Divers, aviators and commandos honoured for going beyond the call of duty

Topic: Fighting armsRoyal Marines

Divers who risked their lives to save a fisherman in a capsized boat, recover WW1 mustard gas canisters and prevent a bomb devastating Portsmouth Harbour lead those recognised for bravery on the front line.

Eight Royal Navy and Royal Marines personnel have been singled out for going above and beyond the normal call of duty in the UK and abroad in the latest series of Operational Honours announced by the Ministry of Defence.

  • Leading Diver Simon Wharton
  • Diver Joseph Smith
  • Lieutenant Commander Amy Gilmore
  • Major Tom Quinn
  • Sergeant William MacFarlane
  • Sergeant James Oldale
  • Leading Diver Matthew O’Brien
  • Chief Petty Officer Kris Fenwick

Thirty-six-year-old Leading Diver Simon Wharton, and Diver Joseph Smith, 27, are the first of four Clearance Divers from across the Fleet Diving Squadron to be honoured.

They put their lives on the line to enter the upturned hull of a fishing vessel being driven towards rocks at Rame Head near Plymouth at the end of September last year.

Two crew of the MV Solstice had been rescued by the RNLI, but a third was missing. The divers volunteered to search the capsized boat and LD Wharton finally located the missing crewman, sadly dead. Rather than leave the body entombed in the wreck, however, he succeeded in recovering the fisherman in pitch black darkness, fully aware that the MV Solstice could sink at any moment. His colleague Smith then led him to safety through the tangle of lines and nets hanging from the upturned boat. Wharton demonstrated “unwavering nerve” throughout to earn the Queen’s Gallantry Medal; Smith demonstrated “calmness of nerve” to be awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery. MV Solstice sank just 40 minutes after both men emerged from the wreck. Their actions went above and beyond what is expected of divers in peacetime – and provided Plymouth’s fishing community with a sense of closure by recovering the body.

Lieutenant Commander Amy Gilmore’s unstinting efforts to help British citizens whose lives had been turned upside down by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017 earn her the Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service (QCVS).

The flight commander/observer (navigator/weapons and sensors specialists) was in charge of a dozen-strong team of air and ground crew maintaining and operating the state-of-the-art Wildcat helicopter aboard support ship RFA Mounts Bay.

The helicopter flew 90 hours of missions during Operation Ruman – codename for the UK armed forces’ response to the storms; it was often first on the scene in the aftermath of the storms, delivering 37 tonnes of aid to inaccessible areas, evacuating medical emergencies, flying in water and food, and rescuing three people from a capsized boat.

Also recognised for their exemplary leadership and efforts on the ground in the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla and the Turks and Caicos Islands during the same relief mission are Royal Marines Major Tom Quinn and Sergeants William MacFarlane and James Oldale, all from 40 Commando based at Norton Manor near Taunton. Each receives the QCVS.

The Queen’s Commendation for Bravery is awarded to 34-year-old Leading Diver Matthew O’Brien for courage and leadership during one of the most unusual ordnance disposal operations in the UK in recent years.

After canisters containing mustard gas were found by the public, he volunteered to be the first man to enter Stixwould Lake near Lincoln – despite concerns the waters might be contaminated – putting himself in harm’s way to search for other canisters which had been illegally dumped there. He donned a special suit, had zero visibility and had to feel his way around the lake to locate possibly-damaged toxic shells, safely bag them and return to the surface to hand them over to his colleagues for disposal.

In all the team from Portsmouth’s Southern Diving Unit 2 recovered ten 6lb chemical bombs during a week-long operation, but it was LD O’Brien’s bravery and leadership which particularly stood out, drawing praise from the military and civilian authorities involved in the operation and setting an example “of a selfless individual and model leader”.

And the Queen’s Gallantry Medal is awarded to Chief Petty Officer Kris Fenwick who oversaw the safe disposal of a WW2 bomb which caused the closure of Portsmouth Harbour one morning rush hour in February last year.

Work to pave the way for the arrival of new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth caused several pieces of wartime ordnance to be unearthed, but the 500lb German SC250 bomb picked up by the dredger Stemat was among the most difficult – and dangerous.

Still live, and capable of causing damage up to a mile away, the bomb was trapped in the dredger’s claw next to the Wightlink ferry terminal. CPO Fenwick succeeded in removing the bomb from the claw, before it was carefully towed out into the Solent in the face of Storm Doris – where the waves threatened to sink the dive boat until a police launch came to help.

The divers were then finally able to safely blow up the bomb after a demanding eight-hour operation played out “under some of the worst conditions possible” and with “considerable media attention and the public”. The resulting huge blast showed how devastating the bomb could have been had it detonated in the harbour.

In all the divers cleared five tonnes of unexploded or old ordnance from Portsmouth Harbour – including a large German parachute mine, one 1,000lb bomb and two 500lb SC250s – during 34 call-outs throughout the dredging operation, a collective effort which earned the team of around 30 divers the ‘Heroes at Home’ award at last year’s Sun Military Awards, plus a commendation from Britain’s second most senior sailor, Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Ben Key.

CPO Fenwick, who hails from the Whitley Bay area, has been a Navy diver for 16 years. He said the award of the QGM was “flattering because it’s really a team effort”. The 41-year-old continued: “We dealt with many challenging incidents during the dredging and it was a real team success. I’m only successful if I have a successful team behind me – and bravery ran right through the ranks.

“Every time you go in the water as a diver it’s dangerous – it’s the Able Seaman Divers and Leading Divers who do the hard work. I’m in awe of them. They’re the ones who are incredibly brave. So although the award is to me, it’s for all of them.”

Commander Al Nekrews, in charge of the Fleet Diving Squadron and a holder of the QGM for his bravery dealing with improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan, said the clutch of awards was “fantastic news – both for the individuals and for the Clearance Diving Branch. I am utterly proud of our people being recognised for their courage.”

I’m only successful if I have a successful team behind me – and bravery ran right through the ranks.

Chief Petty Office Kris Fenwick