AB Diver Robert George Tawn BEM DSM
Robert Tawn is credited as being the first diver to work on a mine underwater and attempt to (RMS) render it safe. His story is pieced together here from primarily the book ‘Service Most Silent’, his Royal Navy records and his niece Marge.
Robert was part of the Enemy Mining Section that had been set up in Vernon in May 1940 tasked with recovery and disposal of new kinds of mines. Divers would classify contacts and if found a specialist trained Vernon diver would render it safe underwater. There opportunity came soon enough. On June 6th reports came in that an enemy aircraft had dropped a mine in the approaches to Poole Harbour. A mobile diving unit from HMS Excellent helped in the search and after several days on the 13th of June AB Knight reported a contact to be a Type C mine. The next day, on the 14th June AB Tawn from the Vernon specialist diving team dived on the mine. Tawn descended to seven fathoms (42 feet), 1500 pounds of high explosive lay at his fingertips. He would have known that already around two dozen or so sailors had died trying to recover these mines from the seas and mud flats around the British Isles. Many were from HMS Vernon and he undoubtedly would have known some of them.
RMS on land was dangerous enough but underwater there would be no escape. The dim light and gentle well of the sea made each move more dangerous. His first job was to fit a specialist adapted motor horn to the bomb fuse. This was to keep the pressure on the hydrostat in the bomb fuse to prevent it firing as it was brought to the surface. He then removed the fuse and brought that to the surface. Unfortunately the mine blew up when it was being towed ashore but nobody was injured. Tawn was awarded the DSM for coolness, courage and resourcefulness. Sadly less than one year later he would be dead, blown up by another German mine.
Roberts name is mentioned in a couple books about the amazing exploits of those wartime bomb disposal experts. Remarkable as those books are though they all tell the story of officers, little mention is made of the ratings. Make no mistake though, how some of those officers only got two or three of the medals of the highest order I do not understand. Several of them deserved far more. I wanted to find out more about AB Diver Tawn though and again as in other chronicles I have done set out about trying to find a picture of a person who one can argue was the very first Clearance Diver. I have the greatest respect for everyone of that wartime era but as a diver, one can only wonder what Tawn was feeling during that first dive on a live mine on the 14th June 1940. I felt very strongly that he deserved more recognition and his name and hopefully photograph if one could be found put in place of honour at the Defence Diving School and the Diving Museum.
I set out (with the help of researcher Susan Leggett) to find out more about Robert Tawn MBE DSM. Sue managed to track down a niece of Roberts living in Australia. Marge was the daughter of Violet Tawn (Jackson) who was the second youngest sibling. Violet only passed away in 2015 at 102 years and 6 months of age. Robert was born in 1917, the youngest of several children and given the little age difference they were pretty close in those early years Marge says. She also says that the local Vicar managed to get Robert away from a very cruel step father and he joined the Navy at a very early age. Most of our information about Roberts Navy career Marge says was from the book “Service Most Silent”. She inherited a copy from her mum along with some newspaper clippings. I of course ordered a copy but there is a similar story told in other books that I had read already.
Early in the war making safe the magnetic mines being laid by Germany was still key to preventing Britain becoming shut off from supplies from overseas. Acoustic mines were being laid also about that time and given diving and RMS methods and equipment had to be invented and developed for this purpose it was always going to be a dangerous time for the diver. Bomb Disposal Officer Sub Lt Reginald Sutherland RNVR was trained as a diver (the only officer at the time trained to RSM underwater) to tackle any mines that the Mine Lookout teams saw being dropped into the sea and that they might easily be able to locate. In early March 1941 he was tasked with a team of divers from HMS Excellent and Vernon which included Robert to render safe a German parachute mine (most likely magnetic and acoustic) that had been dropped into Falmouth Harbour. Sutherland dived on the mine on the 6th March with a crew of five tending him from the surface. The mine exploded and witnesses described a plume of water rising hundreds of feet in the air. Four people died that day (possible more). Sutherland’s body was never found. Roberts death certificates states his body was found three weeks later on the 27th of March.
Thanks go to Susan for her research in finding Marge and reaching out to her. As a researcher at the National Archive Susan is well used to finding history from all walks of life that is either personnel and very important to an individual or helps tell a story of remarkable deeds or a remarkable life. She is in a unique and privileged position and feels like me very proud to be able to find out a little more about a true hero of that time. As the first diver to work on a mine underwater it’s someone the modern Clearance Diving branch should also be very proud of as well. Technically, AB Tawn wasn’t a Clearance Diver but for me that’s just in the name itself and he deserves the recognition of being one of the few Bomb Disposal Divers well before the ‘P’ Parties were even thought off in mid 1943. I hope this small entry about AB Tawn’s BEM DSM makes more people aware of him and his ultimate sacrifice and helps put him in a place of honour in a long history of bomb disposal diving in the Royal Navy.