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Diving Museum tribute to WW2 ‘P Parties’ diver

A ceremony to honour a surviving member of a select band of ‘unsung heroes’ was held in Gosport’s Diving Museum last week. Chief Correspondent Rob Thomas was there to record what was at times an emotional event…

GOSPORT’s Diving Museum was the setting for a ceremony to honour a man who 77 years ago was risking his life to clear mines and bombs from harbours along the European coast after D-Day.

John Payne was a member of the Port Clearance Parties – known as the P Parties – who dived into the dirty, murky waters of harbours from Cherbourg to Bremen to search in the thick mud and debris for explosives, including booby traps left by the Germans.

Their work enabled the ports to be brought quickly back into use so that crucial supplies could be landed and taken to the frontline as the Allies fought their way out of Normandy and across the continent.

Last Wednesday, the 96-year-old was the centre of attention at the museum in No. 2 Battery, Stokes Bay, surrounded by his family and admiring divers who could understand what he had experienced and the dangers he faced.

Museum Director Kevin Casey said he was, “a brave man, one of a small few”.

The opinion was that the veteran is probably the last surviving member of the P Parties and several of those present referred to the group of divers as ‘unsung heroes’.

When presented with framed photographs by Warrant Officer Simon Crew from the Royal Navy Bomb Disposal team, Mr Payne was overwhelmed but soon restored his composure and was able to enjoy a traditional tot of rum.

He also renewed acquaintance with the equipment he wore all those years ago – the Sladen Suit, one of which is in the Diving Museum. He described the suit as, “wonderful … very comfortable”.

However, that was not the view of WO1 Crew, who was amazed at how basic the Sladen Suit was compared to modern-day diving equipment. He described it as, “a diving set that I probably wouldn’t even use in the bath”.

The catalyst who brought the Historical Diving Society together with Mr Payne – who now lives in Lancing – was Eamon ‘Ginge’ Fullen QGM – himself an experienced diver.

He told The Globe that the contact was made via the secretary of the RN Clearance Diving Association and, “I went straight away to meet [John Payne]. For an ex-Navy diver to meet someone like him is amazing.”

Having written several history books, Mr Fullen has now been inspired to start one about the P Parties.

Mr Casey summed up the importance of the day, saying it was part of preserving, “this country’s rich history in diving… We need to do this for the next generation.”

Photo (top): 96-year-old John Payne enjoys the traditional tot of rum