Attacked by underwater saboteurs

In November 1960, I was serving aboard HMS Victorious in the Far East and was a member of the ship’s diving team. Of the almost 2,000 members of the ship’s company, about 30 of us were qualified as shallow water divers. We could be called upon in any underwater emergency to leave our fulltime jobs, quickly get rigged in tight-fitting rubber dive suits and oxygen re-breather diving sets, and enter the sea to tackle any task.

In the past, emanating from Second World War experiences, any ship’s diver could be called upon to search the ship’s hull beneath the surface to locate and remove limpet mines placed there by enemy saboteurs. In 1960, the war had been over for 15 years, so although the navy still practised locating and removing dummy limpet mines, no one considered that a British ship would ever again be attacked with them. Limpet mines were even then being considered as an outdated form of warfare, even during the Cold War. As time would tell, we couldn’t have been more wrong.

That afternoon, as the Victorious lay peacefully alongside the dockyard wall in Singapore, just astern of the American aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga, the ‘incident’ began.

All shore leave was cancelled, ‘special sea dutymen’ were called and the ship was made ready to sail. Quickly  a rumour spread that British Intelligence had warned the ship that some sort of attack was imminent, either on us or the American carrier, and that we should be on high alert. For a while the ship was a hive of activity as extra sentries were posted and flood lights were rigged to light up the seaward side of the ship when it got dark.

As the afternoon and evening wore on things quietened down, and we all hoped that whatever the panic had been was now over. I turned in to my bunk.

I was rudely awoken just after midnight by the general alarm and a call for all ship’s divers to report to the diving store. When we had all mustered, the diving officer gave us a brief run-down on the situation. Apparently the rumour had been true; the ship had received secret information that some sort of an underwater attack was imminent on one or both of the carriers in Singapore. And, just after midnight, a sentry had briefly spotted a swimmer around the stern of our ship. The captain had been informed, and because of other information it was assumed the Victorious had been attacked with limpet mines, which would have to be located and removed.

The diving officer looked very serious as he continued, “I know you’ve all done this in practice, but I’ll just run through the procedures so that there are no mistakes. At the moment we have working parties rigging bottom lines, which have to be walked from the bow all the way aft, so it’s a massive undertaking, but eventually we will have a line every 30 feet which runs from one side down under the keel then up on the other side. Each diver will be allocated two lines to work between — from the surface down to the keel. But don’t pass under the keel. Each side will be searched independently, and anyway it’s too deep. Okay so far?” We all nodded vigorously.

“Right, each diver will be supported by a trained attendant and a crew who’ll be in one of the ship’s boats or a raft or a dinghy. So when you get in the water, tie your codline off between the two bottom lines you’ve been allocated, then search at the surface first. Then, when you reach the second bottom line, move it down as far as you can see — or, as it’s probably going to be very dark, as far as you can feel it’s clear — then search back the other way, carrying on until you reach the keel. Then come up and you’ll be allocated a new pair of bottom lines to search between.

“If you find a limpet mine or any strange device, don’t move it as it could be boobytrapped or hydrostatically triggered. Come up to the surface, counting the hull plates on the way up, and report that information to the officer controlling that section.”

What the diving officer had described was standard procedure for dealing with explosive devices found attached to the hull. The information from the diver could be related to the ship’s damage-control party, who could then identify where inside the ship any explosion would occur, allowing them to shore up that area and isolate it by closing watertight doors.

Once that was done, and all the mines had been located, the divers would tie lines to their mines and withdraw from the water. Once all the divers were safely accounted for, the lines would be taken one at a time by a fast boat and the mine yanked from the hull.

This action presupposed that the mine would be boobytrapped against removal and would explode once it was pulled fre. The brief second between parting from the hull and the mechanism firing would allow a water barrier between the hull and the explosion, which would slightly dissipate the explosive effect. If the mine wasn’t boobytrapped and didn’t explode, the only concern then was if it had a hydrostatic trigger that would operate if there was an increase or decrease in water pressure. This meant it would go off if it sank or was pulled up.

That was the theory, and it was up to us divers to make sure the procedure worked by quickly locating any mines then accurately plotting and reporting their position on the hull.

There followed a period of feverish activity as we prepared our sets and struggled into our tight-fitting dive suits, all the time mindful that if there were any limpet mines down there, then each also had a time fuse ticking away. From what I’d read of wartime underwater saboteur attacks by Italian and British frogmen, the fuses were usually set to explode 6 hours after the safety pins were removed. This allowed the saboteurs to get far enough away so as not to be injured by the considerable water concussion caused by the explosion.

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Preparing to dive.

As I was lost in these morbid thoughts I suddenly realised everyone had gone quiet because the captain had arrived. “Right lads, carry on please, I don’t want to hold you up. I’ve just come along to wish you all good luck and remind you not to take any chances down there. This is the real thing — carry on.”

As the captain left I was mindful that it was the first time I’d actually seen the skipper close up. He usually resided, as far as I knew, in some ivory tower high up in the ship. When I considered the implications of his well-meant ‘good luck’ message, which to me implied that my survival of tonight’s dive came down to luck, I didn’t say anything but just wished he’d stayed up in his ivory tower.

The petty officer of the team, PO Collar, came over and told me I’d been allocated to the port free area to search. Inwardly, I groaned. The so-called free area was right aft and comprised the port side of the rudder, the port side of the center propellor and its supporting ‘A’ bracket, and all of the port propellor and ‘A’ bracket. Because of the complexity of that area, no bottom lines could be rigged there so the diver had to work out for himself how best to search the vast, complicated area efficiently.

The PO continued, “Right you’ll go down the after gangway where you’ll meet Sub Lieutenant Brooks in the motor whaler. So get your fins and lifeline and get along there smartish, okay?” I nodded glumly and went aft to report to Sub Lieutenant Brooks, who informed me the whaler’s motor was giving trouble and for the time being they were having to pull, or row, with oars. Just what I needed to steady my nerves — a motor whaler with no motor, only three men available to row it, a strong gusty wind around the stern, and a 2-knot tide running.

I put on my fins, started up my re-breather, threw my lifeline to the dive attendant in the whaler, jumped in and swam aft to the free area. Up until that point I’d been feeling extremely anxious, almost to the point of panic, but as I left the surface, pushing myself feet first, hand-over-hand down the hull, my fears left me. I’d always felt at home under the sea, and the warm tropical Singapore water soothed my mind.

I turned to the technical problem of searching the central propellor shaft and its supporting ‘A’ bracket and my side of the propellor itself. I even began to feel quite detached from the possibility of a mine going off. I reasoned I was there to do a job and I would do it to the best of my ability. If for some reason a mine did go off while the divers were down, then we would all die quickly and wouldn’t know anything about it, so there was little use in worrying.

It was extremely dark on the central propellor shaft, right under the ship, so as I couldn’t use my eyes I was obliged to feel around with my hands. I didn’t find any limpet mines, but I did find quite a lot of limpet barnacles, which were razor sharp and cut my hands in several places. A nasty little thought crossed my mind: here I was spilling blood into the sea and Singapore was well known for its sharks. I squeezed a little closer to the propellor shaft and felt for the heavy diving knife on my belt. I freed it from the brass sheath, making sure it was easy to draw.

When I was sure there were no mines on the shaft or the ‘A’ bracket, I moved on to search the propellor itself. It was so huge that not only was I awed by its size but at a loss to decide how best to search it thoroughly. I stood on the huge bronze boss but couldn’t reach the top of the blade. I reached up to the leading edge of the blade and slowly pulled myself up and over the trailing edge, inspecting the surface front and back as I went and finding nothing.

As I sank below the boss to inspect the lower blade, I became very conscious of the increasing depth. Divers breathing pure oxygen are restricted to a depth of 33 feet (10 metres). Beyond that depth, oxygen can and does become poisonous to the human metabolism. Some people can withstand oxygen poisoning to greater depth but most cannot. They become unconscious and if not removed to fresh air immediately go into a coma and die. In our briefing we’d been warned that the ship’s draught was some distance beyond the safe diving limit, so great care was needed.

Once I’d fully inspected my side of the central propellor without incident, I moved on to the port side of the rudder. I signalled on my lifeline to my attendant in the boat that I was okay, and he acknowledged my signal.

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Searching the rudder.

At that moment, with my right hand holding onto the top of the rudder, my left hand up holding the signal line, and my head facing forward, something large and white appeared from the gloom, raced towards me and wrapped itself around my head and face mask. For a moment my heart stopped, but then I realised what had happened. All the induction ports on the hull had been closed so no diver would be sucked in, but the ship was still discharging wastewater from the bathrooms and toilets. What had frightened the hell out of me was a long length of used toilet paper.

When I pulled myself together, I decided how I was going to search the vastness of the rudder. Starting from the bottom, I would inflate my counterlung with oxygen to make me buoyant and float up the face of the rudder with my arms reaching out on either side, feeling for mines. When I reached the top I would bleed off some oxygen from the counterlung to make me heavy, move aft a double arm’s length, then sink down the face of the rudder to repeat the search.

I was halfway through the rudder search when I felt something touching me from behind. I turned and was confronted with an enormous silver fish looking straight into my face glass. All thoughts of the dangers of the limpet mines went from my head as I contemplated this fearsome looking fish, stationary in the water, just looking at me. By its size and the look of its jaw I knew it was a barracuda and instantly recalled wartime stories of shipwrecked sailors and downed airmen who had been torn to pieces by barracuda in a feeding frenzy.

I remained perfectly still except that I was slowly sinking down the face of the rudder and realised if I didn’t do something I would just carry on down into the dark depths. As I reached the bottom of the rudder and realised I now had no cover at my back, I slowly opened the bypass valve and inflated the counterlung with oxygen to make me buoyant. But because I was so keen to cover my back I was a little bit over-enthusiastic with the inflation process, making me far too buoyant. I shot up the face of the rudder until my head hit the hull plates of the ship with a dull ‘dong’. The barracuda followed me up, keeping perfect station until I collided with the ship, then he moved in really close. His intention seemed to be to get a good look through my face glass at my face.

He came closer and closer until his lips actually kissed the glass. The look of petrified terror he observed must, I think, have unnerved him, because he slowly backed farther and farther away until he was lost in the blackness of the surrounding water. This whole incident took only a few moments, but with a start I realised that during my encounter with the man-eating barracuda I’d forgotten all about my ‘easy-to-draw’ diving knife on my belt.

Although the barracuda had backed away into the gloom, it took quite an effort on my part to turn my back on the dark water and continue searching the rudder. I may have pressed just a little closer to the reassuring bulk of the cold steel rudder. Eventually,  I completed the search of my side of the rudder and signalled my attendant that I was moving to the port propellor shaft and ‘A’ bracket.

By this time I’d been underwater for almost an hour. I was beginning to feel a bit tired with the excitement of searching for mines, and being scrutinised by a man-eating fish was also having its effect. So when I arrived at the port propellor ‘A’ bracket and immediately discovered a limpet mine it was both a shock and a relief to my tattered nerves. I came up to the surface and signalled to the boat to pick me. They still hadn’t got the motor going, and as I hung onto the side of the boat I could see they were having trouble just keeping station against the increasing wind and tide. We slowly drifted astern.

After a lot of shouting between the whaler and the ship, I was given one end of a line to take down and tie off on the mine. This should have been a quite simple task, but was made extremely difficult by the whaler’s inability to keep station above me. I got the impression they were more interested in getting the motor started than properly assisting me. The danger was, if they allowed themselves to drift away from me for as little as 60 feet (the full length of my lifeline), they could physically pull me and the mine off the ‘A’ bracket, something I was quite keen should not happen.

Twice I tried to attach the line to the mine only to have my lifeline tighten up as the whaler drifted astern. No amount of frantic signalling to my attendant seemed to help. Then, as my lifeline went taut, from above came the sound of the whaler’s engine and the high-pitched whine of its propellor. Thank God! They’d got the engine working again. My line slackened off and I heard the boat take station right above me. It was now safe to tie the recovery line to the mine, which I did very quickly.

It was at that precise moment disaster struck.

The recovery line should have been handed to a sentry on the after gangway and guarded until a later time when the mine could be yanked off, but before that happened the whaler’s motor cut out again and the boat drifted astern. Underwater, when I heard the boat’s motor stop, I watched in horrified slow motion as the mine recovery line went bar tight. I realised that if the mine was boobytrapped against removal then I was about to become a booby.

I hung on, transfixed, frozen into immobility by the sudden turn of events. Had I not been so completely taken by surprise I may have been able to cut the recovery line with my easy-to-draw knife. But I actually did nothing as the mine was pulled from the  ‘A’ bracket. I did very rapidly think, “It’s not booby trapped against removal, but I wonder if it has a hydrostatic trigger that will set it off as it sinks?” I finned for the surface at great speed and was pulled aboard the whaler just in time to stop one of the seamen from pulling up the recovery line. I explained to the officer that we now had a live mine under the boat and pulling it up or letting it sink farther could set it off. The officer directed the boat alongside the after gangway and conferred with a more senior controller, who decided we now posed a threat to the ship and the divers who were still down, so we should fall well astern and await instructions. We waited out in the dark for what seemed like hours, with no one speaking, only too aware that the mine under our keel would almost certainly have a time fuse, still ticking away.

At around 2am we were called alongside and our mine was carefully brought to the surface and declared safe, allowing us all to breath a little easier. We then returned to the dive store to service our sets and take part in a debrief. The diving officer and another lieutenant we’d never seen before were standing in front of a table with seven green limpet mines on it and both officers were looking pleased with themselves. The diving officer started the briefing.

“Tonight you divers have done very well. You managed to locate and recover seven mines in what is considered a safe timeframe.” He paused for effect, then added, “In other words, before any of  them exploded.” There was a round of tension-relieving laughter among the divers, and the diving officer carried on.  “What no one knew at the time this emergency began was that this whole thing has been an exercise, dreamed up by the Admiralty to test the ship’s underwater defence capability and deliberately kept secret from us for the sake of realism.” There were groans and moans from the assembled divers who suddenly realised we’d been put through all that underwater terror for an exercise.

The diving officer continued. “The captain is very pleased with your efforts tonight and apologises for the secrecy, but wants you to know the order came straight from Admiralty. So if anyone has any complaints, they know where to send them.” There was some laughter at the thought of ordinary seamen making a complaint to ‘Their Lords of the Admiralty’.

The diving officer then introduced the second officer as Lieutenant Mason, the diving officer of the clearance diving team of HMS Terror, the shore base in Singapore. He had attacked our ship and deliberately allowed one of his divers  to show himself to the sentry in order to start the exercise.

Lieutenant Mason started waffling on about where they’d planted mines and why they’d planted them in certain positions, but I wasn’t really listening. I was thinking about my nice warm bunk and how soon I could get back into it.

But then there was some sort of disagreement between the two diving officers about how many mines had actually been planted on the ship. We’d recovered seven mines but Lieutenant Mason insisted they’d only attacked with six. There followed a stunned silence as everyone counted the mines. Undisputedly, the total was seven, and in the quiet moment that followed I’m sure I could hear one of those mines ticking.

Sometime after the mine incident, a buzz spread among the divers that the HMS Terror dive team really had attacked with seven mines and the story of the rogue mine was just a practical joke played on the divers by the two diving officers to see what our reaction would be. If that rumour was true then it backfired on them rather badly. Petty Officer Collar, a Second World War veteran, reacted in the way any responsible NCO should in wartime. He rushed to the table, gathered up all seven mines, staggered to the ship’s rail and threw the lot into the sea. I still treasure the memory of the look on the two officers’ faces as PO Collar threw the mines  into the sea and they realised they would now have to explain their loss to the formerly happy captain, and no doubt pay for replacements too.

 

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