Rapture of the deep
From Beta Lep
From searching for mines planted on Allied boats during World War II to spying on Russian warships, Sydney Knowles had a colourful life at sea.
Jenny Simpson speaks to the Prestonian about his new memoir, A Diver in the Dark.
Sydney Knowles braced himself as he plunged into the choppy waters and made his descent into their pitch-black depths.
Kitted out with nothing but swimming trunks, lead-weighted plimsolls and primitive breathing equipment, Sydney was carrying out another perilious search for mines planted by enemy Italian frogmen on the hulls of Allied ships anchored in ports during World War Two.
Working in total darkness, the divers would try to cut the mines loose or call for help from their commanding officer, Lionel ‘Buster’ Crabb.
“We had no diving equipment at all,” explains Sydney, now 88.
“We just took a deep breath and tried to see what we could.”
Sydney, who grew up in New Hall Lane, Preston, had joined the Royal Navy in 1939 at the age of 18.
He served in the North Atlantic aboard HMS Zulu during the hunt for the Bismarck and later in Operation Pedestal, the naval convoy which broke the Siege of Malta in 1942.
It was on his return to Gibraltar following Pedestal that he spotted an intriguing notice, pinned to a board: ‘Volunteers required for hazardous duties ashore.’
Sydney recalls: “I wondered what could be more hazardous than the hell I had experienced on the Malta convoys – surely nothing ashore could equal that?
“I was soon to discover, however, that it was a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire.
“I was asked if I could swim, and if I would be interested in learning to become a diver.”
After an interview with Crabb and Lt Bailey, the bomb and mine disposal experts, Sydney joined the Underwater Working Party and began the dangerous task of hunting for underwater explosives.
Crabb’s expertise at rendering mines safe were second to none and earned him a George Medal, as well as the unwavering loyalty of his men, including Sydney.
A film, The Silent Enemy, was later made about their underwater exploits, which also included searching for the body of the commander-in-chief of the Polish armed forces following a plane crash off Gibraltar.