“Come on you lot, it’s only water and I know how you bloody submariners like a bath - don’t you!”
Ian McAllister smiled to himself as he was ushered towards the water tank which towered a hundred feet above. Today he had to complete his three yearly refresher course in the submarine escape tower. He could sympathise with the new recruits who were to accompany him. They would all be scared shitless. The petty officer escorting them was relentless.
“Come on we’ve not got all day!”
Although this was Ian’s three yearly refresher, it was only two years and four months since his last tank ascent. The Navy had obviously brought his refresher forward by eight months, but why? He was now with a bunch of new recruits and would miss the banter he could expect to get with any of the old sea dogs he would usually bump into.
“Have you done the tank before?”
Ian turned round to see a man in his late twenties, very heavily set, with short cropped blond hair, his chubby index finger pointing upward towards the tank.
“Yes, I’ve done it a few times before.”
Instinctively Ian felt that his man had been around the block a few times, but there was something strange about him.
“Are you a submariner?” he asked.
“No, I’m a diver. How do we get started?”
‘Strange,’ Ian thought to himself. ‘Firstly this man wants to talk, then he quickly cuts me off.’
The class had quickly changed into their swimming trunks and reluctantly followed the petty officer out of the changing room, towards the base of the tank. Petty Officer Robey was now on automatic. He had instructed thousands of officers and ratings on the method of submarine escape. Only another month to go and his one year attachment to the training wing would be over.
“Come on lads, get your arses moving, let’s have you all up to the top level!” Quickly the nine men began to ascend the stairs to the upper level, sixty feet above. LRO McAllister was in no rush, he’d done it all before. His mind was beginning to wander as he thought back to his childhood and how he came to be a radio operator in the Royal Navy. He was raised in Keswick in Cumbria, right in the heart of the Lake District. To offset the boredom of the quiet country town he joined the local Sea Cadet corps. His grandfather, Victor Bantock, had been a signaller in the Army during the Second World War. Victor had made himself a Morse code key, which consisted of a small buzzer, a torch battery and the key itself. Ian took an interest and began to learn the Morse code. It was only a matter of weeks before Ian and his grandfather were passing messages by buzzer to each other. It was therefore a natural progression that Ian joined the Royal Navy at fifteen years old, straight from school.
“LRO McAllister, are you joining us today!” Robey spat the words at him.
“Sorry PO,” he replied, his apology not cutting any ice with Robey.
“Right listen up and listen good, your life may well depend on it!”
‘Christ,’ Ian thought, ‘I’ll bet the lads are really shitting themselves now.’
“As you all can se, we have a small chamber on the side of the tank next to where you are all standing. This chamber is sixty feet from the ground and therefore thirty feet from the surface of the tank. Your first ascent will be a free ascent, that is to say, one without an exposure suit. I will enter the side chamber with three men at a time. Once inside the chamber, it will be pressurised. Shortly after I will vent water from the tank into the chamber. I will allow the water entering the chamber to reach your chest level, after which I will equalise the pressure, stabilising the water in the chamber. The hatch from the chamber into the main tank will be open. I will then bring each man forward one at a time to the hatch. On my command you will take a large breath of air and bend your head down into the water, with your arse facing towards the hatch. I will then place my hand on your head and push you arse first into the main tank. As you have all obviously noted by now, you all have a belt around your waists with two toggles attached to them at the back. These are for the benefit of the safety divers in the tank. Once you are released into the tank the two divers will grab hold of a toggle each. They will not, I repeat, will not let you go for your ascent until they see air coming from your mouth. As explained earlier, this is the most important part of the drill. The pressure in your lungs at thirty feet makes the air in your lungs expand. If you don’t get rid of some of it, then by the time you reach the surface the pressure of air in your lungs could be enough to cause them to rupture. Therefore remember what we said - whistle out! Once the divers see you doing this they will let you go. Don’t try to hold your breath once they have let you go and you start your ascent. If you do, divers are stationed at intervals on your upward journey and they will simply hit you in the stomach, in order to get you to expel the extra air in your lungs… First three follow me!”
Ian was joined by a leading seaman and the evasive man with the chubby fingers.
Robey opened the outer chamber door.
“Come on, the water’s lovely and warm,” he joked.
It was only a matter of minutes before the whole procedure was nearing completion. Ian watched as firstly the leading seaman and then ‘Mr Chubby’ disappeared into the tank.
Ian really enjoyed the tank… after his first ever ascent, he remembered that he just couldn’t wait to have another go.
‘Well, here we go,’ Ian thought.
As he started his ascent he whistled out slowly and calmly.
‘This is great,’ he thought to himself.
Just as his head broke the surface he felt two huge hands grab his arms and haul him effortlessly to the side of the tank.
“Couldn’t let a sparker drown,” Mr Chubby laughed.
‘God, I can’t keep calling him Mr Chubby,’ Ian thought to himself. ‘If he heard me, he would kill me with one squeeze… and I wonder how he knows I’m a sparker, he hasn’t seen me in uniform.’
“What’s your name?” Ian spluttered, as some of the tank water slipped down the back of his throat.
“John Hinton, at your service.”
‘Oh he does speak,’ Ian mused to himself.
Ian looked forward to the next bit… the sixty foot ascent.
This was always a scary ascent the first time. The main reason for this, is that when you are approximately half way up and still whistling out, you think that the air is suddenly running out, but miraculously the air in your lungs just as suddenly expands.
After the sixty foot tank they all had a well-deserved ‘Stand easy.’
Petty officer Robey stormed back into the small side room where the trainees were just taking the last sips of their very average cup of coffee.
“Come on then, let’s get your suits on, we’ve not got all day!”
It was time for the final ascent; one hundred feet, wearing the RN Mk8 egress/exposure suit. When they were all gathered at the base of the tank Ian looked up. He had volunteered to go first and was wearing his Mk8 suit. The lower hatch was open on the escape chamber.
“Right lads, this is the easy bit… Robey lifted himself up on his toes, his eyes glaring towards the back of the gathering.
“HINTON! Are you with us today… you obviously must know everything, so would you like me to stand down while you take the class?”
The whole class turned round together to see Hinton midway through combing his hair.
“Sorry PO, wanted to make myself more streamlined,” he answered with a cheeky smile emerging on his face.
The whole class erupted into laughter.
“Bloody divers!” Robey was trying to suppress a smile himself. “Come on let’s get started, I’m on a promise tonight!”
Ian climbed up the ladder wearing his suit, into the small escape trunk. He had to stand to one side while an instructor below him secured the lower hatch. Now there was a bit more room and he could stand on the lower hatch. The trunk itself was only about eight feet tall and four feet in diameter. He looked up and saw the upper hatch approximately two feet above his head. As water began to enter the trunk and start rising, he pushed a length of tubing, which ran from his suit down his arm, into a socket on the side of the trunk. His suit immediately began to fill with air. Once full of air he unplugged his suit. The trunk was now full of water and once the pressure in it became slightly more than that in the tank above it, the upper hatch opened automatically. As Ian glided upward effortlessly through the now open upper hatch, two divers immediately grabbed hold of him.
“LRO McALLISTER, D112219X!” Ian shouted, giving his name, rank and RN Official number.
With the idea being that you breath normally on your way to the surface, this exercise reassured the divers that the student was breathing out properly in his suit.
Satisfied, the two divers positioned Ian close to a wire in the centre of the tank, which ran from the bottom to the surface. One of the divers then grabbed hold of a line hanging from the front and centre of Ian’s belt and clipped him on to the vertical cable. At the same time Ian spread his legs slightly. This procedure was designed to stop Ian spinning on his way to the surface.
‘Wow, this is great. Everybody should have a go at this,’ Ian thought to himself as he sped to the surface. He broke the surface and must have shot nearly two feet into the air, before settling on the surface of the tank looking like a Michelin man.
“Don’t take too long,” Robey said, “you’ve got to report to the CO at 15:00 hrs in the Captain’s office.”
“What for?” Ian remarked, with a puzzled look on his face, as he struggled to get out of his escape suit.
“Don’t ask me, I’m only passing on the message,” Robey replied.
Once back in his mess, Ian showered and quickly changed into a clean set of No8s. It was 14:45 hrs already.
‘Shit, I’ll never make it!’ he thought.
He ran out of the mess, past the galley and up the steps to the first floor of the admin. block. Pushing the double doors open he barged into the reception area of the Captain’s office.
“I’ve come for…”
“LRO McAllister to see the CO?” the duty Wren asked mockingly from behind the desk.
“Yes,” Ian said, collapsing into a chair in the reception area.
Looking at the clock above the reception desk he could see that it was 15:10 hrs.
‘Oh no,’ he thought, ‘I’ve had it now.’
He had to wait a further ten minutes before the door to the CO’s office opened.
“Would you like to come in LRO McAllister?”
A PO Wren stood in the open doorway. She was of medium build, tall, with beautiful auburn hair bunched up on top. Even though her skirt was standard Naval length down to her knee, he imagined that she had very long legs.
‘Oh to find out!’ he thought.
The room was decorated with Naval memorabilia. An officer’s sword hung above a framed picture of the flagship HMS Victory. In the corner a ship’s compass stood highly polished. Three men sat behind a large oak desk at the head of the room, with a large chart of Northern Russia and the Artic Ocean on an easel adjacent to them. Their caps were hung on a coat stand in the corner.
‘Plenty of scrambled egg on those,’ Ian thought to himself.
Three chairs stood in the middle of the room facing the large oak desk. A man in his fifties with receding grey hair sat in the middle chair at the desk. Addressing Ian, he introduced himself and the other people in the room.
“My name is Rear Admiral Roberts,” gesturing to his left, “this is Lieutenant Commander Turnbull from Northwood and on my right is Major Fallon. Seated on your right is PO Wren Greaves and on your left is PO Hinton.”
‘Well, well,’ Ian thought, ‘Hinton eh. How did he get here before me?’ His mind began to race. ‘Perhaps he’s a crabby bugger and didn’t have a shower? I wonder why we’re here?’
He was quickly answered as Rear Admiral Roberts addressed them.
“The three of you have been asked here…”
Ian couldn’t help but notice Wren Greaves skirt riding up on her legs.
‘I’ll find out yet,’ he thought to himself.