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‘This is your monument’ – Memorial to mine warfare and diving heroes dedicated in Portsmouth

The Vernon Monument
15 July 2022
Hundreds of sailors who have devoted – or continue to devote – their lives to dealing with the threat of mines, unexploded ordnance and bombs today saw a monument dedicated in their name.

Rising out of the water at the Gunwharf Quays shopping/leisure and housing development in Portsmouth, the Vernon Monument – named after the spiritual home of mine warfare, HMS Vernon, which occupied the site for nearly 75 years – was formally dedicated.

The £250,000 statue was installed and unveiled on the eve of the first Covid lockdown back in March 2020 – preventing an official service of thanksgiving and dedication until now.

The monument features a one-and-a-quarter scale British Mk17 moored mine, armed with ‘Hertz horn’ contacts – chemical fuses – which two divers wearing equally-iconic Clearance Diving Breathing Apparatus are attempting to deal with.

Several dozen serving personnel from the Royal Navy’s Mine Warfare community – which includes crews of two squadrons of minehunters, plus specialist explosive ordnance disposal/clearance divers – joined VIPs, former divers, minehunter/sweeper crews, family and allies.

Guests travelled from all over the world – the USA, Canada, Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong among others – to attend the ceremony with Naval chaplain the Rev Ralph Barber, fittingly a former mine warfare rating, conducting the dedication and former mine clearance diving officer Rear Admiral Paddy McAlpine giving the key address.

He embarked on what he called “this most hazardous of careers” in the late 1980s and was involved in clearing the waters off Kuwait following the first Gulf War of 1990-91.

He reminded all present that one third of all mines laid in World War 2 were not cleared at the conflict’s end… and today’s divers are still called out to deal with around a dozen rendered safe or blown up around the UK each year.

“Mines are being used right now in the Black Sea – there remains the ever-present threat of mines being used around the world,” Admiral McAlpine said as he outlined the present-day work of RN divers and mine warfare experts – both going through a mid-21st Century transformation.

The divers have recently been reorganised under the new Diving and Threat Exploitation Group while the two minehunter squadrons (No.1 based in Faslane, No.2 in Portsmouth) will in time be replaced by the Project Wilton autonomous mine warfare systems… but not entirely.

“At the heart of the new technology is our people – divers and mine warfare specialists remain relevant,” the admiral stressed.

Above all, he reminded the hundreds of people gathered in a semicircle around the lock where the monument stands of mine warfare experts – from the pioneers who dealt with German magnetic mines in the first days of WW2, to the trailblazers who cleared a path for the landing craft on D-Day, rendered the waters of Europe and the Pacific safe after the war, cleared the Gulf during a succession of wars, and dealt with increasingly-sophisticated improvised bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“This monument honours you, your forebears and successors yet to come,” he declared.

It looks fantastic – to see it come to fruition, after all the hard work, in this setting. It’s been well worth it.

AB (D) Andy Waller

The statue is the only national memorial to mine warfare – individual ships and units or people have their monuments, but until the Vernon monument was installed there was no central point for the community to honour the fallen and remember.

Able Seaman (Diver) Andy Waller is among the hundreds of people who raised money over a 12-year-old period to bring the monument to fruition. He made a round-trip from Suffolk in a day to see it dedicated.

“It looks fantastic – to see it come to fruition, after all the hard work, in this setting. It’s been well worth it,” he said.

Andy and his colleagues use equipment both under water and ashore their forebears could only dream of, from lightweight rebreathing equipment and small bomb disposal robots weighing just 25kg which can be carried on your back.

Among the oldest guests present was Lieutenant Commander David Bartlett, who trained as a mine clearance diving officer in 1967 after more than a decade as a torpedo and submarine warfare specialist.

He joined for the excitement, trained in the old-style metal diving helmet and used kit which was “very Heath Robinson, very different from today’s divers – but we still faced many of the same dangers and same problems."

He spent more than two “absolutely fascinating” years in Malta, largely dealing with the detritus of WW2 and in the mid-70s, led the expedition to recover artefacts and monuments from Philae, submerged when the dams at Aswan were built in Egypt. The fruits of the operation he successfully led can be seen to this day by tourists.

He was given a front-row seat at the dedication and is delighted by the monument. “We are now recognised properly,” he said. “We are a proper unit which has served its country so well.”

Sitting behind him was Warrant Officer Peter Still, 35 years a diver, former coxswain to Prince Charles when he commanded HMS Bronington in the mid-1970s (and a friend to this day).

He was charged with diving on Bronington’s sister HMS Fittleton, which sank in a training accident in the North Sea and a decade later was about to have a kip one Friday evening when his wife Sandra picked up the phone: her husband wouldn’t be getting any sleep. He was needed in Belgium to search for survivors of the Herald of Free Enterprise, which had partially capsized off Zeebrugge.

Sadly he found no survivors, only bodies, which were meticulously and carefully recovered.

Now enjoying retirement at the age of 77, the dedication ceremony brought memories back in a flash.

“I’ve served with some wonderful people, people I’ve not seen for years, but here, today, seeing them again, it’s all come straight back,” he said.

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