: its evolution 1917-2017 and the Submarine Commanding Officer

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The Royal Navy’s Submarine Command Course, or ‘Perisher’, is a unique course, training, assessing and qualifying officers for submarine command. Submarine command is unique, challenging and demanding; the epitome of mission command, with no succour, referral or support in an environment that is also unique. It is therefore essential that those ‘in command’ are proven to be worthy and capable of their appointment. Perisher has assured that capability for over 100-years and this thesis aims to reveal Perisher’s heretofore unresearched, unwritten and thereby unknown history of evolution that has enabled its success. The focus is the submarine commanding officer or CO and because the submarine is also the epitome of technical innovation, the nexus between innovation and the CO is integral. To colour-in the blank historical canvas the thesis starts with original research into the culture of the Submarine Service, what is meant by being ‘in command’ of a submarine, including its modus operandi under mission command, and defining Perisher’s aims and objectives.

The evolution of Perisher is in recognisable periods, reflected in the thesis chapters. The earliest days following the submarine’s introduction into the Royal Navy, when submarine command was an autodidactic existence with COs learning from their peers and by experimentation, provides the background to the First World War. By 1917 circumstances had conflated to create the Periscope School and the Periscope Course to train and qualify COs. By the end of the war the CO’s characteristics, which continue today, were fully formed. The early part of the 1919-1939 interwar period, was a difficult time, but one that saw many CO-generated innovations. The later part saw new submarines and technological innovations just in time for the Second World War which was to prove the most intense evolutionary period for Perisher as it responded with alacrity to wartime demands by being shortened, moving to Scotland, and expanding to two parallel 10-week courses. The post-1945 to 1969 period saw Perisher provide many other navies with COs, notably the Australians, Canadians and Dutch. It also saw two evolutions, the first, perhaps more of a revolution, was in 1968 when Commander Sandy Woodward codified the art of attacking with arithmetical-based methods and secondly, the emphasis began to evolve from purely ‘periscope eye’ attacking toward the development of a sense of safety and tactical prowess in students. The evolution enabled a more exacting test of a student’s ability to cope with pressure and stress, allowing him to exhibit decision-making abilities while stretching his risk-taking to learn his limitations. In the 1970s-1980s, two parallel courses satisfied the demand for COs from an expanding diesel-nuclear submarine fleet using SSKs and then in 1989, an SSN. Along the way, Perisher’s Shibboleths are explored. The final evolutionary period, 1990-2017, was a long one that continues today. The major evolutions in the 1990s were the all-nuclear Perisher, following the demise of the Royal Navy’s diesel submarines, and an adjusted selection process and curriculum to meet the requirements of a reducing all-nuclear submarine fleet, a changing battlespace, new weapons and tactics, and the influence of societal change.

Throughout, the thesis demonstrates how Perisher has shaped the submarine commanding officer and he, in return, has shaped Perisher. Its contribution to the understanding of submarine command opens possibilities for further study of both culture and command at similar levels of responsibility of which there is presently a lacuna.
Date of Award1 Apr 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorMarcus Faulkner (Supervisor)

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