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OCELOT60: I’d go back to sea on a submarine today if I could!

04 May 2022

Chris Reynolds has his feet firmly on dry land now on St Mary’s Island in Kent but HMS Ocelot was the first submarine he served in as a qualified submariner having previously qualified in another diesel submarine.

His love for the submarine HM Ocelot, who celebrates her 60th birthday on the 5th May this year, is evident when he speaks about his time onboard and in the service which saw him go on to Captain her sister submarine HMS Otter.

Chris says: “As a Lieutenant my role as fifth hand and Torpedo Officer meant that I was responsible for the forends and torpedo movements on board HMS Ocelot. I would stand on the casing controlling the crane which loaded and offloaded the torpedoes. The torpedo loading hatch is now used for guests to access the submarine.   There is a dummy torpedo onboard: this is the Mk8 and was the torpedo which sank the Belgrano.”

Chris also had another vital job on board the submarine as correspondence officer. Chris would be presented with several sacks of official mail to work his way through!  In a time before computers it was a laborious job dealing with incoming correspondence. he says: “All this was conducted in my tiny alcove at the far end of the Ward Room using a typewriter, carbon paper and snow pale – it was a time before iPhones and iPads!”

Life onboard a submarine was different to life in the surface fleet of the Navy – there was the obvious confinement for weeks on end and the intense smell of diesel, but the rotating shifts, with six hours on and six hours off throughout the time at sea, were something submariners needed to get used to. This watchkeeping rota continues in modern day submarines.

Chris says: “if you made a mistake it was submarine rule to own up to it – submariners don’t lie because anyone can sink a submarine by turning the wrong valve (for example) so you needed to say when you’d made a mistake.  And as long as you didn’t keep doing it, you were okay!”

HMS Ocelot taught Chris many things during his time on board; skills that he took forward with him to his own command on HMS Otter in (1991) and to the nuclear submarines he worked on. Chris’s passion for the submarine Flotilla lives on today in his capacity as ambassador for the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust where he helps to train the guides who conduct daily tours for visitors on HMS Ocelot.

He says: “The diesel submarines were really special – they were very very very quiet – once you shut off and went deep they were extremely hard to detect.”

During his time as a submariner Chris never saw a case of claustrophobia and in general everyone worked well together on what would have been long missions.  While HMS Ocelot was primarily used during Cold War operations, her sister submarine HMS Otter, under Chris’s command, ventured through warmer waters

With no showers on board, submariners would have been given small amounts of water for personal use and there were no washing machines at sea.  The smell was something that submariners got used to though, Chris says: “I suspect we were quite ripe when we got back home but we couldn’t smell it – we thought we were the best thing since sliced bread.”

During the six hours off onboard, submariners would sleep, eat, attend to admin and also squeeze in a film if they could.   He says: “we watched films organised by the Royal Naval Film Corporation, they’d send them out to us and we’d sometimes get to see them before they were released at home.”  And while the Bond films may have been seen on HMS Ocelot during Chris’s time, his memories are confined to “seeing hardened submariners shedding a tear or two over a rom com”.

During home leave the overriding smell of diesel which permeated the submariners clothes was something that wives and girlfriends were very aware of as soon as they set sight of their partner.  Chris says: “when I came home, my wife would make me stand outside and pass me a bag to put my clothes in so I didn’t bring the smell of diesel into the house, these would go straight in the washing machine and I’d go straight in the bath!”

Visitors to HMS Ocelot in dry dock at The Historic Dockyard Chatham often exclaim about the cramped conditions and the bunks that are so narrow submariners couldn’t roll over in them, leading to ‘coffin-dreams’.  Chris says of the confinement: “there were places you could go, if you needed to be alone, but generally people shut their curtains when they wanted time away from others.”

HMS Ocelot’s 60th birthday party on Saturday 7th May will see Chris Reynolds meet up with his ‘band of brothers’-  a tight-knit group of former submarine captains who all completed the ‘Perisher’ course (an elite training course for submarine captains), as well as service-men who served on this incredible O-Boat who has welcomed 2.3 million visitors to view her interior since she was paid off at Chatham in 1991.

Chris’s love-affair with HMS Ocelot and the submarine Flotilla remains undimmed : “I’d go back to sea on a submarine today if I could!”

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