Melvyn Whymark's Memories Of HMS Valiant
Fifty years ago this month the first all British nuclear submarine entered service at the height of the Cold War.
HMS Valiant's crew were pioneers of the nuclear age, playing a deadly game of cat and mouse with the Russians beneath the ice of the Arctic Ocean. Melvyn Whymark, from Clacton, was one of the men who served aboard her. It was danger money which lured a young Melvyn Whymark to work aboard the Royal Navy's submarines.
He joined the Navy in 1959, aged just 17, and served on the Battle Class destroyer HMS Trafalgar. Men lucky enough to get a bunk to sleep in had to squeeze on to an 18-inch wide bed. The rest slung their hammocks above the tables on the mess deck. Getting out of bed ran the real risk of stepping in a shipmate's breakfast, remembers Melvyn, from Clacton.
In 1963 he grabbed the chance move over to submarines. The Navy paid an extra 6s 8d a day 'hard-layers money' for the added danger. "In those days it was a lot of money so I took it," he said. "My first submarine was HMS Acheron and after that I joined HMS Opossum and from there I went on board HMS Valiant." Valiant had been built by Vickers at Barrow-in-Furness and was the Navy's first 'all British' nuclear submarine.
Melvyn worked as an underwater weapons technician with torpedoes, depth charges and mines. "We used to service all the weapons," he said. "I really enjoyed myself in submarines - more so than on surface ships. "It was hard work but you played hard as well. When you were ashore you really let yourself go. Drinking, smoking, women - you name it we did it! "We got up to mischief in many ways. But when you were at sea you really did have to work hard.
"You didn't just have weapons duties, you had ship duties as well. "If you were on the surface you could be on look-out, or you would be looking after the cleanliness of the ship." He took home £17 a fortnight. Mystery missions took Valiant under the ice of the Arctic to spy on the West's enemies during the Cold War. "We weren't supposed to know where we were going but we were up off Murmansk with the Russians," said Melvyn. "There was one time we surfaced a bit too quick and caught the conning tower on a Russian ship and had to limp back to base at Faslane in Scotland and then to Barrow-in-Furness to be repaired. "In those days we weren't allowed to talk about it. It was top secret and we had all signed the Official Secrets Act.
Melvyn continued "Conventional submarines you could stay out for about six weeks. They were restricted (in dived endurance) by the length of time the batteries would last. "On a nuclear submarine you could stay down as long as your food and fresh water lasted."
In 1967 Valiant set a Royal Navy record of sailing 12,000 miles submerged for 28 days from Scotland to Singapore. The crew took being cooped up and cut off from the outside world for long periods in their stride. "You were so busy you didn't worry about it," said Melvyn. "It was just something you accepted." Living on top of a nuclear reactor also failed to worry the men. Melvyn said: "All you knew was the reactor was driving the boat. I wasn't in the engineering department so it didn't really interest me much, so long as we got from A to B."
Despite being armed to the gills with more than 30 torpedoes - nicknamed "fish" - he never fired anything in anger. "We used to empty a couple of torpedo tubes and put the torpedoes in storage racks and fill up the tubes with provisions - tinned food and cans of beer," said Melvyn "If we had needed to fire we would just have discharged the lot out to sea and loaded up the torpedo." There were lighter moments on board too. One day Melvyn's torpedo officer boss was on watch on the Valiant's conning tower. "We were on the surface in a force nine gale and the boat was rocking away," he said. "He was on the bridge and sent a message down to the control room for someone to come up to the bridge with a cup of cocoa. They used to drink it a lot to stay awake." The officer was amazed when Melvyn appeared on the bridge without having spilt a drop of the brew.
"You can imagine climbing a vertical ladder with a cup of cocoa in a force nine gale wasn't very practical," said Melvyn. "When I got up there he said 'How the hell did you manage that?' "I said 'Easy sir. I took a mouthful out at the bottom of the ladder and put it back in at the top!"
Melvyn was 26 when he left the Navy in 1968. He married wife Marie and worked in construction and engineering before going on to Anglian Water and Tendring Water until retiring in 2005.
Valiant was decommissioned in 1994 and is now laid up in Plymouth. Melvyn is attending a reunion there next month to mark the submarine's 50th anniversary. "They can't scrap those nuclear submarines because of the reactors inside them so they have to put them in a submarine graveyard," he said. "I'm really looking forward to going back and seeing the old girl after all these years. "We didn't get any medals or any recognition for what we did in the Cold War because it was top secret. "But I enjoyed the comradeship more than anything - you never forget it."