A member of the original group selected, in 1955, for the Royal Australian Navy’s first Clearance Diver Course, Bill Fitzgerald’s life has encompassed all aspects of military, commercial, scientific and recreational diving.
Joining the Navy in 1946, as a boy, he volunteered for the three week long, RMS (Render Mines Safe) Course, held at HMAS Penguin, in Sydney, prior to his departure to New Guinea. During that next twelve months he learned his dangerous trade from renowned WWII Bomb Disposal experts while working continuously on the demolition of American bombs, Japanese and British mines and other ordnance left behind in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
Q. What did you do after New Guinea?
After the stint in New Guinea, I was posted back to Australia and HMAS Rushcutter, for further advanced training as a torpedoman and add to my RMS (Render Mines Safe) and Mine-sweeping qualifications. A lot of the work that we continued to deal with right up to and through the Korean War – where I served in a variety of ship-borne and land-based roles – was demolitions of explosive devices.
After the Korean War I was despatched to the guardship, HMAS HAWKESBURY, to do the clearances in the Monte Bello Islands that, in 1952, had been the hydrogen bomb test site.
You’d step ashore on an island with a geiger counter, switch it on and watch the reading go off-scale. We spent seven months in that area recovering stores and loading them onto the HAWKESBURY for transport back to Fremantle, where the radio-active half-life could be measured.
Q. Did any of this work involve Diving?
Yes! But the original Clearance Teams were not divers. If you were required to work below the high water mark then you learned to be a diver, utilising what equipment was available to get to the job.
Q. What were the origins of the Clearance Diving Branch?
In 1955, at the instigation of ‘Maurie’ Batterham, the Clearance Diving Branch was born. Originally intended to be a six month programme, the first Course ultimately extended to nearly nine months.
I was twenty-five at the time, and because of my special trade skills – I’d managed to work my way up in the Torpedo Branch – I became the Instructor teaching Mining, Mine-sweeping and Demolitions. Twenty people started the course and only ten of us finished – one or two of whom later voluntarily withdrew from the CD branch as the result of a few ‘curly’ jobs and a couple of fatalities.
Q. What sort of equipment did you use?
The original equipment that we used was the ‘Clammy Death’, (the Admiralty Shallow Water Diving Dress), a flexible suit entered through the waist and a Salvus breathing set – originally intended for use aboard ships as a fire fighting kit – modified into a diving set by removing the relief valve and putting a plug into the canister. We used the Salvus to a depth of 33 feet.
Later in the Course we were outfitted with the new equipment from the UK that most people associate with the ‘frogman’ image of Navy divers. Known as the 5561A and 5562A, the CDBA (Clearance Diving Breathing Apparatus), O2; Mixed Gas; and Deep Swim sets were beautiful items to use and everybody liked them.
Also included in our new equipment was the Mine Recovery Suit, somewhat similar to the standard dress but with no corselet, a one piece helmet and three cylinders of nitrox (containing, depending on depth, either a 60/40 or a 32.5/67.5 mix), worn on the back. Completely self-contained and independent of surface vessel support, the diver had complete control over the investigation of a magnetic or acoustic mine with minimal loss of life should the mine detonate.
In 1967 the Mine Recovery Suit was superseded by the Drager FGT IA, a mixed gas set originally intended for bell diving. One of the heaviest swimming sets imaginable – it was virtually impossible to maintain depth during a 3000 yard swim – the FGT 1A proved far less popular than the 5561A.
Q. What sort of Training did you do?
Using the Salvus set and 2000-yard jackstays, we’d plod around in the mud of Sydney Harbour searching for dummy mines.
On one occasion, I noticed a cylindrical object and thought to myself, “That looks like a depth charge!” It was! One of a pattern of five set to detonate at 50-feet, that had been laid following the Japanese midget submarine attack on Sydney Harbour. At the point where they were found the depth at high water was 47 feet.
Their discovery – and the operation to recover them – caused us some concern! But we eventually raised them and took them 12 miles out to sea where we ditched them over the side, hoping that they would explode at fifty feet. They didn’t!
Q. Once qualified what sort of operational tasks were Clearance Divers involved in?
Some of the other operational jobs that the CD’s carried out during the 1950’s, included the recovery of military and civilian aircraft, including the Vickers Viscount that crashed in Sydney Harbour. These were all carried out using the 5561A or 5562A Deep Swim rig.
In 1962, I was one of the Team involved in the Eucumbene Dam project to free the sluice gates at a depth of about 270-feet: A job that took nearly six months to complete.
Because of the cold the Navy obtained two of the French, Cousteau Constant Volume suits. These, together with the Porpoise Demand valve’s free flow mechanism, allowed a diver to go to extreme depth on air without fear of drowning should he lose consciousness!
Q. What about EOD work?
After the Eucumbene project, my next job was in Darwin Harbour, carrying out the clearances on the USS PEARY – a four stack destroyer that, in 1942, had been sunk with all hands in 110 feet of water during a Japanese bombing raid.
With six torpedo tubes on each side of the vessel, each warhead consisted of about 810 pounds of high explosive fitted with vane-type contact pistols. Moved by the tidal stream, these pistols would be screwed into the detonator by the incoming tide and back out again – we hoped! – with the ebb flow.
Armed with book references on American ordnances that we read prior to the dive, we decided that they must be safe and proceeded to clear a majority of the USS PEARY’s ordnances that hadn’t become deteriorated by salt water or corrosion.
In Darwin we ran short of beer – and money! I had an idea, and said to one of the divers working with me, “What we should do is recover a pair of these torpedo propellers, mount them on a board and present them to the Darwin RSL Club. They may, in gratitude, give us some free beer!”
During our next dive onto the deck of the USS PEARY, we opened the rear door of one of the torpedo tubes and I said – with the 5561A you can just spit your mouthpiece out and talk into the full face mask – “Get in and feel if the propellers are still there.” The other diver wriggled head-first into the narrow torpedo tube to feel for the propellers. While he was doing that, I picked up an old guard rail stanchion and gave the torpedo tube a bloody great whack! The diver swam backwards out of the tube like a cork out of a champagne bottle!
Q. How did the Clearance Diving Branch develop?
Although we had regarded it all as a big game we never lost sight of the fact that we were EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) personnel. The diving aspect of our job was, of course, very important and everybody had to be switched on. But the diving equipment is only the transport to get you to the actual job you’re trained for. First and foremost you’re an EOD man.
When not on deployment or detached for ‘special jobs’, Bill Fitzgeralds particular skills and knowledge of diving were put to good effect. As an Instructor at the RAN’s Sydney-based diving School, he helped to train new generations of RAN Clearance Divers.
After completion of a tour of duty as the Fleet Diving Chief aboard HMAS Melbourne – and a variety of challenging tasks – Bill Fitzgerald returned to the RAN’s diving school where he served as Chief instructor and Diver Training Co-ordinator until he paid off from the Navy in 1967.
In total, Bill served for over 37 years in the Royal Australian Navy. On his retirement from the Permanent Naval Forces, he played an active role in the developing field of Hyperbaric medicine and assisted in the establishment of the Prince Henry Hospital Hyperbaric unit – at that time the largest unit of its kind in the southern hemisphere.
As the former National President of the Clearance Divers Association, Bill Fitzgerald continued to maintain strong links with the RAN Clearance Diving Branch; the Recreational and Commercial diving communities; and the Diving Historical Society. In 1999 he was awarded the OAM in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, in recognition of his, “service to diving, and to the development and training in the use of life support breathing apparatus”