HMS AllianceThanks to friend’s generosity, I have a year’s pass to the Historic Naval Dockyards at Portsmouth – this gives unlimited access to HMS Victory, HMS Warrior, several smaller vessels and associated museums. A couple of weeks ago we used our passes to take the water bus to Gosport and visit the Submarine Museum.

HMS Holland I

Holland I – a cage full of mice monitor the air

There are three submarines on display. Holland I – the very first RN submarine , dating from 1901 and actually commissioned in the reign of Queen Victoria;  X24 – a WWII sub used to deliver charges to ships moored in Norwegian Fjords and HMS Alliance, a WWII vessel upgraded for Cold War use.

Submarines don’t feel like ships, but it’s quite difficult to put your figure on quite what the difference is.

Holland is basically just an underwater observation platform which remains connected to the world above the waves by a primitive snorkel (and the air quality is monitored by the equally primitive inclusion of a cage full of mice).

HM Submarine X25


X24 is a vehicle for transporting munitions and would have spent a lot of time on the surface whilst navigating fjords.

Only Alliance fits the description of an underwater “warship” designed to spend long periods of time at sea, to escort other vessels and to engage in warfare.

But is it a ship?

HMS Alliance

HMS Alliance – view through the periscope

It didn’t feel like a ship. Engines, dials and valves conspire to make it less comprehensible than a surface vessel – more like an engine or a very large gun that people live in, but that isn’t quite it.  Perhaps it was that it was a very male space, but then so are Victory and Warrior.

It struck me that the submarine’s nearest relative is not the surface ship, but the space ship.

Submariners, like space travellers, inhabit a self-sufficient bubble in an environment hostile to human existence, where the very stuff of life – food, water and oxygen – must be carried as cargo or manufactured.

HMS Holland I – Submarine (1901)

HM Submarine X24 (WWII)

HMS Alliance (Cold War)