The Royal Navy's Derby-affiliated Submarine HMS Ambush

PUBLISHED: 12:54 29 April 2010 | UPDATED: 16:32 20 February 2013

The Royal Navy's Derby-affiliated Submarine HMS Ambush

The Royal Navy's Derby-affiliated Submarine HMS Ambush

On board the Derby-Affiliated Astute class submarine HMS Ambush with Mike Smith.

Imagine being confined for up to 90 days in a windowless, four-storey home with 100 other people. Your accommodation comprises a bunk, shared washroom facilities and a small meeting room; there is no more than six-feet headroom on each floor; the only access from one level to the next is by a vertical ladder; the corridors are barely wide enough for two people to pass and they are festooned with miles and miles of exposed cabling and pipework. Whats more, the entire structure is submerged under water to a depth of up to 300 metres.

Needless to say, the men who are prepared to live and work in these conditions are a breed apart. They are the crew of HMS Ambush, one of the new Astute Class submarines, the biggest and most powerful nuclear-powered attack submarines ever to be built for the Royal Navy. I gained a small inkling of their extreme service lifestyle when I went on board the boat, which is in the final stages of its assembly in the huge hangars of BAE Systems at Barrow-in-Furness. Although the submarine was still on dry land at the time of my visit, my descent through all four levels of the boat made a very deep impression on me literally!

The man charged with commanding this awesome vessel, which weighs more than 65 blue whales and is the length of ten London buses, is Commander Peter Green, who told me: The men on board a nuclear submarine form a close-knit community with a team spirit you wont find anywhere else. Every role on board makes a real difference in an environment where lives depend on teamwork, safety and attention to detail. Commander Greens own quarters are located just 10 metres from the submarines nuclear power plant, which will never need re-fuelling during the vessels entire life of 25 years and will enable the boat to completely circumnavigate the globe without surfacing.

HMS Ambushs remarkable propulsion system has been made at the Rolls-Royce plant in Derby, which has drawn on years of marine and turbine engineering to produce a brilliant structural design that is inherently safe and satisfies the most stringent weight, strength and performance targets. But the submarines Derby connections do not end there: the boat was officially affiliated with the city at a ceremony held in January 2007 and its crew members have been busily raising money for several good causes in Derby. Thanks in part to donations collected on a sponsored cycle ride from Barrow to Derby, they have been able to give financial support to the Derby Hospital Charity, TS Kenya Sea Cadets and the Mayor of Derbys Charity. The crew members have also helped the Derby Submariners Association to raise 5,000 to pay for a guide-dog, which is aptly named Derby.

The citys adopted boat is the second of the four Astute Class vessels currently being built at Barrow, which has been recognized as the UKs centre of excellence for submarine-building ever since 1901, when the earliest submarine to be constructed in the town was launched. HMS Astute was the first of the new class to be assembled, and HMS Artful will follow HMS Ambush into service. Steelwork for the fourth boat, HMS Audacious, is advanced and long-lead items have been ordered for a fifth submarine.

Chris Nelson of BAE Communications gave me some idea of the scale of the current construction project, which is taking place on a 170-acre site that formed an island until it was connected to the mainland in 1986. Five thousand people are employed on the programme, which uses a modular construction system, with the major internal elements of the submarines equipment, such as the engine and combat systems, being built and tested outside the boat before being shipped inside the hull sections.
The sections are then joined together, with each combination involving more than 2km of welding.

Construction of HMS Ambush began in 2002 and its launch is scheduled for summer 2010.

I was shown around the boat by Weapons Engineering Officer Ian Molyneux, who told me that the design and construction of the Astute Class is more complex than the development of the space shuttle. As we picked our way along the gangways between 110km of cabling and pipework, I could well believe him. However, the deeper we descended into the boat, the more I felt as if I had been swallowed whole by some enormous marine animal. In fact, the great black boat looks very much like a huge whale: it is as long as a football pitch, travels faster when submerged than on the surface of the water and is well capable of covering 500 miles in a day.

Although HMS Ambush is powered by a pressurized-water nuclear reactor, it does not carry nuclear weapons, but Spearfish torpedoes and Tomahawk land-attack missiles. Ian told me that the Tomahawk can be launched to deliver pin-point strikes to targets that are 1,000 km away, thanks to the worlds most advanced sonar system and an array of computers that reminded me of mission control at Houston. The Astute Class boats are the first Royal Navy submarines not to be fitted with a traditional periscope. Instead, there is an electro-optical system, which can gather information and send data to consoles throughout the submarine.

Of course, all this hi-tech equipment has to be operated by humans, in the form of a highly trained, all-male crew confined for up to three months at a time in their giant under-water bubble. Life under water must be a unique and challenging experience, not recommended for anyone with even the slightest symptoms of claustrophobia. At least the crew of HMS Ambush will be spared the usual system of hot bunking, which involves each off-duty crew member using a bunk that has been vacated by a colleague who is on duty. Although space is at a premium, every submariner on board this particular boat does have the luxury of his own bunk.

Ian gave me yet more food for thought about life on board when he pointed out that the chef is one of the key crew members on a submarine that is away for up to 90 days at a time. Because fresh fruit, vegetables and dairy products simply do not last that long, he has to show creative powers that would put a TV celebrity chef to shame. During periods when the crew members are not working, sleeping and dining below the ocean waves, they will be nourishing links with people in Derby and raising money to help keep afloat the citys naval associations, youth groups and charities. Submariners really are a breed apart!

For more information on life below the ocean waves, visit

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