16 Jul 2013

Britain’s Polaris deterrent – ITN archive (1967/8)

As the government reviews renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent, Ian Searcey dives into the ITN archives and pulls up two items from the beginnings of the Royal Navy’s atomic programme.

If you believed the news bulletins, films and books during the 1960s and 70s, it sometimes seemed that all you had to worry about were Soviet spies and someone accidentally starting world war three by setting off The Bomb, writes Ian Searcey.

On 2 October 1967 ITN’s Richard Dixon reported from the moorings of HMS Resolution in Barrow in Furness on the day she was commissioned.

She was first of the Resolution class nuclear submarines, one of a fleet of four (the Labour government having stopped the building of a fifth) to carry the Polaris missile.

The ITN crew was allowed on board the vessel and given a low-key demonstration of how a missile firing might take place.

The submarine had two full crews, and Dixon interviewed “one of the captains”, Commander Frewer, about the submarine’s deployment, the implications of the government axing a fifth submarine, and the chances of an armed missile being fired by a “mad crew”.

“If you can envisage 143 people, all going mad at exactly the same time,” replies an amused Frewer, “I suppose it is feasible.” He goes on to reassure Dixon that they do have a doctor on board to keep an eye on them.

Test firing

Four months later, on 16 February 1968, John Whale was aboard the USS Fred T Berry off the coast of Florida to watch the first test firing of the Polaris at sea.

After witnessing the underwater launch and tracking the missile through the skies, Whale was back in port in time to see Resolution with an upturned broom on the conning tower to signify a successful launch.

Given the chance to interview the submarine’s “other captain”, Commander Mike Henry, Whale began with questions about the broom and the success of the test before ending with the usual worries about safety.

“Could a Polaris ever go off by accident?” he asks. More succinct than Commander Frewer, Commander Henry just says “No.”


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