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● Lt Noel Cashford captivates visitors to HMS Belfast with deeds of the RN’s wartime bomb disposal work and (right) explains to Cdr Peter
Greenwood, CO of the Fleet Diving Squadron, how the magnetic mine was disabled Pictures: PO(Phot) Mez Merrill, DPRN
‘We still make the
long, lonely walk...’
IN LIFE and death
Ouvry’s assistant Lt Cdr magnetic mine in the Forth.
struggles between
Roger Lewis was dispatched to “The ship jumped up about
nations, the weight of
the Admiralty to report on the 16ft. You felt her ‘bounce’ – quite
operation’s progress. He found an experience when you think
numbers, of matériel, himself addressing First Sea about the size of her,” the former
of ordnance dropped
Lord Dudley Pound and Winston ordnance artifi cer recalled.
or fi red, determine the
Churchill. “We had no idea what it was –
The latter declared: “We owe we just knew that a lot of merchant
a great deal to the public spirit ships had been sunk by this
There’s the Russian steamroller
of Lt Cdr Lewis and his his unknoun wn device.”
crushing the Wehrmacht in the
colleague Lt Cdr Ouvry, One of those unknown
East, the British and American
who have been up against devices is now displayed
air forces pulverising German
it today.” aboard Belfast not far
cities, the 5,000 ships disgorging
The man who from ‘A’ turret. It’s
hundreds of thousands of men
rendered the device a reminder of how
and tanks on to the shores of
safe – and rendered his close the cruiser came
country a great service to disaster – and a
But just occasionally, the acts of
– was awarded the DSO reminder of John Ouvry’s
individuals tip the balance.
by the King before the year r brabr very.
There’s S/Lt David Balme
was out. “Today’s generation
seizing an Enigma machine from
John Ouvry would be ‘up should know about the heroes of
a sinking U-boat. Or Lt John
declared: “We shall master it as we
against it’ for the remainder of the yesteryear and those who do the
Moffat crippling the Bismarck
have mastered the U-boat.”
war, either at the business end of same dangerous job today,” Mr
with a torpedo launched by an
Chamberlain could be so
mine disposal or passing on his Cashford said emphatically.
antiquated Swordfi sh.
confi dent thanks to the bravery of
expertise to a new generation of So it was fortunate that Cdr Peter
And there’s the bravery of Lt Cdr
Lt Cdr John Ouvry (pictured above)
sailors at Vernon. Greenwood, Commanding Offi cer
John Ouvry, a name perhaps little
who had unlocked the secrets of
Among them was a young Lt of the Fleet Diving Squadron, was
known to most Britons – outside
Germany’s secret weapon.
Noel Cashford, guest of honour on hand to explain to doyens of
the mine warfare community that
On November 22 1939, two
at the celebration of John Ouvry’s mine warfare and bomb disposal
mines had been parachuted into
achievements aboard HMS past and present that John Ouvry’s
In the autumn of 1939, it was
the Thames Estuary by a German
Belfast, 70 years after that act of legacy lived on.
not the Luftwaffe, not the U-boat,
bomber. They had landed not in
bravery off Southend. “Right now, there are naval bomb
not German surface raiders
the water but on the mudfl ats at
The 87-year-old rendered safe disposal offi cers in Afghanistan,
which posed the greatest threat to
some 200 devices during his mine where bombs infl ict 80 per cent of
Britain’s lifelines, but the magnetic
Shoeburyness, near Southend.
disposal career – “I have had my the casualties,” he said.
Their fall was spotted and reported
moments,” he says, playing down “Today’s divers are still the
Hitler only possessed 1,500 at
to the Navy.
his achievements and bravery. same characters. They still make
the war’s outbreak. He, or rather
There was “a state of
His passion for this black art, that long, lonely walk to deal with
his aircraft and submarines, laid
considerable strain” at the
and his respect for John Ouvry, a bomb. Our people remain at the
470 in the approaches to Britain’s
Admiralty thanks to the mine
who passed away in 1993 at the front end of the business.”
ports in the fi rst three months of
menace. It turned to John Ouvry
age of 96, remains undiminished. Ouvry’s contemporaries and
the confl ict.
to investigate “and recover it at all
He tried to read Ouvry’s rather successors intend to erect a
The weapons rested on the
matter-of-fact report of his actions
permanent memorial to the mine
sea bed, waited for a ship to pass
What he found was a fat black
at Shoeburyness, but stopped.
warfare/diving branches at their
overhead, whereupon the vessel’s
metal object, 6ft 7in long, 26in in
“It brings a lump to my throat,”
spiritual home.
magnetic fi eld would detonate the
diameter with half a dozen ‘horns’
he said.
HMS Vernon closed in 1996 and
sticking out of its ‘head’.
“People say I ‘knew’ John Ouvry.
the site has become the Gunwharf
The results were devastating.
Rubbings were carefully made
I didn’t just know him. I loved the
Quays shopping-leisure-housing
On November 21 1939 alone, the
and overnight special brass
man – he was a wonderful person.
destroyer HMS Gypsy was sunk,
instruments were produced so
My life has been all the richer for
Gunwharf’s bosses have
the back of brand-new cruiser
Ouvry could work on the mine
knowing him.
agreed to allow a monument to
HMS Belfast was broken in the
without triggering it.
be installed at the western end of
Firth of Forth and the Japanese
Over several nerve-racking
“Thanks to John Ouvry,
the former non-tidal creek, and
liner Terukuni Maru was crippled
hours in the Essex mud, the
Britain captured her biggest
Australian sculptor Les Johnson
in the Thames Estuary. offi cer removed the fuse and the
prize since the beginning of
has designed a statue of a diver
The mine menace dominated hydrostatic valve before declaring
the war. He was the bravest
working on a mine anchored to
Cabinet discussions that autumn the mine ‘safe’.
of the brave.”
the seabed.
– and with good reason. Nearly It was promptly loaded on to He was, but his bravery didn’t It will take £250,000 to realise
300,000 tons of shipping fell a truck and dispatched to HMS come quite quickly enough for the sculpture project and organisers
victim to the underwater devices Vernon in Portsmouth for further John Harrison. “I only wish he’d are one fi fth of their way to their
in the fi rst three months of the inspection, where experts would found the mine a month earlier,” target. You can give your support
war. Britain’s shipyards could not learn its secrets and devise an the 95-year-old lamented. to the Project Vernon initiative at
keep pace with the losses. antidote: degaussing, neutralising He had every reason to lament.
Yet in his weekly radio address the magnetic polarity of a ship’s He was in Belfast’s ‘A’ turret when ■ With thanks to David Ouvry and
to the nation, Neville Chamberlain hull. the light cruiser triggered that Lt Cdr Rob Hoole, RNMCDOA.
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