A person who has had a profound influence on the development of occupational diving standards in Australia, Bruce Thompson’s entire life has been dedicated to diving and diving safety. The following article is based on an interview that first appeared in Professional Diver Journal – a quarterly magazine that I edited and co-published – in 1998.
A boy soldier who joined the Army at the age of 15 and didn’t take up recreational diving until he was 22, (while based in South Australia), Bruce Thompson’s initiation into the Royal Australian Navy’s Clearance Diving Branch marked the beginning of an eventful career.
As an Army Instructor at the School of Military Engineering, whose spare time was spent either diving for pleasure or with the Army Engineers diving unit, Thompson discovered a growing fascination with diving. Determined to learn all that he could he applied for permission to do the Royal Australian Navy’s four week, compressed air diving course.
In a twist of fate he found, instead, that he had been posted to the RAN’s Clearance Diving course, a gruelling six-month programme among the toughest in the world.
The first person outside of the Navy to be accepted onto the course, Corporal Thompson completed the initial four-week compressed air diving course in the use of SCUBA and Surface Supplied Breathing Apparatus, before being accepted for the oxygen phase of the programme and the nominal protection of a dry suit.
“The first thing you had to learn was speed dressing. It was known as, “Operation Awkward”. In just two minutes, two of you had to be dressed in your dry suits, on oxygen and ready to go into the water to carry out a ship’s bottom search. We were told how lucky we were because the suits had a ten-centimetre, two-way, stretch rubber yoke on the neck. (God knows what they did in the past when they had to climb into a ‘clammy death’ suit through the navel!)
“You’d put your dry suit on at 08.00 and – if there was night diving – take it off again at 22.00, (claiming that during the course of the day it had several ‘leaks’!). The suit would rub against your knees and the cuffs against your wrists, which led to salt water boils. The neck ring – which passed over the top of the head – tore the ears and, after a long day, you ended up with neck ring sores on the collarbones.
“We spent about two months swimming on oxygen, training up into marked swimming. We’d start out on 9 metres of line attached to large floats that couldn’t be dragged down, learning – because depth gauges weren’t available – to calculate our depth by the pressure on our ears before progressing to smaller, marked floats. We swam compass courses and jackstay grids, day after day, night after night, filling our own oxygen cylinders with a hand driven, Siebe-Gorman booster pump and with plenty of distance runs to fill in our spare time. It was an enlightening period of my life!
“The drop out rate was high. About fifteen of us started the course and within a short space of time we were down to five and then four. The following day – about half-way through the course – we were issued with wet suits.
“We then began O2/N2 (Nitrox) training – everything from 60/40; 40/60; 32.5/67.5 – as well as all of the other components of diving, including two weeks on bomb and mine recognition and a demolition course (skills I already had), at the Army School of Military Engineering – where I’d previously served as an Instructor.
“The final challenge was ‘Maximum Stress Week’, seven days of round the clock diving exercises, with little if any sleep, intended as a test of your physical and psychological endurance.”
Topping the course and now qualified to dive effectively to a maximum depth of 50 metres, the then limiting depth for 32.5/67.5 O2/N2, Bruce Thompson had realised a growing ambition. Determined to make the most of the opportunity he successfully requested a transfer to the Royal Australian Navy and, on completion of his initial training, was posted to what was then becoming the Fleet Diving Team.
Appreciating that the only way to learn more about diving was by achieving higher rank, Thompson began an intensive higher education study programme. Promoted to Leading Seaman and then Petty Officer Clearance Diver in what was considered to be a record time, he was, in 1967, sent to the Special Duty Officers school in the UK where he completed twelve months training that culminated in his commission as an officer.
Remaining in the UK on a two-year exchange programme with the Royal Navy in order to develop broader Naval skills like navigation, Thompson still maintained his interest in diving. While posted to HMS Ulster, he ran the Ship’s Diving Team, using the heavy duty Swimmers Air Breathing Apparatus (SABA), “the ‘man-on-the-moon’ set!”; established relations with the people at HMS Vernon (the Royal Navy’s Clearance Diving School); completed the submarine escape training course; carried out submarine escape and re-entry drills with the Royal Marines and the Special Boat Section; and taking part in the deep air diving trials to 76-metres with the R.N. Fleet Clearance Diving Team at Loch Fyne in Scotland, where visibility dropped to zero at depths below 10-metres. Through a contact at Australia House in London, Thompson also managed a visit to the Drager works in Germany where he dived with the LAR 5 and the FGT rebreather (which, at that stage, was in the process of being accepted into the Australian Navy.)
In 1971, on his return to Australia, Thompson was promoted to Lieutenant and posted to HMAS Waterhen as Executive Officer of Clearance Diving Team One.
Consisting of just 10 sailors and 2 officers, Team One was regularly deployed throughout the region, either working with the British and American fleets, or carrying out EOD jobs in Papua New Guinea where, for three months each year, they dealt with Japanese and American ordnance left behind after WWII.
“We took all of our FGT stuff with us and utilised it during exercises off the Malaysian coast. We did a lot of beach surveys and beach recconaisance activities, working with the British fleet during some deployments and with the Americans in the Philippines.
“When I started my diving course we were using the Underwater Breathing Apparatus (UBA), basically a semi-closed circuit, pendulum breathing, set consisting of one counter-lung and based on the Italian design captured during WWII. Modified by the British, it could be rigged to take different sets of cylinders and different hoses for use in Oxygen swimming or for Oxygen/Nitrogen swimming. We were thoroughly trained in its use because we practically lived in it for 6 months, day and night, during our basic training.
“When I returned to Australia from the UK we were changing over to the Drager FGT, which meant that we used the UBA in the oxygen swimming mode and for all of our O2/N2 (Nitrox) diving, we would mainly use the Drager FGT.”
After two years with Team One and a twelve-month stint aboard the carrier, HMAS Melbourne, Thompson was posted to the RAN’s, Diving Training School, HMAS Penguin, as Course Officer and Executive Officer.
“It was around this time that I again took up recreational SCUBA diving and, involving myself with people like Rick Poole, Bill Fitzgerald, Bob Cason and David Strike, entered an enjoyable and rewarding period teaching recreational diving. I also began to appreciate that at some stage I would have to leave the Navy.
“I had joined the Navy for two reasons. In my six months as a soldier with the Navy I discovered a love of boats, the sea and diving that – until then – had laid dormant. I realised that it was the life that I wanted to lead. I wanted to gain a commission, not because I wanted to be an Officer as such, but because that was the level at which you learned more about diving. The Navy had given me a good solid education but I knew that it was time to leave because I’d accomplished all that I possibly could.”
In 1979, at the age of 42, Bruce Thompson began a new phase in his career. Appreciating that the real opportunities in diving lay outside of Australia, he – together with his family – moved to the UK where he began work as an unpaid Assistant Instructor teaching commercial diving at the Plymouth-based, Fort Bovisand Underwater Training Centre.
“As a direct result of all the deaths that had occurred in the North Sea during the early ‘seventies, the Government had intervened to make funding available for proper occupational diver training schemes that met the standards set – and administered – by the Manpower Services Commission. It was a good learning curve because I then began to understand what surface supply diving was all about.”
Putting his boat driving, demolition, recreational and other diving skills to good use, Bruce Thompson was offered a job as an Instructor, a position which he held for two years, teaching all aspects of air diving. (Saturation diving was then only taught at Fort William, in Scotland).
Teaching compressed air diving to 50-metres – still recognised as the absolute limit for air diving – and using every piece of commercially available air diving equipment, Thompson also involved himself in the administration, organising courses and writing course materials. With a strong interest in diving medicine he also assisted in the formulation of proprietary dive tables and completed the two paramedic diving courses then being taught in Norfolk and Dundee. As much as he enjoyed this phase of his life, economic considerations obliged him to consider other alternatives.
Faced with the burden of the high cost of living in the UK and with his family about to return to Australia, Thompson examined his options. He was close to 45 years of age and, lacking the historical, North Sea experience necessary to become an offshore Diving Supervisor or Superintendent and too old to become a diver, his choices were limited to either becoming a Life Support Technician in the North Sea oil and gas fields, or to join a Middle Eastern Navy seeking to recruit ex-Navy personnel.
In 1981, responding to an advertisement for a Diving Officer to join the Sultan of Oman’s Navy, Thompson was advised that the position had already been filled but that, with his big ship experience, they would like to recruit him as a Naval Officer.
A strategically important country jutting out into the Straits of Hormuz, at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, Oman was, in 1981, still recovering from a Civil War. Determined to bring the country into the 20th Century, the young Sultan Qaboos – assisted by the British – deposed his father (who, in 1970, took up exile in London), and set about uniting the country.
Encouraged by the neighbouring, Chinese communist backed, Yemen, hill tribes in the southern part of Oman had been incited to rebellion. A secret war ensued, one in which Sultan Qaboos – with the help of the British Armed Forces and the SAS – ultimately prevailed.
Although the war had resolved itself by the time Bruce Thompson arrived in Oman, the Sultan had had little time to effect those changes he believed necessary for his country’s future development.
Initially posted as Quarterdeck Officer to the, ‘SNV Al Munassir’, a landing vessel and the largest ship in the Omani Navy, Thompson was soon appointed Executive Officer, working under a British Commanding Officer.
“An embryonic Navy, there were, in those days, a great many ex-patriate officers, mainly British, together with a significant number of Pakistanis. Over a period of time the British influence became more dominant with a lot of ex-Senior rates commissioned as Lieutenants. For the two years that I was XO of the ‘SNV Al Munassir’, I was a Lieutenant carrying out a Lt. Cdr’s job.”
An LSL (Landing Ship Logistic), ‘SNV Al Munassir’, held about 10 Chieftain tanks, carried 400 troops and had a helicopter landing deck and a full operating theatre that had never been properly utilised. As XO of the ship, Thompson was determined that it should be gainfully employed. He set about convincing Army units that they should carry out exercises from the ‘SNV Al Munassir’. Working with the Sultan’s own Special Forces and elements of the British Armed Forces (including 22 SAS Regiment), on various deployments in Oman, the ‘SNV Al Munassir’, performed troop movements up and down the coast, transporting tanks, guns and troops north and south as required.
Thompson also became involved with the Sultan of Oman’s Navy Diving Group, all of whom were ex-Clearance Divers. Mainly using compressed air equipment their first task was to teach the Omani divers – who had never been in the water before – how to swim, before progressing them to SCUBA and the theory of diving. (Having – at that time – minimal schooling and no knowledge of physics many of the divers suffered severe ear damage which went unreported. Very keen, and spurred on by the extra pay which they received as divers, the Omani recruits ignored the ear pains, believing that it was the price you paid for being a diver!). Nevertheless, Thompson managed to establish a Ship’s Diving unit to round out the, SNV Al Munassir’s capabilities.
As a tribal people who had suddenly been thrust into the 20th Century and then expected to come to terms with western culture and technology, tensions were high. Particularly after the assassination of Egyptian President Sadat, or occasions marking the anniversaries of particular rebel groups. During those periods Navy personnel were required to be fully armed while divers conducted regular ships bottom searches.
In 1983, Bruce Thompson was promoted to Lt. Cmdr., and assigned as XO on the northern Naval Base at Goat Island – a new facility gearing up to become fully operational – located in the Straits of Hormuz, close to the front line of the Iran/Iraq war.
On the edge of one of the most potentially volatile places in the Middle East and facing a constant threat of invasion, the Goat Island personnel had to contend with smugglers carrying people from Pakistan and elsewhere to Oman, as well as refugees from the south-eastern part of Iran attempting to reach the United Arab Emirates in search of food. With an increased demand for divers, Thompson once again established a small diving section.
After two years at Goat Island, Thompson was invited to take over the Sultan of Oman’s Navy Diving Unit, a position which he held for four years. Moving to the Naval Base at Muscat, he began the task of building and expanding the Diving Unit into a professional force.
“When I took over the Unit, I had two ex-patriates, one Officer and one Warrant Officer. First we had to sift through some of the ‘characters’ that we had inherited and try and build a team capable of instructing and training others. We also expanded the Unit (I brought a number of Australians to Oman because it was easier to work with people that you knew and could operate with), ending up with about 24 members.
“We also introduced diving medical examinations. We brought in Dr Des Gorman, from Adelaide Hospital, and that’s when we discovered all of the medical problems. The Omani divers had never had a proper diving medical examination up until then! With the installation of a brand new, fully operational chamber, and working closely with Des Gorman, we also began to try and get people interested in hyperbaric medicine.”
Writing the first terms of reference for the SON Diving Unit, Thompson turned his attention to equipment and training, raising the overall standard of professionalism and introducing standard operating procedures.
“We eventually limited the tasks to those of Fleet Support and Beach Recconaisance – the main reason for the Unit’s being – training the divers in the use of a variety of underwater tools commensurate with these two tasks. At the same time we tightened up on discipline by introducing a more military approach to training to supplement that given by the Navy.”
Now, when working in the field, the Diving Unit used military vehicles and wore army uniforms.
In April, 1989, after serving eight years of what had, originally, been a three year contract, Thompson returned to Australia to take up a position with the National Safety Council, an organisation that collapsed while he was in mid-flight between Oman and Melbourne!
With his job prospects beginning to look bleak, Thompson was offered a position as the Inspector of Diving, with the Victorian State Government’s, Department of Energy and Minerals. At 52 years of age, he took up the reins of a new career.
Although the Bass Strait gas and oil fields lay in Commonwealth territory, the products came ashore in Victoria. Under a Federal and States Government agreement, royalties would be paid to the Victorian State government part of which were to pay for an administrative structure that would oversee and enforce the rules and regulations governing the offshore industry.
Responsible for all off-shore diving, Thompson, as the Inspector of Diving, was also tasked with administering the Australian Diver Accreditation Scheme (ADAS), a national system of certification for occupational divers, that had been in the planning stages since 1985, but which was finally launched in 1988.
The first task was to make provision under ADAS for those people already categorised as occupational divers. A ‘grand-father’ clause was instituted allowing those people able to provide proof of working experience as a diver to be accepted into ADAS. This raised the total number of divers under the ADAS scheme from some 400 persons up to about 1200.
Founded on the British standards set by the Manpower Services Commission, the Australian Standards for diving (the AS2815 series) were first introduced in 1985 and formed the basis of the ADAS system. But meanwhile, in the UK, the offshore diving expertise had become consolidated under the HSE (Health & Safety Executive), and uniform legislation introduced covering both on-shore as well as off-shore diving.
“I could see that we needed something similar in Australia. As the Inspector of Diving, I had a number of oil field terms of reference sanctioned by the Commonwealth Government, one of which was the training of divers.”
As a member of the influential SF17 Committee – constituted to draw up appropriate standards for occupational diver operations and training – Thompson re-wrote the standards, basing them on UK model of competency-based training. To ensure their effective introduction, Thompson also believed it necessary to re-evaluate the role of occupational diver training establishments operating within ADAS.
“I was determined that the system would reflect the real needs of the diving industry and that any applicant wishing to become a Diver Training Establishment would be assured that the system was open, fair and just. Rather than being controlled by just one person, (myself, as the Government Inspector of Diving!), we formed a group called the National Occupational Diver Training Committee.
“Consisting of representatives drawn from the off-shore and on-shore diving industries, the Union, the then, Australian Maritime Training Council and myself, the NODTC assessed every application to operate a Training Centre.”
Existing Training Centres were placed on an equal footing with new applicants and all were expected to show a true commitment – financially and otherwise – if they wanted to train occupational divers. The cut off date for applications was the 31st December, 1992.
“Essentially it was a process of winning hearts and minds. Some of the opposition was based on the fact that we had followed the UK pattern rather than devising our own. But the fact is that the UK pattern represented the world’s Best Practice, and why shouldn’t off-shore and on-shore diver training standards be uniform for occupational divers?
“Much of the initial opposition came from those with recreationally based training qualifications, such as the Scientific divers, or those influential groups with their own ‘traditional’ techniques (I don’t know how you can call things ‘traditional’ that have only been in existence for a few years!), and practices, such as the Abalone and Pearling industries.
“Powerful industries whose wealth allows them to effectively lobby and influence those State Governments where their activities are strongest, the pearling and abalone industries employed their own techniques which often necessitates spending long times on the sea bed to pick up abalone or pearl shell and which, in many instances, are against safe diving practice.
“They didn’t really hinder us, but neither did they support the system. What you had to do was convince various State Government bodies that this was a valid system and that the certification was worth something.
“Gradually, however, the process was pushed forward and the various States – beginning to appreciate the need for proper occupational diver training – came on line, so that we now have a Training Centre in each State (the only exception being the Northern Territory), able to provide occupational diver training to various standards in accordance with the directions of the guidelines.
“At the same time that we developed the new Training Centres, I began a push to have ADAS recognised internationally. Both the Norwegian Petroleum Directorate and the International Marine Contractors Association (IMCA) accepted ADAS Part 3 and Part 4 (which are oil field oriented). The HSE , who had decided to re-write their own training standards, also accepted ADAS as a recognised qualification, as have New Zealand with whom we now have mutual standards.
“The American system is peculiar to America and not recognised internationally. There are several reasons for this. The American system is based on the needs of the oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico. Under their system, a person becomes a diver trainee and then works as a tender in the diving industry maybe for several years, maybe for evermore, before he gets his first jump in the water.
“By the time he completes his 6 months training – and there are various types of courses in America and all of excellent standard – the person has not had experience at the various depths, whereas the British and European standard turns out a diver who can dive. When they complete their training they’ve been to 50 metres; they’ve completed the stipulated number of dives and the number of hours underwater.
“The American training system’s been around a lot longer than the British model which, because of the rush into the North Sea and the need to recruit divers quickly, was not put in place until much later. (One of the reasons why the recruitment of ex-Navy Divers proved so popular. At least they had a good underwater experience and could survive far better than a recreational scuba diver in the North Sea.)
“Although I’d say that our training standards are now equal to the best in the world, there’s still little realisation among the Australian Government bodies, both State and Federal, of what it takes to become an occupational diver, especially offshore. It’s a long apprenticeship and entails far more than just completing the initial training course. A lot of people fall by the wayside. You have to be thick-skinned, small-brained, or dedicated to persevere! I have many personal friends who’ve been very successful, but achieving that success has not been an easy path for them to follow and I don’t think it’s going to get any easier.
“Personally I’d like to see the Australian Commonwealth Government institute a Department of Occupational Diving and process it, publicise it and popularise it and ….. pigs might fly, mightn’t they?”
In 1997, Bruce Thompson retired as the Government Inspector of Diving and together with his wife, Felice – the woman who first taught him to dive many years ago in South Australia – moved to the Whitsundays region of Queensland where he now lives.
Sadly, Bruce passed away in 2015. Following a touching Memorial service held at the Royal Australian Navy’s Diving School, at HMAS Penguin, his ashes were scattered on Sydney Harbour.