This month’s Warship Wednesday dives deeper into the lifespan of the last conventional submarine to be re-fitted at Chatham Dockyard almost 50 years ago, HMS Opossum.
The blog has been researched and written by University of Kent graduate, and keen local historian, Samuel Drury, who spent time with our Collections team during his work experience week.
HMS Opossum may not be one of Chatham’s own constructions, being built by Cammell Laird and Co Ltd. at Birkenhead, but she is still very much part of the Dockyard’s history. Launched by Lady Hezlet on 23 May 1963, she would proudly join her fellow Oberon Class vessels in the Royal Navy in 1964.
At a length of 295 feet 3 inches, a beam of 26 feet 6 inches and a draft of 18 feet, the Opossum had a displacement of 2,030 tons surfaced and 2,400 tons submerged and a max speed of 17 Knots submerged.
On 27 November 1972, HMS Opossum arrived at Chatham to be re-fitted with the latest technology and weapons, an endeavour that would finalise on 9 August 1974. It was reported that considerable modernisation of her weapons system was undertaken so that the submarine was brought up to the latest standards.
She was re-commissioned in 1974 under the command of Lieutenant Commander M. C. Boyce and unveiled at a grand ‘Re-Commissioning Service’ on 29 June 1974 at HM Naval Base, Chatham. The day came with a full programme, including the breaking of the Commissioning Pennant and the cutting of the Commissioning Cake. Steeped in ceremony, the day included numerous prayers and a blessing of the ship by the Chaplain.
Opossum would be the last conventional re-fit to occur at the Dockyard, with only nuclear-powered submarines being re-fitted from 1974-1983. It was the introduction of a programme to re-fit two-stream nuclear submarines due to start the same year that required Opossum to be re-fitted a month shorter than previously envisioned. On her departure after a successful re-fit, the local newspaper The Periscope reflected on the 63-year history of submarine re-fits at the Dockyards, with the first submarine re-fit of the A1 in 1911.
The extensive years of submarine re-fits at Chatham shows the importance of the Dockyard towards ensuring the Royal Navy’s fleet was modern and advanced.
Opossum saw deployment to the Persian Gulf throughout the Gulf War in 1991 under Operation Granby, the codename given to British military operations in the war. Throughout her service, there were only two casualties from her crew; LRO C. Wood who drowned whilst swimming at Comino Island in 1969 and Lt. Cmdr. R C Meyrick who collapsed and died while commanding the Opossum, on an exercise in 1971.
She would go on to be decommissioned in June 1993 after her nearly thirty years of service and was the last of the British Oberon-class submarines in the Royal Navy. She was disposed in June 2001 at the Pounds Shipbrakers at Tipner, Portsmouth.