It was late 1954, I was 19 years old, married, an Able Seaman employed as a Main Gate Sentry at Naval Headquarters at Potts Point, not making enough money to pay my wife’s medical bills and short on answers to the situation. I spent every second night working in Playfair’s freezers in The Rocks and life did not hold a lot of promise.
Then on the notice board at HMAS Kuttabul there was a message calling for volunteers to form the first Clearance Divers Course, and offering tuppence (two pence) or 1 cent a minute for diving time. This was the answer; tuppence a minute translated into 120 pence an hour or 10 shillings ($1). In short, if accepted I could give up my job at Playfairs and meet my financial commitments. I volunteered and surprise, surprise was accepted. There was just one hurdle and that was a test dive, off the wharf at HMAS Rushcutter, using the Salvus Fire Fighting Apparatus rigged for diving, and wearing a suit aptly named ‘The Clammy Death’. I remember surfacing and complaining that my throat was burning and was promptly persuaded to go down again by a push from the boot of the Supervisor.
. . a flash in the pan . . .
We formed up at Rushcutter in January 1955, a group of sailors representing just about the full gamut of ranks and right arm rates (in my case, a bare armed Able Seaman). There was a POUW, LSRP, LS Patrolman, Gunnery Rates – you name it, sixteen of us with not a lot of idea of what we were in for. The RAN Diving Branch or Standard Divers (Hard Hats) didn’t want to know us, ‘a flash in the pan’, ‘never take on’, and so on, they looked on us with disdain and waited for us to fail.
This was my introduction to some characters; Bill (Fitz) Fitzgerald, a second generation Navy man and born leader; Ron Titcombe (Breast Brush) a Reserve Lieutenant (the original Walter Mitty); Bogie Knight, and many more. Our mentor was LCDR Maurice (‘Batts’) Batterham, WWII veteran of some renown in diving circles and rumoured to be a cohort of Jaques Cousteau; SBLT SD Ron (Bud) Hillen QDD RAN, lightweight boxing champion of the RAN Fleet during WW II, a Qualified Deep Diver (QDD) and a personality of his time. Although Batts was the Boss and Ron Titcombe and Bud Hillen were, and I use the term loosely, the designated Instructors, the person who held the Course together was undoubtedly Fitz; he was the buffer between the old and the new and he had the respect of both, somewhat grudgingly from the old. Had he not been a member of our course then I believe there may well have been a much different outcome. Fitz is now the National President of the Clearance Divers Association and does a fine job of it.
Our base was a converted Concrete Ammunition Lighter (CAL) that we moored between two sets of piles on the eastern side of Clark Island in full view of Garden Island and also the Fleet Commander’s Office at Naval Headquarters. We didn’t think about that at the time. We were also overlooked by the St. Vincent’s Hospital Annexe on Darling Point and provided much entertainment for patients and staff alike. We kept a duty watch onboard and were visited by the Officer of the Day from HMAS Watson each evening; he certainly got some surprises from time to time.
The course commenced in January and ran for some nine months, and in that time we walked over most of Sydney Harbour’s seabed and swam halfway round the globe, it seemed. What we really did was forge a camaraderie that continues to this day among Clearance Divers; proud of their qualification and fiercely protective of their branch.
Lengthy articles appeared in the Post and Pix, contemporary magazines of the time, complete with photographs of us under training, and we were dubbed ‘Frogmen’, able to run, jump, ride a bike, wheel a barrow and fly a kite all at the same time.
Clark Island barbecues
In those days Sydney Harbour was without any significant pollution, you could get crayfish from around the islands east of the Bridge and especially under North Head. There were fish of all sorts, including leatherjackets, morwong, John Dory and blue groper in abundance and the shellfish, oysters and mussels were all edible. Friday afternoons were usually taken up with a fish barbecue on Clark Island, and there was always enough to take home for the family.
Other areas we visited for training and exercises were Port Stephens and Jervis Bay, also well endowed with seafood. In the early days we had demolition-training areas allocated in Sydney Harbour, and believe it or not, we would detonate up to 25 pounds of explosive in Chowder Bay on the wreck of an old collier which lay there in around 40 feet of water, much to the chagrin of the local residents. I can imagine how the sandstone, which prevails in the area, transmitted shock to foundations of nearby homes. There was always a plentiful supply of fish after each detonation and we could visit the park at Clifton Gardens to cook the spoils.