Stephen Stewart, Daily Record
5 March 2018
He had his finger on the nuclear button, ready to unleash World War III.
Now, former Faslane Commodore Eric Thompson – who commanded five nuclear submarines during his career – has lifted the lid on the chilling secrets of the Cold War.
Eric revealed that the frontline subs were issued with a secret letter from the prime minister to be opened in the event of nuclear armageddon.
The note – which was kept in a safe on board – would tell the crew to either retaliate by launching a cataclysmic nuclear strike or stand down. Thankfully, Eric never had to open his letter.
Eric, who was born in Coatbridge, won a scholarship to Britannia Royal Naval College Dartmouth at 16. He served as an engineer officer before going on to submarines.
Nearly 40 years later, he retired as Commodore of Faslane, Britain’s principal nuclear submarine base.
Among the dangers of the Cold War, Eric also shares some funnier times
He said: “Britain’s nuclear deterrent Polaris submarines were continuously at 15 minutes’ notice to launch a nuclear counter-strike on Russia in response to any Soviet nuclear strike against the UK.
“As I served in Polaris submarines during this period, I can testify to our readiness being a grim but effective reality. On taking office, every prime minister selects three nuclear deputies from his or her ministers.
“They are appointed to take over the firing decision should the prime minister be killed.
“If London had been reduced to rubble, there was a risk the prime minister’s firing order could not be sent.
"To deal with this possibility, every new prime minister writes a personal sealed letter addressed to the Polaris submarine commanding officers and it is carried on board the submarines on patrol.
“In these letters, the prime minister gives instructions to the commanding officers on what to do if all normal communications are lost – ‘lost’ being taken as four hours with nothing heard.
“This is called the letter of last resort and, sometimes, the letter from the grave. It is kept in a safe within a safe in the submarine control room. One such letter was held in my submarine, HMS Revenge.
“As far as I know, no prime minister’s letter has ever been opened, nor have the contents of any ever been disclosed but the possible options are obvious – retaliate, do not retaliate, seek refuge in a friendly country, or ‘you decide’.
"These letters are destroyed without being opened every time the prime minister changes.”
Eric served in five submarines, two squadrons, the staff of Submarine HQ and the Ministry of Defence. His MBE was awarded for leadership during a submarine emergency on patrol.
He would often have to go on a 10-week nuclear deterrence patrol on a sub with no contact from the outside world. In his new book, he argues that nuclear weapons were directly responsible for the avoidance of World War III.
He said: “Perhaps we should indeed thank God for the 73 years we have enjoyed without a Third World War.
“Kim Jong-un could fill the streets of Pyongyang with nuclear weapons but all he would achieve is the economic ruin of his country. We’ve been here before – that’s what finally cracked the Soviet regime. If Jong-un was to use his nuclear weapons, his regime would be wiped out. He knows that.”
Eric stokes controversy in his book by claiming Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn could leave Britain’s defences vulnerable.
He wrote: “In 2015, Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong nuclear activist and one-time vice chairman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, became leader of the Labour Party.
"Were he to be elected as prime minister, he could, hypothetically, select the ‘do not retaliate’ option. If a potential aggressor were to be aware of this, our independent nuclear deterrent would have lost all credibility.
“From a national security point of view, the content of the letter of last resort must never be revealed. Potential enemies must always believe that intolerable nuclear retaliation will be the inevitable consequence of their own first strike.”
Eric, who was widowed in 2005, has two adult sons and lives near Helensburgh. He said one of the greatest vices of his career was practical joking.
He said: “I had brought some exploding cigar tips for insertion in the wardroom panatelas that were passed round after mess dinners.
"One night, I snuck the wardroom cigar box into my cabin, removed two panatelas from their tubes, unwrapped their cellophane, inserted the explosive tips and returned the box to its cupboard.
“The trick worked to perfection. At the Trafalgar Night dinner, there was a small explosion as the end of the executive officer’s cigar blew off in mid-puff, leaving him sucking on a tattered stump.
“The other spiked cigar was either not smoked or failed to explode. I had not considered that at the end of our patrol, we would be handing the boat over to the other crew, including the cigar box.
“A tradition of the deterrent programme is that a VIP meets every returning nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine in the Clyde estuary and rides it back to Faslane.
“VIPs range from the prime minister down to senior admirals. Another tradition is that after lunch, the VIP is invited into the captain’s tiny cabin for coffee and a cigar.
“Four months later, the captain of the other crew was entertaining his VIP guest, the commander-in-chief, in the privacy of his cabin when the end of the great man’s cigar exploded.
“Until writing this book, the perpetrator of that joke has never been identified. In military speak, it’s called, ‘Third party targeting’.”