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1963 - 1980: Dreadnought Class

Fleet submarines are the nuclear-powered capital ships of the modern navy. They are the main striking power of the Fleet and are themselves the single most effective anti-submarine weapon available. Fitted with complex computer-assisted sensors and the latest torpedoes, they can silently shadow a target for long periods at high speed while hundreds of feet below the surface, ready to attack with deadly effectiveness when required.

Following the progress made by the United States in the revolutionary field of nuclear-powered submarine propulsion, a mid-1950s policy decision announced that, instead of developing an all-British nuclear submarine, much time and money would be saved by accepting the American lead and taking advantage of US nuclear technology. Therefore, the first British nuclear-powered Fleet submarine, HMS Dreadnought, comprised an American 'kit of parts' in a Vickers-built hull.

HMS Dreadnought, Britain's first nuclear-powered submarine was launched on Trafalgar Day, 1960
HMS Dreadnought, Britain's first nuclear-powered submarine was launched on Trafalgar Day, 1960

Specially designed to hunt and destroy enemy underwater craft, Dreadnought was laid down on 12th June, 1959 and launched by Her Majesty the Queen on Trafalgar Day (21st October), 1960. Dreadnought's preliminary trials, which began early in 1962, progressed very satisfactorily - considering that Britain had not built a nuclear-powered submarine before - and she made her first dive, in Ramsden Dock, on 10th January, 1963. At the time of her completion - 17th April, 1963 - she was one of the most formidable attack submarines in the world.

Dreadnoughtis handled by means of telemotor controls, using a type of joystick and elaborate instrument panel similar to those in the cockpit of a modern aircraft. At high underwater speed she also behaves and handles like an aircraft and can be set on course and depth by an 'automatic pilot'. She is also capable of performing 'aquabatics'.

Comprehensive air-conditioning and purification equipment maintains safe and comfortable atmosphere control and enables Dreadnought to operate for more than two months without recourse to air from the surface - a pint of distilled sea-water an hour, passed through electrolysers, provides enough oxygen for a 100-man crew. Food supplies are the only factor which limits submerged endurance.

In the after end of Dreadnought, which is almost totally American and is known as the 'American Sector,' electricity is produced for less than 1p a kilowatt hour; water produced on the same basis costs about 7½p a gallon.

Submarine Nuclear Steam Raising Plant (NRSP)
Submarine Nuclear Steam Raising Plant (NRSP)

Accommodation is of an unprecedented standard, even in surface vessels, and the crew appreciate shower baths, laundry and washing facilities; amenities that weren't installed in earlier submarines. Separate mess spaces are provided for senior and junior rates, arranged on either side of a large galley, equipped for serving meals on the cafeteria system. Particular attention was paid to the decoration and furnishing of living quarters and recreational spaces - which include cinema equipment, an extensive library and tape recordings; features which help to offset the monotony associated with prolonged underwater voyages.

During her career, Dreadnought has been on many varied patrols. On 24th June, 1967, she was ordered to sink the wrecked and drifting German ship Essberger Chemist. Three torpedoes hit along the length of the target: the gunners of HMS Salisbury finished the job by piercing the tanks, which were keeping the Essberger Chemist just afloat.

In the mid-60s, Dreadnought's visits included trips to Norfolk Va, Bermuda, Rotterdam and Kiel. She was at Gibraltar in 1965, 1966 and 1967, and on 19th September 1967 she left Rosyth for Singapore on a sustained high speed run. The round trip finished as 4640 miles surfaced and 26545 miles submerged.

Apart from minor hull-cracking problems, Dreadnought proved to be a reliable vessel, popular with her crews. In 1970 she completed a major refit at Rosyth, in the course of which her nuclear core was refuelled and her ballast tank valves were changed to reduce noise. She re-commissioned on 10th September 1970 - and she has a commemorative postal cover to prove it. On 3rd March 1971, she became the first British submarine to surface at the North Pole.

Dreadnought is now at Rosyth Naval Dockyard, laid up indefinitely while her radioactive contamination decays. Her nuclear fuel has been removed and she has been stripped of useful equipment. She will eventually be sunk deep in the Atlantic or broken up for disposal in some other way.

During Dreadnought's build, Rolls Royce and Associates, in collaboration with the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, were developing a completely new nuclear propulsion system. On 31st August 1960 Britain's second nuclear-powered submarine was ordered from Vickers and, fitted with Rolls Royce's nuclear steam-raising plant, Valiant was the first all-British nuclear submarine.


Most of a nuclear-powered submarine's crew are watch keepers whose working hours are taken up at regular watch-keeping positions and with the continuous training task. 'Off-duty' time is not entirely free as everyone has some further task to perform, such as routine maintenance, paper-work or 'housekeeping' and 'domestic' chores.

To maintain peak efficiency, proper relaxation is very necessary, and entertainment during patrols is provided by a wide selection of modern films, a large popular 'paperback' library, and by personal cassette recorders which cater for individual musical tastes.

Accommodation is of a high standard, despite obvious limitations in space. The mess, recreation and sleeping spaces have been made as pleasant and comfortable as possible within the confines of a submarine hull, and a modern, well-equipped galley, which maintains a high standard of catering, offers a choice of several hot or cold dishes at all meals.

Although capable of keeping up with a surface fleet, it is unlikely that the high-performance Fleet submarines will ever be seen in close formation with surface ships in normal exercises or in actual operations. With the fearsome title of 'Hunter-Killers', their task is to hunt down their prey alone - to reduce the risk of being attacked by friendly forces.

The nuclear-powered submarine represents a terrible threat to surface warships, for her speed enables her to close in, attack with a variety of weapons - such as guided torpedoes or even missiles - and then withdraw at high speed.

As Admiral Sir John Fisher wrote prophetically in 1904

It's astounding to me how the very best amongst us fail to realise the vast impending revolution in naval warfare and naval strategy that the submarine will accomplish!


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1959 - 1998: Oberon Class1966 - 1994: Valiant Class