and the Submarine Service

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur Wilson VC, the Controller of the Royal Navy, summed up the opinion of many in the Admiralty at the time when he said in 1901 "[Submarines are] underhand, unfair, and damned un-English. ... treat all submarines as pirates in wartime ... and hang all crews."[10][11] In response, Lieutenant Commander (later Admiral Sir) Max Horton first flew the Jolly Roger on return to port after sinking the German cruiser SMS Hela and the destroyer SMS S-116 in 1914 while in command of the E class submarine HMS E9.[12][13]

In World War II it became common practice for the submarines of the Royal Navy to fly the Jolly Roger on completion of a successful combat mission where some action had taken place, but as an indicator of bravado and stealth rather than of lawlessness. For example in 1982 returning from the Falklands conflict HMS Conqueror flew the Jolly Roger depicting one dagger for the SBS deployment to South Georgia and one torpedo for her sinking of the Argentinian Cruiser Belgrano. The Jolly Roger is now the emblem of the Royal Navy Submarine Service.[14]


The "Dolphins" badge, issued to all British submariners on completion of training. It is worn on the upper left breast, just above any medal ribbons.

'Perisher' (as the Submarine Command Course is better known) is a 24-week course all officers must take prior to serving as an Executive Officer on board a Royal Navy Submarine. It has been run twice a year since 1917, usually starting on 2 July and 14 November each year. It is widely regarded as one of the toughest command courses in the world, with an historical failure rate of 25%.[15]

If at any point during the training a candidate is withdrawn from training he will be nominated for boat transfer and kept occupied until the transfer. His bag is packed for him and he is notified of the failure when the boat arrives. On departure he is presented with a bottle of whisky. A failure on Perisher means that the unsuccessful candidate is not permitted to return to sea as a member of the Submarine Service (although they are still allowed to wear the dolphin badge). He is, however, permitted to remain in the Royal Navy, moving into the surface fleet.

In more recent years, the United States Navy has sent some of its own submariner officers to undergo the 'Perisher', in order to foster and maintain closer links with the Royal Navy.

Since the Royal Navy no longer operates diesel-electric submarines, in 1995 the Royal Netherlands Navy has taken over the Perisher course for these boats from the British, and annually host a course that is attended by candidate submarine commanders from multiple navies around the world.[16]


The Submarine Service has many traditions that are not found in the surface fleet. These include slang unique to submariners (such as referring to the torpedo storage compartment as the Bomb Shop and the diesel engine room as the Donk Shop[17]), a special communications code known as the Dolphin Code and the entitlement of a sailor to wear Dolphins upon entering the service. (Which were only awarded after completion of training and qualification in ships systems - on board first submarine posting (Part III training)

Problems with drugs and alcohol use while on shore leave were highlighted in the inquest following the murder on board Astute in April 2011. As of February 2013 there had been over 300 disciplinary incidents in the past three years on the RN's 13 submarines, of which 42 were substance abuse-related.[18]

Active submarines

The decline in attack submarine numbers since 1970 and the concentration on nuclear-powered vessels.

The Submarine Service consists of two classes of Fleet submarines and one class of Ballistic Missile submarines.

Fleet submarines

HMS Tireless on exercise at the North Pole

HMS Astute

There are seven fleet submarines on active duty - five Trafalgar class submarines and two Astute class submarine. They are all nuclear submarines and are classified as SSNs.[19]

These submarines are armed with the Spearfish torpedo for anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare. Some are also armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles for attacking targets on land. This capability was used by HMS Trafalgar against the Taliban in 2001 during Operation Veritas. The Fleet submarines are also capable of surveillance and reconnaissance missions.[20] Fleet submarines are sometimes referred to as attack or hunter-killer vessels.

Royal Navy Fleet submarines in active service[20]
Name Class Pennant Number Launched
HMS Tireless Trafalgar S88 1984
HMS Torbay Trafalgar S90 1985
HMS Trenchant Trafalgar S91 1986
HMS Talent Trafalgar S92 1988
HMS Triumph Trafalgar S93 1991
HMS Astute Astute S119 2007
HMS Ambush Astute S120 2011

Ballistic submarines

HMS Vanguard ballistic missile submarine

The four ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) of the Royal Navy are all of the Vanguard class. They were all built by Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd, now BAE Systems Submarine Solutions. The SSBN flotilla or bomber 'fleet' tends to be almost a separate entity, for example it rarely uses pennant numbers preferring to use hull numbers, thus Vanguard 05, Victorious 06, Vigilant 07 and Vengeance 08.

The four Vanguard class boats are responsible for the United Kingdom's nuclear deterrent, and use the Trident missile system. Each boat can carry up to 16 Trident II D5 Missiles, each of which may carry up to 12 nuclear warheads. It is UK Government policy to limit the actual number of warheads carried to 48 per boat.[citation needed]

There has been at least one SSBN on patrol at all times for over 30 years, for a total of over 300 missions.[citation needed]

Royal Navy ballistic missile submarines in active service[21]
Name Class Pennant Number Launched
HMS Vanguard Vanguard S28 1992
HMS Victorious Vanguard S29 1993
HMS Vigilant Vanguard S30 1996
HMS Vengeance Vanguard S31 1998

LR5 Submarine Rescue System

The Royal Navy also operates the LR5 Submarine Rescue System, designed for retrieving sailors from stranded submarines. It is capable of rescuing 16 at a time.

Future submarines

A total force of seven Astute-class submarines is planned. As of April 2012, the first is in service, the second is launched and being fitted out, three are under construction, the sixth is ordered, and the procurement process has been started for the seventh.[22][23][24][25] The first Astute class submarine, HMS Astute, entered service in August 2010.[26] The second Astute class submarine, HMS Ambush, is expected to replace HMS Turbulent in 2012. The Astute class submarine is the largest nuclear Fleet submarine ever to serve with the Royal Navy, nearly 30% larger than its predecessors. Its powerplant is the Rolls Royce PWR2 reactor, developed for the Vanguard class SSBN. The armament of Astute class is to be 38 Spearfish torpedoes (the US equivalent is the Mk48 ADCAP torpedo), Tomahawk Block III/IV Cruise Missiles and submarine-launched mines. It is not known whether more Astute class submarines will be ordered.

Another development project is the Maritime Underwater Future Capability (MUFC). These will follow on from the Astute class, and possibly replace the Trafalgar class. Reports (e.g. in Defense News) have suggested that the MUFC studies may result in a single class of multi-role submarines to replace the Trafalgar class, Vanguard class SSBNs and eventually the Astute class. This would require a submarine capable of launching conventional land-attack missiles, some form of nuclear missile (ICBM or tactical nuclear missile) as well as conventional submarine munitions including mines and torpedoes.

A new generation of ballistic missile submarines is also being planned, following a December 2006 Ministry of Defence white paper which recommended that the nuclear weapons should be maintained into the 2040s. It advocated the currently preferred submarine-based system, as it remained the cheapest and most secure deterrence option available.

See also


  1. "Royal Navy Submarine School". Royal Navy. Retrieved 10 April 2012. 
  2. Stephen Wentworth Roskill (1968). Naval Policy Between the Wars, Walker, ISBN 0-87021-848-4 p. 231. cites A. J. Marder, Fear God and Dread Nought, vol. I (Oxford UP, 1961), p.333 and also Williams Jameson, The Most Formidable Thing (Hart-Davis, 1965) pp. 75-76.
  3. Submarine History : Submarine Service : Operations and Support : Royal Navy
  5. Opossum and Otus were seen returning to HMS Dolphin ... with a jolly roger
  6. Barton Gellman U.S., NATO Launch Attacks on Yugoslavia Washington Post 25 March 1999
  7. Trafalgar Returns March 1, 2002[dead link]
  8. Home and away over Christmas, Navy News, 24 December 2001
  9. Cruise missile sub (HMS Turbulent) back in UK by Richard Norton-Taylor in The Guardian April 17, 2003
  10. "underhand, unfair, and damned un-English."(Stephen Wentworth Roskill (1968). Naval Policy Between the Wars, Walker, ISBN 0-87021-848-4 p. 231. cites A. J. Marder, Fear God and Dread Nought, vol. I (Oxford UP, 1961), p.333 and also Williams Jameson, The Most Formidable Thing (Hart-Davis, 1965) pp. 75-76.)
  11. "underhand, ... and damned Un-English. ... treat all submarines as pirates in wartime ... and hang all crews." (J. R. Hill (1989). Arms Control at Sea, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-01280-5. p.35 cites Marder, From the Drednoughts to Scapa Flow p.332)
  12. Staff, The Jolly Roger on a webpage of the National Museum of the Royal Navy
  13. HMS Triumph and HMS Superb
  14. General information on the Royal Navy Submarine Service use and history of the Jolly Roger
  15. Perisher Submarine Command Training in the Royal Navy
  16. U.S. Submariner Qualifies for SSK Command in the RNLN Submarine Command Course
  17. Rick Jolly, Jackspeak: A Guide to British Naval Slang & Usage, FoSAMMA (2000), ISBN 0-9514305-2-1
  18. "BBC News - Submariners punished for drunken misconduct". BBC Online. Retrieved 16 February 2013. 
  19. Royal Navy Submarines
  20. 20.0 20.1 Fleet Submarines (SSN) : Submarine Service : Operations and Support : Royal Navy
  21. Ballistic Submarines (SSBN) : Submarine Service : Operations and Support : Royal Navy
  22. "Commons Hansard Written Answers". UK Parliament. 5 September 2011. Retrieved 6 November 2011. 
  23. "Ministry of Defence Major Projects Report 2007" (PDF). National Audit Office. 2007-11-26. Retrieved 2010-03-18. 
  24. "Ministry of Defence Major Projects Report 2009" (PDF). National Audit Office. 2009-12-15. Retrieved 2010-03-18. 
  25. "UK Government Go-Ahead for Fifth and Sixth Astute Submarines". BAE Systems. 25 March 2010. Retrieved 30 March 2010. 
  26. Duchess visits Faslane as sub Astute is handed over

Further reading

  • Hackmann, Willem. Seek & Strike: Sonar, anti-submarine warfare and the Royal Navy 1914-54. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1984. ISBN 0-11-290423-8

External links

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