- A.N. Other
- History - general, Naval technology, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 2013 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By Sub-Lieutenant N.J. Laing, RAN
Nathan Laing graduated from Emmanuel College in 2004 undertaking diploma studies in Justice Administration before joining the Queensland Police Service. During his time as a police constable he studied for a Bachelor of Arts and upon leaving the Police Service in 2008, completed his degree majoring in Criminology and International Relations. He then completed a Bachelor of Laws (Hons.) and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice enabling practice as a Solicitor in Queensland. Seeking a career change Nathan joined the RAN and undertook NEOC 47 in July 2012 with a primary qualification as a Maritime Warfare Officer.
‘… not the least of the achievements during World War II was the advance of the seamine from a technically simple device into a multi-influence killer which accounted for more shipping losses than any other weapon. It was to counter these mines that the original elements of what became the CD Branch were formed’.
LCDR R.S. Blue, RAN – 1976
The Royal Australian Navy Clearance Diving Branch is a proud custodian of traditions, sacrifice and professionalism exhibited by a small but dedicated number of personnel between 1939 and 1951, pre-dating the official designation of ‘Clearance Diver’.
Prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, the scope of employment for divers in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) was minor underwater maintenance and searches performed in relatively shallow water. However, by 1945, extraordinary lessons were learned from general unpreparedness of allied nations dealing with explosive ordinance, particularly in the early stages of the war.
The foundations, indeed expectations, of the modern Clearance Diving Branch (CDB) were largely built upon the legacies of individuals whose courageousness, seemingly steel-nerves and ingenuity would best exemplify the peculiar and often perilous nature of clearance diving: Lieutenant Commander Leon Verdi Goldsworthy, GC, DSC, GM; and, (as they then were) Lieutenants Hugh Randall Syme, GC, GM & Bar, John Stuart Mould, GC, GM and George Gosse, GC.
Although the essence of the position pre-existed the designation, the CDB was formed following the assent of a recommendation placed before the Naval Board in 1951. The primary scope and charge of a Clearance Diver is to: ‘perform Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD)’.
This essay briefly examines the events culminating in the conception and birth of the modern Australian Clearance Diver (CD), with particular focus between 1939 and 1951, depicting the strong foundations the today’s CD inherits.
Underwater Explosive Ordinance
Underwater explosive ordinance of a modern nature was first trialed during the Crimean War (1854-56). Russian forces created the first operational moored contact mine anchored to the seabed. Mine warfare and strategy was born. Mine technology and strategy continued advancing, most notably during the Russo-Japanese War, where in 1905 entire fleet battle groups were decimated by offensive and defensive mine employment strategy.
When defined, a seamine is an underwater explosive device that waits to sink, damage or deter targets from entering an area. However, military considerations extend to encompass the seamine’s notoriety of extremely disproportionate responses it draws in terms of countermeasures, which are often extraordinarily expensive.
During the Nazi party’s rise to power and Germany’s concomitant rearmament, substantial investment was poured into mine warfare capability. In recognition of Britain’s near complete reliance on open sea channels, Hitler’s ‘Z Plan’ included heavy use of seamines to destroy and deter supplies bound for Britain.
The ‘Phoney War’ – 1939-1940
When England declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, Germany had long-since studied the strategically devastating employment of mines. Following the obliteration of Poland during the Blitzkrieg offensive, Hitler’s eyes turned toward Britain, which, in the weeks following the declaration of war, had done little to assist the Slavic nation during their dire time.
The term ‘Phoney War’, was supposedly coined by United States Senator William Borah when describing this period of inactivity by the major European Allies in September 1939, particularly with regard to their obligated support of Poland. If anyone in Western-Europe had fallen complacent by the designation of ‘Phoney War’, their ignorance was short-lived. Between September and October 1939 alone, almost 60,000 tonnes in Allied merchant shipping was lost. By November 1939, that amount nearly doubled. England was again being strangled, reminiscent of the U-Boat blockades of the First World War. This time however, the blockade had been established by a relatively cheap explosive device: the magnetic seamine.
Combating a New Threat 1939-40
Crude variations of the magnetic seamine were first employed by England during the First World War; however, the Third Reich had produced a weapon diabolically superior, quickly outdating previous Allied countermeasures. The new device, containing approximately a tonne of high explosive, would effectively take a magnetic bearing of its environment during initial deployment. A disturbance or variation to this magnetic field would trigger the firing mechanism, resulting in detonation.
When an underwater explosive the magnitude of a magnetic mine explodes, it produces pressurised gas, rapidly and violently expanding against the intervening, incompressible mass of water. While this initially creates a supersonic explosion, the second and most devastating effect is created by a gas bubble that follows from the underwater blast. The pulsing action of the bubble creates a series of over and under pressures creating a ‘whipping’ effect, reportedly ‘lifting a ship in the middle, causing it to flex violently as a free beam’. This flexing would in turn dislodge rivets holding hull plates together. The result was ships being instantaneously damaged beyond repair or sinking.
In response, Britain turned to HMS Vernon, a shore establishment that specialised in underwater weapons. The response was the first successful disarmament of a magnetic seamine by LCDR John Ouvry, RN; the ‘arms race’ of mine warfare had begun.
Australia’s Contribution 1940-43
In September 1940 the P&O liner Strathnaver left Melbourne carrying with her a group of young Royal Australian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RANVR) officers. Onboard were Mould and Syme, only three weeks into a six week course. The pair volunteered to undertake ‘special duties ashore’, thus beginning their crash course in the Rendering Mines Safe (RMS) section at Vernon.
Meanwhile Germany, angered by the success of Ouvry and his peers, began dropping seamines onto land targets with anti-recovery devices fitted. These were specifically designed to kill any personnel attempting to render these devices safe. So personal was this vendetta that the Luftwaffe had dropped seamines with no main charges, only a number of smaller booby-trap charges designed purely to assassinate RMS personnel.
When the Luftwaffe turned its attention toward civilian targets, attempting to demoralise the people of England, extraordinarily large blasts flattened entire blocks of homes, killing hundreds. Instead of conventional bombs, Germany was parachuting seamines to devastating effect. Fortunately, nearly a third of the mines did not detonate upon landing. It was within this percentile that the Australians were thrown. During disarmament, any wrong move meant instant vaporisation, or at best, 17 seconds before the fuse fired to provide cruelly insufficient time for an EOD specialist to reach cover some 120 metres away.
Nevertheless, by Christmas 1940, the original Australian officers at RMS had established themselves as competent and courageous operators, both reaching the rank of Lieutenant, winning George Medals and being considered experts in their field. This was not to suggest any ease or complacency in their newfound roles. On one occasion Syme’s life had been spared only by an inadvertent speck of verdigris which had lodged between the firing points of a discharging magnetic mine, preventing the circuit from closing. The courage of these individuals can never be understated.
The Australians through their resourcefulness were also contributing greatly to Naval Intelligence, often using the famed ‘Australian ingenuity’ to counter new models of seamine. Such was the case when Mould and Syme together rendered safe the first ‘George’; a pleasantly named 1,000 kilogram magnetic mine whose primer and detonator were hidden under a booby-trapped heavy metal design. The booby-trap was ingenious. Inside were photoelectric selenium cells which, in reaction to light, could generate a current that would detonate the mine.
The greatest challenge to the Australians however was the acoustic mine. Fitted with a microphone, the acoustic mine could detonate if as much as a cough was detected. With many operators being vaporised attempting to disarm these devices, it wasn’t long before the Australians found themselves as senior operators at RMS.
A ‘new’ position was also suddenly thrust upon Mould; that of underwater EOD. The English operator, Reginald Sutherland, a more experienced officer than Mould, was killed trying to neutralise an underwater mine in Falmouth Harbour. Sutherland had been betrayed only by the air bubbles from his diving apparatus as he sought to disarm the mine. Mould was quickly required to learn how to dive. Fortunately for Mould, the first example he was pitted against had lodged itself into mudflats accessible at low-tide. For his actions, Mould received the George Cross, being the first man to receive both Georgian awards.
In March, 1941, Mould and Syme were joined by another Australian, Leon Verdi Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy would later become the most decorated naval officer in Australian history. With a background in electrical engineering and physics, Goldsworthy soon became an invaluable asset to RMS. Together, Goldsworthy and Mould worked on a Mine Recovery Suit, revolutionary by the day’s standards. Goldsworthy was repeatedly decorated for his extraordinary courage in EOD. It wasn’t long before Mould and Goldsworthy’s talents were directed towards what would be the greatest amphibious landing in human history, D-Day.
Operation Overlord 1943-44
Following an alarming cache of mines in the Tunisian port of Bezerte in 1943, Commander C E Hammond, already part of the planning of Operation Overlord, sought expert mine countermeasure teams to quickly open ports. Hammond realised the very success of the operation was dependent upon open ports to replenish allied supplies; an impossible task if these ports were littered with seamines. Most importantly, this role could not be filled by a conventional minesweeper – it required clearance divers. So birthed what would become known as ‘P‑Parties’.
Two P-Parties, each of 40 men, modeled on Mould’s advice, played a pivotal role at Cherbourg port in the weeks following the D-Day landing in June 1944. They had cleared the entire port by 14 August 1944. P‑Parties had established themselves as both a cost and strategically effective means of mine countermeasure.
P-Party Operations 1943-45
The threat to P-Party divers was not limited to mines and booby-traps. Indeed, with the advent of V1 and V2 rockets, which rained constantly on captured Antwerp, Belgium in 1944, a diver faced the threat of death from underwater shockwaves if he was in direct line and within three kilometres of an exploding rocket. In fact, the statistical life expectancy of a P-Party diver was two missions. Extraordinarily, the P-Parties’ only casualty was not operationally linked.
Similar operations to Antwerp were undertaken in the German port of Bremen when captured in April 1945. Of the five British teams, two were led by Australians: Lieutenants Maurice Batterham and George Gosse. All-in-all, the P-Parties had searched 90,000 square metres, which would otherwise cover a straight line distance of 2,400 kilometres. Whilst undertaking operations, Gosse interrogated a German officer who supplied information pertaining to a new devastating mine, the ‘Oyster mine’ – rumoured to be the most sophisticated German seamine. Ironically, the oyster was so sophisticated the Germans were reluctant at their employment due to their own inability to disarm them.
Gosse, using tools he had fashioned himself in waters so murky his torch was discarded, took two days to render this mine safe. In doing so, Gosse became the only person able to render an oyster mine safe. On 29 April 1946, Gosse was informed of his award of the George Cross. Humoured by the award for tasks he actually enjoyed, Gosse is reported to have mused, ‘George Gosse…George Cross…sounds very much like a test of sobriety’. Within six years, four Australian Naval officers were the most decorated of their country’s navy and had established both Australia’s reputation for EOD and what would become the foundations of the Clearance Diving Branch.
Post-War Period and the Birth of the Clearance Diving Branch 1946-1951
Mould, Syme, Goldsworthy and Gosse all returned to their respective lives in the post-war period, each deservedly having well surpassed any service obligations. However, Gosse’s offsider Maurice Batterham, now a Lieutenant Commander, was entrusted with forming what would become the first clearance diving team.
Much of the role of the clearance diver was to be taken from the Torpedo and Anti-Submarine Branch at HMAS Rushcutter. The Navy decreed the Branch was to be forged from volunteers, much to the ‘standard’ divers’ annoyance. The Naval Board administratively created the CDB in 1951; however it would not be until 1955 that the first signal calling for volunteers was disseminated. Many of those who volunteered had been involved in the post-war ordinance sweeping operations, and thus with the foundations and inheritance of the four forefathers, the CDB came into its own element.
The seamine had the ability to cripple Britain at the very early stages of the Second World War. Arguably, if the Allied ingenuity and potential, largely characterised by the four forefathers of the CDB, had not been realised, the supply lines to Britain may have been irreparably decimated, resulting in a different outcome of the war.
In concluding, it would be remiss not to mention the extraordinary sacrifice made by a great number of allied EOD specialists during the Second World War. This sacrifice extends to those who returned to Australia very different men to those who had left.
Whilst mine countermeasures are necessarily of a reactive nature, as proven during the course of the Second World War, they are pitted against the professionalism, courage and ingenuity of members of the Clearance Diver Branch, custodians of proud traditions inherited from the legacies of Goldsworthy, Gosse, Mould and Syme. ‘United and Undaunted’, the Clearance Diver remains aptly able to deal with the future challenges.
Australian War Memorial, Available from
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Editorial Note: For reasons of space the numerous endnotes have been omitted. The full text of this essay is available upon request to the Naval Historical Society