WEB SPECIAL - An interview with Commander Steve Waller

WARSHIPS IFR Editor Iain Ballantyne talks to Commander Steve Waller, captain of the veteran British nuclear-powered attack submarine HMS Sceptre about her final deployment and long career.

Sceptre

Above: HMS Sceptre begins her passage through Plymouth Sound as she comes back to the UK for the final time after her 32-year career. Photo: Nigel Andrews.

She is the oldest nuclear-powered submarine in the Royal Navy, so, bearing in mind her recent refit, how did Sceptre fare materially in the twilight months of her career?

“Sceptre is a testament to the quality and expertise that is available in British shipbuilding. Just like any complex piece of machinery we have had mechanical problems and they have been mainly due to wear and tear of use. I like to think of Sceptre, and indeed the Swiftsure Class within the RN on a par with a Hurricane fighter. The Trafalgar Class subs are younger and in some senses better equipped, like the Spitfire, but we have been the workhorses of the Fleet and have been the backbone of the submarine Flotilla for the last 30 years. This would not have been achieved if the crews had not taken such good care of the Swiftsures and the shipwrights had not been so diligent.”

How did Sceptre’s taskings on her final deployment contrast with the sort of missions she might have undertaken at the beginning her long and illustrious career?

“Sceptre was conceived and designed in a different age and her sole purpose was as a Cold War Warrior. As a hunter-killer submarine she could have been tasked to protect the nuclear deterrent. And of course she has always been an ideal platform for gaining what we call Indications and Warnings. Most of the above skill sets are still practiced; however the introduction of TLAM has caused a real change in philosophy as to the deployment and use of an SSN.”

Is there a sense of sadness among your sailors about the life of Sceptre coming to a close? What are your feelings about that?

“Yes. We all knew this time would come but it doesn’t make the fact that we will be paying her off any easier. Many of the crew are die-hard S-boat veterans who have moved from boat to boat in the Swiftsure Class as they have decommissioned and this is the last one. It is time to decommission her; it would cost a lot of money and effort to keep her running: it does not represent value for money. I will be sad to see her go. She has been my mistress for the last three years much to my wife’s annoyance. When she goes I lose my Command - I think the loss will be an emotional time. I know that may sound extreme, but this is all I have ever wanted to do in the last 20 years. I think some of the boys will feel the same, especially the Senior Rates.”

Any final thoughts on Sceptre, your time in command, her Ship’s Company and her career past and present?

“I can vividly remember walking down an icy path to the submarine berths in Faslane on a very cold December morning in 2007 and getting my first glimpse of the boat.  The casing was still wet and the sun had just come up. The casing had a golden glow about it. She didn’t look like she was in her 30s but brand new and I had an immense feeling of pride knowing that I would be her last Captain. However, the real and important issue is that without her crew she is just a metal shell. The Ship’s Company have given her life and give her a living character.  I have been extremely proud of my Ship’s Company throughout all we have endured, and although it is not the same as being sat in a trench in Afghanistan, our role is still one that has its hazards and risks and we should not forget that. There is a special bond between all submariners around the whole world as they understand what it is like to be a submariner and, as I look around the control room every face I see tells some story as to how being on deployment has affected people and helped them grow as a person. It is difficult to describe the bond that is created in a submarine - but it is tangible and very robust. When we disband for the last time I have no doubt that there will be many life-long friendships that will continue to flourish, all from serving on what I believe is the best submarine in the RN.”

Sceptre 2

The Sceptre’s bridge team, including her Commanding Officer, Cdr Waller, right of image. Photos: Nigel Andrews.

• For the full version of this interview, buy the July 2010 edition of WARSHIPS IFR now!