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This article describes one SSN’s early years from build to operational patrol. It will be of particular inter-est to those readers who have stood by a ship in con-structure.

Editor’s note: Dan Conley is a retired RN Captain who was the RN representative at SUBDEVRON TWELVE in the early ’80s and who later commanded the SSNs HMS COURAGEOUS and VALIANT.

The Build

On a dull, overcast spring day in April 1978. HMS SPARTAN, the second to last SSN of the SWIFTSURE Class, took to the water at Vickers Shipyard Barrow-in-Furness in the NW of England. She was launched by the submarine’s sponsor Lady Emily Lygo, a charming Floridian, wife of Vice Chief of Defence Staff Sir Raymond Lygo. As the traditional bottle of champagne broke against the hull, SPARTAN started a slow passage down the way. As she slid into the murky waters of the Walney Channel she left behind HMS SPLENDID still in the early stages of construction.

1 joined SPARTAN in September 1978, and after a quick handover from the temporary XO, the responsibility of a second in command was mine. As I surveyed my rather stark office surroundings in a draughty, temporary building, my immediate concern was that contractors sea trials were only five months away and there was much to be done in preparing the submarine for sea. Pressing problems included lack of any executive branch officers other than myself – the Royal Navy Submarine Force was going through a period of significant expansion and there were simply no qualified officers of this specialization to fill key appointments other than being available a few weeks before proceeding to sea.

Indeed the Captain did not join until after the trim drive in the yard basin had occurred in early December. Meanwhile there was the challenge of keeping virtually a full complement of seamen occupied who were well and truly engrossing themselves in the dubious delights of Barrow. This rather austere Victorian industrial town had the compensation of bordering on the beautiful and rugged countryside of the Lake District, albeit few of the crew took advantage of the rural delights.

At the time Vickers was under national ownership, as were the majority of Britain’s shipyards. Including the gun manufacturing facility and engineering works, there was a total workforce of about 13,000, a far cry from the 5,000 people in the current set-up. Whilst there was no significant industrial strife whilst I was in Barrow, this era marked the lame duck years of Prime Minister Jim Callaghan’s Labour government and was a time of very weak management within British industry. Therefore, on occasions one got the impression that the workforce dictated their own terms to the management and many inefficient practices and examples of over-manning were evident. That said, many of the senior management were legendary in terms of their ability to build and deliver nuclear submarines and they exuded a great degree of pride and confidence that they would produce a first rate ship for the Royal Navy.

As an aside, in I 986 the Government sold the Barrow facilities to the managers and workforce for $160 million, with the Cammell Laird yard in Merseyside thrown in. For those who invested in the new company -VSEL, this proved to be an exceedingly good investment as in 1995 GEC-Marconi bought the company at a price tag of $1,360 million.

There was excellent cooperation and indeed often friendship between the shipyard managers and the ships staff who had assumed responsibility for the nuclear plant and watertight integrity. Meanwhile the Naval Overseer organization ensured that our aspirations in terms of unauthorised improvements to the submarine were kept within reason. That said, we prided myself in the number of modifications which were achieved to meet the aim of ensuring the submarine’s fittings and accommodation areas were to the best of standards.

As the trim dive date approached, my imperative was to ensure that when the submarine submerged in the fitting out basin it did not replicate one of its predecessors by ending up bow down in the shipyard mud. Consequently, because they appeared unsound, I ignored the naval architect’s trim calculations. Instead I simply rang around other vessels of the class and got hold of their in trim draft mark readings. On the assumption that the Ship-builder had built the submarine roughly the same size as the others of the class it was not rocket science to make an adjustment for stores and water density and put on a very acceptable and safe trim for the basin dive, which in event was completed without incident. However, unfortunately the naval architect concerned stuck to theory in applying the final solid ballast adjustments to the submarine.

Contractors Sea Trials

Late February 1979 saw us gingerly move out of the dock system into the open sea but the thrill of “Getting Underway in Nuclear Power” was tempered by the Captain declaring on arrival on the bridge that his children had mumps and that he had feared that he had also contracted the illness. As we passed by the light carrier HMS INVINCIBLE fitting out, her bow, which had been damaged as she was moved into the entrance dock, reminded us of the perils of this evolution at a time before the entry was significantly improved for the Trident submarines. A shipyard joker had painted a large sign above the damage indicating the remedial work was going to be undertaken by the local auto bodywork repair company. In event SPARTAN’s departure and return were achieved without serious incident.

On the maiden dive in the sheltered waters of the Clyde, it proved difficult to get the submarine under water as she evidently was too lightly ballasted. A weekend in the submarine base at Faslane followed with a number of shipyard workers undertaking the miserable task in driving rain of securing tons of ballast under the casing: the theoretical calculations were disposed of to the classified waste.

Proceeding back to sea for crew safety training prior to pro-gressing the sea trials, a serious problem soon emerged in that many members of the crew had become ill with violent stomach-ache and dizziness. Fortunately the symptoms, although very unpleasant, were short-lived, and the cause was determined as contamination in part of the fresh water system. Meanwhile the embarked shipyard personnel, who could be up to 40 in number, had established themselves in the weapons compartment, nicknamed the casbah owing to the amount of coloured material separating their temporary bunks. Fitted out with a film projector and other comforts, the casbah was their sanctuary and was even out of bounds to the Work-Up Staff.

Cleared by the Work-Up Staff to proceed with the trials, the next aim was to undertake machinery tests in the Irish Sea working up to full power dived. These were achieved travelling up and down the deep bottom feature known as Beaufort’s Dyke which is situated across the Ireland-Scotland ferry route. This relatively deep patch of water is about 30 miles long but is just over two miles wide and was where over two million tons of WW2 explosives were dumped shortly after the war. This equates to over 30,000 tons of ordnance per square mile. Thus working up to 30 knots, executing a Williamson tum at either end of the trench with a rather green crew, was challenging as at times we were at maximum speed only about 400 feet from the seabed. However, for the duration of these trials the Captain was safely ashore, having been landed suffering from mumps, and I had temporary command for which I was paid a shilling a day by Vickers. Of note on reaching the 30 knots, a fifty pence was successfully balanced on its edge on the wardroom table: fitted with pump jet propulsion there was virtually no vibration.

The remainder of the sea trials were completed very success-fully and the first deep dive to maximum safe depth was undertaken without too many doors jamming owing to hull compression. Meanwhile we enjoyed the finest of cuisine as the Shipbuilder was paying for all the food. Amazingly the Faslane base supply department was not to be defeated by LOGREQS which included such delicacies as frogs’ legs, lobsters and Alaskan king crab to support epicurean adventures for the crew. It was all a bit of a game to see how far the shipbuilders could be pushed, including charging them corkage on their own beer and wine, proceeds going towards the Ships Company commissioning dance. US readers might raise an eyebrow by the prospect of shipbuilders having access to alcohol at sea but this was never an issue of concern and in event very little was actually consumed.

Return to the Shipyard and Commissioning

Returning to the shipyard in early April, the normal three-month post sea trials fit out was extended by two months for SPARTAN to be incorporated with external protective fittings to enable her to undertake the designated role of a target submarine. The latter meant SPARTAN was destined to spend significant periods of time at the Royal Navy BUTEC and USN AUTEC ranges having a variety of practice and test torpedoes fired against her, sometimes in a hit mode. AUTEC trials were very much welcomed by the crew because they inevitably included port visits to Florida. For my part the high point of the target role was a 28 knot run down the AUTEC range which demonstrated that the Tigerfish ASW torpedo with only an eight knot advantage could achieve a hit, albeit we incurred only a glancing blow which caused no damage.

On a fresh, sunny September morning, the commissioning ceremony took place in a shipyard berth where a pavilion and stand had been set up. There was a substantial gathering of crew families, the shipyard staff, local dignitaries and other guests with the shipyard band providing jaunty musical accompaniment. The commissioning berth and everything around it had been spruced up and painted including only the jetty facing starboard side of the submarine, making it at least 5.5 coats of external paint since the initial build phase. At the start of the proceedings the Ships Company marched on to take position in front of the stand. Very memorably, the standard of marching was absolutely outstanding.

Several crew members of the previous HMS SPARTAN attended the occasion: their Vickers built Bellona Class light cruiser had been sunk off Anzio in January 1944, by a guided bomb. It was very much a humbling experience to meet these stalwarts, several of whom had been severely wounded during the attack and needless to say they were delighted to be our guests and over the moon to be given a tour of a nuclear submarine. We were also honoured that Lady Lygo was able to attend and indeed she was to maintain a strong interest in the submarine during its succeeding commissions.

Commissioning ceremony over, the challenge then was to get the VIPs onboard for a tour and glass of champagne. The well-built wife of Barrow’s Mayor proved a bottle-neck in getting down the access hatch until threatened by the Mayor with use of the torpedo loading gear to get her onboard. A very successful Ships Company dance in the Town Hall finished the day, but for a number of the crew who had married Barrow girls, who characteristically were not inclined to move out of the town, it was a sad end of an era and their main aspiration was to return to another building boat as soon as possible.

The seemingly interminable leaving parties over and the final unofficial improvements levered out of the Shipbuilder, SPARTAN left her birthplace for the final time for workup in Faslane. She had cost about $320M to build in today’s money. Sadly, not for the want of enthusiasm and effort, we did not excel in the subsequent safety or operational workup phases, albeit we were assessed as Satisfactory in both. Unfortunately the operational workup serials were mainly geared up towards fighting our own or allied forces and were not a good precursor for the forthcoming deployments against Soviet submarine opposition.

Although during the workup and post commissioning trials, there were few technical problems, I have one enduring memory of a defect on the anchor system. Some years prior whilst sonar officer of the first-of-class SWIFTSURE, I witnessed a severe problem on recovering its anchor. As the final shackle (or shot, as it is called in the US Navy) had been heaved in, the cable came off the anchor windlass and totally ran out to the cable locker clench. Getting the anchor in then involved the difficult and very prolonged evolution of getting the weight of the ship off the cable and securing the cable back onto the drum. After many frustrations in trying to get the last half shackle in, eventually this was only achieved by breaking the cable and stowing the half shackle below. This was a very difficult task in the wet, cramped conditions of the SSN’s anchor windlass compartment. It was concluded that whilst the cable locker was adequate in capacity on initial use, as mud deposits built up on the cable, it became too small for stowage of the designed eight or so shackles.

Based upon this experience I attempted without success to persuade the overseeing authorities to have half a shackle removed from SPARTAN’s cable outfit. Sure enough during the workup, on anchoring off the port of Rothesay in the Clyde, we endured a repeat performance of SWIFTSURE’S travails. I had to be prevailed upon not to truck the offending half shackle to the design department in Bath.

On Operational Patrol

SPART AN undertook her first operational patrol in the Spring of 1980. Despite the passage of thirty years, details of events which occurred during this patrol are not releasable, but hopefully they will be de-classified before the key participants have “crossed the bar”. Nevertheless a brief account of her second patrol is related in the book We Come Unseen, author Jim Ring, published in 2001. There follows a summary of my recollections of happenings during this operation which occurred in February 1981.

This patrol commenced with the detection of a homeward bound Victor Class SSN to the NW of the UK. After a period of loss of contact as he passed through the difficult sonar conditions of the Iceland-Faroes Gap, we re-located him in the South Norwegian Sea and thereafter maintained a loose trail on towed array data.

When about 100 miles south of Bear Island, in the early morning hours, hull array contact was achieved on the Soviet which had stopped transitting and was observed manoeuvring around a certain area. We closed to about three miles to the east of the Victor’s search locus and watched as events unfurled. Soon there was great excitement in the control room as a Delta Class Soviet SSBN was detected heading on a south-westerly track. We maintained a prudent range observing the SSN manoeuvring round the SSBN conducting very evidently ineffective delousing manoeuvres. In the late afternoon the SSN headed south-east and faded shortly thereafter having completed his sanitising manoeuvres. Meanwhile we established trail on the port quarter of the SSBN as it headed NW at a speed of about 5 knots. There was a great buzz throughout the boat with the appreciation that we had just undertaken a very unique piece of intelligence gathering of a Soviet SSN sanitising a deploying Delta SSBN. I retired for an early evening meal before relieving the Captain for a stint as Duty Command.

On returning to the control room and receiving handover, there was disappointment that contact had been lost on the DELTA. However, after a couple of hours searching to the north-west, contact was regained. Just before midnight confusion existed in the sound-room regarding the bearing of the DELTA, whether we were on its port or starboard quarter. Then it became clear that we were holding two distinctly different sets of contact character-istics on different bearings. We were now behind not one but two DELTA Class SSBNs which were about 10 miles apart heading deep into the Greenland Sea towards the marginal ice zone. A second report went to the Captain that we had additional company.

We maintained trail on the two SSBNs as they headed into the Greenland Sea for the next day. On the second evening of the trail as we approached the Greenland Sea Oceanic Front a marked rise in sea noise was detected ahead but of course there was no shipping around. Meanwhile the sea-water temperature had dropped and ice or frost was beginning to form on exposed internal surfaces of the pressure hull. Owing to the absence of a navigational fix for several days, not very detailed navigational charts, lack of knowledge where the ice edge started, and appreciating that HQ had no idea where we were, we were somewhat venturing into the unknown. However, not fitted with SAT-COM, we had no secure method of radioing for extra waterspace and approaching the edge of our allocated areas we had to break off trail and headed south away from the marginal ice zone.

A few days later, when back south in the middle of the Nor-wegian Sea we made contact with a homeward bound CHARLIE II SSGN and trailed it for some time before pulling back and returning to base. For me it was the end of my time in SPARTAN and my journey from build to operational patrol. SPARTAN was to go onto several very successful operational patrols and took an active part in the Falklands War.


SPARTAN’s decommissioning service took place in Faslane in January 2006. The following is an extract from a local newspaper report:

The service complete, the stage is handed over to Ad-miral Sir Raymond Lygo KCB, to inspect the Ship’s Com-pany and say a few words of his own. SPARTAN was named and launched at the Vickers yard in Barrow-i11-Furness by Lady Emily Lygo, and since his wife’s death in September 2004 the Admiral has taken a close interest in SPARTAN during herfinal 17 months ill service.

Looking mefully al the leaden skies and the rain spat-tering off the quay, Admiral Lygo acknowledges that “we’ve all had just about enough of this”, and keeps his speech short. He pays tribute to the men who have served on board SPARTAN, and who will be scattered to the four winds of Royal Navy service in a few minutes’ time, and then the white ensign is lowered from SPARTAN’S flagstaff, and with a poignant “Three cheers for HMS SPARTAN”, the senior Navy figures leave the scene, the band strikes up for the last time and the Ship’s Company is finally given permission to disperse.

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