Submarines played a key role in operations throughout the Cold War. They were NATO’s primary anti-submarine tool, tracking and observing Soviet nuclear-armed submarines making their way into the Atlantic, or gathering intelligence on new weapons or tactics. From 1968 submarines carried the UK’s nuclear deterrent, patrolling the oceans at 15 minutes readiness to launch if war broke out. Deterrent patrols usually lasted between eight and twelve weeks and were spent entirely underwater. When they were not on duty, submariners had to find ways to entertain themselves. Watching films, quizzes, on-board magazines and even sport were among the popular pastimes.
Commodore Frederic Thompson, kept himself and his crewmates entertained, by creating ‘radio’ programmes, which were then broadcast over the submarine’s internal speakers. Thompson made his half hour audio entertainment programmes using a microphone and open-reel audio tape recorders in the boat’s Sound Reproduction Equipment office. He started off by making programmes about naval history but also playing music. He even wrote a serial story about the fictional business plans of one of the boat’s stokers, and a western-themed tale based on a real event that had happened earlier in the patrol.
St Andrew’s Day on HMS Andrew
His interest in making programmes while at sea began when he was serving in HMS Andrew in November 1969.
The wartime diesel boat was acting as the enemy on an anti-submarine training exercise with two other submarines, USS Nautilus and HMS Valiant, both newer and nuclear powered. He remembers HMS Andrew “really hadn’t a chance competing with these guys”.
So on St Andrews Day, the boat dived, went deep and waited. While underwater, members of the ship’s company held a variety show featuring comedy and music which Thompson recorded..
“Some weeks later when we were having the post-exercise analysis, the exercise analysts couldn’t figure out what had happened to HMS Andrew – everyone could hear her for about three days then she just disappeared for a day. But no one could figure out where she’d gone, how’d she’d managed to just disappear. Actually, it was us having our concert.”
“[It’s] probably absolutely unique. I don’t think there were many ships concerts recorded in diesel submarines,” he says.
Inspection at Faslane
While serving in HMS Revenge in 1978, Commodore Thompson, then a Lieutenant Commander and the Weapon Engineering Officer, continued making his programmes with his own regular Thursday broadcast called “The WEO Show”.
In the clip above, a spoof outside broadcast, he describes a uniform inspection by the Queen which features members of the ship’s company, made using his open-reel tape recorder.
“I had a vinyl of the Royal Marines playing, I recorded that into an open reel tape recorder, I was sitting in a little tiny compartment and I had a microphone, listening to the Royal Marines in the earphones and making my commentary.
“I was only just imaging all the sailors from the different departments, I think I had a list of all their names so I made sure I got everyone, so they could all feel part of it…it wasn’t even scripted.”
“It wasn’t too difficult really, you knew everyone so well, you were together for ten weeks in a steel tube….I knew who they all were, I just sort of described them from my head has I imagined them marching on to the dockside.”
Commodore Thompson has donated some of the audio programmes and patrol magazines he made to IWM’s collections. He is also writing a book about his experiences during the Cold War. He says listening back to the audio brings back the memories of making the recordings and the men he served with.