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The Ultimate Test Of Leadership Under Stress

Ali Kefford, The Times 15th April 2017

Standing between Russia's increasingly assertive Northern Fleet submarines and British shores are the Royal Navy submarine captains, deemed the most "feared" in the world by Tom Clancy, the author of "The Hunt for Red October".

Their reputation is based on the Officers'ability to push a boat and her crew confidently to the very edge of what each is capable of, acting aggressively but without becoming rash or endangering the lives of those on board.

These skills are honed on an infamously brutal century old command course, known within the service as "Perisher", because the 35 per cent who fail can never serve underwater again, making a decade's sea preparation redundant.

Perisher is knowingly unforgiving; the submarine service's responsibilities are too complex, perilous and crucial to British defence for it not to be.

In addition to keeping the nuclear deterrent on permanent patrol, its other key tasks include the launching of cruise-missile attacks, the planting of boats off enemy shores to soak up intelligence, and covertly deploying the Special Boat Service.

Those running the operations must be devoid of fear, and they are. "The underwater world is still very largely impenetrable. And, as long as that remains so, it will dominate the surface of the sea, and the sky above, and the space above that," says Admiral Sir George Zambellas, the former First Sea Lord. "If you don't own the underwater, you don't own much. That's the logic behind submarining, and the unending fight for the depths. That's the logic behind our strategic investment."

The embryonic beginnings of the Royal Navy's submarine command tutelage began after the launch of its first boat in 1901, when one officer would take another to sea and hand down fighting skills as best he could.

Commodore Sydney Hall formalised the training in 1917 to curb the attrition rates of boats and captains in First World War operations. These included the former Olympic fencer Lieutenant-Commander Ferdinand Feilman, who hit the bottle after being relieved of the command of the notoriously difficult steam-powered HMS K14, and Commander Norman Holbrook, the first British submariner to be awarded the Victoria Cross, who requested a transfer because of crippling seasickness.

A battered, handwritten book at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum reveals that the lieutenants Attwood, Mackness and Powel were the first to join the "Periscope School" that September.

Between the wars, the 15-week course settled into a rhythm of being held three times a year for five officers. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Rear-Admiral Submarines Max Horton swiftly flushed out all captains over the age of 34 in a hunt for fresh talent.

"War service in submarines calls for a very high degree of physical and mental endurance, and demands in Commanding Officers those qualities of constant alertness and resilience, which, in the nature of things, are most marked in the younger officers," said a January 1940 memo, culling the ambitions of a cadre of newly qualified men.

During the war, courses became more regular; some of them were only three weeks long, as the captains were urgently required to join their boats. In 1940 46 students passed, nearly double the originally intended number. The youngest commanding officers were a mere 22 years old.

After the fall of France and the sinking of a destroyer in the submarine exercise area off Portsmouth, the decision was taken to transfer the sea-training phase of the now-named commanding officers qualification course to the Clyde and Scapa Flow. As the war continued, extra emphasis was also given to high-speed and night attacks.

Perisher successfully hatched the captains who discharged some of the most audacious attacks of the war, including putting the German battleship Tirpitz out of action. However, it was deadly work; 74 boats were lost, as well as a third of Britain's submariners, many of whom lie in unknown graves.

Booze played a part in the postwar Perisher, when students slept each night at the Douglas Hotel on the Isle of Arran between stints of aquanauting. The course instructor, always referred to as "Teacher", would purposely keep his pupils up late drinking, forcing them to sober up on the early morning boat transfer out to sea before another day dodging frigates bearing down on them at 30 knots.

Over the decades, Perisher has been adapted to incorporate advances in technology and warfare. However, its beating heart remains the production of an elite band of leaders who must be able to cope with anything thrown at them while on patrol with sole responsibility for several billion pounds of military hardware and about 130 souls and no contact with Britain.

Today's biannual course, for between four and six junior officers, begins in Nelson's cabin on HMS Victory, where the candidates are pointedly reminded of the mighty footsteps in which they follow.

The men are then swept off on a wave of fitness tests, navigation exams and to a periscope simulator to practise their first attacks against an "enemy" on dry land. All must possess 3D spacial awareness and a mathematical brain capable of holding the positional calculations of at least three fast-moving warships.

Admiral Sir John "Sandy" Woodward, who went from submarines to command the British naval task force during the Falklands conflict, said: "Imagine sticking your head out of a manhole in Piccadilly Circus, taking one quick, swivelling look round, ducking back down into the sewer and then trying to remember everything that you had seen. The idea is to generate sufficiently accurate recall and timing to avoid a double-decker bus running over your head next time you pop up through the manhole."

These skills are then transferred to stints on a submarine, darting between Scottish islands near the Clyde, first with Teacher closely controlling the exercises, then slowly giving the students increased autonomy.

Teacher sniffs out the limit of each student's physical and mental endurance, then prods and niggles further, reducing their sleep, chucking them impossible tasks and challenging their most basic assertions with a quizzical "Are you sure you meant that?" An individual's core personality is laid bare and arrogance cauterised. By the final four continuous weeks at sea, those set to succeed may possess porridge-coloured complexions, but they have begun to show assured tactical thinking in war games during a large international exercise.

They can covertly capture periscope photographs of a lighthouse while dodging a cluster of ships and helicopters bent on blocking their path. They can launch simulated torpedo attacks then sweep the submarine off to lurk beneath a passenger-carrying car ferry and dodge detection. They can closely scope a ship's hull. And they will have garnered the goodwill of the crew, whose support they need to pass. The ship's company runs a book on who will fail putting a black dot next to the control room shot of a student they dislike, or even defacing the picture. It is usually accurate.

"The troops see their prospective commanding officers going through the course," said Commander Irvine Lindsay, Commanding Officer of the Royal Navy Submarine School. "You need to have a degree of humility. You might be clever, you might be a captain, but you don't know everything and you have to listen to your crew. You get there by right, not because you have the right accent."

Naturally, the course has a merciless failure procedure. The submarine surfaces while the officer is called into the captain's cabin, the news is broken and his fellow students pack his bags. Still dazed, the officer is dispatched back to land clutching a bottle of whisky. Most students fail on the final day of the 24-week programme after being given every chance to pass. Some expected to attain success will make a catastrophic error in the final hours, while others will pull a pass out of the bag on the last attack run.

When Teacher is finally sure of who will pass, each pupil is called individually into the wardroom, congratulated, given a glass of sparkling wine — Ministry of Defence cuts having played havoc with the Navy's champagne supplies — and told which boat they're being assigned to as second-in-command.

"The course is exhausting — as Teacher I managed four hours' sleep in the final 48 hours, the students don't fare much better," said Commander John Livesey. "It is the ultimate test of leadership under stress and the elation of success is difficult to articulate."

Most settle for long-anticipated cans of lager and a cigar on the boat back to land, as well as talking to their family on the phone for probably the first time in a month. The next morning the traditional Perisher breakfast is held in the super mess at HMNB Clyde. A whirlwind of fried food and wine, it is usually over by noon because the students are too weary to drink any more port.

Their names are then added to the wooden Perisher pass boards. Sobriety brings the dawning realisation that they have one of the most coveted jobs in the military. It is hoped that in future they will be joined by women submarine commanders. Women started serving in navy boats only in 2014 after the lifting of a ban on them being deployed underwater because of concerns over the effects on an unborn baby from the atmosphere on board, which has higher levels of carbon monoxide. Philip Hammond overruled this after research in 2011, when he was defence secretary.

In June 2017 a dinner was held at Britannia Royal Naval College Dartmouth to mark the course's centenary. Attended by 275 Perishers, including a cluster of chiefs of defence staff, first and second sea lords and commander-in-chief fleets, because a significant number of Cold War submarine captains reached the service's upper echelons.

"No one is ambivalent about serving in a submarine," says Cdr Lindsay. "Every time we go to sea we're not on exercise, we're not pretending to be underwater being propelled by a nuclear reactor. That's why we need that edge. We look a bit scruffy, there's a swagger that probably irritates and we're rubbish at marching, but we'll sink a ship for you.

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