HMS Death Trap – life on board one of the Royal Navy's Trident submarines

“My name is William McNeilly. I am an Engineering Technician Submariner for the UK's Trident II D5 Strategic Weapons System. I sent this report on the 05/05/15 to every major newspaper, freelance journalists, and whistle-blower I could find”.

So begins an explosive account by a junior sailor revealing the full, formidable extent of the problems the Royal Navy faces in undertaking 'Operation Relentless' – the enterprise to ensure that a nuclear armed submarine remains at sea, able to fire its missiles, at any time.  William McNeilly's 18 page account tells the story of life on board HMS Vanguard, one of the Navy's Trident submarines, during a patrol in the North Atlantic.  It is a dramatic and frightening tale of faulty equipment, poor security, and safety blunders that, were they not so serious, almost enter into the realms of farce.  A weapons compartment is accidentally flooded by an operator error; meat dumped in a skip is loaded onto the submarine for consumption by the crew; toilets and drinking water supplies don't work; and to top it all, the submarine is unable to complete a critical test to demonstrate that it would actually be able to launch its missiles.

McNeilly's account is certainly not going to win the Nobel Prize for literature, but it nevertheless deserves reading.  What he saw shocked him so much that he felt he had to break the law and reveal the scandalous conditions on the submarine to the public and politicians.  He has published his report on the internet and is now believed to be outside the UK, absent without leave from the Navy and expecting to be arrested on his return.

One of his main concerns is the lack of attention given to the risk of a fire on board the submarine.    He tells of how a fire control chief recounted an incident when a fire had broken out when the submarine was berthed because toilet rolls had been “stacked from deck to deckhead” beside electrical cabling which generated heat.  Almost every portable fire extinguisher on board was needed to put the fire out, and “the chief said if it had been at sea there would've been about 50 dead bodies on 3 deck because of the amount of people struggling to find an EBS [emergency breathing system] coupling in order to breath [sic]”.  Despite the fire rubbish was still stored in unsuitable locations, creating a fire hazard, and “in numerous compartments on the boat you'll find plastic bags filled with rubbish sitting on top, underneath and beside electrical cables and equipment that generates heat”.  Beds for trainee crew members were set up blocking access to a major hydraulic isolation and  electrical switchboards - “three things that we need to gain access to in an emergency”.

McNeilly reports that the pressure in gas bottles containing nitrogen gas, used as a drench to extinguish serious fires in the submarine missile compartment, fell below the specified pressure needed to safeguard the drench facility.  The reaction of his superiors was “there's nothing we can do whilst we're the on-patrol SSBN”.

He explains that firefighting equipment is removed from the submarine while is is docked so that is can be stowed at the berth to allow firefighters access from outside the submarine in the event of an emergency, and tells what happens when he suggests that a better idea would be instead to provide two sets of equipment.  “How about having sets onboard and sets at the fire dump for re-entry”, he asks.  “I said that to a PO [Petty Officer] and his response was “it's a good point, they probably don't do it for money reasons.””    

Another sailor told McNeilly about a flood which had occurred in Vanguard's DC electrical equipment space, when “the whole back section was submerged in electrified water, from the 10 kW motor generators”.  The same sailor criticised a “new safety culture” which has led to a relaxation of emergency exercises, and no longer requires the crew to undertake fire drills blindfold.  “This means most people aren't prepared to be blinded by smoke, which is what happens in a real incident on a submarine”.  

McNeilly's account of how one minor accident was dealt with sums up his view of safety standards on board the submarine.  During a clean up of acid spilt from a battery a trainee submariner “nearly blinded someone by throwing a rag at his face.  The rag just missed his eye, but that was enough to irritate it enough for him to require medical assistance from the doctor.  The incident highlighted a “lack of concern for safety”.  There was “no safety brief, the appropriate PPE [personal protective equipment] wasn't worn and a careless action was performed."

McNeilly claims he has raised concerns about the safety and security of the Trident weapon system through the chain of command on “multiple occasions”, but “not once did someone even attempt to make a change”.  He now feels the only choice he has is to “ignore the threat or risk everything I have to inform the Government and the people”.

Good luck to him.


Grateful thanks to William McNeilly for revealing this information which has put his career and his freedom at risk. I will watch with interest how the Royal Navy deals with him when he is apprehended and hope that I will be able to send him messages of support if he is incarcerated.

There goes a fine line between ones own confidence on one side and the need and right to use that confidence to override rules laid out by the Military to protect highly confidential matters, such as the technicalities of the Trident nuclear subs. The William McNailly case has a certain parallel to the 1982 Government Communications Headquarters GCHQ case were employees complained to the Staff of lax security but got no response. A translator at GCHQ, Mr. Alex Lawrie who had worked there 22 years, told reporters "that security was just about sufficient to hold a drunk person at bay." Theft of personal belongings among employees was missing in the morning after cleaning personnel had finnish their work. "We complained" they said, "but was told that Security wasn't responsible for personal belongings. "But they missed the point," one of the employees said, "It became impossible to convince the higher ups that this was a serious breach of GCHQ's security. Then the story of Geoffrey Prime blew wide open. Mr. Prime was translator working in the secretive Department "J", were they translated Signal Intelligence from East Block countries. Here, in the most secret of the Departments Mr. Prime had free reins to collect top secret information which he gave to the Russians during a fourteen year period. In an article for a Norwegian Business magazine I wrote at the time of the case, I concluded that it was a layer of half bureaucrats, a certain gray eminence, which together had made it possible to lax security at GCHQ and made it possible for Mr. Prime to betray his Country and NATO. William McNeilly must have seen something which bothered him deeply. And what is even more disturbing is that it seems as he had no one inside Admiralty to go to with his story, no one to sit down with in confidence who would listen seriously to what he had to tell. The Trident organization itself has shown a serious flaw and a disturbing neglect and willingness to address what Mr. McNeilly ha brought to light.

Has this gone to the national press and been published by any paper? If not, why?

Add new comment