I'd expected to do eighteen months inboard, by which time I'd have got my Petty Officer's rate, then join another conventional boat as POLTO. That was never to be, by the time I'd been elevated there were precious few diesel boats left; to my great chagrin I was sent to do a Nukipoo course at Dolphin. I'd come across some Flunob (F***ing Lazy, Nuclear Orientated Bastard) Chiefs in Heavy 'L' and been both bemused and appalled by their attitude. For example: I'd just come up from a morning's hard labour, slinging a hydraulic pump out of a Trafalgar class boat, when in comes chiefy "Nip up the NAFFI and get me an oggie Hooky" he trilled and seemed genuinely surprised at the forthright resonse I gave him. He got revenge of a sort by giving me a lousy write-up, but it wasn't bad enough to stop me getting my step up to PO. It was off to Royal Arthur then for Petty Officers' Leadership Course; a sort of naval adventure holiday. I'd barely got back from that before I was sent to Dolphin for re-streaming to nuclear submarines I'd not even finished the cross-training course before I got a pier head jump to join the Trafalgar class boat Trenchant. My position on Trenchant was that of Forward SPO, I was to be employed maintaining toilets, fire extinguishers and the escape equipment; a solid grounding in batteries and motor generators prepared me well for this. My position in the scheme of things became very clear when I ventured an opinion on why one of the battery cells was giving a low reading, I was looked at askance and asked what the f*** I knew about batteries.
Life onboard a nookipoo was very different, the showers actually worked for a start; the guilty thrill of ablutions every other day. But I was very aware of the schism in the crew between forward and aft. Sure, there was frisson on Opportune between the fwd and after mess, but it was mostly good natured. The back-afties on nuclear boats seemed to despise the rest of the crew. Then there was the Charge Chiefs and Warrant Officers, gentlemen very much on their dignity and not to be teased by a jumped-up diesel dinosaur. Don't get me wrong, some of the crew were real diamonds — I was particularly fond of the forward stokers, most of the weapons tiffs, and the other non-technical POs. If I had to sum up the nuclear experience in one story it would be the saga of the side-plates. There seemed to be endless discussions during mess meetings regarding side-plates. Some of the senior chiefs wanted to ape the wardroom by having this item of crockery upon which to place their dinner roll. Those of us in the habit of washing up the mess crockery after meals were not so keen. Of course the dignity won and mighty grand they all must have felt as they daintily buttered their bread on finest pusser's china. But the resistance was organising and the duty watch, led by one of the weapons chiefs, had a smashing Greek Night whilst alongside in Faslane. Cheers Tim, you restored my faith in submariners.
The skipper on Trenchant when I joined was Dave Cust. I liked Commander Cust, he was also an ex-diesel boat man and probably the most inspirational CO I ever served under. I'd managed to get up the Jimmy's nose by playing the diesel card too much, so when he came into the control room as I answered the telephone with a cheery "POLTO" he jumped on me with the advice that "You're no longer on a 'submersible' and you're not a POLTO, you'd better get used to that fact!" At this point in strolled the skipper "Morning POLTO" he boomed, tipping me a sly wink when the Jimmy turned his back.
Opportune paid off some years later in Dolphin. Taff Lloyd, who had by this time surpassed my record as longest serving crew member, was apparently near to tears and had to be consoled by Captain SM1, the big girl. I last saw her as I was driving my wife into Portsmouth to do The Great South Run. My daughter pointed out of the window and asked "Are those submarines?"I looked across and there were two conventional boats leaning towards each other in a sorry state. I later discovered that the outboard one was HMS Opportune. A sad end for an old friend.
However, many of her crew live on. Every year there is a Diesel Submariners' Reunion held in Plymouth on the first Saturday of August. There over 200 of us gather and swap ever more improbable stories. There's big Bungy, Peter Armitage and Terry Lawler, all crew members when I first joined Opportune, Terry Mortlock, annoyingly youthful and as cheerful as ever, Eddie Laing, Brian Davis, Mick McGurgen, Rosie Brennen, Jeff Penhaligan, Micheal (Laff-bag) McLaughlin, Malcom, 'Taff' Lloyd, Ian Arbon, Fred Bassett, Charlie Hindle and many more. Even Toby Lever comes across from Japan, and Polly Parrot from Canada. Although the boats are gone the spirit of the Diesel Submariners lives on...after a fashion.