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  • Writer's pictureAbigail Daly

Dunoon's nuclear 'American Years'

Updated: Apr 9, 2023

The Polaris nuclear base, also known as the Holy Loch submarine base, was a U.S. Navy base located near Dunoon. What is now a tranquil and bucolic coastal sea loch was once a hive of activity and naval vessels. The base was established in 1961 as part of the U.S. Navy's Polaris missile program, which aimed to provide a nuclear deterrent against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The base was in operation until 1992, and during that time it served as a home port for U.S. Navy Polaris submarines.



n	The U.S. Navy submarine tender USS Hunley (AS-31) at Holy Loch, Scotland (UK) tending a ballistic missile submarine, circa 1963. Hunley was the first tender built to service ballistic missile submarines and was commissioned on 16 June 1962.
The U.S. Navy submarine tender USS Hunley (AS-31) at Holy Loch, Scotland (UK) tending a ballistic missile submarine, circa 1963. Hunley was the first tender built to service ballistic missile submarines and was commissioned on 16 June 1962.


The Polaris missile program was developed in the 1950s, and the submarines that carried the missiles were designed to be able to launch them while submerged. This made them much harder to detect and target than land-based missile systems. The Holy Loch base was chosen as a home port for the Polaris submarines due to its deep water and location, which made it well-suited for the submarines to operate from.



 An UGM-27 Polaris ballistic missile is transferred between the U.S. Navy submarine tender USS Proteus (AS-19) and the ballistic missile submarine USS Patrick Henry (SSBN-599) at Holy Loch, Dunoon, Scotland (UK), 11 March 1961.
An UGM-27 Polaris ballistic missile is transferred between the U.S. Navy submarine tender USS Proteus (AS-19) and the ballistic missile submarine USS Patrick Henry (SSBN-599) at Holy Loch, Dunoon, Scotland (UK), 11 March 1961.

However, anti-nuclear protesters regularly demonstrated around the base and it location, close to Glasgow - Scotland's largest city - was controversial. The presence of the base encouraged many groups to work together to coordinate protests and ultimately helped stimulate the wider Scottish anti-nuclear campaign.


During the height of the Cold War, the Holy Loch base was a bustling hub of activity, with submarines coming and going regularly. The base was also home to a large number of military personnel and their families, as well as civilian contractors and support staff. The base had a number of facilities, including a dry dock, a submarine repair and maintenance facility, and a weapons storage area.


The base also had a significant impact on the local community in Dunoon. Many local residents were employed at the base, and the base was also a major source of economic activity in the area. Some Americans ended up marrying local women and settled down in the area. Likewise, some Scots moved the US and began families there.



The U.S. Navy floating drydock USS Los Alamos (AFDB-7) at Holy Loch, Scotland (UK), with a ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) inside, circa the 1980s. The submarine tender USS Simon Lake (AS-33) is in the left distance.
The U.S. Navy floating drydock USS Los Alamos (AFDB-7) at Holy Loch, Scotland (UK), with a ballistic missile submarine inside, 1980s. The submarine tender USS Simon Lake (AS-33) is in the left distance.


The end of the Cold War and the changing political climate led to the closure of the Holy Loch base in 1992. The U.S. Navy's Polaris missile program had been phased out, and the submarines that had been based at Holy Loch were no longer needed. Nearby, Faslane - the home of Trident nuclear weapons - has become the focus for anti-nuclear campaigners and the Scottish National Party and Green Party stating that an independent Scotland would not have nuclear weapons. Submarines are regularly seen in the Clyde estuary, including the 150m long Vanguard vessels.


The Polaris nuclear base at Dunoon played an important role in the Cold War and the 'American Years' had a significant impact on the local community and the area. Despite its closure, its legacy continues to be felt in the region and it is an interesting piece of history to explore.


The American Years Revisited is a fantastic website featuring videos, interviews, photographs and research. A book, The American Years, about this period can be bought from Bookpoint in Dunoon.

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