The man from the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate was very insistent. On the bucking deck of the tender in Plymouth Sound he engaged me in conversation so closely as to quite obscure my view. She came out of nowhere as the tender swung alongside: a barnacled black whale 300 feet long, her casing almost awash, pitching and rolling gently in the south-westerly driving up from Penlee Point. Only the jutting conning-tower, delicately streaked with rust, distinguished her from a lurking sea monster, a leviathan. She was the 5,200-tonne nuclear submarine Talent. I was there that day at the behest of the Flag Officer Submarines to be shown her paces. All because, thirty-one years earlier in a second-hand bookshop in Croydon, I had picked up a copy of Edward Young’s One of Our Submarines.
It was a title I might well have overlooked, for submarines have rarely enjoyed a good press. From their inception in the 1860s as serious instruments of warfare, their stealth – sneaking up on their victims, committing murder and disappearing under the waves – was regarded as questionable. When their introduction into the Royal Navy was first mooted a hundred years ago, Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson condemned them as ‘underwater, underhand and damned un-English’. Then in the First World War, when German U-boats sank neutral merchant ships – not to mention the Lusitania – without warning, the moral dye seemed firmly cast. The loss through accident rather than enemy action of the British submarines Thetis in 1939, Truculent in 1950 and Affray a year later confirmed the submarine’s reputation of turning on its own crew. Young could quite justifiably write of ‘the average man’s almost superstitious horror of submarines’.
I didn’t share those feelings. I was too young to remember Affray, too ignorant to know about ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’ and its consequences. Instead I was be
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