Vigil: Everything right and wrong onboard HMS Vigil, according to ex-submariner

*Warning contains spoilers for Vigil episode 1*

Last night, BBC One’s brand-new thriller Vigil premiered, a show set aboard a patrolling nuclear submarine in the aftermath of a suspicious death – but how much of what we saw Suranne Jones, Martin Compston and their castmates get up to was accurate? sat down with former submariner David Lovell, who served in the Royal Navy for 23 years on both SSBNs (ship submersible ballistic nuclear boats, like HMS Vigil) and SSNs (submersible ship nuclear boats, without nuclear missiles, also known as hunter-killers), reaching the rank of lieutenant commander, which put him as second in command (or ‘XO’) on a boat – just like Adam James’ Lt Cdr Mark Prentice last night.

Although on the topic of Prentice, Lovell would like you to know, no matter how true, ‘the CO [commanding officer] would not call his XO a pr*ck in front of the Coxswain or any other crew member – it’s not good for morale or crew cohesion’.

Sharing his personal view as someone who served on two of the four nuclear submarines that were the predecessor to today’s Vanguard class, carrying the Polaris nuclear missile, Lovell recognises that there are, of course, plenty of situations created in Vigil with a large dollop of artistic licence to propel the drama.

But, alongside Chief Petty Officer Burke’s (Compston) attitude as he questions the CO, and the submarine being depicted as ‘very spacious’, what other inaccuracies stuck out to him? And what did the show reflect realistically?

Surfacing the submarine and breaking radio silence

‘The primary aim of the vessel, whilst on patrol, is to remain undetected. Undetected by any – hostile or friendly – ship, submarine, aircraft, radar, sonar, non-acoustic system, satellite, passing yacht or cargo vessel. Nothing,’ Lovell explains.

Regarding the episode’s opening scenes, it’s also unrealistic an SSBN would be in waters where fishing vessels operate, as these are relatively shallow and confined waters and ‘not ideal for a massive submarine that wants to stay hidden’, as Lovell puts it.

However, trawlers have been dragged before.

‘The dragging under of a fishing vessel by a submarine is realistic. These incidents have occurred, and the programme makes mention of the trawler Antares, which is a true event.’ [In November 1990, the crew of the trawler Antares died when HMS Trenchant snagged its nets in the Bute Sound, off the west coast of Scotland, during a submarine command exercise.]

But the commander’s choice to both surface and transmit over a death onboard rather than the fishing vessel incident and possible linked tracking submarine is a real sticking point for Lovell.

‘To suggest an SSBN, apparently on patrol, witnesses the event and then conducts a helicopter transfer in broad daylight and transmits two radio messages in the knowledge that an enemy submarine might be around is laughable – at least to all submariners.

‘If the SSBN is compromised, then the nuclear deterrent is compromised.’

He goes on to explain his main issue with the premise of Vigil: ‘This this is where it all sort of falls over, because the captain of this SSBN has broken patrol etiquette by transmitting, so he obviously thinks it’s important enough. He decides to transmit and tell them about the death, but he doesn’t give any indication of this incident with the fishing vessel that they have detected, and he’s concerned that he may be being tracked by another submarine.

‘Now, if you’re going to transmit, you might as well tell them everything you know. Because otherwise, you’ve got to go back and transmit again!’

A death vs HMS Vigil’s patrol

Vigil shows the clash between DCI Silva (Suranne Jones) attempting to investigate a possible murder and inspect a crime scene, and the boat continuing with its patrol.

Murder or not, as Lovell puts it: ‘You don’t just return to port for that sort of thing.’

So Cmdr Newsome’s (Paterson Joseph) resistance is entirely plausible.

He continues: ‘Of course he’s bothered by the death of his crew member, but his priority is to remain undetected and get the patrol done, and the fact that he’s going to be counter-detected is a big deal for him, a much bigger priority than the investigation of a death on board.’

And the letter of last resort Newsome mentions from the Prime Minister, which is on board each of the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarines?

‘Nobody actually knows what the contents say,’ reveals Lovell. ‘But Boris will have written a letter – every PM does – to say what he wishes the CO to do in the event that London’s nuked and there’s no communication.’

You would keep a body in the freezer

So what would happen if someone died while on patrol, which generally last around three months? The correct answer was briefly alluded to in Vigil.

‘In my days it was highly unlikely that a death would have required the submarine to break patrol; there are cases of deaths where the body was stored in the vessel’s deep freeze food compartment until return to base!

‘When I say deep freeze, it’s a whole compartment. So once you’ve had a couple of weeks eating your way through the steaks and the fish, then you’ve probably got a bit of room to store a body.’

And what about Vigil’s decision to store Burke’s body in the torpedo tube as the next best conditions, outside a freezer?

Lovell sees that as a ‘reasonable’ solution: ‘They do put stuff in the torpedo tubes if they’re not in use for torpedoes. It can be a wet and sort of claggy environment. They don’t put stuff up there as a general rule, but it is probably not a bad environment to keep it [the body] in.’

Leaving the torpedo tube door open

When Silva comes in to investigate Burke’s body in ‘the bomb shop’, the rear door of the torpedo tube is left open after his body is removed ‘like it was your back door’.

Of the ‘very casual approach’ Lovell explains: ‘The rear door requires permission to be opened and would be shut immediately to maintain watertight integrity. It wouldn’t be left open while they chatted!

He continued: ‘There are two doors to keep the water out. You’ve opened one, so there’s only one [left shut] so if hydraulics fail and the outer door opens, you’ll sink the submarine!’

Silva’s top bunk

Lovell reveals that guests – which realistically just means people training or intelligence gathering who are not part of the complement crew, rather than police detectives – would actually be on the torpedo rack rather than in a bunk!

He explains: ‘There are normally not enough bunks in the submarine for the amount of people it carries. I think at the start, they said 140 men and eight women; that would be pretty realistic number.’

But for those additional crew, their bed is as literal as it sounds.

‘Basically, a bunk is strapped to the torpedo rack and they lie on top of the torpedo – that’s very commonplace.’

Chemicals on a submarine

After spraying a chemical, Silva is able to detect the presence of blood at the crime scene as part of her investigation. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be nearly that easy in real life.

‘No chemicals would be permitted to be sprayed, the atmosphere is recycled continuously, filtered and monitored. Many substances are banned from being brought onboard.’

Reactor scram

The final moments of Monday’s episode show a reactor scram, which happens when the rods and the reactor drop into the reactor and stop the new nuclear fusion process, stopping the generation of steam and, therefore, the submarine’s propulsion.

With all the flashing red lights, the submarine plunging downwards and panicked faces of the cast, it makes the situation look like a very serious emergency – but it’s a lot calmer in real life, and something that crews drill.

Lovel explains: ‘The submarine will come to a shallower depth, on battery power, and reduce electrical power until main nuclear power is restored.’ 

He likens it to attempting to preserve battery in an electric car by turning off the lights, for instance.

‘With the alarm going and the red lights flashing and the term ‘reactor scram’, it made the boat look very panicky, but it’s not like that at all,’ he shares. ‘We do shut the reactor down at sea, practising. But it’s a calm drill.

‘But obviously, I guess people link red lights with a reactor and “My god, we’re all going to die!” It’s a serious problem, but it’s not like everything goes into a flat spin. It’s very controlled.’

Vigil continues on Monday at 9pm on BBC One.

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