Life at sea in a diesel boat was not comfortable, yet it didn't take long to get accustomed to it. The first few days of a patrol were grim. Getting back into the routine of watch keeping, the less than usual sleep due to evolutions and emergency drills, the sea sickness for those afflicted, the parting from loved ones all combined to cast a gloom over the crew. By the end of the first week things had normally settled down and the daily round of watch keeping, eating and sleeping was established. Days passed by and blurred into each other, but you always knew when it was Sunday because there was grapefruit seggies (tinned grapefruit) at breakfast; I've seen grown men fighting over grapefruit seggies, or rather, when questioned, "I saw nothing cox'n, honest".
The usual watch keeping pattern was the three watch system. This system allowed for two hours on watch and four off during the day and three on six off during the evening and night. The watches were as follow: 8-10, 10-12, 12-2, 2-4, 4-6, 6-7, 7-8, 8-11, 11-2, 2-5, 5-8. The two dog watches, 6-7 and 7-8 ensured that the watch bill rotated so that you only had the dreaded 2-5 once very three days. The crew were turned to during the 8-10 watch, doing routine maintenance and cleaning, and again during the 6-7 dog watch scrubbing out for evening rounds. On extended patrols it was more usual to use a two watch system, 7-1 and 1-7. This gave the crew six hour on and six hours off and also allowed for more of the crew to be instantly available. The two watch system was generally preferred by the crew as there was more time for getting your head down, the formal turn to times didn't occur, but you was expected to get on with maintenance during your watch. The downside was that you always had the same watches day in, day out.
Towards the end of a patrol things could get tense. As the above grapefruit seggies incident illustrates, the smallest thing could be come an irritant. We had one mess member who was a very particular eater, he'd put a tiny bit of meat on his fork, then a single pea and a dab of spud, and then, very slowly, move it to his mouth and chew it for an improbable amount of time. This was in contrast to the rest of us who shoveled food down at an alarming rate, you couldn't afford to dawdle or else your mate would have the scran off your plate with a "Don't you want that?" I used to eat one handed, the other hand holding a knife threateningly guarding my plate. Even to this day if I'm not careful my food disappears down my gullet far faster than the rest of the dinner party. But come the end of a patrol, I would find myself seething as my more civilised mess-mate picked at his food morsel by morsel, the tension building to pressure cooker proportions. We had another mess-mate who ground his teeth in his sleep, the poor chap often awoke under a rain of steaming boots.
The navy promised you three square meals a day; indeed the term square meal originated in the navy, in the great age of sail the crew ate their meals off square wooden plates. Breakfast was a culinary adventure, besides the 'standard' breakfast of eggs, bacon and arigonies (tinned tomatoes) there were specials such as yellow peril (smoked haddock), shit on a raft (devilled kidney on deep fried bread), chicken on a raft (egg on deep fried bread) and elephant footprints (spam deep fried in batter); healthy eating naval style, if the Soviets din't get us, the cholesterol would! The bill of fare at other meal times included such delicacies as babies' heads (a tinned suet steak and kidney pudding cut in half), frog in a bog (toad in the hole), cheese hush (cheese flan), pot mess (stew of various and varying ingredients) and, a personal favourite, cheesy-hammy-eggy (toasted cheese and ham on toast with an egg on top). Fresh food, available at the beginning of a patrol, often ran out by the end of it. Some food stuff such as bread could be frozen, but the comparatively small size of the fridges didn't allow for patrols being extended. Towards the end of an extended patrol most things came out of a tin, two particular horrors were watery grey powdered scrambled eggs for breakfast and being handed a cup of luke warm, orange coloured beverage with a scum on top (tea made with tinned milk) as I stumbled on watch — in many ways one of my worst memories in boats.
Diesel submarines spent quite a lot of time on the surface, especially when transiting between operating areas. Whilst on the surface the diesel engines would be running to charge the batteries. There was no direct drive between the submarine's diesel engines and the propellers, the engines' sole job was to turn the main generators which in turn charged the batteries. Propulsion was via two huge electric motors situated in the lower motor room. The main batteries were situated under the accommodation space and the control room and were huge. Each individual cell was as tall as an average man's chest and approx 2' x 2' when viewed from above and weighed over half a ton (I used to know the exact measurements, weight and how much electrolyte each cell held, but it's been a while). As there was 224 cells in each of the two main batteries giving a nominal voltage of 440V DC per battery, it can be appreciated that they took up a lot of space. Each battery was enclosed in its own tank, accessed from above via the battery hatches. There were crawling boards suspended above the battery to enable the greenies to inspect the cells and take specific gravity and temperature readings every hour at sea. These two readings were then used to calculate the remaining battery capacity which was reported to both the wardroom and the captain. For some reason it pleased the wardroom when the battery capacity was 69%: knock, knock "Battery capacity is sixty-nine..." cheers from the officers, "...and a half percent" groans from the officers; well, it was the days before video, so we had to make our own entertainment. The motor room team spent many hours down the battery tanks doing routine maintenance, keeping the electrolyte topped up, checking the terminals were correctly torqued up, taking all round readings and endlessly scrubbing the batteries — hours of fun. They were also a good place to sleep off a hangover whilst in harbour, a facility which was often extended to other members of the crew.
Even when dived, the batteries had to be charged so snorting was, in most cases, a daily occurrence. Another of the common misconceptions harboured by non-submariners is that rough weather exists only on the surface and that submarines can dive beneath it. I wish it were so. If it's blowing a hooligan on the surface we poor submariners got thrown about even down at three hundred feet in a bad storm. Coming to periscope depth during such a storm was a miserable experience, snorting through a storm, worse yet. When it was rough it took considerable skill on the part of the planesman to keep the boat at periscope depth. If the boat dipped below a given depth, then the snort induction valve would slam shut and the engines had to be quickly stopped to prevent a dangerous vacuum building. It was hard work for the donk shop and motor room teams, constantly starting and stopping the snort and cursing the planesman. We often had to do this dozens of times during a watch. Going into the battery tanks in these conditions could be, literally, a hair raising experience; there's nothing like 440V DC to wake you up for the 2 'til 5 watch.
Often when on patrol it was not possible to snort as much as the skipper would wish. Whilst snorting, a submarine is at its most vulnerable. The engine noise can give away the submarine's position and reduces the efficiency of the boat's own sonars, there are a variety of masts and periscopes making plumes on the surface and some aircraft could detect and track the diesel fumes. Therefore, if we were on station seeking Soviet submarines or reconnoitring shore installations, snorting opportunities were limited. A by product of snorting was that the air in the boat was refreshed by the engines drawing it in. The air quality deteriorated if we could not snort, despite artificial means of producing oxygen and removing CO2. I've experienced atmosphere so bad that a cigarette lighter could barely produce a flame, and that flame a dismal green colour. Smoking was generally allowed unless the battery was gassing during a charge or we were at harbour/diving/action stations, so this also added to the fuggy air. If we detected a contact ultra-quiet routine was instigated and most of the ventilation fans switched off, it was during these times that the crew began to resemble scenes from the films The Sea Above Us or Das Boot. And yes, the crew did stare at the deckhead when a surface ship was pinging with active sonar, totally illogical, but there you go. When we had crept away to a safer area to snort, the inrush of fresh air could leave you feeling giddy.
In the days before the Falklands conflict, when the need for fire retardant clothing became obvious, submarine crews were often allowed to wear what they wanted once at sea. This was called pirate rig. My own preference was for a tatty rugby shirt and bib and brace overalls. As the overalls got eaten away by battery acid I would repair them with colourful patches of grade 'B' rags. Grade 'B' rags were just cut up material, often old clothing and curtains, and were used for wiping up oil and grease etcetera. Grade 'A', on the other hand, were best quality white cotton. The opening of a new bale of grade B rags was always an event, it wasn't unusual to find entire garments, nor was it unusual to come through the motor room doors to find the hairy arsed ERA and his stokers swanning around in colourful frocks.
At one point I was joined on Opportune by two of my brothers, Richard (Albert), a killick RP, and my twin brother Brian, a Stores Accountant. The skipper finished announcing the boat's upcoming programme by saying "We'll also be paying a visit to Ghent, if that's alright with the Sugdens", well, actually no it wasn't, Ghent was a gash run ashore.
We didn't carry a doctor, the crew's medical welfare was in the hands of the cox'n who, as part of their coxns' course, did a fore noon or so on medical matters. They also had a medical BR (book, reference) to help them. Later in my career I was fortunate enough to survive a cox'n's tender care when I had acute appenicitis in the middle of the Atlantic. I'd been overcome with an incredible pain in the guts, so bad was it that I had difficulty walking the length of the boat to see the cox'n. His initial diagnosis was that I was constipated and should go and try to use the heads, his standard diagnosis for everything from dispepsia to cardiac seizure. When, after following his advice, it became obvious that I was in real trouble, I was put into a bunk outside the wardroom. The cox'n, Ken Walby, came through 49 bulkhead with the medical BR under his arm sharpening a carving knife on a steel, "Right Andy, let's have a look" funee. We were exercising with a nuclear boat at the time; nuclear boats do carry a PO medic, so he was swum across to see what could be done. There was much worried muttering between him, the cox'n and the Jimmy. I was asked to get into a diver's dry suit and swim, with the doc, back to the nuke. I really felt I could not do this; getting into a dry-bag was difficult at the best of times, particularly to one as 'big boned' as me, so it was decided that we would go into Mederia, two day's sailing away, to land me for medical attention. The PO doc stayed with us and administered morphine, I can recommend it. The cox'n seemed fascinated as the doc slapped my arse before sticking in the needle. This apparently lessens the pain of the needle, "Can I do the next one?" he asked, clapping his hands and jumping up and down. When the next dose was due, the cox'n slapped my arse, then, dwelling a pause of ten marchning paces, clumsily inserted the needle...ouch!". [Actually, Ken collared me at a recent Diesel Submariners' Reunion and hotly disputed my version of events, according to him he gave me professional and caring medical attention at all times and only the lack of a frock and lamp prevented him being declared a latter day Florence Nightingale. Sorry Ken.]
When we got into Mederia I was pretty much out of it, as I was carried off on a stretcher, still wearing my pirate rig of coloufully patched overalls, some petty customs official was excitedly demanding my passport, which was back in the UK. Eventually I was loaded into an ambulance and taken to a private hospital. I was lucky in that we'd been in Maderia a couple of weeks previous during which one of the chefs was taken to the local hospital with a badly cut hand. The treatment he got and the conditions he encountered were so bad that the skipper insited that the British Consul should find me a better hospital. On the way in the ambulance my pain magically lessened, I told the doc this, he blanched, my appendics had burst. The hospital saved me by, judging from the scar I bear, digging the appendics out with a shovel. But enough of my problems, back to the boat.
The toilets, or heads as they are known in the navy, were fairly horrible. A basic stainless steel pan which had to be flushed with sea water from a hose and nozzle to fill the bowl, a foot pedal then released the contents into the sewage tank. Twice a day, dived or on the surface, the sewage tank was blown. During this evolution the heads were put out of use; should you try to use the heads whilst they were being blown, what's know as "getting your own back" messily occurred. As the heads were adjacent to the wireless office, they were the part of ship of the Radio Operators (ROs). One day the RS (petty officer RO) came out of his office to find a huge turd on the deck. Naturally he went ballistic and ranted and raved at all and sundry. The 2nd panel watch keeper wandered over, picked up the turd and took a bite out of it "Mm, lovely" he purred. I'd never seen the RS lost for words before; the horrible Welsh 2nd panel watch keeper had fashioned the 'turd' out of a Mrs B's tinned chocolate pudding.
There were four cubicles (or traps) for the junior and senior rates use and one for the bunhouse. When the officers had a cocktail party (cock and arse) when alongside, the wardroom trap was used by the ladies. During one cock and arse the ROs secreted a hand held, two way radio behind the pan. When one of the ladies made use of the facilities she heard "Oi, do you mind madam, I'm trying to work down here!" Oh what fun we had.
Once on the surface, if the weather was pleasant, the crew would be allowed on the casing and, occasionally, 'hands to bathe' would be piped. Getting into the sea was no problem, getting out again one had to pull oneself up the saddle tanks via a manrope which could be difficult if the boat was rolling a bit. To guard against shark attack a lookout with an SLR (self loading rifle) was placed on the fin. Mercifully the lookout never had to use his gun during my time on Opportune, and it wasn't the sharks I was worried about! However, once whilst swimming near the Equator the cry went up "Nobby!" (Nobby Clark, shark). An anxious queue formed for the manrope but, somehow, Pony Moore, who had swum quite a distance from the boat, leapfrogged the entire queue and was first on the casing — I don't think even he knows how he did it, but after watching a TV documentary about penguins and killer whales, I have a theory.
By the time a boat got back to its home port after a patrol the crew were in a shabby state, long hair and beards abounded, pale shallow skin, disreputable No. 8 working clothes, it drove the Regulating Branch to distraction. There was usually a period of one week's grace before hair had to be returned to naval regulation length, a week that was usually taken advantage of. Once that week was over though the regulators were out in force, I was once picked up for a hair cut in the barber's at Dolphin as I got out of chair having just had my hair cut...bastards!