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  • Writer's pictureShaun Lewis

50 years of continuous nuclear deterrent patrols

I have been reminded that today is the 51st anniversary of HM opening officially the Clyde Submarine Base at Faslane. Last week, the Royal Navy commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Continuous At Sea Deterrent. Both events cause me to reflect on my association with the naval base where I spend much of my naval career.

Faslane lies at the head of the Gare Loch, a few miles from Helensburgh and 25 miles west of Glasgow. During WW2 it served as a base for submarines, but only in the 1960s did it achieve greater prominence when the government upgraded it to become the site of the Polaris submarine squadron and its base facilities. It was chosen as its geography offers seclusion, but deep and easily navigable waters for submarines to access the North Atlantic. Since then, it has undergone several other changes and is now the work place for 3,000 service and 4,000 personnel.

I have served three full appointments and two temporary appointments based in Faslane, starting in the early 1980s. Unlike the remaining naval bases of Devonport and Portsmouth, Faslane is very modern and has no magnificent architecture. Security is very tight and one's naval identity card is in not sufficient to gain access. One has to have a specially coloured base pass and only very few are issued with the right coloured pass to access the green area where the nuclear missile carrying submarines are berthed. Armed Royal Marine and MOD Police sentries guard the external and internal access gates.

The tight security, miles of razor wire, industrial buildings and, above all, the weather, give the base a forbidding air. Faslane is nicknamed 'Fasrain' by the sailors there. They say that if one can see across to the other side of the Gare Loch it is about to rain. If not, it is raining. The local naval welfare service has often had to deal with young wives, plucked from the bosoms of their families in the south, suffering from depression caused by the isolation, long dark evenings and poor weather. However, in good weather, the base's location is stunning. It lies at the foothills of the Highlands and on the finest coast for sailing in the UK. Property is relatively cheap up there and I chose to base my family there. My son was christened in the base on board my submarine and my daughter was born in Glasgow.

I served at Faslane during the height of the Cold War and when CND was most active. There was a permanent peace camp outside the base and we often had to deal with intruders. I recall one senior officer had the bright idea that we should differentiate between intrusions by peace campers and those by potential Russian spetsnaz forces or terrorists by using a different alarm code word to avoid the Royal Marines automatically shooting to kill. He came up with the word, 'Vermin'. He was quickly pounced upon from on high and forced to change it to something less inflammatory.

Public relations at the base is very sensitive at Faslane and was a major element of my responsibilities in my last appointment there. My boss was the local sea area commander and we frequently had to deal with issues concerning claims for damage to fishing nets (or worse) allegedly caused by dived submarines. However, most of our attention was directed to stories in the press about nuclear issues. Not only did we have submarines with nuclear reactors within the base, but we took over responsibility for the Armament Depot at nearby Coulport where our nuclear missiles were stored. The majority of media reports were complete tosh, but as we used to say, 'Why spoil a good story with the truth?' The sensitivity of the base was also a reason why we had to host hundreds of VIP visits a year, again for which I was responsible. In my time at Faslane, I met Margaret Thatcher, John Major, the Prince of Wales and every Defence Secretary of the era, as well as a host of senior officers from all three services and those of other countries.

Towards the end of my career, it was decided to base a squadron of mine hunters at Faslane. We were already the base port for the Northern Ireland patrol vessels, but it was decided to change the name of the base from the Clyde Submarine Base to HM Naval Base Clyde. It was not a universally popular decision. In my early career, the base supported two submarine squadrons and I served with both. However, the squadrons were merged into one and from next year all the RN's submarines will be based at Faslane. In my last appointment, the decision was, also, made to close down the HQ of the Flag Officer responsible for Scotland and Northern Ireland and move it to Faslane. I was heavily involved in the move and integration of the new staff, a task that drove me to despair and to submit my resignation from the RN. Since then, the admiral's post has been combined with that of the Flag Officer Submarines. In my humble opinion, this seems sensible.

The naval base has always been a political hot potato and will continue to be so whilst the SNP campaigns for independence from the rest of the UK. In my day, it was West Scotland's second biggest employer after tourism. I, also, saw the base move from West Dunbartonshire to Argyll and Bute. The former council and MP were keen to promote their region as being a nuclear free zone, but this was difficult to do with a nuclear missile base in its midst. Accordingly, when Argyll and Bute council offered to take the base and all the rates revenue it attracted, West Dunbartonshire agreed like a shot. The base is sure to continue to live through many interesting times in the future.

Life at sea in Faslane based submarines and in the Naval Base Commander's inner office was tough. Even so, apart from my last year in the RN, I thoroughly enjoyed my appointments there and have fond memories of the place and life in Scotland. Both my children are proud to have been born in Scotland.

HM Naval Base Clyde

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