1950 – ,The helmet diving coures

In the Admiralty, people were trained as an Inspection Divers, capable of examining structures either old or under construction under water. I am believe the course at the Diving school at Chatham was intended to put the fear of God into us which it nearly did. We had to learn to dive in those old fashioned helmets and canvas and rubber suits which were so popular in the black and white films, where huge octopi were wont to cut off the air-line. We were put in decompression chambers and the pressure increased until our speech sounded like a squeaker in a woolly toy. We were put into great tanks of water to burn steel under water, with the warning that as the hands being cold, we were not allowed gloves, we could cut our own fingers off with the acetylene cutter .We were taught to signal with the air-line and lifeline, how to inflate the suit by reducing the escape of air from the helmet, but warned that too much air would blow us up like a balloon and our arms would be so stiffly outstretched by the air pressure in the suit, we would then not be able to open the vent with the result we would be blown to the surface , and if diving deeply we could risk getting the bends.
We were told that if the suit was damaged or the airline cut at depth, the pressure could push our body up into the helmet. I have a strongly developed visual imagination..
Later we were made to breath pure oxygen to see if we would develop oxygen sickness, then taught how to swim under water in a wet-suit with what is called ‘closed-circuit breathing’. This is the system Naval Commando frogmen use, breathing only oxygen, which is circulated through a cleansing system, hence there are no tell-tale bubbles rising to the surface as with Scuba diving. As we would never have done inspection work with oxygen, but we were now partially trained, we became a source of underwater demolition recruits, frogmen, should the need arise.
Chatham is at the mouth of the Medway an estuary as bad, as Belfast Lough for black impenetrable silt. We went out in a barge, with the air pumps and the rest on board. We dressed into the smelly suit, probably clean, but if you can’t scratch your nose when the helmet is on, and almost everyone unconsciously tries to and is then driven mad, the urge become obsessive, there are other problems. The belt was put on, the weights tied on the chest, the heavy brass boots were next, and then the helmet was bolted to the heavy collar. When I staggered to my feet they threaded the lifeline and the air-line through the belt and then I had to climb slowly and ponderously over the side of the boat and stand on a ladder while the face piece, the glass, was screwed in place. With a tap on the helmet which sounded like thunder inside, and now breathing the fetid, oil and rubber smelling air being pumped through the air-line, I slowly descended the last three steps on the ladder before launching into nothing but water and a steadily increasing darkness.
I never noticed when I reached the bottom, it rose round me as I sank into it. We had been told relatively little of what to expect. I think the idea was to give us a shock to start with and then anything later would be easy. I tried to move my feet and nothing happened, I was stuck. I tried to feel with my hands because any light there might have been had been obscured by the rising silt as my feet struggled in the mud. I did the only thing I could do, I stopped, I told myself not to panic and I just stood, slowly sinking, controlling myself and taking stock. It was then I remembered about shutting off the air release valve so I could rise. This I did and kicked my feet at the same time. The suit which had been grasping me like a cold second skin with the pressure of the water swelled away from me, and I was on my way up like a cork. As I rose the external pressure steadily decreased and correspondingly the internal pressure was increasing. Suddenly it happened, my arms were pulled out straight from my side and like a cruciform, I floated to the surface, there to lie like a dead sea elephant, to be pulled ignominiously to the boat by the lifeline. It was only then they told me that in that type of ground-conditions the diver had to kick his legs out backwards and get on his face, propelling himself along by digging his arms into the mud. When one considered what might be lying on the bottom of an old harbour like Chatham, the prospect was not enticing, to say the least.
I had other opportunities to practice my new found equanimity in the face of near panic, like the time, again in total darkness, I became entangled in the piles of a jetty. The final examination was carried out in that darkness, of course. We were expected to locate a piece of iron the instructors had placed on the sea bed and by the use of the hands as measures, the knuckle of the thumb being an inch, the span of a hand being eight inches, and so on, to examine the piece, return to the boat, undress and draw a facsimile
Learning to be a diver was one of the most interesting things I have ever done and diving in clear water, let alone warm water, is like another world where time seems to mean nothing.
At the time of the Suez crisis, I was told it was likely I would be sent out there, but the war was over shortly after. I admit, while I was pleased the war was over, the chance had been exhilarating

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