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Written by DIVE Magazine Monday, 21 January 2013 17:14
A Plymouth-based grandfather-of-six, has just been awarded a certificate to recognise his 50 years as a naval diver and instructor.
John Smith’s ‘fantastic life’ as a Royal Navy diver has taken him all over the world. He has cleared mines – and been commended – searched for bodies for the police, blown up dangerous old wrecks, been on anti-piracy duty and even recovered large sums of money lost by villains of the infamous Chainsaw Gang.
'I joined the Navy in June 1960,' said 69-year-old John, from Stoggy Lane. 'One of my earlier ships was HMS Belfast, it was here that I started to visualize my career as a navy diver and on joining the Far East Fleet in 1962, I took my first step on the ladder and qualified as a Shallow Water Diver.
'It was the time of the conflict in Borneo and I spent nearly two years in the Far East visiting Japan, Hong Kong and many other exotic places. We had to search ship bottoms checking for terrorist explosives and carrying out ship maintenance.
'While serving in the Persian Gulf in 1965, I joined BSAC because I wanted to know more about recreational diving. Navy diving was much more restrictive and I wanted to dive for pleasure as well,' said John whose son Jack, who works with Hampshire Police, is also a qualified diving instructor.
By 1966 he was back from the Gulf and became a fully qualified naval clearance diver. Then it was back to sea for fishing protection and anti-terrorism duties aboard a mine hunter.
'We were called to deal with WW2 mines in the Thames and near Falmouth,' said John.
Back on land again John joined the Scottish and Northern Ireland dive team. 'We were involved in bomb and mine disposal, including Orkney and Shetland and we did a lot of work for the police, particularly searching for bodies because in the early 70s they did not have their own diving team.'
While a member of that team he worked on demolishing the remnants of HMS Natal, a Duke of Edinburgh-class armoured cruiser built for the Royal Navy in the mid-1900s and sunk by an internal explosion near Cromarty on December 30, 1915. The remnants were demolished in the 1970s so they were no longer a hazard to navigation.
The team also worked at removing many of the hurdles placed to hinder submarines at Stromness, the town which supplied water and provisions to the Naval Fleet based in Scapa Flow.
John was also involved in the removal of ammunition from the wreck of HMS Drake. Drake ran into U-Boat U79 in 1917 on its way back from convoy duty. She was torpedoed, then collided with another ship before capsizing at Church Bay by Rathlin Island .
It was in Scotland where John was awarded a commendation after he had to diffuse a mine before it could become disentangled from a dredger.
By 1979 John was back in Plymouth as part of the bomb and mine disposal team for the South West. This included the Channel Islands, the south west coast around Devon and Cornwall and the west coast up as far as Cumbria.
He said: 'We were responsible for the bomb and mine disposal below the high water mark.'
John can also recall having to deal with munitions on another wreck in North Wales – where leisure divers were extracting brass shells and removing the cordite on the beach!
“There had been a couple of near misses and we were asked to clear the unexploded ordnance from SS Castilian,' said John.
The Castilian was carrying a cargo of munitions to Lisbon when she struck East Platters Rocks, near The Skerries, Anglesey, and sank on 12 February,1943.
One unusual assignment involved recovery of a 'large sum' of money lost in the water by the fleeing Chainsaw Gang as they fled across Netley. The gang specialised in robbing security vans by using chainsaws to rip through the van walls.
John became chief instructor for the joint services sport diving school in Plymouth, where he was awarded the MBE for his contribution to diving, and retired from the Royal Navy, after 41 years service, as a Warrant Officer, in December 2000. On leaving, he was presented with a lifetime achievement award from BSAC.
He was asked to continue to contribute his expertise as a part-time instructor for the Combined Cadet Forces dive team, which he still continues to do, and for a time he also worked for the Diving Diseases Research Centre in Plymouth.
To mark his remarkable 50 years diving service John received his certificate from Commander Chris Baldwin, Superintendent of Diving for the Royal Navy.