The quality of life for submariners at sea has improved along with technological improvements such as larger hulls, cleaner propulsion systems, and increased internal electricity and water. Submarines of the 1920-1945 era were cramped and poorly-ventilated, subjecting sailors to occasional belches of diesel exhaust. Sailors rarely changed clothes and showered only occasionally due to the scarcity of water. They shared bunks with other sailors due to space shortages, and lived on canned food due to limited galley facilities.
While the inside of a submarine remains a cramped, equipment-studded cylinder, modern sub crews enjoy air conditioning, a variety of meals (thanks to refrigerators and freeze-dried foods), and recreational diversions, such as personal computers, videotape machines, and even compact exercise equipment. Larger missile submarines have even more features: The Trident missile submarines have an unofficial jogging track on one deck on the outside of the array of missile tubes, and the Russian Typhoon submarine features a miniature greenhouse with flowers and a small swimming pool for its crewmen. Nevertheless, all navies carefully screen recruits for their submarine services to ensure that the sailors can withstand the psychological and physical pressures of inhabiting a closed environment for months at a time.
This story was submitted to the People's War site by Charlotte Sawford Alex Jmaieson Maddy Bridge from SVC on behalf of Derek Traylen and has been added to the site with his permissiion. Derek fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
In 1940 I signed up for the local defence volunteers, and straight away we were issued with an arm band, leather gaiters and a broom stick! At the end of 1940 we were finally issued with proper rifles, but no ammunition, and when the ammunition did eventually come, it was the wrong sort. I knew I was going to be called up to fight sooner or later, so rather than join the army; in 1941 I became a Navy volunteer. I was accepted straight away and called up to do a training course, where I did 5 months work on how to be a visual signalman. After that I was called up to HMS Collingwood, who was moored in Southampton, we were on North Atlantic convoy duty. We set off for Gibraltar 2 days before Christmas straight into a North Atlantic gale and I was seasick for a week. We met our convoy in Northern Ireland, and we headed out into the Atlantic, as far west as the Azores and back down to Gibraltar — it took us two weeks because we could only travel at 2 knots. Our convoy was made up of columns of ships, with escorts situated around the outside. We were often attacked by U-boats and we lost about half our ships every day. We had to make that journey to and from Gibraltar 3 times, and at one point we were attacked by 14 U-boats at once. We started having double bang watches — 4 hours on, 4 hours off. When we got close to Gibraltar we had to ask for air support, and we were sent a flying boat. The plane saw a U-boat in the middle of our convoy and dropped a depth charge, but unfortunately the convoy misinterpreted the fire and shot down the plane.
I decided that my chances of surviving were very slim and I went into submarines. I had to have a medical and went on a two week training course where I learnt everything I would've learnt about submarines in three years. I was stationed on a submarine called Otus, which should have been made into scrap, since it was built in 1922, but because of the need for submarines she was simply repaired and sent to sea. We set off from Scotland to travel all the way to Hong Kong. The sub kept breaking down. On Otus there were a crew of 69 men issued with fresh bread which was very damp and green from mould. We then headed for Freetown, West Africa; we were not given any supplies apart from de- hydrated cabbage. Conditions were very difficult, you slept where you could. We then left Freetown to get to Capetown. The wireless (ATM's) radio then broke down. This meant that we missed an important message. An armed trawler had sent out a message that we were the enemy! But eventually we were let into Capetown. There we carried out big repairs on our submarine, especially on the steering. When we went ashore we had our first proper meal in ages. We were thrilled to have bacon, eggs, and even sugar for our tea! As we walked out of the canteen we saw huge buckets of oranges you could help yourself to. We filled our suits to the brim with them, thinking that we'd get loads for the men on board, but when we got back loads of food had already been delivered! We also had fresh water, tinned meat and even fresh pineapple chunks. We were sent off to patrol some U-boat pens, which were made of 36ft of concrete. We were 5 miles off shore, and after we had bombed the U-boats we sat on the bottom, but when we wanted to rise, we couldn't get up! Eventually we managed to get off the bottom, but now we couldn't stop rising! After that we headed for Durban where we had to do yet more repairs, which took a long time. We ended up making friends with people on shore and we took two army officers out during one of our tests, but we realised we had a leak — a pipe had burst! Everything stopped, and the captain had to open the hatch — I had to hold onto his ankles to make sure he wasn't sucked out! The captain told the guests to come to the bridge — one said to him, "It adds to the entertainment old boy doesn't it?"! We had to carry out yet more repairs, but unfortunately the sub sank 3 days before we got to Hong Kong.
While I was climbing through a hatch I tore my mouth. I had to have it stitched up. The crew member that also had some sowing skills asked me if I would like rum or whisky. I chose rum. Another man I new had an abscess on his hand which was cut out he was only given rum or whisky to help with the pain.
We were given a tot of rum every morning. We would gamble for sips, gulps or tots of the rum.
Sixty-five out of sixty-nine people on our submarine got food poisoning.
I am invited to celebrate VE day with the queen on July the 10th. There are only 3 submariners going.
The following is a typed up apeach of what Derek said on Radio Gazette.
Radio Magazine "A" Programme 18/8/1944 8:30p.m
"Life in a submarine" by Leading-signalman Derek Traylen.
I must say for a start that life in a submarine is no joke. Living conditions alone are a lot different from the Ritz.
When out on a patrol, which may last several weeks, nobody washes, shaves or even undresses. Not that we are lazy or want to be dirty, but it's against orders. There is only enough water carried for drinking purposes. You see there are such a lot of gadgets and the space is so limited that it's impossible to carry more. You can imagine we get very dirty and oily but we are all in the same boat. Clothes naturally vary with what particular part of the globe the boat is in. In the tropics the usual thing worn is just a pair of overalls. The reason why undressing is not permitted is that in a submarine, more so than other ships, every man must be ready for emergency both when on top or submerged and the delay caused by dressing might prove fatal. Down below it gets pretty hot and sticky after a few hours. We only have the air we take down with us because if more air was let in from bottles for instance, it would increase the pressure which is already great enough. As it is all we feel like doing is sleeping which is in fact encouraged, to save that precious thing called oxygen, for when a chap is asleep he uses less than if we were awake. Of course smoking is not allowed when dived, but we may smoke on the surface except on the bridge as a lighted cigarette could be seen for miles. Off watch, pastimes are many and varied, cards, chess and ludo are the favourites, but some fellows make things with pen knives and pieces of wood, others prefer metal-work. Then of course there is always an argument going on for anyone to join in, not heated but just enough to cause interest and pass the time. It's usually about old ships that chaps have served in, or the girls back at home, or a hundred and one different topics. There are all kinds of chaps aboard from different walks of life, each with his own fasd or fancy which could get on the nerves of the rest of the crew, living cramped together as we do, if one didn't quickly learn the lesson of tolerance. Some joined the submarine service for revenge, others for the excitement. The only thing they didn't join for, and get most of, is monotony. In my case it was a bit of both.
Food is not like I used to get at home. It's mostly tinned and dehydrated. Tinned ham and beef may sound good for a change but after a few weeks of it, it doesn't sound so appetising. We only have one meal a day or should I say night. It's this way. A submarine "day" is at night when for a few hours he is on the surface and it's the only time the small electric galley can be used to prepare the food for us. Incidentally, officers and men get exactly the same food.
Usually we are submerged all day and only come up when it is dark to charge the batteries and to get a breath of fresh air. Being a signalman on board, I am lucky as I follow the Captain onto the bridge when we surface and he is always the first one up. When he is satisfied that it is all clear, permission is given for others to come up. They take it in turns to get a breath of fresh air as it wouldn't do for all to come up at once in case we had to crash dive.
To get into submarines I had to pass a fairly stiff medical and dental examination and take a course on the workings of a submarine. That is so that every man knows something about everyone else's job even though we all have to be efficient at our own particular work. Everything depends on the Captain, especially during an attack he is the only person who can see what is going on through the periscope and on his judgement depends whether we get back to our mother ship successfully or not. Speaking of mother ships, they are a Godsend to us when we get back from a patrol. We get hot baths and a good food and they look after our boat so that we can get a spot of leave.
To end with what I used to say was; it's suited me while the war was on but roll on the day when it's all over.