“It was 1988 – October the eleventh. That's a date I'll remember”.
Phill Jones chuckles as he recalls the night he and two other campaigners from Faslane Peace Camp pulled off a protest action the like of which no-one had ever achieved before – gaining entry to the control room of HMS Repulse, one of Britain's nuclear armed submarines. The protest revealed that, despite government claims to the contrary, it was possible for intruders to reach the most sensitive and heavily guarded areas at the heart of the UK’s nuclear weapons programme, and highlighted major security concerns at the Faslane base.
Jones had been living at Faslane Peace Camp, next to the home base for the Royal Navy’s Polaris submarines, for several years before the incident and along with other campers had broken into the base on a number of previous occasions. As a result of their actions security measures at the base had recently been upgraded.
“A year before they'd built a new super-fence at Faslane which they'd said was unclimbable and uncuttable. What we didn't realise was that the security sensors on the fence had been switched off that night as workers had been doing a job on it”.
That autumn night the campers had decided to try to undertake a non-violent direct action protest on a Polaris submarine which was in a dry dock at the base. One of the campers was going to try to swim to the dock, and Jones and two friends – Chipper Mills and Tony Vallance – were to act as a decoy, climbing the fence to draw attention away from the swimmer.
The three campers cut through the outer fence with bolt croppers without triggering the alarms, and then followed a drunken sailor down towards the heart of the base - “he was wearing a white leather jacket with tassels and cowboy boots, and swaying all over the road” - until the sailor used a pass card to get through a security turnstile and they were no longer able to follow him. At this point they decided to hand themselves in at the Faslane base police station. “We were about to go in and ask for directions, or something stupid like that, and I actually had my hand on the door and could see the police officers chatting inside, when I decided 'no, let's not make it too easy for them'”.
The three walked round the edge of the construction site for the new Trident training school where they found ladders which they used to climb over another fence. “While we were climbing Chipper got caught in the razor wire and just as we were trying to free him, a police van drove past at around five to ten miles per hour. They were so close I could recognise the police officers inside it. But they just blanked us – even though they were only the width of the pavement away from us they didn't spot us”.
They then crossed a jetty, where the same police van reappeared, catching them in its lights, and were spotted by workers on the base who mistook them for civilian crane operators - “even though it was the middle of the night and Valley had a 12 inch mohawk, Chipper was wearing a rainbow sweater and donkey jacket, and I had hair down to my shoulders”. They considered climbing one of the huge dockside cranes, but instead continued along a jetty to where one of the Navy’s conventionally-armed nuclear powered submarines was berthed. “There was a guy sitting on something like a copper water tank shouting to one of his colleagues, and we saw a red ribbon across the way and radiation symbols and signs, and realised this was a radiation zone for authorised personnel only. The workers saw us – we made eye contact – but they didn't say anything. I've no idea why they were working in the middle of the night – it wasn't any kind of emergency”.
The three protesters then made their way to the Green Area where Polaris submarines were berthed. They used bins chained to a gate to climb into the area, then heard shouting – which they later realised was armed Royal Marine guards raising the alarm after sighting them. “We could see the fin of a submarine there” said Jones. “It looked far bigger than it should have and there was a banner with the submarine's name – HMS Repulse – on the gangway leading up to the deck”.
Jones and his colleagues tiptoed up to a sentry box where the submarine's guards were smoking a cigarette together, and then ran onto the gangplank and onto the submarine's casement before they were spotted. “We could hear the sailors shouting 'Stop – you can't go up there', but we slid through a hatch and down a ladder into the submarine”, said Jones. “We found ourselves in a narrow corridor and pelted towards the control room, where I expected to be decked by a big hairy sailor.”
Instead he found a rating with his feet up on a console with a cigarette in his mouth and a can of beer in his hand reading a book. The startled sailor rolled of his chair, slipped everything into a bin, and came to attention in a single smooth motion - “he obviously thought I was the officer of the watch doing the rounds”.
“I said 'We're from the Peace Camp and we're hijacking this submarine. Take us to Cuba', and then they completely freaked. One of them called for help, saying 'Stevie, are you busy? Can you come here? I think we've got a problem.” A half-clad officer arrived, obviously having been roused from sleep, “and he was so startled and angry that his eyes were literally bulging out of his face.”
“We could see the joysticks used to control the submarine's hydroplanes and a pedestal for the periscope in the middle. In the corner was a shuttered plywood area, which was the chart room where the secret charts of the submarine patrol area were kept. I went in there to try to take a look at the charts but was bundled straight out in five seconds. We sat on the chairs in the control room while the crew made jokes about not touching any of the buttons, and drew peace symbols and anarchy signs on the consoles with a marker pen we had with us.”
The three were taken to the officers mess - “where there was a picture of the Royal Family on the wall – only it was the Spitting Image Royal Family, not a real photo” where they were held while arrangements were made to allow Ministry of Defence Police special permission to board the submarine to arrest them.
The base was locked down for over twelve hours while police and marines searched for other intruders who they believed had also entered the base but had not been detected, dropping stun grenades into the loch in attempts to flush them out. The story hit the front page of the tabloid newspapers in Scotland and Defence Secretary George Younger, attending the Conservative Party Conference in Brighton, was woken at 5 am to be informed about the incident.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was said to be furious about the affair. In reply to a letter about the incident from her Private Secretary, Charles Powell, she wrote the words "I am utterly horrified", and warned that the action by the peace campers had posed a "grave danger". Shortly afterwards the rules of engagement for guards at the Faslane base were rumoured to have been changed to allow them to shoot intruders on sight.
Jones, Mills, and Vallance were charged under military lands byelaws for entering a prohibited area, but, at a trial where they faced 23 prosecution witnesses, succeeded in challenging the byelaws and were found not guilty of any criminal offences. Others did not get off so lightly: ten Royal Naval and Royal Marines personnel were disciplined following the incident, including the Commodore in charge of the Faslane base and the commander of the squadron of Marines charged with guarding the submarine. It later emerged that standing orders about submarine security had not been followed that night: among other failings, the number of marines on guard was fewer than it should have been.
Despite the elements of comic farce in his story, Jones points out just how serious the incident was. “We managed to get into the control room of a fully armed British nuclear submarine. The IRA were very active at the time, and if we had been an armed group – which we could easily have been – we would have been in control of British nuclear weapons. It would have been very difficult for security forces to get back into the steel hull of the submarine to get to us. We couldn't have gone anywhere or fired the missiles, but it wouldn't have been hard to detonate the explosive propellant of a missile and make a very big bang.”
“They'd built a £10 million fence around the base but it didn't work. For me, the most serious aspect of the story was that two weeks later peace campers broke into the Coulport nuclear weapons store and managed to get up to the fourth level fence around the warhead stores. Nothing was learnt from what the three of us did.”
This interview is an excerpt from the forthcoming Nuclear Information Service report ‘Playing with Fire’ – a historical review of the accidents and security incidents which have befallen the UK’s nuclear weapons programme. The report will be published on this website on 22nd February.