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One Submarine, Two Captains - The Early Years of HMS Repulse

by Bob Hill

Captain J R "Phil" Wadman died in 2014. In 1966 he was appointed to command the Port Crew of Repulse, the 3rd Polaris submarine to be ordered but the second, behind Resolution, from Vickers Shipbuilders in Barrow–in-Furness. Soon afterwards, Tony Whetstone was appointed to command the Starboard crew. Together they forged an exceptional partnership which had a huge influence on every aspect of the submarine's early history.

Resolution emulated the practice in the USA where the Gold crew was the first to be appointed and was expected to take the lead in every aspect of business, leaving the Blue crew to be "also-rans". For Gold read Port; for Blue, read Starboard

From the outset, Phil Wadman and Tony Whetstone made it clear to all who joined the submarine while it was being built that Repulse had one crew, half of whom, unfortunately, had to be left behind when the submarine went to sea!

Design departments in Bath had become used to each of Resolution's crews taking diametrically opposed opinions was a Port or a Starboard crew view and were surprised when either the respondent confessed that he couldn't remember which crew he was in, or gave the confident assurance that it was the Repulse (both crews) answer.

As sea trials approached, the number of ratings living and training in Barrow increased towards the full complement of both crews and they announced that on the Wednesday afternoon "Make and Mend" there would be a Port vs Starboard football match. Phil Wadman and Tony Whetstone decreed this to be illegal. The match could be between Departments or Specialisations, but not between crews. This ensured that the "one crew" message was believed by all.

To ensure that it was carried into effect when the submarine went to sea, the two Captains agreed that honours would be shared. The Port Crew would do Sea Trials; then the Starboard crew would take over for Commissioning trials; then the Port Crew would do another spell of trials (mainly sonar performance and noise trials); then the Starboard crew would take the submarine to Cape Canaveral for the submarine's first missile firing. The Port crew would fly across to take over the submarine, conduct their missile firing, then bring the submarine back across the Atlantic. In due course the Port crew would do the submarine's first deterrent patrol.

However, this was not all because the two Captains asked Vickers Shipbuilders for the Starboard crew to be allowed to conduct the second half of the initial sea trials, with a crew change in the middle of the appointed programme. Since the submarine belonged to the shipbuilder until commissioned into the Royal Navy, this could only happen if the shipbuilder agreed. It took a little time to get an answer, but the Vickers board replied that a crew change could indeed take place, but not until after the full power trial and deep dive. So that is when it happened.

The Vickers Ship Manager was Tony Peak. When the boat returned to Barrow after very successful sea trials he said that as they progressed, the Vickers view was that the Port crew was the best submarine crew they had known. By the end of sea trials, they could not agree whether the Port or the Starboard crew was the better. Tony Peak said that Vickers's admiration for both Captains was such that if they asked for the submarine to be painted sky blue it would probably be done!

The submarine continued to be successful and happy.

On the first arrival at Faslane from Barrow at the beginning of sea trials, Phil Wadman took the submarine alongside without tugs and parked it perfectly without even a bump. Despite this, it was decreed that tugs should always be used. But he had made his point.

Perhaps the most extraordinary occurrence during Phil Wadman's time in Command of the Port Crew was the lack of food throughout the submarine's first deterrent patrol. It seems that the Port Crew head chef did a pier head jump, leaving the boat after Fast Cruise and Index and refusing to go on patrol. An experienced Resolution chef was drafted to take his place. Being highly professional, his first act was to do a muster of all the food on board. He reported to the Supply Officer (Guy Chapple, a Seaman Lieutenant) that there was not enough food for the patrol. With the head chef, Guy did another muster and then reported the fact to the Captain, Phil Wadman. Phil then spoke to the Doctor, Mike Paine, and asked him to do a third muster and report back whether there were enough calories and enough vitamins. Mike reported that indeed there were enough of both, but the crew would be quite hungry. He recommended that since the propulsion watches were the most physically active people on board, a middle watch stew should be sent back aft each night. This would ensure a boost of calories one day in 3 for these people. This took place and the stew was duly delivered, never quite needing to be accompanied by the predicted armed guard. But it was amazing how many people decided that maintenance needed to be done back aft during the middle watch, and had to be evicted before the stew arrived.

As a Control Room watch keeper, Guy Chapple's every watch was a 4 hour food complaint. As a Seaman officer given Supply Officer duties, with no previous relevant experience, he had taken the precaution of sending the list of proposed stores inboard to the Squadron Supply Officer, requesting assurance that it was adequate. He received this assurance.

Towards the end of the patrol, every cartoon in the ship's paper depicted humans and animals as skeletons. And there is no doubt that when we got back we were probably the slimmest peacetime submarine crew to return from patrol. Throughout all, Phil Wadman was a calm, reassuring, supportive and highly professional presence. He was universally trusted, liked and respected.

The point of telling the story is to emphasise how inexperienced were the crews that Phil Wadman and Tony Whetstone and others commanded in those early days of the Polaris programme

The two Captains were different in almost every respect, except professional ability. Phil Wadman quiet, reserved, calm and good natured; Tony Whetstone irrepressibly cheerful and quick to find the humour in every situation. In the Control Room, Phil Wadman required everyone to be silent and concentrating: Tony Whetstone could only concentrate if everyone else was efficiently relaxed.

One summer morning on sea trials, before coming up from deep in a calm sea littered with yachts, Tony Whetstone was uncharacteristically brusque when he came into the Control Room. Repulse finally got to periscope depth and Tony Whetstone indicated for the periscope to be raised. The Panel watchkeeper was momentarily distracted and the periscope went up and up, passing Captain's outstretched hands as he waited to take the handles. Turning to the Panel he queried "Who are you raising this for? General de Gaulle?" Normality returned.

Everyone who served in Repulse under these two Captains knows how lucky they were to do so.

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