Tom King BEM – Alive and well

As one of the oldest CD’s still with us I just thought it would be a good opportunity now to tell people a little of Toms story. Tom King BEM qualified as a Standard Diver in 1948 and became a CD in 56 and went onto become one of the first two Warrant Officers of the branch. He is over 90 now and not so mobile but still very sharp. Everybody I have met who knew him speaks very highly of him. He is not on Facebook but any messages left here I will email to his wife.

Tom King BEM

I joined the Navy in 1945 in Ganges. We were just the second lot of boys there since it had been closed during the war. As a boy seaman, I was drafted to HMS Belfast in 46 in Hong Kong with Charlie Charlwood who I knew at Ganges and was a good mate. 300 or so boy seaman traveled out on HMS Formidable and dropping lads off along the way on different ships. 60 or 70 of us were drafted on to the Belfast. The Formidable was an aircraft carrier, it still had battle damage from WW2 including a damaged deck where three kamikaze planes had hit. I remember the Far East having seven Admirals alone such was the size of fleet and bases. The Belfast returned to the UK in 1948, one of the last ships to do so after the War. When we got back Belfast was due in refit for a whole year so myself and Charlie started looking at the notice board to see if we could do something else a bit more exciting. We saw an Admiralty fleet order saying they were looking for divers and it was extra money.
Within a couple of months, we joined Vernon to start training to become a Standard Diver (D3). We were one of the very first D3 class’s to go to Vernon and not be trained at Whale Island (HMS Excellent) which had been the home to diving since it first started in the Navy. HMS Deepwater had just been moored permanently alongside Vernon and used as the Diving School. Ernie Foggin D1 was our instructor, he didn’t stand any nonsense but he was fair. It was Ernie who started calling me Tom (not Derek) after a bare-knuckle boxer in the Navy in the 1930’s called Tom King who would make a fortune. Besides myself and Charlie on course there was Taff Roberts, Jasper Peters (the elder) plus one Royal Engineer and dockyard diver.
After qualifying you could be used as a diver on the wreck disposal teams or as a salvage diver, you didn’t really get a choice. I was sent immediately to a Wreck disposal team based on HMS Skomer which was an Isle class trawler based in Dover where we were busy getting rid of wrecks all around the south of the UK. We did lift a lot of wrecks or items from them but also use explosive to collapse the wrecks in on themselves and make them less of a problem to shipping. Whilst doing this job in January 1950 the submarine HMS Truculent was rammed by a tanker in the Thames Estuary and sank. Sixty-four men died as a result of the collision. Unfortunately most of them when they escaped the submarine in the dead of night into the strong running tide with no support boats in place to pick them up. Our ship was at Chatham at the time and several of us were drafted in to help. We picked up many bodies on route. Two big ex-German lifting vessels were brought in to salvage her. We rigged thick hawsers underneath the sub and did a tidal lift on her moving her to a sandbank to search for further bodies. I also did my D2 course in 50 which was about one month long which also included a 6 week period up at HMS Safeguard in Rosyth which was the Boom Defence School also.
1953 I joined HMS Maidstone of the 2nd submarine squadron. Onboard were two D1 and six Divers that formed part of the ‘SUBSMASH’ team. Propeller changes and other underwater engineering jobs were just coming in then so we were doing a lot of diving. HMS Sidon was alongside us when it sank. I was out on a small cutter picking up stores when the explosion happened. The sub had been about to depart to carry out missile firings so fortunately most of the seaman were on deck slipping the boat and were not caught up in the blast. The aft end had been secured by a bar-boat but it was the front end where the damage was so it sank slowly into the mud. We returned straight away to Maidstone and transferred our equipment onto a workboat and started getting dressed up. Other divers I remember was Ray Ellen who was a killick D3 (his brother became a CD) and Hallam. Diving continued all day with such jobs as seeing if anybody was alive to checking the source of air leaks in the hull. It was not until 0230 17th June a halt was called to any rescue of personnel.
The Admiralty Salvage team arrived after a couple of days but we stayed to help out placing wires underneath the sub ready for a lift. We tried see-sawing the wire along the hull starting off at the bows but the mud was too thick and the debris too much so we had to resort to feeding a rope underneath the hull from one end to the other. First we used an air lance to break the mud up a bit but these were not as good as the modern-day ones so we resorted to airlifting a small tunnel in from either side. I was several feet in when the tunnel collapsed around me. Good job I was wearing standard equipment and not a contained set. There was no panic even though it took well over an hour to get me out. Ray Ellen started air-lifting around me giving my foot a welcoming squeeze every now and again to assure me he was still there. We soon lifted her and they ran her aground in Chisel Beach to retrieve another torpedo that was badly damaged and still in the tube.
55 or 56 I picked up my PO’s and immediately did my D1 course in Vernon. I remember Spike Wheeler being on it. I stayed in Vernon instructing a D3 course. The only lad I remember was Ron Neville. He and all the others I think turned over to CD in the end. I then swopped over to CD1 with Dutchy Holland, Albert Strange CD 2 (only pure CD on the course) and Ginger Bryant in around 1958. The Standard Diver era was coming to an end. Straight after course I got a draft to Bomb and Mine Disposal (Chatham) to relieve Pat Christmas. It was just a small team of four of us. Three other lads I remember were Curly Burrows, Shiner Brassington and Jan Gardner. We used the same building as the Diving School. I remember one call out we had to a buoyant mine that was washed up on a beach. There was a large crowd around us that we just could not get rid of. Curly then grabs a 7-pound maul and walked up to it, swings and hits it with an almighty clang. He then turns around to me and shouts “It’s not acoustic Tom”. It helped get rid of a few onlookers especially the one who had not seen ‘Dummy Mine – please report to etc’. I stayed around 2 years until Chatham closed down in 1960. The Portsmouth CD team took over bomb disposal duties for the area we had covered.
Around 60 or so I returned to Vernon where the boss of the diving School Nosy Parker said “Don’t drop your bags King you’re going to AUWE and taking over there”. It was the start of the underwater ejection seat trails. The trials started at Horsea Lake, there was a block at the sluice gate end and a wire right up the lake attached to a vehicle. That drove away at high speed and pulled a diver up the lake to see if he survived. Then they moved up to Glynn Fruin for further trials in 62. During a bomb job whilst on AUWE a buoyant mine was blown up and the top cover ricocheted off and took Sarge Sargison’s arm off. The lads including a Doc Campion (not a Doctor) put a tourniquet on his arm and took him to the hospital where they tried to save it but with no luck. Doc went to see him to see how he was doing and asked where the tourniquet was, the nurse said “well it’s gone down to the incinerator with the bloodied shirt etc.”, Doc turn white and suddenly said “take me down there now, its det cord”. The nurse didn’t understand “its bloody explosives” he said a bit more urgently. They had used det cord to wrap round and round Sarge’s arm several times as a tourniquet.
1962/63 I headed out to the Far East team as Chief based in Singapore. The team was expanded due to the Indonesian crisis. The other lads I remember are Brum Fowles, Brummie ‘Pincher’ Martin, Doc Campion, John ‘Jock’ Russell, Dolly Dolland, Speed Harvey, Vic Humphries, Micky Roberts (Irishman) Bob Atkinson CD1 and Stan Templeton. One job was a crashed Saba jet with a nuke on board, we spent weeks looking for it. Bungy Edwards an ex Standard Diver was also there. He had left the Navy for a good number of years and re-joined as a PO CD 2, He was long in the tooth then. He had been on the Prince of Wales when it was sunk in the Pacific in 41. With just a handful of survivors he escaped and fought his way through Malaysia with the 18th Indian brigade to Singapore only to be captured when the British were forced to surrender there. Admiral Twist was in charge out there then. On one inspection he said to Bungy, “Do I know you”. Bungy said yes sir “Fall of Singapore, the last time we were here. Sir”, “Oh, what happened to you” he asked. “Well Sir, after you got in your plane and flew out and left us things got a bit sticky”, he said with a smile. The now Admiral had been a junior Sub Lieutenant pilot but they were far more important at the time then high ranking officers. They flew out as many pilots as they could. They could replace 4 ring captains any time but fliers were very much required. We were his blue eyes boys after that and he called us his shower of pirates.
In the mid 60’s I returned to Vernon to instructing CD1 and Officers courses before getting the Devonport Diving School then Plymouth Clearance Diving Team. Tom’s Story carries on further on in this chronicles with the recovery of a crashed air liner. In the late 60’s the team spent several weeks undertaking the extremely hazardous task of clearing unexploded bombs from the wreckage of the S.S. Arnold Mask in Jersey. Loaded with 500 kg bombs that were fused. We would lift four at a time, dump them in deep water and go again. Other CD’s involved were Darby Allan who died in the 70’s, Baz Davis and George Porter. I did get an award for this job but all the divers involved in this deserved an award as much as I did. On another job we were looking for a young girl of 5 years or so in a river in Hampshire. One of my divers Bill Swinfield got his head stuck in a suction grill on a large sluice gate. Half drowned I managed to pull him out and after giving him rescue breaths managed to bring him around. I was presented a civilian life saving award though which I’m very happy had a positive outcome for the diver.
In 71 I joined HMS Eagle Aircraft Carrier as the only CD i.e. to supervisor 40 odd Ships Divers. They soon pulled me off there during a world cruise to be made up to Fleet Chief. Me and Dutchy Holland were the first two Diving Fleet Chiefs (Warrant Officers) since they stopped them at the end of the war. He went north to Scotland, I went south to Vernon. I left the Navy as Fleet Chief in the School in Vernon in 1974. I went into the diving industry.
From George Porter on the Jersey bomb job; Tom was giving at interview to the press and local TV once. He normally wore an old Army camouflage jacket which was referred to as battle dress, just a navy slang for any type of working gear really. Pre-interview but with camera’s rolling Tom calls out to Nobby, “Where’s my battle dress?” It’s in the wardrobe with all your other dresses Chief!