The Holy Loch is a sea loch which lies two miles north of Dunoon on the Cowal peninsula. Approximately one mile across, the loch extends inland for between two and three miles the west, depending on the tide. The entrance lies on the west coast of the Firth of Clyde, marked by Strone Point to the north, and Hunter's Quay to the south.
Origin of the name
The name of the Holy Loch has a number of stories related to its creation, ranging from pre-Christian tales of Sun or Sun-god worship in the area (which has a number standing stones), through Saint Mungo (also known as St Kentigern, patron saint and founder of Glasgow) in the 6th century and the story of a ship being lost in the loch while carry soil from the holy land to be laid under Glasgow Cathedral (Saint Mungo was buried on the site in AD 612), to Saint Munn in the 10th century, who landed there from Ireland. While these stories are often found expanded in greater detail, all are vague and none can be related to documented records which can be cited as reference sources, and are mentioned here for that reason, as there seems to no verifiable history of the name.
Lazaretto Point lies on the southwest shore of the Holy Loch, and lies between Ardnadam to the west, and Sandbank to the east. Directly opposite Lazaretto Point, on the northeast shore of the loch, is Graham's Point, once connected by a small ferry which sailed between the two points.
Lazaretto Point Quarantine Station
Lazaretto Point was the site of a quarantine station, built in 1807 the station was installed to prevent the importation of disease along with the bales of cotton arriving by boat. The station was demolished in 1840.
Described by the Concise Oxford Dictionary as a word of Italian origin, lazaretto is defined as "a hospital (chiefly in foreign countries) for diseased poor, esp. lepers; building or ship for performing quarantine in; after part of ship's hold used for stores."
The name Lazaretto is probably derived from the parable of Lazarus, the sore-covered leper who became the patron saint of leprosy, being a combination of his name and Santa Maria di Nazareth, the church on the Venetian island where the first quarantine station was opened. During the Black Death of the 14th century, Venice established the first formal system of quarantine, requiring ships to lay at anchor for 40 days before landing. The World Health Organisation (WHO) traces the beginnings of quarantine to the 14th century: "A period of 40 days or 'quarantenaria' became established later as the usual period of isolation for sea-borne travellers and goods suspected of harbouring infectious diseases. From this the word 'quarantine' was derived.". Although there do not appear to be any other instances of Lazaretto being used in the UK, the name can be found on a number of similar locations around the world.
Lazaretto Point War Memorial
A large war memorial in the form of a round tower is sited on Lazaretto Point. Built during the 1920s, in remembrance of those who fell in World War I, the names of those who have fallen in subsequent conflicts have since been added, together with those lost in incidents in the Holy Loch. The monument has become a focal point for American personnel who served at the US Submarine Base which was located there for 31 years, until 1992.
The memorial sits on a relatively exposed point of land, which is subject to sea erosion, meaning that the monument is in danger of being lost if the site is note maintained. In 2005, refurbishment works were carried out at a cost believed to be approaching £40,000. The Holy Loch American Veterans Association collected £300 towards the work, which was presented to the Sandbank Community Development Trust, to be used as part-payment of the £500 restoration cost associated with the lamp mounted on the stone pillar west of the main monument.
US submarine refit facility Site One
Site One was a US submarine refit facility which was located on the southern shore of the Holy Loch for 31 years.
In autumn 1959, the US Government had to provide forward servicing facilities for the first SSBN squadron to be based in the UK, and studies were carried out to determine the most suitable location for such a refit facility, leading to the final selection of the Holy Loch in July 1960. The area offered deep, sheltered access, and had already seen service during World War II, as a Royal Navy submarine base. Following an approach to the British government, requesting permission to establish a refit site in the United Kingdom for Fleet Ballistic Missile (FBM) submarines, an agreement was negotiated which permitted the US to use the Holy Loch, on the Firth of Clyde, for the anchorage of a submarine tender, a large dry dock, and other supporting craft.
Submarine Squadron 14, referred to as SUBRON-14, was assigned to the Holy Loch. Unlike a more conventional squadron, a submarine squadron commander and his staff always remain in home port, and are responsible only for the training, equipping and administering of the ships under its umbrella.
- March 3, 1961, SUBRON-14 (Submarine Squadron 14) arrived on the Holy Loch, with the submarine tender USS Proteus (AS 19). FBM Refit Site One became active as Commodore Ward embarked.
- March 6, 1961, USS Patrick Henry (SSBN 599) arrived, and Proteus commenced the first Site One refit.
- January 1963, the Proteus was relieved by the USS Hunley (AS 31).
- August 1966, the Hunley was relieved by the USS Simon Lake (AS 33).
- May 1970, the Simon Lake was relieved the USS Canopus (AS 34).
- November 1975, the Canopus was relieved by the USS Holland (AS 32).
- January 1982, the Holland was relieved by Hunley (for a 2nd tour).
- June 1987, the Hunley was relieved by the Simon Lake (for a second tour) which served until March 1992.
On June 1, 1961, the four sections making up the floating dry dock USS Los Alamos (AFDB 7) were towed into the Holy Loch. A crew of 500 men from Mobile Construction Battalion 4, the Seabees, spent the next five months to assembling the vessel, which became fully operational in November 1961. This marked the beginning over 30 years of almost continuous service on the waters of the Clyde, during which the Los Alamos completed over 2,800 submarine docking operations. The floating dock could handle up to five submarines, with four being moored alongside while one was raised within the dock itself.
Los Alamos' service was not continuous, and in 1969 she left the Holy for almost a year when she was towed the Scott Lithgow yard at Port Glasgow to allow essential maintenance and overhaul work to be carried out.
The number of submarines supported by SUBRON-14 varied over the years, however an indication of the scale of the operation can be seen in the number of patrols carried out. On April 2, 1987, the USS Mariano G Vallejo (SSBN 658), completed the 2,500th Ballistic Missile Deterrent Patrol to be carried out by the submarine fleet.
SUBRON-14 expanded rapidly as the personnel gained experience and the number of supported submarines grew, but there would never a base at Holy Loch; instead, the US Navy facilities were integrated with the local community, with Sandbank and Dunoon providing shore facilities. In May 1962, the US Navy arranged for the old Ardnadam Hotel to be converted into an enlisted mens' club, commissary and exchange. All personnel lived ashore, residing in rooms or homes rented from members of the local community. American children received their education in primary schools in Dunoon, Kirn, Sandbank and St Munn’s, then in Dunoon Grammar School when they were older. Americans became active participants in many community related events.
As tensions eased over the years, and the Cold War eventually came to an end with the demise of the Soviet Union, the closure of the base became inevitable, with the announcement being made February 6, 1991. In March 1992, the last US Navy ship, the submarine tender USS Simon Lake, sailed out of the Holy Loch, ending thirty one years of American presence in the area.
1968 Queen Mother visit vetoed
In January 2014, declassified state documents opened and placed in the National Archives at Kew, revealed that the MoD had supported proposals which could have seen a royal visit take place at the American base:
THE Queen Mother was banned from visiting an American nuclear base in Scotland, newly released files have revealed.
Plans were drawn up for the Royal matriarch to inspect the US nuclear fleet at the Holy Loch in Argyll at the height of the Cold War.
The Ministry of Defence hoped the high-profile visit would act as a demonstration of British gratitude for American military support and shore up the special relationship between the two countries.
However, the UK’s most senior diplomat cancelled the proposed tour amid fears that it could lead to the Queen Mother being targeted by anti-Vietnam war protesters.
Previously classified state documents, which have now been opened and placed in the National Archives at Kew, show the MoD was keen for America’s Scottish-based arsenal to get royal approval.
A letter sent by Sir Michael Cary, a senior civil servant at the MoD, to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 31 January 1968 states: “A short while ago Maurice Foley, the Navy’s under secretary of state, accompanied the commander in chief of the US Navy in Europe on a brief visit to Holy Loch and spent a few hours aboard the USS Simon Lake.
“His enthusiastic reception left him strongly of the opinion that we should seize every opportunity to show our appreciation of the massive United States effort in this part of the deterrent field.
“It has occurred to us, therefore, that it might be possible to include a visit to the Simon Lake in the course of the Queen Mother’s forthcoming visit to Faslane in May. I am taking this opportunity of writing to you before we make any approach to the Palace.”
However, Sir Paul Gore-Booth, the head of the diplomatic service, rejected the proposal, fearing that it could generate enormous controversy and potentially put the Queen Mother at risk.
He wrote back, stating: “The present time, with the Vietnam controversy heightened by the current Vietcong offensive and a consequent increase in criticism in Britain of American policies, hardly seems propitious for advising the Queen Mother to make a gesture of this kind.
“It is accepted policy that members of the Royal Family should never be involved in controversial political matters and a visit to the USS Simon Lake would, at best, involve the Queen Mother in public controversy, while, at worst, there might well be embarrassing incidents.
“In either event any benefit to Anglo-American relations would be largely lost.”
A final missive sent on 22 February 1968 confirms that the MoD was forced to make a humiliating U-turn on the proposed royal visit
50 year anniversary
As noted above, the first US ship arrived in the Holy Loch on March 3, 1961, making 2011 the 50th anniversary of the event, and the event was marked by an article in the Dunoonn Observer online.
Notable is the mention of the arrival of the depot ship USS Proteus, which had been converted to be the first Polaris submarine tender during 1959-61, and had required the insertion of a 44-foot section amidships, where the missiles would be serviced. The US Navy had originally planned for Proteus to arrive on March 4. However, the British authorities pointed out that this was a Saturday, and the ship's arrival at the weekend would allow a large number of protesters and demonstrators to travel to Dunoon, and persuaded the Americans to bring the arrival forward by one day, to Friday, March 3.
Contributed by a resident of the time:
Many readers will be familiar with the American Nuclear Submarine Base that existed here for just over 30 years. The USS Proteus arrived in 1961, to howls of protest from the CND movement. Over the years floating docks and support vessels were added. In 1992, the USS Simon Lake sailed down and out of the Firth of Clyde - the occupation was over.
In 1961, Dunoon found itself suddenly transformed from a slightly rundown seaside resort to a garrison town. In the early days the Yanks brought their Chevies and Caddies with them. Most of them had crumpled righthand front fenders (wings), the roads here were narrow, often single carriageway, and in an emergency the Americans pulled to the right with the inevitable consequence. Crews being sent here were given a handbook containing such gems as "Do not take your guns with you, the Brits do not like guns and you will need a licence for them".
At one point, Dunoon was named as the town with the most taxis per head of population. Pubs and clubs prospered, but what of the rest of the town?
The Americans brought their own services. Their bank stood on what is now the Co-op car park. What is now Walkers DIY/Garden Centre/Cafe was the PX Stores, which sold everything American, including petrol (or as they would have it "Ethyl" and "Super Ethyl"). Their financial impact on the town was not as great as many people thought.
What may have been forgotten is that the area went through similar periods before. At beginning of the 20th century the Loch was home to some sections of the Reserve Fleet. In April 1907, The Argyllshire Standard reported that the Third Class Battleship HMS Conqueror (the seventh of that name) was sold for scrap to TW Ward of Sheffield for £16,800, and the First Class Cruiser HMS Undaunted was sold to Harris Bros of Bristol for £14,400. A third ship, the First Class Battleship Sans Pareil (the third of that name) was also sold to TW Ward, for £26,600. The first two were moored in the Holy Loch, with the the third lying in the Kyles of Bute, near Rothesay. In August 1907, the same paper reported that the battleship HMS Hero was towed from the Loch by another battleship, HMS Hindustan, and taken to Portsmouth, there to be sunk and used as an underwater target for submarine torpedo practice.
During World War II the Holy Loch was used temporarily as a British submarine base. Initially HMS Titania was the depot ship alongside which the submarines moored and at the end of 1941 she was replaced by HMS Forth. In order to retain her status as a seagoing ship, she is said to have gone to sea for a couple of days a year, which entitled her crew to purchase duty-free cigarettes. She was joined by HMS Alrhada, then by HMS Wolfe, both of which were old passenger ships used to provide additional accommodation.
Although the precise location is unconfirmed, the area is believed to have had its own degaussing station, which closed in 1945, leaving 20 redundant locals.
In 1942, a permanent base was established in Rothesay Bay, which remained until 1957. Rumours circulated that the Depot Ship had to be moved because she was moored on top of a mountain of discarded beer cans! But this is probably untrue.
Also in 1942, a new unit, the Royal Marine Boom Patrol Detachment, sought volunteers for a hazardous mission. The selected men were trained on HMS Forth and in the surrounding area. They were training for Operation Frankton: a World War II British Combined Operations raid on shipping in Bordeaux harbour, France, in December 1942, carried out by twelve men using two-man Cockle MK II canoes. A fictionalised version of the operation was later told in the 1955 film The Cockleshell Heroes, with Trevor Howard, Anthony Newley and José Ferrer.
The 1943 film We Dive at Dawn, starring John Mills, was filmed in the area, including scenes shot at a number of sites including HMS Forth and and Ardnadam Pier.
The 1945 film Perfect Strangers, starring Robert Donat, Deborah Kerr and Glynis Jones, also filmed around the area of the loch.
The 1982 film Who Dares Wins (motto of the Special Air Service [SAS]), starring Lewis Collins, features the Holy Loch as the intended target of a militant anti-nuclear group which takes over the residence of the American ambassador. They demand that a nuclear weapon be fired at the submarine base on the Holy Loch, or they will kill all the hostages and themselves. The plot was largely based on the Iranian Embassy Siege of 1980, in which the SAS stormed the building to rescue the hostages being held there.
Depot Ships, USS Hunley, Floating Dock, and Polaris Submarines photographed in 1965.
1 ⇑ Queen Mother kept from US nuclear base in Scotland - The Scotsman Retrieved 16/03/2014.
- Holy Loch history and photographs
- The British government and the American Polaris base in the Clyde, Journal for Maritime Reserch, 2001
- The history of Site One
- The history of SubRon 14
- History of SUBRON-14
- Naval Base closure, 1992 archive The Scotsman (dead link)
- Department of Defence Legacy Cold War Project
- USS Daniel Boone SSBN-629 Refit 39, Holy Loch, Scotland, December 1978- January 1979
- Operation Frankton
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