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Tributes to WW2 John Payne – last of the divers who cleared Europe’s ports

20 April 2023
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Another living link with the WW2 generation has been broken with the passing of former diver John Payne – who helped pave the way for the Allied advance to victory in 1944 and 1945.

At 98, John Payne is believed to have been the last surviving member of what were known as P Parties – specialist teams of mine/bomb disposal experts who cleared Europe’s ports of explosives, reopening harbours first to military, then civilian traffic.

John and his colleagues spent 600 days dived in cold, muddy, murky waters, dealing with some of the most complex and thorough demolition jobs in history.

Collectively, they searched more than 20 million square feet of harbour and port facilities, and dealt with hundreds of mines, charges, bombs and booby traps, and one V1 rocket. They would become one of the most highly decorated units of the war.

Originally from Oxfordshire, John settled in Lancing, West Sussex, as a child. He volunteered for the Navy aged 18 in 1943 and determined “to do something active” put his name forward for diving rather than remain at Portsmouth barracks.

Having undergone training in and around London, Portsmouth and Cumbria, John’s party – roughly ¬35 men strong led by an officer, with a senior rating, a couple of leading hands, and 30 able ratings, including young, fit divers – was assigned to the US sector of the invasion front in Normandy and arrived in northern France about a fortnight after D-Day.

It was sent to Cherbourg – the first major port to fall into Allied hands… but also left in ruins by the Germans.

Not only did the Nazis do a thorough demolition job of the port facilities but conditions were grim: mud due to lack of dredging during the war, strong currents.

The men frequently carried out two dives a day and were so exhausted by the experience and lack of sustenance – they normally lived on sandwiches – that they could collapse through fatigue.

Alternating with spells around the UK on mine clearance work, John’s P Party continued to tirelessly open up ports to maritime traffic: Rouen on the Seine – “You could hardly tell it was a dock as it was blown to pieces so badly.”  Then Dunkirk. And as winter 1944 set in, the Belgian port of Antwerp – under bombardment for it was, famously, the objective of Hitler’s Ardennes offensive (‘the Battle of the Bulge’).

The river was littered with floating mines – more than John had ever seen – and, in spite of the cold, work continued. Many divers covered their hands in goose fat and had fires ready as soon as they climbed out of the water, but the cold never bothered John.

And again the enemy had done a thorough sabotage job: “The Germans had tied a mine to every crane along the quay as well as in the water so when it exploded the crane fell in.”

 Once the Allies crossed the Rhine in March 1945, German resistance in the West largely collapsed and John’s Party soon found itself in the city of Bremen – “the most mines of all the ports and our biggest haul”.

At the war’s end, John volunteered for Far East service, continuing to do there what he had done in North West Europe, but the clearance team was not needed there, so instead he left the Navy in 1946.

“They did offer me that I could stay in but I couldn’t. I was too damn tired,” he recalled more than half a century later

“They were no real options to dive outside even though I thought I might like to dive again. I enjoyed my diving, although I had a lot of responsibility. It seems an odd thing to say but it was a great time and great lads and thinking back I miss them dearly. They were a good crowd.”

Upon leaving the Navy, John returned to Lancing and after a brief spell working on the railways, became a postman. He also volunteered as a Sea Cadets instructor – through which he was encouraged to apply for medals to which he was entitled for his wartime service.

Among them, the Naval General Service medal with the 'Bomb & Mine Clearance 1945-53' clasp, awarded for six months' consecutive service in the disposal of bombs and mines after September 3 1945 in almost any part of the world. Only 145 were issued, nine of them posthumously, and 60 were presented to Royal Australian Navy personnel for work in the Solomon Islands and New Guinean waters.

John Payne died at a nursing home for veterans in Worthing after a short illness. Many of his papers, photographs and memories have been left with the Diving Museum in Brockhurst, which he visited just a couple of years ago.

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