Daring to go Dutch
By Todd Cloutier, first published in the fall 2003 issue of the USN Undersea Warfare magazine.
Like a dream, this scene is familiar enough, but there are just enough differences to make one realize that “I’m not in Kansas anymore.” This is a vignette from on board the Dutch submarine Bruinvis during the Netherlands Submarine Command Course (NLSMCC), also known as PERISHER. Not to be confused with the SSN PERISHER course still run by the British Royal Navy (RN), NLSMCC maintains the original RN PERISHER curriculum using diesel submarines and shore facilities of the Royal Netherlands Navy (RNLN). It is run once yearly from the RNLN base at Den Helder, at the northernmost tip of Holland.
I was the second U.S. student to be sent to the NLSMCC, and I was more than a little apprehensive about it from the start. As a fellow participant recently noted, “This’ll be the first school I go to that I had read about even before I joined the Navy.” There’s a legendary reputation to overcome from the outset, as PERISHER is touted as perhaps some of the toughest training a submariner can get.
CAPT Mike Connor, the former Atlantic PCO Instructor, arranged for some additional preparation that I think made all of the difference in ensuring my success. The first introduction I would have to diesel submarines would not be in Dutch, but in Australian. In January 2003, I was sent to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) base, HMAS Stirling, near Perth for a three-week PERISHER introduction.
The Australians were generous hosts and went out of their way to make sure I was well prepared. I spent the first week with CDR Ian Salter, RAN, a served CO now on the squadron staff, who took the time to run me through basic periscope drills in “Brit-speak,” talked me through the PERISHER course expectations and inshore operations, and answered all of the questions I could muster. I also spent several hours in the attack center observing a Collins-class crew during their work-up so that I could become familiar with the routine in action.
Pictured here are… Top row: Course “Teacher” CDR Marc Elsensohn, RNLN; Middle row: LCDR Todd Cloutier, USN; LCDR Mark Hammond, RAN; LCDR Jeroen Van Zanten, RNLN;
Front row: LCDR Glen Miles, RAN; LT Brian Ottesen RDN.
For the second and third weeks, I was joined by the two RAN PERISHER students, LCDRs Glen Miles and Mark Hammond, both served-XOs on board Collins-class boats. We spent a week together practicing periscope safety runs in the trainer, then a week of inshore operations in which I was exposed to chart preparation, navigation, and the expected standards. LCDR Mark Potter, an Aussie graduate of NLSMCC 2002, ran a tight trainer, inserting “surprise” contacts, helos, reduced visibility, set and drift changes, and anything else he could imagine we would face later off the coast of Scotland. It was like drinking from the proverbial fire hose, but those three weeks likely made the biggest contribution to the successful outcome of my PERISHER experience. I had a lot more confidence facing a known challenge, vice a legend, and the bonds of friendship I formed with my fellow students proved particularly rewarding.
Fortunately, the NLSMCC course is run entirely in English except for one word, “Wegduiken!” which translates roughly to “Emergency deep!” Because PERISHER started as an RN course, the Dutch crews are all familiar with British orders and doctrine and have adopted them as their own. Like LCDR Steve Mack, who attended the RN PERISHER course last year, I had some adjusting to do in learning how to phrase my orders to avoid having the helm put the rudder over when I was actually making a target-bearing call, but Steve had warned me about this beforehand. [Ed. Note: See “PERISHER, Submarine Command Training in the Royal Navy,” in the Spring 2003 issue of UNDERSEA WARFARE.]
There is one more Dutch phrase that one must master to earn the respect of the crew – “Een Uit!” – pronounced AIN OUT – which gives permission for everyone to have one quick cigarette before things get busy again. This is critical to maintaining morale on a submarine where smoking is normally allowed nearly everywhere on board. When the attack team is stationed, the smoking lamp is out in the Control Room unless the Duty Captain can fit in an Een Uit. My Dutch PERISHER course lasted from early March until late June and was run under the watchful eye of “Teacher,” CDR Marc Elsensohn, RNLN, who had served as CO of a Dutch Walrus-class submarine, XO of an RNLN frigate, and in the RN equivalent of our TRE team. Our group consisted of officers from four nations: Holland, Denmark, Australia, and the United States.
The first half of the course in Holland was focused on Safety Training – what the RN calls “Eyes Only.” This consisted of periscope runs working up from one to five ships, along with all of the fun of juggling stopwatches, stadimeter ranging, and loads of mental gymnastics in calculating ranges and look intervals. I had thought that this would be the hard part of PERISHER, since it’s what everyone talks about, but it was more like a workup for the later, more important Tactical Phase. The Safety Phase made contact management and periscope handling almost a reflex, which later allowed us to focus on more important things like tactical decision making.
Photographed through the periscope, Dutch Royal Marines launch from the deck of HRMS Bruinvis during the tactical sea phase. SPECWAR launch and recovery was practiced repeatedly for a full day with two boat teams.
Similar to the RN practice described by Steve Mack in his earlier UNDERSEA WARFARE article on RN PERISHER, RNLN Submarine Service officers are categorized as either Engineering or Seaman Officers. The latter assume Navigator-of-the-Watch and Officer-of-the-Watch duties on a port and starboard watch bill until they make Executive Officer (XO). Thus, a Dutch Junior Officer (JO) with three years at sea is quite proficient with the periscope. During my familiarization ride on Bruinvis, I saw a non-qualified JO take the conn and conduct a task-group penetration against a multinational task force. It wasn’t perfect, but quite impressive for a JO with less than two years on board.
Early in the Safety Phase, the six PERISHER students spent significant time on the shore-based trainer, serving both as Duty Captains and rotating through all the other positions. This was quite a workout – we were each exposed to 50 trainer runs as Duty Captain during our four weeks. As the result of an automobile accident, one of the Dutch students had to drop out during this portion of the course. Since we had already formed a pretty tight team, his leaving hit the rest of us pretty hard. Our motto had been “Six in – six out,” and we regretted having to adjust it downwards this early in the game.
The Safety Phase concluded with a one-week underway off the coast of Norway, where we practiced periscope drills and several other scenarios with a Dutch frigate and a Danish frigate and patrol craft. Even with only three ships instead of the five we had faced in the trainer, it was still a lot harder due to the complexities added by real weather, sea state, actual stadimeter imaging, and pulling that heavy scope around without torque assist. At the end of the week, after executing 20 runs each at sea, we were all exhausted, but we returned to Holland full of bravado for starting the next phase – tactical operations in the trainer. These were half-day “mini missions” that required extensive chart preparations and ops briefs before the trainer sessions themselves. Again, we took turns at each watch station and conducted three operations each as Duty Captain. Over three weeks, we also made a variety of ASW, periscope-depth, and task-group penetration runs.
The course then took a “tactical pause” during which we were sent to Portsmouth, U.K. for two weeks of the Maritime Warfare Course to learn the RN Command Estimate model for operations planning. While the course was beneficial and gave us an opportunity to enjoy the company of the RN PERISHERs and several other submariners, we took advantage of the evenings to get ahead on chart preparations for the tactical sea phase and to enjoy a few local pubs.
Returning to Holland, we finished up the last few trainer sessions and final preparations for the tactical sea phase. The pressure had been building for months. This was it – the final test – but it was four weeks long! During that time, we rotated the role of Duty Captain (DCO) each night (unless Teacher changed his mind). One morning early in the underway, Teacher asked the designated DCO how much sleep he’d had. His answer of three hours wasn’t satisfactory, so Teacher had him stay on as DCO for another day. Lesson learned: Find the time to recharge your own batteries, too, since a tired captain is useless in battle.
As the only nuclear-trained student in the course, I was quite conscious of my lack of experience with diesel submarine battery operations. I spent quite a bit of time with a spreadsheet figuring out how I could get from point A to point B without leaving the battery flat. To up the ante, Teacher “took away” two of the three diesels to reduce the available charging rate, forcing us to plan in even more detail. Not surprisingly, I didn’t do too well initially and on my first attempt, turned over the boat in the right position at the right time, but with the battery insufficiently charged for subsequent operations. My spreadsheet hadn’t accounted for the current opposing my transit, and therefore, I paid the price of being humiliated at the turnover. It was a mistake I didn’t repeat!
The tactical at-sea phase incorporated several scenarios, beginning with inshore photo reconnaissance and sensor drops off the west coast of Scotland and in the Firth of Clyde. We did up to six operations per day, alternating DCO duties for each. The first time I brought the boat in for a photo recon at 1,600 yards from the target, the periscope view was quite shocking – I’ve had a lot of scope time, but not much that close to land!
The author, LCDR Cloutier, is pictured on the right serving as Duty Captain during a three-ship attack. LCDR Hammond is assisting as Attack Coordinator.
The second event was a TORPEX with an RN SSN engaged in their own PERISHER training, but this was severely limited by the prevailing heavy seas. We moved from there to the Joint Maritime Course (JMC), where we filled the gaps in the schedule with more practice at inshore operations, and then held a tracking exercise with the RN SSN. During the JMC, we lost another student, leaving four of the original six. This loss affected us much more than the first, given how close we were to the end. We all felt like we had failed a bit and redoubled our efforts for the remainder.
The final Inshore Weekend was both the capstone of the course and an opportunity to show our stuff. We were each assigned two missions (either periscope reconnaissance or a sensor drop) and a time window to conduct them such that our back-to-back operations went from Friday morning through Sunday afternoon. It’s also a bit of a show, since VIPs are embarked on Saturday to observe the day’s operations. We had three senior officers from the United States, Australia, and Holland to watch us in action. One of these, CAPT Ron Steed, USN, the new Atlantic PCO instructor, probably found it an eye-opening experience. Shallow water and high contact density take on an entirely new meaning in the Firth of Clyde during prime yachting weather! The other two observers seemed to be reliving their own PERISHER memories, as the students sweated bullets over periscope exposure while MERLIN helos hammered away with active sonar, and Duke-class frigates glided silently by.
The heavy weight I felt on my shoulders didn’t diminish until Sunday afternoon, when the remaining four of us – all decked out in our dress blues – were called, one by one, into the wardroom to meet with Teacher. Since I was still on board this late in the game, I had a pretty good idea that I’d passed, but when Teacher extended his right hand and greeted me with, “Congratulations, Captain,” I almost looked over my shoulder to see whom he was talking to.
The question that every Dutch sailor asked me was, “Why did you volunteer to go through PERISHER if it doesn’t get you a command?” My answers changed during the course. At first, I said, “For the sheer challenge of doing something difficult and for the thrill of something new.” As the course progressed, this became “To understand my own limitations and to do things in a submarine that I didn’t think could be done safely.”
Now, the fiery elation I felt on that final Sunday has faded to a warm glow that will remain with me for the rest of my life, just like the friendships forged on the course. I’ve learned some lasting lessons and identified some good practices that I assume will survive translation to nuclear submarining, as well as gaining an entirely new perspective on submarine command and the capabilities of a stealthy boat – regardless of its mode of propulsion. Most valuable of all, I’ve experienced the truth of that great quotation from Das Boot – “All you need is good people.”
It was challenging, intense, unique, fun, and immensely rewarding. To those of you offered the opportunity to take on PERISHER, either the RN or RNLN version, I say GO FOR IT!
LCDR Cloutier served on board USS Florida (SSBN-728), as Weapons Officer on USS Pittsburgh (SSN-720), and on the staff of COMSUBDEVRON TWELVE. His next assignment will be as Executive Officer of PCU Jimmy Carter (SSN-23).
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