Undersea Warfare The Official Publication of the Undersea Warfare Community.  Summer 2003 Issue.  U.S. Submarines… Because Stealth Matters Image of magazine cover
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Royal Navy Submarine Museum Preserving a Notable Collection of Artifacts and War Stories
Story and photos by Edward C. Whitman

Located on the historic Gosport waterfront across Portsmouth Harbor from the celebrated Royal Dockyard and Nelson’s HMS Victory, the RN Submarine Museum lies adjacent to the former HMS Dolphin, home of the Royal Navy Submarine Service for 100 years. When the Navy decided in 1904 that their new submarines needed a home of their own, it established Dolphin at a suitably remote location – old Fort Blockhouse, originally a Plantagenet castle at the harbor entrance. Today although HMS Dolphin has not been an operational submarine base since 1998, its hallowed precincts – including the old Wardroom, Dining Hall, and Memorial Chapel – still exert a powerful emotional pull on British submariners. To this evocative setting, the RN Submarine Museum adds a comprehensive and often-moving repository for the artifacts and traditions of the Royal Navy Submarine Service, now more than 100 years old.

The museum is the descendent of a small “Submarine Branch Collection” opened originally in 1963 and then expanded significantly 20 years later after public access was granted to the museum ship, HMS Alliance, and a new display building was dedicated in 1983. Subsequently, its collection and facilities have continued to expand, and the museum is now operated as a “registered charitable trust” under the sponsorship of the Ministry of Defense, with yearly attendance approaching 75,000 visitors. Moreover, its archives now hold over a million pages of documents, countless photographs, and 4,000 books – a resource eagerly sought after by researchers.

The largest and most prominent of the museum’s exhibits is Alliance herself, suspended on pilings over a tidal basin reminiscent of a small dry dock. Launched in 1945, too late for participation in World War II, Alliance served throughout the first half of the Cold War and was decommissioned in 1973. The 279-foot long “A”-class submarine displaced 1,385 tons on the surface and was one of 16 completed between 1945 and 1948. Visitors to the ship enter through acompanionway cut through the hull that gives access to the forward torpedo room and are taken in hand by one of several retired RN submariners, who guide them through the entire length of the submarine, including the control spaces, crew and officer accommodations, and engine room, where the two big 2,150-horsepower diesels are on full display – with sound effects. The enthusiastic volunteer guides are a great fount of RN Submarine Service lore.

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(above) Launched in 1945 and decommissioned in 1973, the museum ship HMS Alliance is the largest exhibit at the RN Submarine Museum in Gosport, United Kingdom. 16 “A”-class submarines were completed between 1945 and 1948 and served through much of the Cold War. Museum visitors are guided down the entire length of the boat by retired Royal Navy submariners.

(left) This is a view from the engine room of HMS Alliance, looking forward toward the submarine’s main passageway. One of the boat’s large 2,150-horsepower Vickers diesels is in the left foreground.

Visiting The Royal Navy
Submarine Museum

The Royal Navy Submarine Museum lies in the heart of the historic military/naval complex of Portsmouth on the southern coast of the United Kingdom. Visitors to the better-known Royal Dockyard with its naval museum and historic ships will find the submarine museum a rewarding addition to their itinerary. It is most easily reached from the bustling Portsmouth waterfront by taking the Gosport pedestrian ferry across the harbor and then following the signs that direct one along the Millennium Walk to the entrance, about ten minutes away. On site are both a tearoom and a gift shop with an excellent selection of books on naval – and especially submarine –
history. There is a moderate admission charge.

Some of the many highlights of the museum include:

• The museum ship Alliance
Holland I, the first Royal Navy submarine
X-24, one of 25 miniature X-Craft from WWII
• A full-sized replica of Bushnell’s Turtle
• An Italian human torpedo
• A WWI periscope preserved in working order
• Countless historic exhibits and memorabilia

For additional information, the RN Submarine Museum’s website can be found at: www.rnsubmus.co.uk

Of all the museum’s holdings, however, His Majesty’s Submarine Torpedo Boat Number 1 (Holland I), the Royal Navy’s very first submarine, is unique. Built to John Holland’s design by Vickers in 1901, only a year after the U.S. Navy established its own submarine force by acquiring his path-breaking Holland VI, the British Holland I is the only first-generation “Holland boat” surviving today. Moreover, as a scaled-up version of Holland VI – later USS Holland, SS-1 – which was neglectfully scrapped in the mid-1930s, the boat provides striking insight into the design details of John Holland’s first successful submarines and a real frisson of historical excitement climbing inside.

Only the fact that she foundered while under tow to the ship breakers in 1913 preserved Holland I from the same fate as her American namesake. Rediscovered near the fabled Eddystone Light off Plymouth in 1981, Holland I was salvaged by the Royal Navy, cleaned up, treated briefly with anti-corrosion chemicals, and put on display at the museum. Within a decade, however, the hull began to rust badly, and it became apparent that a more thorough restoration would be necessary to preserve the ship. Accordingly, the entire vessel was immersed for four years in a giant tank of sodium carbonate to leach out the chloride ions causing the deterioration. This additional treatment solved the problem, and in 2001, Holland I was put back on display in its own glass-walled, climate-controlled building, built and paid for as a Heritage Lottery Fund project. For this feat, the museum and the boat’s conservator won the coveted national Pilgrim Trust Conservation Award for 2002 – the “Oscar” of such recognition.

Since all usable subsystems were stripped from the boat before her intended trip to the breakers in 1913, and no attempt has been made to replace them with reproductions, much is left to the imagination in Holland’s interior. Nonetheless, the torpedo tube and the entire propulsion plant remain in reasonable condition, including the diesel engine, electric motor, and the associated clutch and gear train. Moreover, the hull, propeller, rudders, torpedo-tube bow cap, and other external features appear like new, and one of the original battery cells has been set up as a separate exhibit. In short, there’s simply no better way to appreciate the “look and feel” of our earliest submarines than by crawling around inside Holland I!

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Housed in its own climate-controlled building after salvaging and extensive restoration, the Royal Navy’s first submarine, Holland I, is the only early-generation “Holland boat” that still survives. She was the first of five Holland submarines built under license by Vickers in 1901 to inaugurate the RN Submarine Service but foundered on her way to the scrap-yard in 1913. Raised again in 1981, Holland I is perhaps the museum’s most unusual attraction. Although most of Holland I’s internal fittings were stripped out in 1913, enough remain to give a vivid impression of the layout of these first submarines. This is her 18-inch torpedo tube and impulse tank, seen from amidships looking forward. Virtually the entire propulsion system survives intact.