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HM Submarine Courageous at sea in rough weather

HMS Courageous served the Royal Navy and the United Kingdom for 22 years from her commissioning in 1971 to her paying off, at Plymouth, in 1993.

Her fate was expected to be the same as her predecessors and it was planned for her to be defuelled and eventually scrapped. However, the MoD felt that it was important to demystify the nuclear submarines operated by the Royal Navy and to inform the public of their role. It was therefore decided to select one of the submarines earmarked for disposal and restore it to be placed on display. It was pure chance that HMS Courageous was the most recent boat to have undergone a hull and safety survey and she was therefore chosen to be the exhibited boat. There was considerable work to be conducted in order to make her fit for display and she was placed into a dry dock in Devonport's South Yard.

Work began and a team of volunteers came forward, many of them former crew members, to support the ongoing restoration. A great deal of work was carried out, and, to be honest, has continued ever since, to ensure that the boat was exhibited and provided a memorable experience for visitors. One of the problems which became apparent was the material condition of the caissoon (watertight, floatable gate which prevents water entering the dry dock). It was in such a poor state of repair that it needed to be replaced or repaired. The former option was prohibitively expensive and, therefore, the life of the caissoon was extended until the necessary work could be carried out. 

In order to carry out the work on the caissoon Courageous needed to be moved out of the dock and, in order to manage that, she had to undergo watertight testing. Once this was achieved she was moved into 3 basin where she remains to the current day. 

Visitor tours continued and excellent feedback was received from those who visited, however, the difficulty was always her location. As she was, and still is, within the secure area of the Royal Naval Dockyard, security clearance had to be obtained for all visitors and this took approximately a week to obtain. It was clearly unsatisfactory but, with the undoubted success of the boat as a display a solution was identified. 

A feasibility study was conducted and with the support of Plymouth City Council and the National Museum for the Royal Navy, (NMRN) it was proven that Courageous could be moved outside of the secure dockyard perimeter, into a purpose built Cold War Museum complex where Courageous would become the centrepiece of a multi exhibit experience. This project seemed to be forging ahead when Covid struck. The boat was prevented from opening to visitors, as were the museums operated by the NMRM. Local authorities were forced to spend vast amounts in Covid prevention measures and the project dropped down the list of priorities. The overall effect was such that, in the long run, the NMRN and other supporters decided that they were no longer able to support the project and it stalled and is currently in the balance.

HM Submarine Courageous in dry dock during her preparation for display as an exhibit
HM Submarine Courageous in 3 Basin in Devonport Dockyard

Courageous currently sits in 3 basin however, in the picture shown here she is looking sorry for herself. This is not her current state and, toward the end of Covid restrictions she was once again taken into dry dock where she underwent considerable maintenance, including repainting, restoration and preservation of damaged areas of the casing (upper deck) and, internally, she was brought up to the required health and safety standards with improved ventilation, low voltage safe lighting and other measures.

For the docking all internal exhibit items were removed by the volunteers who then replaced them after the boat returned to the basin.

Unfortunately, base security staff manpower levels currently mean that only personnel who hold a

current dockyard security pass are able to visit the boat. Negotiation and discussion is ongoing in

the hope that the boat can be opened to a wider audience in the near future. We will add updates in this page as and when they become available.


Ian Whitehouse, one of the main promoters of the project has offered the following update:




We re-opened the boat to visitors in May and tours are going ahead. Mark Portman is handling all enquiries and co-ordinating visits with sterling support from Tanya Eatwell. This work is not easy and it is time consuming, please bear with us as the new systems bed in.


Tours are only open to those that have, or can arrange, a dockyard pass. Essentially, military personnel, Babcock employees and contractors working in the yard or those from the wider MoD establishment with visiting rights.


Too many MoD establishments think we volunteers can handle all the admin for their visit – security passes, site induction and transport. This has placed an unreasonable burden on volunteers coordinating visits. We are now briefing all those enquiring that it is their responsibility to arrange these elements themselves. 


Opening to the general public is the priority. This not only fulfils the original remit of educating the public about submarines, submarine life, the submarine disposal programme and the Cold War but, importantly, it makes leading a tour fun and interesting for all; giving us the opportunity to spin dits and tell tall stories. Meeting the general public energises us as volunteers.


We need a support system if we are to open to the public, we cannot run the necessary administration using volunteers alone. What we want is a perfect solution, we are aiming for this but, as yet, cannot deliver it fully. It would involve a great website with embedded ticketing software, a paid employee to manage coordination and enquiries, a 12 seater minibus operated and driven entirely by CVGs (giving us control rather than relying on the RN transport system – often late or missing in action) and a simple, minimum hassle system to engage with the security staff to enable access at short notice. Some of these elements have been identified – we have a website designer in waiting, we have identified the ticketing software, discussions are underway with two organisations that might be able to take on the coordination and enquiry handling. We are investigating whether we can find a sponsor to finance the transport but the biggest challenge we face is how to resolve the tension between swift and easy access to the boat, required to attract the public, and the need to keep the base, dockyard, ships and personnel secure from the ill-intentioned.   We are in discussions with Base Security staff on this.

In the meantime, we are also working to create an archive of video interviews with Cold War submariners – if you’d like to be interviewed please make contact with the Courageous Volunteers team.

Birmingham University’s department of Multimedia Systems visited in May to capture the data necessary to create a Virtual Reality record of Courageous which will make the experience of visiting the boat available to a much wider audience. Ultimately, we hope to have VR headsets in the shoreside building so that those physically unable to get down into the boat can get a good feel for life aboard.


1.   Should any of the Courageous Association, or the wider submarine family wish to become involved – please do get in touch.


2.   If anyone has ideas on how we might progress our plans – do get in touch.


3.   If anyone knows of a company that might sponsor a bus for a year or so – do get in touch.




Ian Whitehouse

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