HMS Ocelot hails from a by-gone age when the Cold War was simple: it was east versus west, and everyone knew where they stood. Today, the international picture is far more confused, with alliances no longer black and white. But what can we learn from the days of Ocelot, and O-boats like her, that can be applied to the new Cold War era?
Our Chairman, Admiral Sir Trevor Soar KCB OBE DL, rose through the ranks to command the Royal Navy as Commander in Chief, but his first command was as Captain of HMS Ocelot in the late 80s. During his time in command, the Berlin Wall was yet to fall, Noriega was in power in Panama, and Britain was still at war with Argentina over the Falklands.
As the submarine’s captain, Lieutenant Trevor Soar was in charge of Ocelot’s final deployment which saw an 80 strong crew spend July until December 1989 on a lengthy voyage that included a covert mission that patrolled the Falklands exclusion zone as well as passing through Panama during a military coup.
When Lieutenant Soar was appointed captain of HMS Ocelot in 1986 she was in the final stages of a major refit at Rosyth in Scotland that would make her a leading weapon of stealth for the British Navy.
Ocelot’s sonar had been completely updated to include the addition of a towed array sonar that would enable her to detect and track other submarines. This array was towed up to a mile behind the submarine which meant that no sound from inside Ocelot degraded this listening device (they don’t ping as in the movies).
Ocelot became, at the time, an excellent platform to detect other submarines. Sir Trevor says: “it’s well documented that in the Cold War western submarines and ships spent a lot of time trailing the Russians, so that if there was a war or conflict we knew how to detect them and how they would operate.”
Post the Falklands conflict, Britain was still to all intents and purposes at war with Argentina.
Sir Trevor says there was an exclusion zone around the Falklands and “the Royal Navy kept continuous submarine patrols in case there was another offensive by Argentina.”
The journey in 1989 to get down to the Falklands was long and began in Faslane in Scotland.
Sir Trevor recalls that despite a new refit there were teething problems, he says: “by the time we reached the Canaries we had detected a problem with one of the generators which necessitated a repair in Gibraltar.
“This change of plans wasn’t entirely unwelcome as it enabled our wives and girlfriends to come out and meet us for a few days.”
Following the unscheduled repair, Ocelot travelled southwards and crossed the equator where the crew, led by Sir Trevor, observed the Navy customs of “crossing the line”. He says: “we stopped and surfaced so that we could have the ceremony on the casing of the submarine”.
“There were quite a few submariners on board who had not crossed the equator before. There are some photographs of us sitting astride the submarine one dressed as King Neptune, others being shaved or thrown into the water with even one of the crew diving from the fin.”
Following the ceremony, they continued their transit further south. And despite notions to the contrary, the submarine wasn’t submerged for the entire journey.
Sir Trevor explains: “We did not submerge for the whole journey because it is quicker in a diesel submarine to travel on the surface but once we were close to the Falkland Islands exclusion zone we remained completely dived.”
There then followed two serious back-to-back patrols which lasted for a total of 56 days. At the end of this time the crew reached the limits of a balanced diet and in the latter stages of the patrols food became rationed and at one stage we seemed to be eating a lot of cheesecake!
“Following our restore of the submarine in the Falklands, I have a distinct memory of that first meal after we set sail. The Chef, who had a warped sense of humour, decided to feed us cheesecake for our first meal and I can still see a picture of him in my mind covered head to toe in cheesecake because we all went splat.”
Ocelot was involved in ship and aircraft exercises with HMS Broadside before rounding Cape Horn in very rough weather. Sir Trevor eventually surfaced the submarine in Cooks Bay where they met up with a Chilean pilot who provided the charts to navigate the intricate Patagonian Channels running up the West coast of Chile before going on to Talcahuano in October – their first run ashore since Gibraltar in July.
Image: The journey south west to Cape Horn, where huge seas necessitated a deep dive
Sir Trevor explains: “I paid a local barber to come to the quayside and give a haircut to everyone in the crew.” The Chilean newspapers covered Ocelot’s arrival in port and the crew were afforded 4 days of time to relax after such an arduous journey.
Following their welcome stop-over, Ocelot ventured both to Valparaiso and then at the end of October arrived in Panama where Noriega was still in power. Sir Trevor explains “It was quite tense, there was a curfew and despite that I managed to get ashore and saw something of the city.
“The US Marines offered tanks to protect our journey through the canal. At first, I thought they were joking but they did position them along the route.”
As Ocelot passed through the canal, she was afforded two heavily armed marine escorts and 2 helicopters, which remained with them throughout the transit of the canal.
Despite the seriousness of the situation Sir Trevor explains that there was still time to take a swim in Gatun Lake as they awaited the final locks, “much to the disbelief of our US escorts” explains Sir Trevor.
Image: On the way south there were opportunities for swimming
Letting off steam is something that Sir Trevor can speak about, while most of Ocelot’s mission critical information remains protected by the official secrets act, for at least the next 50 years or so.
Image: A mess dinner at sea, when it was too hot for uniform
Sir Trevor has lots of fascinating anecdotes including the time the crew invited the Embassy ladies from Panama to travel the canal. When they stopped at Gatun Lake to wait for another convoy of ships transiting the canal, it was so hot they took the time for a barbecue and a swim. He says: “the ladies arrived on deck in their bikinis for the swim just as the US Marines arrived and I remember an American Lieutenant commenting “we’re in the wrong Navy lads!”
Following their safe passage of the Panama Canal, HMS Ocelot made her way back home via the Bahamas, Exuma Sound for sonar trials, a visit to Fort Lauderdale and then to cross the Atlantic in winter to their home base of Faslane in Scotland, following 158 days of deployment and over 23,000 miles travelled.
Image: Arriving at the Panama Canal
Extended stays away from family are one of the most difficult and trying elements of being at sea, and Sir Trevor recalls how hard that was. He says: “On our return to Faslane I saw my two young children for the first time in 7 months”.
Image: On his return to Faslane on 7 September 1989 his wife Anne and his two boys came out on the Commodores’ barge to welcome Sir Trevor home.
Sir Trevor Soar:
What did you learn from your time as Captain of HMS Ocelot?
“For me, although I did not know it at the time, it was my first command of four warships, and I was only aged 29 – so it gave me a real understanding of leading people at sea. In a diesel submarine the Captain is central to everything and has a huge responsibility for being able to fight his submarine but also to keep it safe and the people in it well motivated.
“I took what I learned with me to my next command. I started with 80 men under my command and ended up with 36,000 as the Commander in Chief of the Royal Navy.
As Captain, you’re responsible for everyone and everything that happens on board. It requires resilience, patience and empathy to others to be a submariner. You live and work alongside each other every day for the time you are away and cannot simply go home when you want; that has its challenges. As captain of a submarine, you are visible to all and hence you have to get the right balance of being professional in your role but accessible and be seen as human to your people.
“Ocelot honed my leadership skills and many of the lessons I learned there and in subsequent Command appointments I take with me into business today.”
Why is HMS Ocelot important?
“She was one of the best diesel subs of her time and the last British submarines built here at Chatham and it’s absolutely right that she’s here today. It’s important that we share the stories of what it’s like to be at sea on a submarine, and the life of a submariner. Prior to HMS Vigil on television, not a lot was known by the general public at large. And while the TV drama was not very authentic, it did enable millions of people to understand a little more about submarines.
HMS Ocelot at Chatham helps to educate the public because they can walk through her and leave with an impression of what it was like to live on the submarine during the Cold War.
With the recent updates made, with sound added and props relevant to her final voyage in the late 1980s, Ocelot now feels as if you are coming aboard while on patrol with the sounds and an authentic feel. We have tried to make the control room as it was when I was her Captain and we want her to ensure she looks the best she can for her 60th anniversary.”
On The Historic Dockyard Chatham
“I have such strong links with Chatham, and for me, being Chairman is a brilliant job. The Historic Dockyard is not just a museum capturing the age of sail, we have 110 businesses here, 400 residents and a campus for the University of Kent. We are working hard with the local authority and others to make this a place set within the larger community”.
Sir Trevor’s relationship with the Historic Dockyard Chatham runs deep:
- After completing his naval training at Dartmouth in 1976, Sir Trevor came to Chatham to join his first ship
- His first marital home with his wife Anne was in Chatham
- After passing the Perisher course in 1986 he became the Captain of HMS Ocelot (built at Chatham)
- Commanded the frigate HMS Chatham and brought her to the dockyard for Navy Days
- In his role at the Ministry of Defence, Sir Trevor arranged for the first Armed Forces Day to be held at The Historic Dockyard Chatham in the presence of Princess Anne & Gordon Brown the then Prime Minister.
- In May 2016 Admiral Sir Trevor Soar was appointed Chair of Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust