Divers are a select but vital part of military engineering in the British Army. There are currently only around 300 qualified divers, but with a history going back to an extraordinary 1838, they form a significant element of the Army, both past and present. Here we take a deep dive (!) into their training, work and technology, with Major Mick Stewart.
Army divers came into being after one Colonel Pasley, who had previously tested the capability in the River Thames, needed to clear the wreck of a ship called The Royal George, which posed a hazard to shipping navigation off Portsmouth. Diving technology was new at the time and Colonel Pasley thought they could blow up and remove the ship – which they successfully did. Several hundred years ago, and before the Navy had any, the Army Divers were in business.
Army Divers are now predominately part of the Royal Engineers, and a smaller number in the Royal Logistic Corps, with divers across 12 teams. These include a team in our para engineer squadron, a team in our commando engineer squadron and a team in our Explosives Ordnance Disposal (EOD) group.
Although being a competent diver is critical, the work is similar to engineering or a trade, just underwater – more similar to commercial diving than SCUBA diving holidays in warm seas.
It takes a huge amount of time and effort to maintain skills. It’s a commitment on the part of the individual to maintain skills alongside busy roles.Major Mick Stewart, Army Diving Senior Operator and Second in Command of 39 Engineer Regiment, said: “It’s a total mixture of people who have dived before and those who haven’t. Most people don’t know about the trade until they join and, see the divers in action.
“You have to be physically fit for the tough entry criteria. There is a pre-diving assessment before you even get into the water – it’s a two-day assessment of your physical fitness and your aptitude for military diving.
“You bring some of your work skills as a combat engineer to the course; the course brings the underwater element to that. The difference between military diving and scuba diving is that military diving is all about getting to work. The diving apparatus is about just getting to work safely – it’s all about completing the task.”
“We don’t carry weapons underwater – that’s more the remit of special forces – we don’t tend to encounter other divers!”
There are three courses; all held at Horsea Island in Portsmouth, at the Defence Diving School – under Navy command with two Army teams:
- Army Diver Class Two course – all about learning to dive to a depth of 30 metres in SCUBA type equipment and becoming skilled in tasks such as fast water search, underwater demolitions, buoyancy lifting and recovery, light engineering and inspections. It’s nine weeks long, including two weeks of diving first aid.
- Army Diver Class One course – an eight-week course using surface-supplied diving equipment to carry out underwater construction and heavy engineering, with tasks ranging from ultrathermic cutting, underwater concreting, use of heavy underwater hydraulic tools and heavier recovery tasks. Divers are qualified to a depth of 50 metres and are practised in live decompression to prevent “decompression sickness or “the bends”.
- Army Diving Supervisor course – Every dive task is conducted under the watchful eye of a supervisor. This is an intensive 10-week course that trains experienced divers to plan, manage and safely deliver dive tasks.
A large part of the work of Army Divers is known as ‘port enablement.’ With troops arriving by sea or air, ports need to be cleared and ready with the right infrastructure. Anything that can be done on the surface, can also be done underwater. Tasks might include:
- Clearing underwater obstructions like sunken vessels, shipping containers and other hazards - using buoyancy bags to lift and move them, or cut them using underwater cutting equipment, or use explosives for underwater demolition.
- Search and recovery of critical equipment
- Fast-water diving operations – specific to the Army
- Underwater survey and structural assessments
- Underwater construction or repair
- The RLC can also do repairs and inspections on their vessels
The divers are all soldiers first; with trades and skills which they use day-to-day. However, they deploy on exercises or into operational theatres with all their dive equipment and have to be prepared to switch to a task at short notice.
“In Afghanistan, in the middle of a working day, we were on 4 hours notice to move, to cover diving operation across Helmand. I had to pull drivers off task, who’d just finished a long patrol, and pull engineers off a site, and within 40 mins have them in a Chinook, and land beside the river Helmand to do an underwater search for some missing critical equipment.
“The operation lasted 72 hours, and we did recover the kit. At the end of the task, we were in a firefight and had to extract to the nearest patrol base carrying all our dive equipment.”
Depending on the operation, teams might deploy or might be back in the UK, ready to be called on. More usually they would be deployed forward with their equipment and be ready to be tasked. Meanwhile they carry on with their regular day jobs.
“It takes a huge amount of time and effort to maintain skills. It’s a commitment on the part of the individual to maintain skills alongside busy roles.
“They get extra money for being Army Divers yes, but not much!”
“People do it because they enjoy the challenge, it is exciting. Some people enjoy the diver element itself. There’s an element of small team dynamics. We’re small, tight-knit teams.”
We see all wildlife – we’ve seen dolphins in the UK and have dived with sharks in Ascension Island. It wouldn’t be uncommon to be joined by an inquisitive shark or a friendly turtle!
The teams work in the UK as well, such as inspecting the aftermath of the flooding in 2014. They also train with international partners; taking part in the Canadians' annual exercise; and diving alongside German counterparts on amphibious bridging – the only two European countries in NATO with this capability.
When it comes to recreation, not all the divers are so keen to get their feet wet.
“Some military divers love diving and do it recreationally and instruct it. It doesn’t always go hand in hand – some don’t ever dive for fun!”
Diving can involve extremes of temperature, and some wild encounters.
“We can dive under ice – at real extremes of temperature. We dive in Arctic Norway and desert environments and everything in between. We see all wildlife – we’ve seen dolphins in the UK and have dived with sharks in Ascension Island. It wouldn’t be uncommon to be joined by an inquisitive shark or a friendly turtle!”
The team even swam the length of Loch Ness in July as a relay event – a distance of 23 miles – in 36 hours, to practise navigation and underwater endurance.
“There was no sign of the Loch Ness Monster but she was very close at all times I’m sure!”
Army Divers come together twice a year to share skills and best-practise during an Annual diving exercise – Exercise Submerged Crusader – the next one taking place across Scotland in September.
This year also sees an exciting new exercise - Austere Crusader, a theatre and port enablement exercise in October/November that will test the Army’s ability to open a port from scratch, blending all things Army maritime, diving, ship to shore fuel, engineering and logistics.
“We are recruiting now – the door is open for Class Two Divers. You have to be in the Royal Engineers or at 17 Port and Maritime Regiment RLC, so it’s something to think about if you haven’t yet joined the Army!”