Heritage dive gear gives sailors a glimpse into history

Published on Royal Australian Navy (author)

Location(s): HMAS Penguin, NSW

Topic(s): HMAS Penguin, Submarine and Underwater Medicine Unit (SUMU)

Mine Counter Measure Instructor, Petty Officer Nathan Farrugia, with his Morse MK V Diving Helmet at the opening of the Royal Australian Navy Clearance Diving School and Submarine Underwater Medicine Unit. (photo: Unknown)
Mine Counter Measure Instructor, Petty Officer Nathan Farrugia, with his Morse MK V Diving Helmet at the opening of the Royal Australian Navy Clearance Diving School and Submarine Underwater Medicine Unit.

Heritage dive equipment was proudly on display at the opening of the Royal Australian Navy Clearance Diving School and Submarine Underwater Medicine Unit.

A number of former clearance divers took a walk down memory lane, looking at diving kits they’d dived on, and examining the modern equipment, Navy’s current batch of Clearance Divers utilise today.

One suit that drew interest from divers and non-divers alike at the opening was a Morse MK V Diving Helmet, brought in for the display by Mine Counter Measure Instructor, Petty Officer Nathan Farrugia. As the dive museum is currently shut, he brought in his personal helmet and associated deep sea diving equipment for the display.

“The Morse MK V Diving helmet is part of the United States Navy Deep Sea Diving Rig. The equipment is quite similar to the Siebe Gorman Standard Diving Dress, which was used in the very early days of RAN diving. The design and operation is quite similar - the key differences between the helmets and diving dress are the location of an extra port, the exhaust valve location and operation and the ability for the diver to control his own gas supply on the MK V.

“Our Navy used the Siebe Gorman for salvage operations or working diving as it is more commonly known. Divers would wear them to install underwater fittings, clear inlets, conduct underwater searches or maintenance. During the Second World War, special Siebe Gorman helmets where produced for use against German mines as part of Mine Counter Measure operations,” said PO Farrugia.

He says while the RAN no longer dives the Siebe Gorman operationally, many clearance divers enjoy experience of diving heritage equipment.

“I use this helmet commercially and I also enjoy diving it with friends and family. Once you are dressed in shoes, weights, suit you have an extra 180lbs pressing against your shoulders, which makes it awkward to stand up in. As you immerse yourself in water and the waves crack over the ports you feel like you’re diving in your own submarine. It’s a great feeling, and a very different experience to the current light weight Kirby Morgan helmets we currently used,” said PO Farrugia.

Clearance Diving in the Royal Australian Navy dates back to the 1920s. In the early years the Gunnery School at HMAS Cerberus had responsibility for diving and trained using the Siebe Gorman Standard Diving Dress and the Hall Rees Shallow Water Dress. Like the rest of the newly formed Navy, these divers drew on the experience of the Royal Navy.

It wasn’t until 1951 that Clearance Diving branch was established, with the first specialist Clearance Diving course held in 1955 at the now decommissioned HMAS Rushcutter, qualifying the Navy’s first specialist Clearance Divers.

From its humble beginnings, the RAN Dive School has evolved from a staff of three in 1955, to a professional unit comprising three Officers and 33 sailors as staff, and offer courses for all initial career and non-career diving, Clearance Diving Teams, Ship's Diving Teams, Demolitions, Reserve Divers and Army Work Divers.

The upgraded Dive School is a significant milestone for RAN divers. For the first time, the school has facilities which match their requirements, and all diving sub branches are co-located in the same complex.