Upholder Class, the `grand fiasco` of the last British conventional overseas patrol submarines

It was originally intended that the last conventional submarines to serve in the Royal Navy would be the Oberon class. After all, nuclear submarines were bigger and faster with a far greater endurance. However conventional submarines still had a role in the post war era: being smaller and quieter they were more suited to work in coastal or shallow waters as required for `cloak and dagger` operations.

During the Falklands conflict HMS Onyx demonstrated this role. British nuclear fleet submarines (SSNs) were produced slowly and at great cost and therefore in small numbers, so the navy reevaluated its decision and design work on a new class of conventional submarine began in the late 1970s. As replacements for the Oberon and Porpoise Classes, they would supplement nuclear submarines by patrolling the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom gap against Soviet submarines from the Northern Fleet, releasing nuclear submarines for more pressing tasks.

Barrow based shipbuilders VSEL (Vickers Shipyard & Engineering Limited) had privately designed a conventional submarine, dubbed Type 2400 (as they had a submerged displacement of 2,400 tones), in the hope of selling it to foreign navies. This design was used as the basis for the Upholder Class. The 1981 Defense Review stated "We will proceed as fast as possible with a new and more effective class to replace our aging diesel-powered submarines". The lead yard, Vickers, was awarded the contract for the nameship, Upholder, in November 1983. Orders for the second, third and fourth units were placed in January 1986 with Birkenhead based shipbuilders Cammell Laird. It was originally envisaged that with a building rate of one per year the Upholder Class could consist of as many as 19 boats, with later vessels forming an improved second and third batch. It was also hoped like the Oberon Class, the Type 2400 could be successfully marketed overseas.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War had far reaching consequences for the Royal Navy. There was no longer the need for the existing level of anti-submarine operations in the North Atlantic. As part of the defense cuts in 1993 the Navy faced a choice: either retaining the four Upholder Class patrol submarines and loosing two attack submarines or axing the Upholders and saving the nuclear submarines. The latter option was chosen and all four submarines, Upholder, Ursula, Unseen and Unicorn, were decommissioned at Devonport and later mothballed at Barrow-in-Furness.

The British government was understandably keen to sell these submarines and on April 1998 the Canadian government announced the lease of the four Upholders in order to replace Canada`s three British built Oberon submarines. Upholder class would become the Victoria class with each boat bearing the name of a Canadian port- Chicoutimic, Victoria, Cornerbrook and Windsor.

Since loosing the Upholders, the Royal Navy now operates an entirely nuclear powered submarine force.

Specifications, Upholder class/Victoria class:
The Upholder class is a relatively conventional SSK design, single hull double deck. Upholders shared a greater resemblance to the streamlined, hydrodynamic hull first modeled by the USS Albacore. When designing the Upholder Class Vickers included many innovations and improvements taken from the Trafalgar class SSNs as well as the Oberon Class.

Displacement (srf/sub tons):
Dimensions (L*B*D meter): 70.3*7.2*7.6
Propulsion: diesel electric, 2*3,600hp Paxman Valenta 16SZ diesel engines with two 2.8MW Alsthom alternators and an Alsthom motor rated at 5,350hp, single shaft
Speed (srf/sub knots):
Range (srf/sub n/miles@knots): snorting 8,000@8/380@4 or 230@8
Diving depth (feet): 650
Complement: 7 officers 40 enlisted
Missile: Mc Donnell Douglas Sub Harpoon, sub-launched anti-ship missiles
6*21" (533 mm) bow torpedo tubes, total of 18 torpedoes or missiles
Mines: in lieu of torpedoes
Armament: none


Pennant Number
Laid Down
VSEL (Barrow)
November 1983
December 2nd 1986
June 9th 1990
Cammell Laird, Birkenhead.
January 1986
November 14th 1989
June 7th 1991
Cammell Laird, Birkenhead.
February 1987
February 22nd 1991
May 8th 1992
Cammell Laird, Birkenhead.
February 1989
April 16th 1992
June 25th 1993

The six bow torpedo tubes were capable of firing Sub Harpoon missiles, Tigerfish and Spearfish torpedoes, or if necessary launching mines.
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