- Blue, Ross, Lieutenant Commander
- RAN operations
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 1976 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The Silver Anniversary of the Royal Australian Navy’s Clearance Diving Branch was celebrated this month and to mark the occasion we are publishing extracts from United and Undaunted by Lieutenant Commander Ross Blue, commanding Clearance Diving Team 2 at HMAS Penguin. The book, published by the Society, is the first history of this unusual branch of the service. The incidents described in this article are random selections reaching back to the earliest days of naval diving.
THE FIRST RECORD OF DIVING in Australian waters was written by the Dutchman Francisco Pelsaert in the log of the Sardam in September 1629. Divers from this vessel recovered ten treasure chests from the Batavia on a reef off the Abrolhos Islands and 333 years later divers from the Clearance Diving Branch dived on the same ship. Divers from the Endeavour examined underwater damage to the bark’s hull when she went aground on the Barrier Reef in May 1770. The Australian Auxiliary Squadron in the mid 1890s employed divers for similar tasks and Garden Island records show that a diving bell was used by that Squadron.
At the outbreak of World War II, the divers of the RAN were very much a group orientated to minor underwater maintenance and searches, using a small range of tools in relatively shallow water. Training was still the role of the Gunnery Branch, being conducted at Cerberus. To generalise, diving was an unsophisticated business. However, this was soon to change and, in several new spheres of warfare, the involvements of RAN personnel laid the groundwork for the formation of the Branch as it now exists.
Render Mines Safe
The advent of the German aircraft laid influence mine during the ‘Phoney War’ of 1939-1940 brought slow but decisive changes in the RAN’s involvement with the disposal of unexploded ordnance. The way was led by a group of young RANVR officers who, after being mobilised in September 1940, sailed to the UK and volunteered for the Render Mines Safe (RMS) Section, Royal Navy. Initially, four were selected and they were followed in 1942 and 1943 by others. All performed sterling acts of courage and resource while helping to solve the mysteries of acoustic and magnetic mine mechanisms. Not all of these volunteers survived their particularly hazardous work but of those who did, the record is almost beyond modem comprehension.
Lieutenant H.R. Syme RANVR was awarded the George Medal in June 1941, a bar to the GM in June 1942 and the George Cross in August 1943, the latter after he had returned to Australia as an instructor.
Lieutenant Commander L.V. Goldsworthy RANVR, engaged in RMS in 1943 and 1944, was awarded the GM and GC in 1944 and a DSC in 1945.
Lieutenant Commander J.S. Mould RANVR was involved with RMS Section from 1941 to 1943 and was awarded both the GM and GC in 1942.
Australians were also involved with RMS outside the UK. In March 1941, LS H. Fennemore was coopted to the Suez Canal Mine Clearance Party and spent 9 months clearing GC and GD Mines, operating in Standard Dress. For his efforts he was awarded the DSM and his records relate the difficulties involved in working on influence mines in a cumbersome rig. Markings were almost impossible to read, the diver had to move crabwise to allow use of the hands (which could not be raised overhead) and the attendant had particular problems in trying not to restrict his diver’s movements on the job.
Commencing in mid 1946, an RMS party under Croft and Batterham (ex ‘P’-Parties) worked long and hard to clear the Rabaul/Tarangau area. With Navy taking the lead and POWs providing the labour, large stocks of mines and torpedoes were disposed of. Probably the largest single task undertaken was the rendering safe of a US 5,000lb bomb which, because of its size, could not be demolished onsite and had to be defused and dumped at sea. In a signal dated September 1946, the NOIC New Guinea foresaw ‘at least one RMS party of three, as well as an Army UXB party, involved for years to come’. He was right; the task is still in progress 30 years later.
The decision to form a CD Branch had no immediate effect on the existing level of RMS and Diving operations. Commissioned Gunners such as Dave Smith and Des Mooney continued the never ending task of mine disposal in the Barrier Reef and the Port Diving Party had its share of local tasks which became memorable. One involved Diver 3, ‘Blue’ Purdy, Max Boyle and the attendant Allan Jones. Working out of PDP in 1951, their job involved a survey of outlet conduits from the Bunnerong Power House, Sydney. At work in rather poor conditions, Purdy suddenly was immobilised by a falling metal grate. Getting clear was an exercise reflecting great coolness and patience as the diver hacksawed through the grate above him until he could struggle clear. Allan Jones remembers the day well, if being all the more vivid for the gentle comments made by the diver after the incident.
Joe Flahety very nearly became the first CD victim of the underwater environment in December 1953. Diving in the Captain Cook Dock, he was attacked by a stingray and nearly killed as the sting pierced his hips, chest and neck. Joe recovered after a spell in hospital but the Ray, 7’2″ across the wings, was captured in the dock and his main armament now adorns the Diving museum.
The hazards were not always natural. ABs Jack Dodd and Alec Donald were coopted from HMAS Karangi in 1954 to dive on moorings in the Monte Bello Islands. The moorings had been used during the UK atomic test program the year before and were to be recovered for inspection. The lift was achieved but a Geiger counter check on the two divers soon after showed both to be rather ‘hot’ with radiation. Donald recalls the subsequent cleaning program as the most thorough he ever experienced, and the gear was written off – a small price to pay.
Late in 1958, the team was temporarily involved with the making of the film On The Beach, certainly not the last time that the CD would face the cameras.
In March 1960, a Department of Civil Aviation helicopter crashed into Melton Weir, 30 miles north west of Melbourne. Lieutenant Bill Willcox, now OIC of MCDT, and 4 divers (Bingham, Luhrman, Fitzgerald and Flahety) were called to assist. This group combined with Victorian Police (who were RAN trained) to search the weir. After 5 days, sufficient wreckage had been recovered to allow the investigators to reconstruct the likely cause. Len Luhrman remembered ‘the water was the darkest I have ever encountered, it was just as black at 10 feet as it was at 70 feet on the bottom of the weir’.
Later in the year, a more serious tragedy occurred when a Fokker Friendship aircraft crashed into the sea off Mackay in Queensland. To assist HMA Ships Warrego and Kimbla, MCDT were despatched and in the succeeding days recovered the aircraft and remains. Lt A. Wright RN and AB Harry Bingham of the MCDT were awarded the MBE and BEM respectively. Leut W.J. Roberts of HMAS Warrego, a shallow water diver, was also awarded the MBE and subsequently joined the CD ranks in 1961.
Early in 1961, the Snowy Mountains Authority had a major problem in the Lake Eucumbene Dam. A leak had developed in a temporary sealing device at the entrance to the Lake diversion tunnel and the only practical method of checking the trouble was by diver inspection. The job was in 260 feet and although the RAN CDs had only worked regularly to depths around 100 feet, these were the only divers capable of the attempt. A composite team was formed in Rushcutter under the direction of Leut Titcombe and, after the procurement of Special-to-task equipment and a short deep diving workup, the job was tackled. The work was protracted and done in freezing conditions. To remove twenty 3½ ton racks from the side of the 230 foot intake tower and twenty eight 5 ton ‘stop logs’ sealing the tunnel inside the tower was a major evolution for men working in a completely new depth environment with new equipment. Their perseverance in the face of nitrogen narcosis and decompression stoppages (which lasted up to 1½ hours for a 15 minute task time) was nothing short of Spartan. The SDC was utilised to improve conditions during decompression and pure oxygen was eventually employed to shorten stoppage times but the overall picture was never pleasant. As the job dragged on winter set in, lowering the water temperature still further and raising the level of the Lake to increase the decompression problem, but the leak was defeated and the tower’s fittings replaced without a major injury to any team member.
As if the Branch had not received sufficient tests, two more air tragedies were to require CD expertise before the year was out. An RAAF F-86 Sabre Jet crashed into Darwin Harbour late in the year and a CD unit was engaged in its salvage when disaster struck the civil aviation world again.
On the night of November 30, a Viscount Airliner took off from Mascot and minutes later was reported missing. It had in fact crashed into Botany Bay with tremendous force and scattered its wreckage over a very wide area. CD personnel were recalled from the Sydney area and, in co-operation with Department of Civil Aviation and HMAS Kimbla, worked for two months recovering the fuselage, wings and the bodies of victims of the crash. Later after a long difficult search, the starboard tail plane was salvaged. The team comprised many divers before the job was complete but the initial weight was carried by Leut. Ron Hillen, POs Jake Linton, Sandy Brennan, and Allan Jones, LS Mackay, Moore, Asher, Thompson and AB Bill Caton. Apart from the disagreeable nature of the task, danger was high due to the mass of razor sharp metal present and the poor visibility and surging current. Many divers suffered bad cuts and some fell victim to sea sickness in the surge but none failed to keep going. Leut. Tom Parker, Sandy Brennan, Jake Linton and LS Norm Craven were especially named for their initiative, example and fortitude.
In 1963, the services of MCDT were again required to search for a lost aircraft. On this occasion a USAF weather reconnaissance aircraft crashed into the sea off Lorne in Victoria. Leut Len Graham and his team worked out of this unusual port, conducting towed diver searches behind the barracouta boats of the local fishermen. The depth, 140 feet, made this operation particularly difficult, with the equipment available and the area to be covered adding to the task. As it was, two weeks were spent searching for no result – no trace of the aircraft was ever located.