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 the 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 or a Dollar. In short, if accepted, I could give up my job at Playfairs and meet my financial commitments. I volunteered and, surprise, surprise, I 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 with a push from the Supervisor's boot.
We formed up at HMAS RUSHCUTTER in January 1955; a group of sailors representing, in my case, a bare-armed Able Seaman - just about the full gamut of ranks and right arm rates. There was a POUW, LSRP, LS Patrolman, Gunnery Rates; you name it. 16 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”, etc, etc. They looked on us with disdain and waited for us to fail. This was my introduction to 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 or “Batts” Batterham, a WW II 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 Head Quarters. 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 on board 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 9 months. In that time, we walked over most of Sydney Harbour’s seabed and swam halfway round the globe, or so 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.
Photographs of us under training with lengthy articles appeared in the Post and Pix, contemporary magazines of the time, and we were dubbed “Frogmen” able to run, jump, ride a bike, wheel a barrow and fly a kite all at the same time
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 leather jackets, Morwong, John Dory and Blue Grouper in abundance and the shellfish, oysters and mussels were all edible. Friday afternoons were usually taken up with a fish BBQ on Clark Island and there was always enough to take home for the family. Other areas we visited for training and exercises included 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 pound 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 homes etc. There was always a plentiful supply of fish after each detonation and we could visit the park at Clifton Gardens to BBQ the spoils.
When we qualified, I was posted to HMAS RUSHCUTTER where I took on the job of assistant diving storeman and remained there until 1956 when I was posted to HMAS SYDNEY as Diver’s Yeoman. By this time, more courses had been conducted and the Hard Hat community was beginning to accept us. More characters appeared from the Hard Hat ranks like Dixie Foord, Sandy Brennan, Joe Flaherty, Alex Donald and John Dollar. We were beginning to make our name within the Navy and depending on whom you spoke to, we were either flavour of the month or a pack of rogues. By the early 1960’s most if not all of the serving Hard Hat or Standard Divers had changed over to Clearance Diver and our numbers got up to around 200
The Branch formed a solid relationship with the Army Engineers from Liverpool Army camp who got us started in explosive demolition and Explosive Ordnance Disposal until we started our own school in these areas. We also trained the Police Divers when their branch was formed in the late 1950s.
A number of diving tasks came the way of the branch including the recovery of crashed aircraft, most notably the Vickers Viscount that crashed in Botany Bay in 1961, and rendering assistance to the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Authority (clearing the outlets of Eucumbene Dam), rendering safe WW II ordnance from just about all areas of Australia, including depth charges from Sydney harbour and sea mines from the Barrier Reef. Members of the branch spent many months on deployment to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands clearing WW II ordnance and on Defence Cooperation Programs. In the 1960s, minewarfare was added to our area of responsibility and Clearance Diving Teams were formed in NSW and WA. These teams are now fully commissioned and integrated into the Fleet. A Clearance Diving Team was maintained in Vietnam from 1965 to 1971, firstly in Vung Tau and later in Danang.
Our equipment was the Clearance Diving Breathing Apparatus (CDBA) Pattern No. 5561A which could be used to breathe pure oxygen or a variety of mixed gases made from percentages of oxygen and nitrogen. When used with pure oxygen it was designed to allow you to re-breathe the gas after it had been through a soda lime filter which cleared the gas of Carbon Dioxide thus the equipment had no exhaust gas and allowed you to operate covertly. In the mixed gas mode, the equipment allowed you to stay longer at depth than normally the case when breathing compressed air. The gases were mixed to provide the greatest percentage of oxygen in the mixture for the depth of the dive, thus keeping the percentage nitrogen to a minimum and decreasing the requirement for decompression stoppages.
In 1955 wet suits had yet to be developed and our diving suit was the Underwater Swim Suit Mk 1 (UWSS). This dry suit was constructed of rubberised cotton twill and covered us completely with the exception of the hands. Entry was through the neck and then, with the aid of a neck ring, clamp and hood, we made ourselves watertight. Another suit, nicknamed the “Clammy Death”, was a relic of WW II and even more uncomfortable. Both these suits had the annoying habit of pinching pieces of flesh from parts of your body so, at every chance, we chose to wear a pair of overalls with a greasy wool jumper when diving, the forerunner of the wetsuit.
My involvement in the recovery of the Viscount Aircraft and the bodies from it was most probably the most disturbing job I ever had and I believe that all those involved were affected one way or another. I remember becoming a vegetarian for around 6 months and compulsive at washing my hands. The task in Eucumbene Dam was perhaps the most mentally taxing in that it required great concentration keeping your mind on the task at 285 feet using air. The recommended safe depth for diving on air is much less than 285 feet. Australian Divers developed a variation of the Demand valve for the job and we used the ‘Cousteau Constant Volume Suit’ with it and a wet suit as an under suit. I remember the water was so cold I wondered why it wasn’t hard.
Life was good as a Clearance Diver. Diving pay gave us a bit of a lift in income and the working environment was excellent; it seemed like we had a hobby for a job. There are a million stories about some of the jobs we did and the antics of some of our characters but, in the main, our reputation soared and Clearance Divers were highly sought as members of any ship’s company. One did not seek promotion as it could have a detrimental affect on your diving time and your diving pay. Diving pay was very handy in those days. I remember one payday, while diving in Eucumbene, when I received £70 or $140 at 10 cents a minute for diving at that depth.
By the early 1960s, I had progressed to Chief Petty Officer Instructor Clearance Diver and was the Chief Boatswains Mate of the Flagship HMAS MELBOURNE. I had reached the top of my profession as a Non Commissioned Officer and I was 29 years old. My boss suggested that I should try for a Commission and so after much study, I had left school at 13, I passed the Higher Education Certificate and along with another Clearance Diver, Doug Moore GM BEM, I was enrolled in HMS St. GEORGE Special Duties Officer School at Portsmouth. After a most interesting and difficult 8-month long course, Doug topped the course, I passed and we were promoted Acting Sub Lieutenants in January 1965 and commenced a 2-year stint in the Royal Navy.
My introduction to the Wardroom was on HMS AISNE; you were never in AISNE I was told. I was designated the Upper Deck Mate, Diving Officer and Wine Caterer. Upper Deck Mate and Diving Officer were no problem but being the Wine Caterer was an education in itself and I found how easy it was to fall out of favour with other members of the Wardroom. I personally couldn’t see much wrong with Sparkling Star Wine, Porphyry Pearl or Ben Ean Moselle. Besides, all the others available seemed much too expensive. AISNE was yet another eye-opener. We commenced the Portland work up but failed after 6 weeks; the Captain and Engineer were relieved. We did another work up and sailed for the Far East the day after completing it.
My time in the UK was soon over and I returned to Australia and joined HMAS VENDETTA for a short period then back to HMAS RUSHCUTTER and the Diving School as Training Officer in 1968. The Diving School moved to HMAS PENGUIN in 1969 and I remained there until 1970. I was Training Officer and Course Officer for the 1969 MCDO's Course. The 1969 MCDOs Course saw the long awaited transfer of LCDR Ian McConnochie from the Supply Branch to the Seaman’s Branch and his qualification as a Minewarfare and Clearance Diving Officer, a feat with no precedence and one that hasn’t been overshadowed since. Ian has to hold the record of being the oldest person to qualify MCDO apart from Jackie Homewood. He remains a firm friend and is the current NSW President of the Clearance Divers' Association. My last task at the school was the writing of an addendum to the RAN Diving Manual covering the Draeger FGT1 Mixed gas Diving Equipment, the replacement for the CDBA 5561A.
In May of 1970 I took command of the 7th Clearance Diving Team 3, in training to deploy to Vietnam. We departed for Vietnam in October 1970 and remained in country until May 1971. This was another memorable experience that would fill it’s own book. Suffice it to say that my 6-man Team had 6 vehicles, 2 boats, enough weaponry to support a small war, colour TV and Stereophonic sound.
When I returned from Vietnam I was posted to HMAS TORRENS to qualify for my Bridge Watch keeping Certificate. While we were on deployment in the Far East I was offered a 3-year exchange posting with the USN at their Fleet and Mine Warfare Training Centre in Charleston South Carolina. I jumped at the chance and within 3 weeks of returning to Australia, my family and I had packed and moved to the United States.
My 3-year tour with the USN was a great experience and gave me a new look at our contemporaries. Having had 3 years with the RN and then a tour of Vietnam working for the USN and now a further 3 years working within the USN in the US, I could see we, the RAN, were second to none. I qualified as a Staff Mine Warfare Officer while in the states and then began teaching the trade. I participated in the planning of the minesweeping operation of Hanoi, Operation End Sweep, and the mine clearance operations in the Suez Canal. Sadly I didn’t make it to either event as the USN did not want any third country nationals confusing the diplomatic issues. I did manage to own 2 Ford Mustangs during my tour but didn’t manage to get the petrol out of my veins.
On my return from the States, I was posted to the RAN Research Laboratory to produce a draft of the first of the Mine Warfare Pilots and then, much to my surprise, was offered Command of HMAS CURLEW a Ton Class minesweeper that had been converted into a minehunter. I learnt a lot in CURLEW, mostly the difference between being a member of a ship’s company and being in Command. I survived the job and had the wonderful experience of circumnavigating Australia in Command of a warship. After CURLEW there was a stint at HMAS WATERHEN as Staff Mine Warfare Officer then 2 years as OIC of Clearance Diving Team 1 (CDT1).
CDT 1 was another very rewarding job with highlights of Defence Cooperation Program tours to the Solomon Islands and standing by to go to the Gulf, both events worth a book in their own right. By now I had well and truly learnt that I had “A Fortunate Life” and if Albert Facey had not chosen that title for his autobiography then I would like to have used it for mine if and when I ever write it. The other great piece of wisdom that had finally dawned on me was that working for or with Clearance Divers and/or being in charge of them is a great experience. They all want to get the job done properly, don’t take a lot of leading and, if you have their respect, you have the game sewn up. Then, lo and behold, somebody must have been sleeping in Navy Office as they promoted me to Commander.
In 1982 I was given a pier head jump to take Command of CURLEW again, this time for just a bit over 3 months, and as a Commander, when her Captain became indisposed. Being in Command of a relatively small ship as a Commander had a lot of benefits. We visited Port Fairey in southern Victoria, a most difficult port, as we were too big to enter the river and anchored offshore in the long swells from the Southern Ocean. I had visited there once before in my previous commission and recommended we not return. I forgot that it was Prime Minister Fraser’s electorate.
I then had a posting as Officer in Charge of the RAN Diving School where I spent over 4 years and didn't have a lot to do as Clearance Divers, who all knew what they were doing, surrounded me and I was only there to be responsible for their actions. Not too tough for, about 99.9% of the time, their actions and accomplishments reflected very well on me. The hardest thing about this period in my career was providing Clearance Divers to the Counter Terrorist Organisation.
The Special Air Service (SAS) were given the task of providing a Counter Terrorism Force when the Government felt there was some danger of a terrorist attack on our oilrigs in Bass Strait. It is my understanding that to provide this force would have stretched the SAS resources too thin to enable them to meet their other commitments and so it was decided that the Clearance Diving Branch would supplement their forces. My role, along with the OIC of the SAS Regiment, was to select appropriate personnel. My feeling was that there wasn’t much need for selection as any Clearance Diver, because of his training, would be suitable for the role. The Regiment didn’t feel that way and were fiercely protective of their role and reputation. As a result, there were times when Warrant Officer Clearance Divers were working for SAS Corporals; a situation which at times caused some interesting get-togethers in the Bar with an odd trip to the Sick bay afterwards. In retrospect, whilst I was fiercely protective of my Clearance Divers, it is not surprising that my counterpart in the SAS Regiment felt the same about his troopers and as to who could ‘do it better’ was always going to be a bone of contention. I just felt that I was providing cannon fodder for the SAS and that there was not a lot of career enhancement for those who volunteered but there were plenty of volunteers. In the years since then, Clearance Divers have proved that they can fill any role in counter-terrorism with great professionalism but they still get very little recognition for their service in that field.
For all sorts of reasons I retired in 1986 after nearly 35 years in the Navy and 31 years a Clearance Diver. It is a testament to the camaraderie of the branch that I am still well-informed of the comings and goings of the branch and consider myself indeed fortunate to be a member of it. Like all other Clearance Divers past and present, I am fiercely protective and proud of my branch.
I have not mentioned too many names here. Those that I have will, I’m sure, bring back personal memories to some of the old and bold amongst us. One thing I will say is that I never met a Clearance Diver that I could not work or socialise with. I have made many lasting and close friendships across a number of generations and don’t know many other branches of any Navy that have so many fathers, sons and grandsons who have put on the facemask. The branch has also proved to be great preparation for future careers. We currently have the Head of the Queensland Pilot Service, owners of very successful diving businesses, a Deep Draft Oil Tanker Captain, Car Dealership owners, Ferry and Merchant Ship captains and who knows what in the future?? Governor General perhaps?
Much has happened since I retired in 1986 with a clearance Diving team of 70 odd members maintained on each coast and our first Rear Admiral promoted this year. In addition, there are many more Battle Honours on our Banner. All this from a bunch of blokes who just like swimming and eating fish.
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