A Corkhead’s Chronicle:
Experiences of a Royal Navy Clearance Diver 1955 – 76
By: David J Lott BEM
A riveting page-turner, ‘A Corkhead’s Chronicle’ is an enthralling, warts-and-all account of one man’s life and experiences as a Royal Navy Clearance Diver – referred to as ‘Corkheads’ because of their free-swimming ability to bob to the surface like a cork, (as opposed to, ‘Steamers’ – the helmeted divers that were then gradually being phased out of the Navy.)
Joining the Royal Navy as a Boy Seaman in 1951, at the age of fifteen, David Lott’s fascination with diving was sparked when, a year later, he saw a handmade poster calling for volunteers to join a recently formed branch called ‘Clearance Diving’.
“I asked my Divisional Chief Petty Officer what it was all about; (Chiefs know everything but this one didn’t.) He shrugged me off by saying, ‘You’re too!’ I fell into his trap. ‘Too what, Chief?’ ‘Too bleeding young, too bleeding weak, and too bleeding late anyway because you’re off to join Whirlwind for a two year bleeding stint in the Mediterranean.’ ”
Undaunted by this temporary setback, David Lott’s perseverance paid off. In 1955, he volunteered for diving duties and was accepted onto the three week Shallow Water Diver course being conducted at the Royal Navy Diving School on Manoel Island, in Malta.
Qualifying as a Shallow Water Diver using oxygen rebreathers – and filled with enthusiasm – he again volunteered to join the Clearance Diving branch.
Returning to the UK a few months later, he was accepted as a candidate for the grueling and rigorous Clearance Diver training programme; one that would equip him for the many and varied tasks that this elite group were called upon to perform in the years that lay ahead.
A natural raconteur whose crisp style and attention to detail is as informative as it is entertaining, ‘A Corkhead’s Chronicle’ is much more than just a personal narrative. Breaking out of the usual autobiographical mold, the author breathes vivid life into a little-known slice of diving history set during that period when big-budget military programmes led the way in diving research.
Encompassing Clearance Diver training; bomb and mine disposal operations in various parts of the world; searches and body recoveries, the deep diving trials conducted by the Admiralty Experimental Diving Unit during the ‘sixties, as well as deep salvage operations and archaeological surveys, each page of this spell-binding book is filled with gripping facts and adrenalin-pumping anecdotes that leaves the reader wanting more.
On one occasion, the author played a key role in the recovery of a Buccaneer low-level strike bomber aircraft that crashed into the Atlantic shortly after take-off from the flight-deck of the aircraft carrier, HMS VICTORIOUS in June, 1966.
Subsequently discovered at a depth of 360-feet and considered to then be almost un-recoverable, the Royal Navy’s deep diving vessel, HMS RECLAIM – together with key members of the Admiralty Experimental Diving Unit who had participated in the deep diving trials – were called to the scene.
With two slack-water periods in every 24-hours, the two divers selected to recover the aircraft’s remains were Lieutenant Mike Grubb and Petty Officer David Lott.
Locked into the tight confines of a two-man, submersible decompression chamber (SDC) with its own, on-board gas supply and all of the tools that the pair would require in order to carry out their task, the chamber was quickly dropped down to 360 feet.
Once at depth each diver would take it in turn to exit the SDC and prepare the lifting slings necessary to raise the aircraft’s remains; a task made infinitely more difficult by a running tide that pushed the SDC away from the aircraft and an increasing surface swell that caused the chamber to bounce up and down by as much as fifteen feet. Despite these difficulties, the divers managed to attach the recovery wire to the aircraft, but were unable to detach it from the SDC itself. Trapped at depth and beyond all help from the surface, the divers worked furiously to free the SDC before their gas supply gave out.
Overcoming breathing equipment failures and other difficulties the pair eventually freed themselves and were hauled slowly to the surface to complete their 17 hours and fifty minutes dive. “We were hoisted up to our first decompression stop.” Writes David Lott. “I can’t remember how long we were hanging there in the sea, but I do recall that Mike and I had our arms around each other and were openly and unashamedly crying. Let it be known by all that this was the first and last time I have ever cuddled a Naval Officer!”
Setting what was later described as, “A world record for effective work at depth” this incident is just one of the many graphically told stories that pepper the pages of this extraordinary book.
Later awarded the British Empire Medal in recognition of his work with the Admiralty Experimental Diving Unit and the Deep Diving Trials Unit, David Lott – like many other Royal Navy Divers – left the RN to seek offshore work on the North Sea Gas and Oil fields before eventually migrating to Australia.
Illustrated throughout with photographs of equipment, people, places and events, (each, in itself, a magnificent portrayal of times gone by) adventure and excitement stalk every line.
‘A Corkhead’s Chronicle: Experiences of a Royal Navy Clearance Diver 1955 – 76’, by David J Lott, is available through the publishers website at: www.woodfieldpublishing.com
My review of the above book was first published in 2008