Submarines have come a long way since the Royal Navy commissioned its first subs in the early 20th century. The nuclear submarine behemoths of the present day bear little resemblance to the small underwater Holland-class vessels that Britain’s navy designed for naval operations in 1901.
The Royal Navy stationed its earliest subs at HMS Dolphin in Gosport, which remained an operational base until the 1990s. Today, it is the site of the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, which documents the history of Royal Navy submarines from World War I up to the post-Cold War era.
The Royal Navy Submarine Museum is one of the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard’s finest naval museums. It is situated along the Gosport waterfront, across which a water bus runs from the primary historic dockyard.
There lies the HMS Alliance, Britain’s last remaining full-size World War II submarine. While the Alliance is undoubtedly the centrepiece, the museum also showcases a multitude of naval artefacts and models in the John Fieldhouse Building.
The Royal Navy launched the 281-foot HMS Alliance in 1945, by which time it was a little late for wartime service. The Alliance was then refitted as an A-class Cold War submarine. Britain’s navy then deployed HMS Alliance primarily in a Soviet sub interceptor role up to the 1970s.
The HMS Alliance was rusting away until 2011, with a hole at the submarine’s stern the most evident sign of how it was deteriorating. However, a £7 million restoration programme had fully restored the submarine by 2014. So now the Alliance sparkles on the Gosport waterfront, and even featured in the 2017 film Transformers V: The Last Knight. It was the second movie to include the Alliance, after the 1950 naval drama Morning Departure.
Today, you can board the Alliance on guided tours that show you its torpedo store, control room, engine room, and aft torpedo compartment. Visitors can even take a peek through its periscope.
The Alliance is one of three submarines the museum showcases. The Holland 1, otherwise known as Submarine Torpedo Boat Number 1, is another highlight. The first submarine the Royal Navy commissioned for active service, the Holland 1, was a small, 63-foot sub manned by a crew of eight submariners.
The navy never deployed that submarine for any notable operations, as it was obsolete before the outbreak of World War I. It eventually sank in severe weather when under tow to a ship-breaker’s yard in 1913.
The Holland 1’s sinking actually saved the submarine. It was later rediscovered, and salvaged in 1981. Now it is displayed within a climate-controlled building opposite the HMS Alliance. There, visitors can explore the interior of the craft.
Little remains of Holland 1’s original subsystems, which were stripped out before its trip to the scrap-yard. Nevertheless, the submarine still retains its 18-inch torpedo tube, motor, diesel engine, and gear train. That is enough to give you a glimpse of what the original layout was like in the earliest Royal Navy subs.
SILENT and SECRET
The rest of the museum’s collection is spread across two floors of the John Fieldhouse Building. The ground floor includes the 51-foot HMS X-24 midget submarine that the Royal Navy deployed during World War II. The X-24 was a miniature submarine manned by a crew of four and equipped with a couple of detachable explosives. The X-24’s back engine is cut off from the rest of the submarine so that you can see its interior, which, unlike that of the Holland 1, is intact.
Like the rest of the X-craft subs, which ravaged the Tirpitz battleship at Kåfjord in 1943, the Royal Navy primarily utilised the X-24 for port raids. The X-24’s most notable missions were against Norway’s heavily defended Bergen port. The submarine effectively penetrated Bergen’s defences twice in 1944, blowing up a floating dock used for U-boat maintenance during its second raid.
The ground floor also includes the museum’s Silent and Secret exhibition. The exhibition opened in June 2018 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Royal Navy’s first Resolution-class submarine patrol. That was the UK’s first nuclear ballistic submarine, which was needed to replace the antiquated ‘V bomber’ nuclear deterrent. The navy equipped the subs with the now outmoded Polaris nuclear missiles, which the Trident deterrent replaced.
Silent and Secret showcases thought-provoking and somewhat chilling Cold War submarine exhibits. At the entrance, visitors can see a cutaway model of a Resolution-class submarine and Cold War cultural items, such as a film poster for The Hunt for Red October.
The exhibition’s biggest highlight, however, is the nose cone of a Chevaline Polaris missile, displayed along with a replica of its warhead. Beside that you can see a model of an SSBN (Ship, Submersible, Ballistic, Nuclear) missile compartment, positioned just below a projection of a Polaris missile in flight. A wall diagram shows you the missile’s deployment sequence from its nose cone ejection.
In addition, the Silent and Secret exhibition showcases a firing panel console from which the Weapons Engineering Officer would have monitored the progress of Polaris missiles through the launch stages. The panel console includes a red fire key for the missiles. That trigger would have fired 16 Polaris missiles at once, each eight times more powerful than the Hiroshima A-bomb.
The Silent and Secret exhibition also covers the exploits of the nuclear-powered HMS Conqueror submarine, which sank Argentina’s General Belgrano cruiser during the Falklands War. The exhibition includes the captain’s cabin of the Conqueror, where you can sit and watch an informative video in which the submarine’s commander recalls the sinking of the Belgrano. Just outside the cabin, you can take a peek through the Conqueror’s periscope for a view of Gosport Marina.
The museum’s second-floor exhibition primarily covers the history of Royal Navy submarines in the world wars during the period 1914-1945. The gallery contains a treasure trove of World War I and II submarine artefacts and models. On entering the exhibition, visitors see a collection of Jolly Roger flags along the wall. These were flags made by Royal Navy subs that had sunk enemy naval units during patrols.
One interesting cabinet in the gallery showcases periscopes from World War I and II submarines. It displays shell-pierced search and attack periscopes from the E11 submarine deployed in the 1915 Dardanelles Campaign. Alongside that, the cabinet has a 1940 periscope and the remains of an 18-inch tail section from a torpedo believed to have been fired from E11.
Another display cabinet includes models of the HMS R7, HMS K13, and HMS M1 World War I submarines. A different cabinet showcases a model of the HMS Storm sub that operated in the Far East during World War II. The gallery also has a model of the HMS Latonia depot ship, which escorted Holland-class submarines.
The world war exhibition is not just about Royal Navy submarines. It also includes a German U-boat display case, which showcases artefacts from German U-boats that sank Britain’s merchant ships during the world wars. The cabinet includes Imperial German and Third Reich flags, an Iron Cross medal, war badges, binoculars, a submarine torpedo calculator, and a signalling pistol, among other items from Germany’s wartime navies.
The second floor also features an exhibition that explains submarine science. Visitors can learn about nuclear energy propulsion, sonar pulses, submarine design, and more besides. The exhibition makes submarine science both fun and engaging, with the inclusion of a series of interactive games. The HMS Conqueror’s hydroplane control panel, which the helmsmen used to change the submarine’s depth, is on display here.
Visitors can watch a documentary about the HMS Alliance in the science exhibition’s miniature cinema. The video discusses the HMS Alliance’s operations during the Cold War. In that video, former submariners recall life aboard the submarine.
Although a relatively small museum, the Royal Navy Submarine Museum’s exhibitions pack a lot in. The museum provides a fascinating insight into the history of Royal Navy submarines and Britain’s post-war nuclear deterrent, and is well worth the trip just to go aboard the HMS Alliance. •
ROYAL NAVY SUBMARINE MUSEUMOpen Wednesday-Sunday 10am-4.30pm. Haslar Road, Gosport, Hampshire, PO12 2AS, UK www.nmrn.org.uk/submarine-museum 023 9283 9766