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Cold War submarine HMS Ocelot at The Historic Dockyard Chatham celebrates 60th anniversary


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A former submariner has recalled the sights, sounds and smells of living on board a Cold War submarine as it celebrates its 60th birthday.

Chris Reynolds worked on HMS Ocelot as a junior officer. It was the first submarine he served on as a qualified submariner having previously trained on another submarine.

Chris Reynolds talks about his time as part of the crew on HMS Ocelot

His love for the vessel, which celebrates her 60th birthday today (Thursday), is evident when he speaks about his time on board, despite the cramped conditions, lack of privacy, no showers on board and being confined for weeks on end.

HMS Ocelot was built at Chatham Dockyard and returned home after its 27 years of service in 1991. It is now one of the main attractions at The Historic Dockyard and visitors can climb aboard for a tour.

They access the submarine through the torpedo loading hatch – part of the vessel Chris knows well.

He said: “As a Lieutenant my role as fifth hand and torpedo officer meant that I was responsible for the torpedo movements on board.

Chris Reynolds was a submariner on HMS Ocelot
Chris Reynolds was a submariner on HMS Ocelot
HMS Ocelot is now in the one of the dry docks at The Historic Dockyard
HMS Ocelot is now in the one of the dry docks at The Historic Dockyard

“I would stand on the casing controlling the crane which loaded and offloaded the torpedoes. The torpedo loading hatch is now used for guests to access the submarine.”

Chris also had another vital job on board the submarine as correspondence officer.

He would be presented with several sacks of official mail to work his way through and, in a time before computers, it was a laborious job.

He said: “All this was conducted in my tiny alcove at the far end of the Ward Room using a typewriter, carbon paper and Snopake – it was a time before iPhones and iPads.”

Life on board a submarine was different to life in the surface fleet of the Navy. There was the obvious confinement for weeks on end and the intense smell of diesel, but the rotating shifts, with six hours on and six hours off throughout the time at sea, was something submariners needed to get used to.

Children taking a tour of HMS Ocelot. Visitors go on board via the torpedo loading hatch
Children taking a tour of HMS Ocelot. Visitors go on board via the torpedo loading hatch

Chris said: “If you made a mistake it was submarine rules to own up to it – submariners don’t lie because anyone can sink a submarine by turning the wrong valve, for example, so you needed to say when you’d made a mistake. And as long as you didn’t keep doing it, you were okay.”

HMS Ocelot taught Chris many things during his time on board, skills that he took forward with him to his own command post on HMS Ocelot’s sister submarine HMS Otter.

Chris’s passion for the submarine flotilla lives on today in his capacity as ambassador at the Historic Dockyard Chatham where he helps to train the guides on HMS Ocelot.

He said: “The diesel submarines were really special – they were very, very, very quiet – once you shut off and went deep they were extremely hard to detect."

During his time as a submariner Chris never saw a case of claustrophobia and said in general everyone worked well together on what would have been long missions. But they did have to get used to the smell.

Inside HMS Ocelot
Inside HMS Ocelot

With no showers on board, submariners would have been given small amounts of water for personal use and there were no washing machines at sea.

Chris said: “I suspect we were quite ripe when we got back home but we couldn’t smell it – we thought we were the best thing since sliced bread.”

During their six hours off, submariners would sleep, eat, attend to admin and also squeeze in a film if they could.

He said: “We watched films organised by the Royal Naval Film Corporation.

"They’d send them out to us and we’d sometimes get to see them before they were released at home.”

“When I came home, my wife would make me stand outside and pass me a bag to put my clothes in so I didn't bring the smell of diesel into the house."

Chris remembers seeing “hardened submariners shedding a tear or two over a rom com”.

During home leave, the overriding smell of diesel which permeated the submariners' clothes was something their wives and girlfriends were very aware of.

Chris said: “When I came home, my wife would make me stand outside and pass me a bag to put my clothes in so I didn't bring the smell of diesel into the house.

"These would go straight in the washing machine and I’d go straight in the bath.”

Visitors to HMS Ocelot in dry dock at Chatham often exclaim about the cramped conditions and the bunks that are so narrow submariners couldn’t roll over in them, leading to so-called 'coffin-dreams’.

The cramped living conditions on board
The cramped living conditions on board

Chris said: “There were places you could go, if you needed to be alone but generally people shut their curtains when they wanted time away from others.”

In the clandestine battle against the Soviet navy, Ocelot would have stayed submerged for weeks at a time.

Training to become a British submariner was hard and included escaping from a deep underwater chamber without breathing apparatus and being locked in submerged, darkened ‘pressure pot’ spaces.

The crew would wear ‘pirate rig’ once put to sea, which often consisted of civvy clothes such as shorts and T-shirts.

The men would often just wear their pants but, as they were unable to wash them, they wore them one way for a week, then wore them back to front for the next week, the following two weeks the underwear was turned inside out.

Men who worked on HMS Ocelot at its launch in 1962
Men who worked on HMS Ocelot at its launch in 1962

Due to the covert nature of many of their assignments and the need to go undetected, the crew were said to have spoken in whispers and to walk on rubber mats or wear rubber-soled shoes.

A tour of HMS Ocelot today at Chatham shows how confined the spaces were – the kitchen isn’t much larger than a wardrobe.

Despite the tough living conditions, Chris' fondness for HMS Ocelot and the submarine flotilla remains. He said: “I’d go back to sea on a submarine today if I could.”

HMS Ocelot will host a 60th birthday party on Saturday, when Chris will meet up with his ‘band of brothers’ – a tight-knit group of former submarine captains who all completed the Perisher course, an elite training course for submarine captains, as well as servicemen who served on Ocelot.

Chris will also be conducting a tour of HMS Ocelot and telling people what it was like on board.

The re-dedication of HMS Ocelot in July 1987. Picture: Royal Navy
The re-dedication of HMS Ocelot in July 1987. Picture: Royal Navy

Ocelot was one of 57 submarines built at Chatham between 1908 and 1966 and one of only 13 Oberon-class submarines.

Hundreds gathered to watch Ocelot's launch in May 1962.

Equipped with a stealthy diesel electric engine, Oberon-class submarines such as Ocelot were the quietest submarines in existence and made for the perfect surveillance vessel.

Ocelot would have been selected to undertake, often covert, missions in the deep waters of the world’s oceans, maintaining continuous submerged patrols performing intelligence gathering missions, a role that became vital during the Cold War.

The Ministry of Defence has yet to release in-depth papers relating to the specific operations and campaigns that Ocelot was involved in, however, the fairly routine navigational records of her logs provide an overall idea of her history during the Cold War, and it is also known that O-boats of the Royal Navy were primarily involved in missions across arctic Europe.

Work being carried out on HMS Ocelot at the dockyard
Work being carried out on HMS Ocelot at the dockyard

After being commissioned on January 5, 1964, Ocelot joined the Third Submarine Squadron based at HMNB Clyde at Faslane.

In the first three years of commission, Ocelot sailed more than 90,000 miles, engaged in exercises and trials around the Clyde and Londonderry areas, as well as in the Mediterranean and the cold waters of the Baltic in1965.

During the 1960s, Ocelot, like many of the other O-Boats, was heavily involved in trialling submarine equipment, and in particular, contributed to important work testing Mark 24 torpedoes.

Despite the secrets of her missions remaining hidden to this day, it is known that Ocelot carried out NATO exercises during this period.

Throughout the 1970s, exercises took Ocelot further afield particularly to the Caribbean. One notable incident in her history saw her involved in the salvage of HM Submarine Artemis which famously sank when moored at the RN submarine base HMS Dolphin in 1971.

Admiral Sir Trevor Soar in July 1987 as Captain of HMS Ocelot. Picture: Royal Navy
Admiral Sir Trevor Soar in July 1987 as Captain of HMS Ocelot. Picture: Royal Navy

Although Artemis never returned to service, Ocelot’s crew helped to rescue those trapped on board and bring the vessel back afloat.

Admiral Sir Trevor Soar, chairman of the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust, was one of the most revered seamen of the 90s, rising in the ranks to become the Commander-in-Chief Fleet from 2009 to 2012.

But his very first command in 1987 was HMS Ocelot. Sir Trevor was responsible for taking a crew on Ocelot’s final long voyage. The mission saw the crew navigate the south Atlantic and undertake extended deep dives in the Falklands exclusion zone.

He said: “Ocelot was involved in ship and aircraft exercises with HMS Broadside before rounding Cape Horn in very rough weather.”

Sir Trevor eventually surfaced the submarine in Cooks Bay where they met up with a Chilean pilot who provided the charts to navigate the intricate Patagonian Channels running up the West coast of Chile before going on to Talcahuano in October – their first run ashore since Gibraltar in July.

Admiral Sir Trevor Soar as captain of Ocelot - he is fourth from the left. Picture: Royal Navy
Admiral Sir Trevor Soar as captain of Ocelot - he is fourth from the left. Picture: Royal Navy

He explained: “I paid a local barber to come to the quayside and give a haircut to everyone in the crew.”

The Chilean newspapers covered Ocelot’s arrival in port and the crew were given four days to relax after such an arduous journey.

Letting off steam is something that Sir Trevor is allowed to speak about – most of Ocelot’s mission critical information remains protected by the official secrets act for at least the next 50 years or so.

He recalls the time the crew invited the embassy ladies from Panama to travel the canal. When they stopped at Gatun Lake to wait for another convoy of ships to pass, it was so hot they took the time for a barbecue and a swim.

He said: “The ladies arrived on deck in their bikinis for the swim just as the US Marines arrived and I remember an American Lieutenant commenting ‘we’re in the wrong Navy lads!’”

HMS Ocelot has been given a makeover for its 60th birthday
HMS Ocelot has been given a makeover for its 60th birthday

Sir Trevor left the Royal Navy in March 2012 after a distinguished 37-year career and having achieved the highest rank in the service.

He looks back on his time on board Ocelot fondly: “For me, although I did not know it at the time, it was my first command of four warships, and I was only aged 29 – so it gave me a real understanding of leading people at sea.

“In a diesel submarine the Captain is central to everything and has a huge responsibility for being able to fight his submarine but also to keep it safe and the people in it well motivated.

“I took what I learned with me to my next command. I started with 80 men under my command and ended up with 36,000 as the Commander in Chief of the Royal Navy.

HMS Ocelot was paid off in 1991 and crowds gathered once again to welcome her home to Chatham when she returned the following year.

HMS Ocelot returning to Chatham in 1992
HMS Ocelot returning to Chatham in 1992

She was first stationed at Basin No 2 before moving to her current home in one of the dry docks at The Historic Dockyard.

Between 1992 and 1995 she was adapted for visitor access and underwent internal restoration.

Since then, Ocelot has received 2.3 million visitors who can take a tour inside and has welcomed all kinds of guests.

In 2001, she became home to a family of foxes who were spotted by people on late-night ghost tours.

The following year, Father Christmas had to squeeze through the hatches when he climbed on board to greet school children.

Paul Margerum as Batman took part in the sponsored abseil on Ocelot in 2007
Paul Margerum as Batman took part in the sponsored abseil on Ocelot in 2007
HMS Ocelot has had its nose painted for Comic Relief in 2015
HMS Ocelot has had its nose painted for Comic Relief in 2015

Ocelot was at the centre of the launch of the Medway Messenger in 2001 and in 2007 she became the site of the Britain’s first submarine abseil when fundraisers, some in fancy dress dropped 65ft down the tower as part of a KM Charity Challenge.

In 2015 her nose was painted for Comic Relief's Red Nose Day.

This year, to celebrate her birthday, the submarine has been kitted out with items such as TVs and cassette players so visitors will see her as she was during her last commission.

Ahead of the anniversary, the Dockyard posted an 80s themed birthday wishlist to its Facebook page asking for donations from the 1980s and early 1990s including cathode ray tube televisions and tupperware.

James Morgan, heritage engineering and historic ships manager, said they were overwhelmed with the response. The donated items will form part of the permanent display on board Ocelot.

Items donated for Ocelot's 60th birthday
Items donated for Ocelot's 60th birthday

The 60th anniversary will also run as a story throughout the year as The Historic Dockyard Trust shares tales of the vessel.

Ocelot will celebrate her 60th birthday on Saturday with a party attended by submariners from her past as well as dockyard workers who contributed to the construction, refit and repair of O-Boats.

Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust is offering free access to The Historic Dockyard Chatham for all former and currently serving Royal Navy submariners and ex-dockyard workforce, along with their families.

Visitors will be able to explore Ocelot and see first-hand the start of a continuing process to improve the immersive experience created within the submarine.

There will be a series of talks and at 3pm guests will be invited to assemble at the dockside for a short ceremony where a plaque will be unveiled to recognise the occasion.

To find out more, and how to get a free ticket if you are eligible, click here.

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