• Navy
  • Age 9 to 11 (KS2)
  • Age 11 to 14 (KS3)


Our special guest, Ed from the Royal Navy, is interviewed by CBBC presenter Ben Shires. Ed will tell us all about what it’s like to work on a submarine and spend months living deep beneath the waves. He will share how he keeps busy below sea level and what it’s like to have sea creatures for neighbours!

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Life Under The Sea

Part of the Adventures in History series created during the UK lockdown in Spring 2020.



Hi! I'm Ben and I'm really excited to welcome you to this week's episode of Imperial War Museum's Adventures in History where we share the kind of stories that you wouldn't normally hear in your classroom. Excellent! Now these are strange times at the moment, many of us are stuck indoors and can't leave our houses like we normally would which means that staying active and keeping our spirits up can be quite a challenge. And that got me to thinking what if your job was like that all the time? What would you do? How would it make you feel and perhaps most importantly, would you ever be bothered to actually change your underwear?  

Well, we're going to hear from someone today who can answer all those questions and more - all whilst hopefully wearing a clean set of clothes. That person is my friend Ed from the Royal Navy, and he has one of the most incredible jobs on earth - or more accurately, it's not really on the earth, that's all because Ed is a Submariner. If you know what that means, stick your hand up. Yes, Ed works on the submarine, which means he spends half his life living under the sea.  

Hello everyone, my name's Ed and as my friend Ben said I'm a Submariner in the Royal Navy, where for long periods I work and also live on a submarine under the ocean. I'm going to take you through exactly what my day looks like, what I do for work and then what I do for fun. To help you imagine my day, here's a picture of the submarine with all the crew standing on top. I'm there just behind the captain right at the front, can you see me? Probably not, it's very small.  

[Ben Shires] Submarines are boats that operate under water, they're great at silently observing and tracking other subs and ships and have played important roles in conflicts around the world for over a hundred years. However, as you can see from these photos from Imperial War Museums collections, life on board can be a little cramped at times and pretty busy too, which means that everyone has an important job to do, and they all become friends in double-quick time too. Now luckily, Ed knows all about this and he's on dry land at the moment to regale us with his weird and wonderful tales of life beneath the ocean's waves. So, Ed, take it away!  

[Ed] I start my day by getting up at 6 o'clock in the morning. I don't have an alarm clock because I share my room with other people, so someone has to come in and give me a shake on the shoulder and say, “Ed, get up, it's time to go to work”. I work 12 hours a day, six hours in the morning and six hours at night. I bet you normally spend about seven hours a day at school and when you're finished, you go home to friends and family or play football or do your homework. 

Well, my day looks a little bit different to that. I get up in the morning, I brush my teeth and I go and have my breakfast and then I make my way to the control room, which is where I work. It's from the control room the submarine is steered as it crosses the ocean. I have to stay in there for six hours and then I get a six-hour break. Oh, you might think that sounds quite good but actually after my six-hour break, I'm then back at work in the same day for another six hours. We do that for seven days a week for the whole of the patrol but it's okay because it makes the time go quickly and you quickly get used to the sleep pattern. 

Now I get asked the same question quite a lot and the answer is no, a submarine doesn't have any windows. Even if it did have windows, under the sea the sun can't get down that deep so it's dark all the time anyway. So how do I know what time of day it is? Well, the same as everyone else, I just use my watch. Submariners all have this watch because he glows in the dark and it's 24 hours, so we know then what time it is so we can never be late for work. The submarine can travel all over the world without stopping but wherever we are, all the clocks and watches are set to British time. This means that if you're having a bad day, you know what time is in the UK and if you're having your dinner, you can imagine your friends and family having their dinner as well and it offers you some kind of support as you think of home.  

[Ben] Knowing what time it is, is a good start Ed but how do you keep track of the days when there's no day or night? 

[Ed] Ben's right because we work seven days a week, six hours on, six hours off, how do we know what day it is? Is it Saturday night or Tuesday morning? There is an important way we can tell. Can you guess? It makes my stomach grumble just thinking about it. I can tell what day of the week is based on the meal we are having. For example, every Wednesday night, we have curry in the evening. Every Friday, we have fish and chips and every Sunday, we have roast - just like some of you do at home. I normally take two Yorkshire puddings because they're my favourite. We also get some pretty fun snacks - on Sundays, we get chocolate bars given to us by the chefs at four o'clock. These are everyone's favourite days. Some people take their own sweets with them and fill their lockers and try and make them last the whole patrol. I normally take mints with me? What would you take with you? Food in a submarine is very important to all of us and actually it's really tasty, the chef's do a great job. It's one of the things on board that we all really enjoy when we're not sleeping or working. We all look forward to mealtimes.  

Other things I really look forward to are the messages from home. Now what do I mean when I say messages from home? Letters, phone calls, emails? Well not exactly. When I'm away at sea, there is no postman, there are no phones. In fact, your phones don't even work on the sub. So how do you receive them? Every week I receive a small, typed message from the UK, all the way across the ocean to the submarine. It's very short, generally about a hundred words long. The strangest thing -  I can't even reply to this message which makes them even more important to me, to hear the news from back in the UK. I really look forward to hearing the news of how my friends and family are getting on. Sometimes I can get sent riddles and I won't get the answer for a whole week, I'll have to wait. Getting messages from loved ones in this way on the submarine makes me really grateful for being able to call, text and video call when I'm back from patrol. Even during this time during lockdown, we're all staying in our homes, it's so nice to connect people over text and video chat.  

[Ben] Wow! I bet it's amazing getting messages from your family when they're all so far away but imagine how difficult it is to cram a week's worth of news into a hundred words. I think I'd have to start using emojis just to save space. So anyway Ed, apart from messages and mealtimes what else do you and the crew do to keep your spirits up?  

[Ed] There are a few ways we keep our spirits up. First and foremost, the help of your friends on board. There's a real team spirit on submarines. Submariners are very good at looking out for each other and helping each other out. If you want something done or you need some help you can ask your friends. For example, one person used to be a hairdresser, so if you asked him really politely and gave him a back of a pack of sweets - which we call nutty – you could get your hair cut under the sea. It's all about helping each other out. The chef's bake you a cake on your birthday and your gym clothes can be washed really quickly if you give the laundry staff a can of coke and ask them nicely. Friendship is very important at sea and when I'm having a bad day, my friends will take time out of their busy schedule to cheer me up. It does help knowing that you have a hundred other friends who are feeling the same way you might be feeling. Maybe experiencing similar problems to you. It's really good to talk.  

We also have some other friends that live with us under the sea. Can you imagine who? We can hear whales and dolphins talking to each other. Not through the walls of the submarine but on our sonar. Sonar equipment is special equipment that works like ears to listen for other ships and submarines close to us. Submarines need it because they can't see in the dark depths of the ocean. By listening really carefully, the submarine can tell where a ship is on the surface and even which way it's moving. Usually though, we can just hear sea creatures, all day and all night on the sonar equipment. They are a very loud and chatty bunch and often we wonder, “what are they talking about? Are they talking about us?”  

Another great way I keep busy and feeling good, is exercise. Just like I bet some of you like to exercise – like going out to the parks or doing star jumps in your living room watching YouTube videos or just even cleaning the house and helping out. I love to ride a bicycle but there's no parks under the sea. So, what I do is use an exercise bike like you get in a gym. The bike is in a very tight space at the end of a big hallway, used to store baked beans and tool boxes for engineers. It's not perfect but it gets the job done and I can play music and pretend I'm somewhere else. Do you ever do that? Anyway, that's just a few ways we keep our spirits up on the submarine whilst we're away on patrol.  

[Ben] Exercising in cramped hallways is bad enough but I'm worried about how many baked beans there are on board? Think of the stinky havoc they could wreak in such a confined space and with no windows to open either! And speaking of confined spaces...  

[Ed] That's another important part of life on a submarine. Every inch of space is used for storage to make sure we have enough food and spares for such a long trip. We need food, cleaning supplies, medicine and tools so everyone can do their job. We take everything we need with us for many months. No running out to the shop if we run out of loo roll or need to change your lightbulb. If you remember, a few weeks ago my friend Ngarie talked about spies and how some things look one way but actually do another thing. That's kind of true on submarines. We get creative with storage because we have to take such a large amount of stuff and space is so limited. For example, we can keep chocolate bars under our beds or stack tins of vegetables all along the floor and as they get eaten, the floor gets lower. As you can imagine, there are no bin men to collect our rubbish, so everything is carefully washed so doesn't smell, cut up into little pieces and then packed away for later on. If everything's secure for over 100 people living and working on board, keeping clean and tidy is really important.  

In fact, I've got a naughty story tell you about what happens if you don't keep things tidy. A few years ago, very early one morning, I was at work in the control room, sitting in the captain's chair keeping an eye on everything. We were due in port in Australia, on the other side of the world that very morning and everyone was getting ready. I was tired so my friend bought me a chocolate bar to keep me going. I'd nearly finished it, but I couldn't find the last piece. Where was it? I checked everywhere - my shirt, I checked my trousers, the floor, the chair, but still, I couldn't find it. In the end I thought well I must have eaten it; I must be wrong. When we go to foreign ports, for example Australia, the Captain will wear a white uniform known as a tropical rig. But anyway, he got up and he had breakfast and came into the control room sat in his chair, in his white uniform. He had a look on the periscope and spotted a ship and said, “Ed come over here, have a look at this”. And as I turned around, I spotted the piece of chocolate, stuck to his bottom on his white trousers. He hadn't noticed so I called to a friend to get him another pair. I said to him 'Captain, I think you might have got a stain on your trousers but look I've got you another pair'. He looked down and saw the stain and looked back up at me and then in his chair and he said, “Thank you Ed, that's very kind of you”. I breathed a sigh relief. I'd got away with it. I was very lucky and never again would I eat chocolate in someone else's chair.  

[Ben] Mmm well that certainly gives a new meaning to the phrase poopdeck! Still waste of a good chocolate bar if you ask me. I bet Ed didn't do that again oh and Ed, after so many months of adventures under the sea what's it finally like to come back home again? 

[Ed] The best bit like going away for a long time is coming home to see friends and family, breathing fresh air and seeing the sun after a long time away is an amazing experience. Here are a few pictures when I came back last year, I was very tired, and the sun was so bright it hurt my eyes. Well, that's a little bit about what life's like on a submarine. I've really enjoyed sharing with you and I hope you've enjoyed listening and learnt something new of our life under the sea. Thank you and goodbye! Over to you Ben!  

[Ben] Thanks Ed! Who knew that life under the sea could be such a fascinating subject? Yeah, sorry about that. Although seriously, the thought of living away from home for that long really did give me a sinking feeling. Now you remember Ed telling us how important his watch was, not just for telling him what the time was but also what jobs he should be doing and crucially, when to look forward to dinner times and snacks. Now I thought it would be a great idea to design our own watch but instead of using traditional numbers, to use emojis instead. Why don't you have a go at drawing a watch face for your day - using emojis instead of numbers to show what happens at what time of day. As you can see on mine, I filled it with some of my favourite activities and things to do, like eating pizza or snacking on an apple, reading, playing with my new puppy Olive, having a nap... oh well the less said about that activity the better, I think. You can base yours on a day indoors or maybe figure out what you would have been doing at school and work it around that. You can even choose a weekend day where you get to have a little lie in, stay up a bit later, watch movies and even eat ice cream. Whatever it is just make sure you use your imagination. I can't wait to see it! And if hearing about life onboard a submarine has sparked your imagination, you can send any questions that you might have to us via the IWM Facebook or Twitter accounts and don't forget to sign up to the IWM YouTube channel too – that way you'll never miss another Adventure in History!  

Imperial War Museums is a charity, if you're able to help support our work in bringing history to life, you can find out more on IWM's website and don't forget to join us next week when we'll be meeting my friend Holiday who is here to tell us all about D-Day. For now, from me, Goodbye! 

Curriculum Links and Learning Objectives

  • KS3/4 - Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day. 

  • GCSE - Warfare and British society, c1250-Present.                  

  • To increase understanding about what it is like to live and work on a submarine. 

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