The first recorded military diving occurred in 1838 when a Royal Engineer, Colonel Pasley, later Maj Gen Sir Charles William Pasley FRS KCB (1780 - 1860), of the School of Military Engineering at Chatham, undertook to demolish the wreck of a collier blocking the Thames fairway at Tilbury. After unsuccessful attempts to place explosive charges using the diving bell from the Naval Dockyard, Pasley trained a number of his soldiers in the use of various diving equipment. Having first tested the concept himself, he became the first Service diver on 28 April of that year. Within a short period, charges had been successfully laid by divers of the Royal Sappers and Miners and the wreck was demolished. Between 1839 and 1844, Army divers under the command of Colonel Pasley conducted salvage operations and then disposed of the wreck of HMS Royal George which was posing a menace to navigation at Spithead. During this period, Colonel Pasley evaluated a number of different types of diving equipment and, in his final technical report, recommended the use of August Siebe's enclosed 'standard' diving dress for ‘public service’.
HMS EXCELLENT’s CONNECTION
Having persuaded the Royal Navy of the advantages of Siebe’s diving equipment over the unwieldy dockyard diving bell, Colonel Pasley detached Lance Corporal Jones, Royal Engineers to HMS Excellent in 1844 to train a party of 13 petty officers and seamen in its use. A Royal Navy diving school was established at Whale Island and RN diving became the responsibility of the Gunnery Branch at HMS Excellent while Army diving continued to be the responsibility of the Royal Engineers.
HMS Vernon, the name eventually given to the shore establishment, was originally that of a hulk anchored in Fountain Lake. Initially a tender to HMS Excellent, it was used for Torpedo and Mining training from 1872 but became an independent command on 26 April 1876 when it moved to Portchester Creek to become the home of the Torpedo Branch.
During the First World War, work was concentrated on torpedo trials and training and the research and development of anti-submarine devices and training in their use as well as mines and all matters electrical. On 1 October 1923, HMS Vernon (or ‘The Vernon’ as it came to be known) was established ashore on the site of the old Gunwharf (now the millennium development known as Gunwharf Quays) where Mining, Whitehead [torpedo] and Electrical departments were formed.
During the Second World War, HMS Vernon became responsible for mine disposal and mine countermeasures. Her officers and scientific staff achieved several coups involving the capture of mines and the development of countermeasures. One of the earliest of these was the rendering safe and recovery of the first German magnetic mine (Type GA) at Shoeburyness on 23 November 1939. For this deed, Cdr John Ouvry was decorated with the DSO by King George VI at a ceremony on HMS Vernon’s parade ground on 19 December 1939. Others decorated at the same time for this, and other tasks where mines were rendered safe for recovery and examination, were Lt Cdr Roger Lewis (DSO), Lt J E M Glenny (DSC), CPO C E Baldwin (DSM) and AB A L Vearncombe (DSM). Of particular note, these were the first Royal Naval decorations of the war.
In June 1940, the first attempt to render safe a ground mine by divers was made in Poole Harbour, Dorset. A diving unit from HMS Excellent, supported by divers trained in Rendering Mines Safe (RMS) techniques from HMS Vernon, successfully removed the fuze from a Type GC mine underwater although the mine exploded as it was towed inshore. For his central role in this task, Able Seaman Diver R G Tawn was subsequently awarded the DSM. On discovering the skill of HMS Vernon’s mine technicians, the Germans placed booby traps in some mines. One was fitted with a small explosive charge that detonated when the mine was stripped in the mining shed at HMS Vernon on 6 August 1940 causing the deaths of 1 officer and 4 ratings and serious injuries to other personnel. Following this, mines were stripped and examined at a nearby disused quarry that was nick-named HMS Mirtle (short for Mine Investigation Range).
Various sections of HMS Vernon were dispersed to sites throughout the country following heavy air raids, one of which demolished Dido Building and killed 100 people in a single night. On 3 May 1941, the main part of HMS Vernon was evacuated to Roedean Girls’ School at Brighton (Vernon (R)) where bell pushes on the dormitory bulkhead were purportedly labelled ‘Ring for Mistress”. Other sites included Havant, Purbrook, West Leigh, Stokes Bay, Hove, Dartmouth/Brixham, Helensburgh, Edinburgh and Port Edgar.
Although many naval divers were trained at HMS Vernon in Rendering Mines Safe (RMS) procedures as members of the Mine Recovery Section during the Second World War, it was not until 1 October 1944 that responsibility for naval diving passed from the Gunnery Branch, still based at HMS Excellent, to the Torpedo Branch based at HMS Vernon. This brought Minewarfare (both mining and mine countermeasures) and Diving under the same organisation (the Director of Torpedoes and Mining) for the first time. Owing to the wartime evacuation measures, a new diving school and experimental station known as Vernon(D) was set up at Brixham on 27 Oct 1944. The RN Superintendent of Diving, responsible since 1942 for the Admiralty Experimental Diving Unit (AEDU) based at Siebe Gorman and Co, Tolworth, Surrey and for the coordination of diving training in addition to research and development, moved to Brixham together with HMS Tedworth, the RN Deep Diving Tender. Almost immediately, Vernon(D) became overwhelmingly occupied with the training and support of ‘P’ (Port Clearance) Parties (Naval Parties 1571-1575 and 3006) until 1 October 1945 when the organisation moved back to HMS Vernon proper at Portsmouth.
On 10 October 1946, the Torpedo Branch divested its Electrical responsibilities to the recently formed Electrical Branch and merged with the Anti-Submarine Branch to form the Torpedo and Anti-Submarine (TAS) Branch. Hence, the TAS Branch assumed responsibility for naval diving. HMS Vernon remained the home of the TAS Branch until the Summer of 1974 when it was devolved to HMS Dryad prior to the formation of the Operations Branch in early 1975. Training in Diving, Demolitions and Minewarfare, along with Naval Control of Shipping and, for a time, Seamanship, continued on the site of HMS Vernon even after it ceased to be an independent command on 31 March 1986 and was renamed HMS Nelson (Vernon Site). In 1987, the establishment was renamed HMS Nelson (Gunwharf) and briefly became Headquarters for the Commandant General Royal Marines before his move to permanent accommodation on Whale Island. In November 1995, Minewarfare training was shifted to the School of Maritime Operations (SMOPS) HMS Dryad. Diving training, together with the Superintendent of Diving, the Fleet Diving Headquarters, the Fleet Clearance Diving Team and the Portsmouth Area Clearance Diving Team moved into new accommodation on Horsea Island and the old Vernon establishment closed its gates for the last time on 1 April 1996.
Following a long period when Royal Naval diving training was based on the same site at HMS Vernon and its successors (together with Army diving training from 1985), it has been conducted at the Defence Diving School on Horsea Island (together with that of the Army) since September 1995, back under the auspices of HMS Excellent where it all started. Thus, naval diving training has come full circle. The Army’s diving training tank at Horsea is even named after Colonel Pasley to commemorate the important role he played in instigating military diving.
DIVERS IN THE ROYAL NAVY
Until roughly 2000, there were two types of diver in the RN: the Ship’s Diver (formerly the Shallow Water Diver), who could be of any rank or specialisation and was trained to use self-contained open-circuit compressed air diving apparatus to search the ship’s bottom for explosive devices or perform simple underwater engineering tasks; and the Clearance Diver (CD) who is a specialist trained in the use of all types of service diving equipment including surface demand and closed-circuit mixture breathing apparatus to perform deeper diving, Explosive Ordnance Reconnaissance (EOR), Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), salvage operations and complex underwater engineering tasks. Today, only the Clearance Diver remains.
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