A true one of a kind attraction: the world’s only former SLBM-carrying nuclear submarine that is open to the public, namely at the Cité de la Mer
naval museum in Cherbourg
, Normandy, France
More background info:
A major object of national pride for France
, “Le Redoutable” was the first nuclear submarine
in the "Force de frappe
" ('strike force'), as France's nuclear deterrent programme is informally known.
The 8000 ton massive sub, 420 feet (or 128 metres) long and over 30 feet (10 metres) in diameter, was designed and built in the 1960s and commissioned in 1971 as the first of a series of six boats forming the "Le Redoutable class". In 1991 it was also the first of these vessels to be decommissioned.
Until then it carried 16 SLBMs
(sea-launched ballistic missiles – cf. ICBM
) with nuclear warheads, which were updated to ever higher yields and longer ranges over the course of its 20 years in service, beginning with the M1 missile with a range of 1250 miles (2000 km) and a 450 kiloton warhead, and ending with the M20 missile with a 1 megaton warhead and a range in excess of 2000 miles (3000 km); but unlike the other boats of its class “Le Redoutable” was not upgraded to the M4 with MIRV warheads (multiple individually targetable re-entry vessels). Since 2008 all Redoutable class submarines have been decommissioned and have been replaced by the larger "Triomphant" class subs.
“Le Redoutable” had three decks and a crew of 120 plus 15 officers. In fact it had two crews who took turns, and in total the vessel spent almost 3500 days at sea, over 90% of that time diving, covering a total distance that’s the equivalent of travelling around the globe 32 times. In theory its range was unlimited, due to its nuclear propulsion, its on-board air-cleaning and oxygen-generating system as well as its seawater desalination plant, but food supplies limited the length of each patrol to ca. 70 days at a time before returning to the vessel’s home port at Île Longue near Brest in Brittany.
After decommissioning the vessel was donated
by the French defence ministry to the city of Cherbourg
, where the “Le Redoutable class” boats had been built. There it was eventually taken out of the water and placed in a purpose-built dry dock
. Before it could be put on public display, however, the section with the nuclear reactor
had to be removed
for safety reasons and was replaced with an empty steel section of the same size. Needless to say, the SLBMs were removed too. “Le Redoutable” opened
as the star exhibit of the Cité de la Mer
museum in 2002
Not only is “Le Redoutable” the largest (nearly) complete submarine open to the public, it’s the only one of this kind. This type is usually called SSBN (standing for ‘submarine’ or ‘submersible’, ‘ballistic missile’ and ‘nuclear-powered’), and it’s the most powerful weapon system ever conceived – capable of nuking at least 16 separate targets at the same time (modern SLBMs with MIRVs can even multiply that figure – so a single such submarine could basically take out an entire medium-sized country).
That this one is open to the public is quite remarkable, then, as regular civilians normally can’t get anywhere near any of these deadly monsters of the sea that to this day form the backbone of several nations’ nuclear deterrence arsenals
. In the case of the UK
SSBNs are now even the only form of nuclear weaponry that remains in service, whereas for the USA
(and on a smaller scale also China
) SLBM-carrying subs are one part of the “nuclear triad” (the other two being land-based ICBM
s and the air-dropped nuclear bombs and missiles of the Air Force
“Le Redoutable” is hence one of the world’s most pre-eminent attractions for any “nuclear tourist” or Cold-War
What there is to see: The first sight of this submarine is quite something – and size really does matter! “Le Redoutable” is huge – and given it’s out of the water in a dry dock so you can see the hull in its entirety (whereas afloat all submarines reveal only a small proportion of their full size) it’s even more impressive visually.
You can descend to the bottom of the dry dock and walk around the vessel close up, staring up at the 7-ton propeller at the rear or the rudders and the sail with the name of the ship on it. Along the walkway at the bottom are several information panels that explain the various sections of the sub. This is useful to know before going inside! The texts are bilingual in French and English translations that are not always spot-on or free of errors, but good enough to get the meaning. The panels also come with somewhat childish little cartoons likening the sub to a whale and such like … probably to keep the youngest visitors entertained (but note that under-five-year-olds are not allowed inside the sub).
You enter the interior of the submarine at the rear via a bridge and specially cut-out entrance. You can use an audio-guide, available also in English (as well as Dutch, Italian and Spanish), but since I’m not a big fan of these things I declined. Also I wanted to have my hands free for photography. So I cannot comment on the quality of the narration.
The first part you enter is the propulsion system section in the stern including the propeller shaft, the auxiliary diesel engines/batteries and rudder controls, as well as the electrical compartment. Dotted about are some signs that provide simple labels to parts of the technology, but no long explanatory texts. So unless you have a pretty good previous knowledge of the inner workings of such a submarine (or use the audio-guide), many things will remain a bit mysterious. I didn’t mind that. It’s part of the whole Sci-Fi-like mystique of such a huge piece of engineering.
In the next section you come to the control room for the sub’s nuclear reactor. Under the size-restrictions of such a vessel this room is obviously very different in appearance to the familiar look of a nuclear power plant control room with its large curved panels and control desks.
The actual reactor is missing, though, as this entire section was cut out before the submarine was turned into a museum ship. So you walk through an empty section that was welded into place in the reactor section’s stead. There’s a video screen that shows footage of the cutting out of the reactor and its replacement by the current dummy section.
Also near this section is the emergency escape hatch
and airlock … which could also be used by mini-submarines docking onto the lock to evacuate crew members should these otherwise not be able to get out. This brings back memories of the Russian
” that sank back in August 2000. The “Kursk” would have had such an escape hatch too, but no evacuation materialized after an explosion grounded the sub, and the survivors of the blast gathered in the rear under the escape hatch died a slow dark death while the Russian authorities delayed procedures for too long, trying to cover up the disaster …
The most unique highlight comes next: the missile tubes section! The two rows of 8 SLBM launching tubes each form the largest part of the sub. It’s quite eerie to walk straight past these containers of strategic nuclear weaponry and see the associated technology – from 1970s/80s electronics, with dials and displays marked with words like ‘danger’ and ‘anomalies’, and the command code control box, contrasting with manual levers (no idea what they’re for) and brass speaking tubes that look like ‘horns’, for old-school communication between separate sections of the sub and the bridge.
Behind SLBM tubes 15 and 16 you can take stairs up to the upper level to view the top part of the rows of missile launching tubes.
You then get to the “bridge”, the command centre of the whole sub. It’s lit up in red, as if under alert/combat conditions, which gives it an even eerier overall look. You can see walls full of electronic equipment, as well as various command & control stations, including a “tactic console”, the sonar station and a graph plotter table (for navigation, I presume), plus the bottom end of the periscope.
Stairs lead down to the sub’s living quarters. You can see the relatively comfortable officers’ cabins branching off a corridor, as well as the officers’ mess, complete with a very 1970s design and comfy chairs, a TV set and small library.
The boat’s infirmary and operating theatre are on the lower deck and visible only through a perspex glass section set into the floor.
You then get to the general crew’s living quarters
, washrooms, toilet and the crew’s mess and galley. The crew members slept in three-tiered bunks but with proper mattresses and bedding and they did not have to share bunks, so they had it much more comfy than the submariners in smaller subs or those of WWII
. Compared to that, such a large sub of the Cold War
had its advantages and creature comforts!
The final section is towards the bow and home to the torpedo store and torpedo tubes. A couple of torpedoes (probably dummies, one has to assume) are on display and you can look down one of the torpedo tubes whose rear hatch is left open. Looking up you can see the special hatches for loading torpedoes onto the submarine from the top.
On exiting the vessel at the bow you can see the space between the inner and outer hull – as with submarines in general, only the inner hull was pressurized and made of thicker steel. The outer hull gets flooded during diving and hence doesn’t need pressurizing or to be especially sturdy. This space between the hulls also holds the ballast tanks needed for diving.
After having explored the inside of the sub, you can further admire its gigantic size from the outside. A good vantage point is also the upper level of the old fort at the northern end of the quay.
And the submarines section
of the Cité de la Mer museum’s exhibitions
also covers “Le Redoutable” and its sister subs, as well as the whole history of submarines in general. Also featured here is a scale model of an SSBN of this type with an open side so you can inspect all the different sections that way too.
These are worthwhile add-ons, but overall
it is still the real thing, the actual “Le Redoutable” submarine that is by far the most impressive thing here. One of the top Cold-War
-and-beyond attractions in the world!
Access and costs: easy to find; a bit on the expensive side, but worth it.
See under Cité de la Mer
; the general admission price (currently 19 EUR for adults) includes “Le Redoutable”, no extra fee is charged.
Between 35 minutes (as recommended by the museum brochure, but that would be very rushed) and well over an hour and a half (at a more leisurely pace), depending mainly on your level of interest in the details of the sub. I spent one hour inside the sub alone, plus an extra half an hour or so for outside viewing from all angles … and of course you’ll need extra time for the rest of the Cité de la Mer
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Most obviously the rest of the Cité de la Mer
museum complex that “Le Redoutable” is part of, which includes a few dark bits as well, especially the “Titanic
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Parts of the Cité de la Mer
museum complex are not so dark in nature, for instance the aquarium. But these are also well worth seeing.
- Le Redoutable 01 - big boat
- Le Redoutable 02 - Cite de la Mer and harbour in the background
- Le Redoutable 03 - proud name
- Le Redoutable 04 - bow with torpedo tube hatches
- Le Redoutable 05 - stern section with rudders
- Le Redoutable 06 - big propeller
- Le Redoutable 07 - in full glory in its dry dock
- Le Redoutable 08 - inside
- Le Redoutable 09 - rear section
- Le Redoutable 10 - controls
- Le Redoutable 11 - crammed full with technology
- Le Redoutable 12 - big pipes
- Le Redoutable 13 - smaller pipes and plenty of cables
- Le Redoutable 14 - control room
- Le Redoutable 15 - escape hatch
- Le Redoutable 16 - control wheels
- Le Redoutable 17 - details
- Le Redoutable 18 - missiles section
- Le Redoutable 19 - vintage electronics
- Le Redoutable 20 - you would hope for fewer anomalies
- Le Redoutable 21 - communications
- Le Redoutable 22 - manual levers
- Le Redoutable 23 - 16 missile tubes
- Le Redoutable 24 - upper deck of the missile tubes section
- Le Redoutable 25 - command centre
- Le Redoutable 26 - at the helm
- Le Redoutable 27 - map plotting section
- Le Redoutable 28 - sonar
- Le Redoutable 29 - ladders up to the sail
- Le Redoutable 30 - down to the living quarters
- Le Redoutable 31 - crew cabins
- Le Redoutable 32 - officer cabin
- Le Redoutable 33 - officers mess
- Le Redoutable 34 - comfy
- Le Redoutable 35 - operation theatre
- Le Redoutable 36 - kitchen
- Le Redoutable 37 - general mess
- Le Redoutable 38 - regular crew cabin
- Le Redoutable 39 - shower
- Le Redoutable 40 - toilet and more tubes
- Le Redoutable 41 - torpedo room
- Le Redoutable 42 - torpedo loading hatches
- Le Redoutable 43 - torpedo
- Le Redoutable 44 - torpedo tubes
- Le Redoutable 45 - between the inner and outer hull
- Le Redoutable 46 - star exhibit at the Cite de la Mer