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HMS Upholder
Upholder Class
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Upholder Class
Upholder (S40)
Unseen (S41)
Ursula (S42)
Unicorn (S43)

Upholder Class

1990 - 1994

HMS Upholder was the first of an entirely new class of diesel-electric submarine to be built for the Royal Navy. It was intended that the Upholder Class would be in service with the RN well into the next century, gradually replacing their predecessors, the Oberon Class.

Upholder Cutout

Originally it was intended to build seven of the class but only four were produced.

First of class HMS Upholder
  • Upholder
    Built by VSEL, Barrow. First of 2400 class. Launched by Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent on 2nd December 1986. After much deliberation she was allowed to sail under Wanklyn's crest instead of the official one. Commissioned on 9th June, 1990. Paid off 1994. Mothballed at Barrow.
  • Unseen
    Built by Cammell Laird, Birkenhead. Launched Nov 1989, commissioned Summer 1991. Paid off 1994. Mothballed at Barrow.
  • Ursula
    Built by Cammell Laird, Birkenhead. Commissioned May 1992. Paid off 1994. Mothballed at Barrow.
  • Unicorn
    Built by Cammell Laird, Birkenhead. Launched April 1992. Paid off 1995. Mothballed at Barrow.

The Upholder design benefited considerably from the research and development programme carried out for the Royal Navy's nuclear-powered Fleet Submarines. The hull form, in particular, embodies features, which have been derived from the extensive hydrodynamic testing carried out in connection with these latest-generation SSNs.

The two subs here are Osiris and Unicorn, the O Boat is being taken apart as spares for the Canadians, Unicorn is either getting ready for trials or just back from them, the dock is 5 dock, just over the wall from the Birkenhead Priory.


The propulsion system comprises two high-speed diesel engines, each of which is coupled to a 1.4 MW generator, and a double-armature main motor, which drives a single propeller. The generators can be used either to provide power to the main motor directly or to charge the boat's main battery.

With two motors on a common frame driving a single propeller. It is conceivable that in future they could be fitted with fuel cell technology (Air Independent Propulsion).

Tactical Weapons System

Upholder has six bow-mounted weapon discharge tubes, each capable of discharging dual-purpose wire-guided heavyweight torpedoes, anti-ship missiles and submarine mines.

HMS Upholder entering Walney Channel. The new dock gates to accommodate Trident were under construction in the background

Command System

A fully integrated computerised sonar suite provides long-range detection and attack capabilities. Information from the sensors is digitally processed and passed by link to a central Action Information Organisation (AIO) computer, where it is displayed in a coherent form for the Command Team.

The system also processes visual data from the periscopes, information from the radar and ESM masts and manual inputs such as navigational data.


The external communications system provides reception facilities across a wide spectrum of radio frequencies, and transmission within the military, HF, VHF and UHF bands.


The maximisation of remote control and automatic surveillance systems has resulted in a reduction of the Ship's Company from 120, for a similarly equipped SSN, or 75 for the much more labour-intensive Oberon Class, to a total of 47 - comprising 7 Officers, 16 Senior Ratings and 24 Junior Ratings.

During the design phase, considerable emphasis was placed on improvements to the living standards onboard.

The Upholder Fiasco.

HMS Upholder

The defence cuts were initially aimed at saving revenue for the Treasury. Then the concept at making the Royal Navy leaner and fitter with a further round of reductions to men and equipment was announced in the Front-line First' review of 1992.

To many serving in the fleet it now appeared that anything which was not cost effective' or productive' was a potential candidate to be retired or sold-off. The exception everyone presumed was, of course, new vessels including the Upholders - but even they tell victim.

While many people may not agree with the decisions to sell various warships to Pakistan, India, Chile and Brazil, they can often accept the financial reasons for disposing such ships, which due to their age would clearly cost more to maintain and refit as the years passed.

But nobody, including Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward, could understand why the brand new Upholder submarine squadron was withdrawn from service and listed for sale in what must surely be the most 'questionable' Government decision in respect of equipment procurement for the Royal Navy in the past 50 years.

The boats were ordered after the Falklands War with a detailed study to find a new generation of conventional class submarine, with an enhanced capability to detect and classify subsurface contacts, as well as being available to mount inshore operations in shallow water, in support of the Navy's special forces.

Vickers, won the contract and were able to integrate construction features of their Trafalgar class SSNs into the Upholder design and in 1986 the first of the new class was launched at Barrow in Furness. Fitted with sensors and all the computer power of a nuclear submarine she was described at the time as a technology leap forward for the Royal Navy'.

HMS Ursula

But within months it was soon revealed that HMS Unseen, the first of class, had problems with her bow doors. Water had poured in during trials off the west coast of Scotland when the tubes were opened. This problem' later transpired to be a design fault which prevented Unseen from firing any missile or torpedoes.

When HMS Unseen eventually entered service in 1989, she was already a year late into service and had the distinction of being the first fighting vessel to join the fleet which could not, albeit for technical reasons, fire a shot in anger - her doors were sealed awaiting a refit to repair the problem.

At the time the Government had plans to build seven Upholders, but the initial option was scrapped and finally just four entered service. Projected in service completion costs had been forecast at £500 million. But by the time all four had undergone a refit to rectify the tube problem', the figure soared to £900 million.

In 1992 it was announced that the entire Upholder squadron would be retired from service and listed for sale - despite the fact that two of the four vessels had only just entered service (HMS Ursula and HMS Unicorn), while HMS Unseen and HMS Unseen had not been deployed in any operational roles.

These vessels are packed with technology and are still widely regarded as being among the best of their type in the world, but despite serious misgivings from senior officers concerned about the decision to sell off the Upholders, they were withdrawn and berthed at Barrow in Furness to await a buyer.

Ironically the Royal Navy now has to enlist the help of the Dutch, Spanish and other NATO countries to supply conventionally powered boats to support the fleet's Flag Officer Sea Training (FOST) packages at Plymouth so that RN ships can exercise anti-submarine warfare tactics. 

Upholder passing through the Thames Barrier


In 1998, after much speculation the Upholder Class were sold to Canada and a programme of reactivation began at the Barrow yard. The first vessel to receive the attentions of the yard was HMS Unseen which will take on the mantle of first of class when commissioned as HMCS Victoria.

The collection of photographs to the right shows HMS Unseen being lifted out of the water and moved inside the huge Devonshire Dock Hall for her six month long docking period.

The Hall was initially built to support the Trident Submarine programme and it includes Workshops, Offices, Machine Shops, Pipe Manufacturing Facilities and just about everything else the shipbuilder needs in one location. Thus the majority of the tasks required to reactivate the boats is undertaken during this period ashore.

There is a Canadian Naval tradition of naming vessels after Canadian communities to establish a tangible and enduring link between the Canadian Navy and and its people.

The criteria for the selection of names for the subs was further refined to consider communities that have an association with the Atlantic/Pacific coasts or a major Canadian waterway. Thus four Canadian port cities were selected.

This will also enable the Canadian Navy to foster strong ties with these communities and the surrounding regions.

The full transformation proceeded as follows:

Build Order
Unseen Victoria
Unicorn Windsor
Ursula Cornerbrook
Upholder Chicoutimi


The Upholder Badge

original Choosing a crest and motto for a ship or submarine is a complex and very formal process that involves the deliberations of the Royal College of Arms, the Ship Naming Committee and final ratification by the Ministry of Defence.

The design chosen for HMS Upholder in 1941 showed a caryatid - a draped female figure used as a adopteddecorative feature for columns or supports in classical Greek architecture - or as Lt Cdr Wanklyn, Upholder's Captain, described it, 'an armless Greek bint standing in a dustbin'.

The crest under which Upholder eventually sailed was Wanklyn's own design and highly unofficial.

The new HMS Upholder was originally presented with the official design but, after lengthy discussions, has been allowed to revert to Wanklyn's crest.

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