Royal Navy Submarine Engineer Reveals We Could Have Been 15 Minutes From Nuclear Devastation

hunter killer gerard butler submarineSummit Entertainment

Hunter Killer is the latest action blockbuster starring Gerard Butler who this time is taking us to the depths of the ocean as the commanding officer of the submarine USS Arkansas.

When the Russian president is captured by a rogue general who intends to trigger a war, Butler’s submarine Captain Joe Glass must team up with a group of Navy SEALs in an attempt to rescue him.

Putting their lives and the fate of the world on the line, the crew are in a race against time as they try to prevent WWIII from starting.

You can watch the trailer for the action-packed film here:

To find out what life was really like on a submarine, UNILAD spoke to two former submariners who revealed just how close the world has come to nuclear war during periods of political tension.

Marine engineers Martin Barmby and his brother Peter both spent three decades with the Royal Navy serving on submarines during several conflicts including the Cold War.

Peter, who served between 1975-1997, was on two hunter-killers, the HMS Tireless and HMS Trafalgar, from which the blockbuster takes its name.

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These attack submarines, better known as hunter-killers, were nuclear-powered designed to attack and sink other submarines, merchant vessels and ships which were designed for warfare.

Peter told UNILAD, due to their mission only a few select members of the 100 man crew knew exactly where they were in the world while on the submarine.

Hundreds of metres below the surface somewhere in the ocean, stuck in a confined vessel not knowing exactly what would happen next, you would think it must have been a tense and stressful experience for those on board.

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But as Peter tells UNILAD, each member of the crew were highly trained; they knew exactly what to do in the case of an emergency with everyone also developing their own way to cope with the situation.

He explained:

Most of the time we didn’t know where we were, only a select few people on board knew that and today that is still the case.

We did have incidents but they were dealt with almost as soon as they happened meaning truthfully for us there were no near misses.

You are such a close knit team and while you had experts in different fields, everyone had the basic knowledge to take immediate action making them able to make life and death decisions.

The way I dealt with it was I thought to myself due to doing six hour watches, my day was only ever 12 hours long so I told myself on a four month patrol I would be asleep for two months of it.

Of course the patrol was four months long but I told myself I would only be awake for two months of it!

To be honest that coping mechanism makes complete sense!

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Martin couldn’t agree more with Peter admitting submariners go through months and months of training so they are prepared to deal with any tough situation thus eliminating stress.

He said:

A problem on a ship that appears trivial can very quickly turn to a disaster on a submarine when you are beneath the sea.

But when something goes wrong all your training kicks in and the whole crew and submarine comes out the other side of the problem with minimum fuss and damage.

Yes it was tense but everybody was in the same boat so you just got on with it. It wasn’t like you could go anywhere, it wasn’t like you could go up to the upper deck for some fresh air and a cig. That was just the way it was.

My wife has always said since leaving the Navy she can’t believe I never get stressed but it is true, when you have been down there and you don’t know where you are going, what is in front and all these things, you just get on with it. There is no point getting stressed when there is nothing you can do about it.

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To remind him of home though, Martin did immerse himself in photos of his wife, kids and family for five and ten minutes before he went to sleep every night which helped him during his time on the submarines.

As he added though the submarine crews became close like family meaning today he is still in contact with many of the people he served with describing it as ‘a band of brothers’.

Working as an engineer on HMS Otter, HMS Opportune and HMS Vigilant between 1986 and 2008, Martin was part of a smaller crew of around 18 men who lived in a space ‘you probably couldn’t fit an average saloon car in’; they not only had to learn to work around getting on top of each other, but also how to get along.

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Unlike the hunter-killers, the submarines Martin served on were nuclear-armed instead of being nuclear-powered serving as the United Kingdom’s independent nuclear deterrent.

Going out into the sea, these submarines would disappear for a few months with nobody knowing where they were hence the term ‘independent’.

The idea behind this was if anyone did issue a nuclear strike against the United Kingdom the government knew their nuclear weapons were safe under the water.

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Alongside the job of keeping the UK’s nuclear weapons safe, these electric submarines were so quiet they were used for covert listening missions watching potential enemies and ensuring any trade embargoes were in force.

Martin told UNILAD he would spend hours in the soundroom learning how his fellow crew members could tell that a vessel was a large merchant ship with two propellers and three blades spinning at how many revolutions.

Although they couldn’t physically see the vessels the crew knew exactly what they were and where they were, something Martin found fascinating.

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While I, and I am sure many other people, wouldn’t exactly want to be on a submarine which has nuclear missiles on board, Martin says it was a part of the job and so it wasn’t an issue.

Although due to the bunk space each crew members’ head or feet were on the missile tube as they slept, Martin admits he was never worried about them.

However, it didn’t stop him thinking about just how ‘devastating’ the impact of nuclear weapons can be:

I knew the missiles were there but it was part of a job I volunteered for and was paid for and if they said ‘action stations missile’, as long as it wasn’t strategic to our launch it was just a test.

If you were to think about it you would probably worry yourself but I just did the job to the best of my ability and made sure we all got home safe.

Of course though you think about how devastating the nuclear weapons on board can be. They ended the Second World War and saved hundreds of thousands of allied lives. They are not going away.

If you’ve got them sat there somewhere a madman could set them off and that worries me because it is the end of the world.

The best definition I ever heard of nuclear weapons was it is like two men waist deep in petrol, one with two matches and one with three. It doesn’t matter who strikes the match.

Although there were incidents on board the submarines Martin served on, mainly fires, these were always dealt with quickly by a highly trained crew.

The only time Martin became nervous during his service was during the Second Gulf War, better known to most people as the Iraq War.

He explained why to UNILAD:

I was on patrol on a submarine that carried a nuclear deterrent and that was the only patrol where I was really nervous.

I thought if something nasty happens and it turns out they have got nuclear weapons, there would be nothing to go back to and that is the only time it crossed my mind.

News was coming in once or twice a day and you would read into the extracts from newspapers and websites what you could.

I was like this is real. If it had gone nuclear 15 minutes later it would have been a full nuclear war.

It goes without saying, thankfully the war didn’t turn nuclear. The experience must have been terrifying for all involved and we thank them for their brave service.

Hunter Killer is out in UK cinemas now.

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