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My Life As A Cold War Submariner

By Commander Rob Forsyth

(This article was originally published in the June 2019 issue of The Royal British Legion's members magazine, 'Legion')

My father was in the Navy during the Second World War and when he was on his way back, I can remember standing with my mother at the gate, asking, "What does Daddy look like?" He arrived wearing his uniform, at which point, aged five, I decided I wanted to join the Navy.

After attending Daventry Grammar School and Berkhamsted School, I got a scholarship to go to Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. When I decided to apply, it was only 10 years after the end of the Second World War and two years after the end of the Korean War; National Service was still in force and books were full of wartime stories. I could not think of anything more exciting than joining the Senior Service.

Unfortunately, I didn't like Dartmouth. Entry had always been from 14 years old; my entry was just about the first one for 18-year-olds, but the staff still behaved as if we were 14, we were only allowed out on Wednesdays until 8pm and Saturdays until 10pm. I'd grown up in a co-ed environment, drank alcohol and liked girls, and didn't react very well!

1 first went to sea in HMS Appleton, a coastal minesweeper, in 1960 before joining HMS Chichester, an air defence frigate. During the 1961 Kuwait/Iraq crisis, we were dispatched to the Gulf. While there, my Captain informed me over a gin and tonic that my days at sea were numbered. He said: "Forsyth, we've got to do something about you. The First Lieutenant is not going to have any more trouble from you. I've decided you'll make a very good submariner. Your training starts in September." This was a bit of a surprise, and I was nervous, but it sounded exciting. There was no room for objection, once you received the Queen's shilling, you did what you were told!

My first submarine was HMS Sceptre attached to the 6th Submarine Division in Halifax, Canada. The first few months were spent 'working up' in the Clyde before deploying, but I still managed to find time to get married before we sailed in January 1963.

Sceptre
Sceptre

This period marked the real start of the Cold War. The stand-off between the USSR and USA over the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba occurred just before we sailed across the Atlantic. It was to affect all our lives from then on. Before we left, we carried out a patrol with war torpedoes and a false deck throughout the submarine with tinned food and beer. We painted out our pennant numbers, all the things you do before going to war. When you're only 22, 23, you're invincible. I thought it was a great adventure.

During the two years of being based in Canada, we would regularly practise patrolling beneath the Arctic ice where the Soviet submarines operated. We practised two things: one was hunting submarines, and the other was keeping an eye on where there were holes in the ice, with a diesel submarine, which we were in at the time, you had to open a hatch or put up a snorkel mast to run the engine and you couldn't do that if you were under solid ice. The Russians called these gaps polynas, so we called them that, too.

Our main focus was tracking Russian submarines. The Russians would come down through the Iceland-Faroes gap to get into the Atlantic, where SOSUS (a chain of listening posts on the sea-bed installed by the Americans) would give a warning that they were coming through. Maritime aircraft would find out roughly where they were, signal to us, and we would follow them and collect intelligence on where they went and what they did. We would track them down the Atlantic, across the American seaboard, and say goodbye when they went back through the gap.

Inevitably, there were close encounters. One of the things the Russians would do was turn round really quickly, ring on full speed and charge straight back down their previous track, what we called a 'Crazy Ivan' manoeuvre, with the aim of bumping into us. You had to be quite alert to get out of the way in time. Although I didn't have any collisions, after I left her, HMS Sceptre came back off patrol with most of her fin missing because she had "hit an iceberg". It has now been admitted that she came up underneath a Russian submarine and the screws carved great big gouges in her hull, so she was very close to being lost.

After Canada, I served in two more submarines before I was selected for the Submarine Commanding Officers' Qualifying Course, aka The Perisher', in 1969. This six-month course is a prerequisite for command of a submarine. I passed and was appointed in command of HMS Alliance in January 1970 at Devonport. Although one's first command is daunting, we were too busy chasing Russian boats or practising attacks against our own forces for me to have much time to think.

Alliance
Alliance

I then joined HMS Repulse, a Polaris missile-carrying submarine. Each submarine had two crews, which alternated patrolling, and I was the Executive Officer. A patrol lasted up to eight weeks, and during that time there could be no contact of any sort between the crew and their families other than a weekly message of 40 words, known as a familygram.

When you sail off, your whole mind focuses on life on board. My wife always used to say that I sailed with a sense of relief that I'd escaped all the problems of domestic life. It was true. When you go off to sea in a very small space, your life becomes quite organised.

When the nuclear submarines came in, it was quite nice; they had air and unlimited water, and we could wash. In the old days, in diesel submarines, you didn't have air conditioning, or heating even, and living conditions ould be pretty appalling. In the tropics, you could get terrible rashes and we would wear just a sarong to try and keep cool. In the Arctic areas, you could end up in full cold-weather clothing, condensation dripping off the hull.

I was promoted to Commander in 1974 and appointed to run The Perisher' for two years. Being a student on this course had been a challenge; being in charge of it was even more so. In April 1977, I took on the command of a nuclear 'hunter-killer' submarine HMS Sceptre. Our task was to track the bigger and better Russian ships and submarines that were appearing in the Atlantic every year. At the end of my command I was sent to a desk job in the MoD; everyone has to do their penance and I was no different. In January 1981, I stepped ashore for the last time as a serving officer and embarked on a commercial career, from which I retired in 2000.

Funnily enough, I only joined my local Legion branch of Deddington five years ago. I'd always supported Remembrance Sunday, but I became a member because the President pointed out our village committee was getting so small that we were in danger of losing our Standard. Shortly after I joined, I became Chairman and set about co-opting various friends who talked to me for too long in the pub and soon found themselves Treasurer and Secretary.

I think what gets me most about the Legion is the support for ex-Service people. What we're finding out now across the organisation is, at our age, the comradeship is strong. Younger people have a different way of life and so many other interests. But they will support a charity if there's a need. For me, it's about maintaining the traditions and the support of the Legion."