2,500 underwater mines and other dangers were cleared before D-Day by British Navy Clearance Divers. Without their hard work and bravery, D-Day would have been more dangerous than it already was. Royal Navy Mine Clearance Divers have played important roles in all major wars and conflicts the UK has been involved with since World War 1.
With the SBS and Royal Navy Clearance Divers recently being deployed to help protect British interests in the Persian Gulf, British Navy divers have had the spotlight shined upon them for the first time in a long while. The elite UK divers have been tasked with clearing mines from oil tankers in order to prevent further loss of life and shipping.
Royal Navy Mine Clearance Divers
Some of the most famous Royal Navy Mine Clearance operations took place during the Second World War. The aptly named, Lieutenant Lionel Crabb was the poster boy for Royal Navy underwater divers and became something of a hero during the war. He was stationed in Gibraltar during WW2 and oversaw operations that ensured British Navy and Merchant ships were not harmed coming in and out of the important wartime port. His unit (officially Guard Divers) were using basic breathing apparatus from 1910, no wet suits and no fins.
Infamously, an Italian unit used a part-submerged ship as their HQ for staging dangerous underwater assaults on Allied shipping in Gibraltar. The ship contained a small group of Italian naval crew who used manned torpedo vessels and limpet mines to attack Allied shipping. Lionel Crabb and his comrade Sydney Knowles were responsible for successfully foiling numerous Italian attacks. In one skirmish, 3 Italian manned torpedos were dispatched with a view to causing as much damage as possible to British shipping. 2 Italians were killed by depth charges deployed by a British patrol boat. The underfunded unit then used the captured enemy equipment to carry on protecting the harbour.
During the Falklands conflict clearance divers were a crucial part of the war effort. On the 5th of April 1982, the largest naval operation since WW2 began. The British Armed Forces mobilised to take back the Falkland Islands. The small team of clearance divers thought their role would be limited to picking up lost bits of kit that soldiers dropped overboard. But after a short while, they realised their job was to be far more dangerous.
The crews aboard the ships came to dread the call “Brace! Brace! Brace!” as it meant the vessel was about to be hit. There were constant attacks from Argentinian planes who were forced to fly low to avoid British Anti Aircraft fire. Due to this tactic, they were dropping bombs that were simply not exploding once they made contact with the British ships.
Often, these were 1,000-pound bombs that required up to 5 days to diffuse. The bombs hit the ships with such force that they generally crashed through numerous levels of the ship before coming to rest. This made diffusing bombs more difficult and fraught with danger. Veterans, Tony Groom and William Bowles remember crews being taken off the ship during the night whilst they placed these 1,000-pound bombs on the seabed out of harm's way. These Brave Royal Navy Clearance Divers undoubtedly saved many lives during the conflict, we must also remember, with gratitude, the 255 British soldiers who died defending the Falklands.
Modern Day Royal Navy Clearance Divers
The Royal Navy’s Clearance Divers are renowned as some of the most valued diving units in the world. The Defence Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), Munitions and Search Training Regiment is where hopefuls go to train for one of the most dangerous but vital jobs in the British Armed Forces.
The training often involves the chosen personnel jumping into freezing cold water and hugging huge bombs, missiles and mines. This is because they are trained to be able to find out what the device is without being able to see it. If a mine or explosive device is located underwater the Clearance Divers will be sent to ascertain what the exact device is. Then the appropriate action will be taken by the rest of the team. Getting the information right first time is vital.
Clearance Divers must operate in whatever circumstances they are needed, unfortunately, this means they have to operate in situations when underwater visibility is low due to murky water or debris. They are trained to be effective without being able to see their own hands in front of them. ‘Hugging’ mines gives a trained diver useful data on the dimensions of the device they are sent to investigate. Measuring the device has to be done carefully as one wrong move can detonate the device which can kill them, their unit and anyone aboard a nearby vessel.
Around half a million sea mines were laid during World War 2.In 2017, one unit of Royal Navy Clearance Divers safely removed 5 tonnes of World War 2 explosives from the ocean. From safeguarding oil tankers in the Persian Gulf to removing WW2 mines, a career as a Royal Navy Clearance Diver is never dull.
No matter what the year, regiment, force or unit; veterans have sacrificed a lot for their homeland. Often they don’t have much to show for their service apart from mental or physical scars. It is important that once they leave service veterans are given the opportunity to flourish in civilian life.
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