A clearance diver in the Gulf War- (pt1)


A Clearance Diver in the Gulf War:

Part 1

by Eugene Maxwell


The 23 men assembled in front of the aircraft hangar appeared a motley bunch, half wearing camouflage fatigues, half in navy blue overalls, and one in civilian clothes – he had been abruptly recalled from his Christmas leave. On this hot summer afternoon at RAAF Pearce Western Australia, Clearance Diving Team 3 was being reactivated. It was Sunday, January 27, 1991, and we were on our way to the Gulf War.

CDT3 is the clearance diving operational team mobilised whenever the Royal Australian Navy becomes involved in global conflict. Last activated for the Vietnam conflict, the team had been dormant since 1971. Our mobilisation was the culmination of immense frenetic activity, and after our equipment was loaded overnight into two C130 aircraft, we roared down the runway at 0900 the following morning and watched Australia disappear beneath us. Turning northwest, we settled down for the long trek to the Middle East and tried to imagine what lay in store for us. After touching down at Cocos Islands, Diego Garcia and Oman – and the small hiccup of having one engine shut down somewhere over the Indian Ocean – we emerged from the plane at Bahrain Airport to get our first glimpse of war. The tarmac was abuzz with men and machinery. Military police drove past in a Jeep, grim-faced and with an M60 machine gun cocked and ready. Attack helicopters stood menacingly close, missiles in place, and glistening F18 fighter planes lined up for the quick sprint down the runway. We were moved into a hotel that teemed with war correspondents and had its windows dressed in masking tape – a paltry insurance should a Scud missile explode nearby. We carried gas masks everywhere we went against the possibility of a chemical attack, and brushed up on weapons drills at a local firing range. The wailing of air raid sirens were a familiar sound, and one morning we were woken abruptly by a number of loud explosions as Patriot missiles lifted off to intercept a deadly Scud intruder.

As the days went by, we watched the war on CNN while waiting for our orders to come through, and made good use of the time by conducting workups on all our equipment. We received a rude shock when the perceived clear, warm waters of the Arabian Gulf turned out to be extremely cold, with a muddy seabed that allowed limited visibility.

It was March 4 before we were told to pack for the move north. The next day we crossed onto Kuwait soil, and with 25 tonnes of equipment hauled on three semi-trailers and two five-ton trucks, we made our way to the port of Ash Shu’Aybah. The closest deepwater port to Kuwait city, it was to be cleared with great urgency to allow relief supplies and desperately needed food and water to be offloaded from waiting ships. As our slow procession moved steadily forward, the northern horizon took on an orange glow as the oil fires – the Iraqi occupation forces’ last defiant act – came into view. As we passed through an oil refinery adjacent to the port, a sabotaged pipeline spewed flames and thick oily black smoke 100 metres into the air. Though we passed 300m to the north of the fire, its fiery heat warmed our faces and lit up the surrounding countryside like a night Sun.

Mina Ash Shu’Aybah

The threat of mines and booby-trapped wharves provided our first task, along with US and UK diving teams. Though a cease-fire had been announced, Iraqi pockets of resistance ensured we each kept an M16 and a 9mm pistol close at hand. Upon reaching the port entrance at 0300, we were scrutinised by the Saudi Arabian soldiers who held the port, and finally pulled into a large, empty warehouse where we laid out stretchers and sleeping bags to catch a few hours’ sleep on the floor before the work started at dawn.

The morning revealed a windy, rainy day, with a low grey oil haze reducing the sun’s appearance to that of a failing lightbulb. For the next seven days, we worked at rendering the port safe. Crawling across a muddy seabed, in zero visibility, in a cold 14 metres of water using our hands as our primary sensors is nothing new to us. However, the possibility of a live mine or, worse, a weighted corpse, appearing out of the inky blackness was enough to send the heart thumping on numerous occasions during a dive.

On one particularly black day, due to the oil fire haze our team area was lit by generators and our diving floats were marked by cyalume chemical lights – this was at eight in the morning! Oil contamination became our next threat, coating personnel and equipment alike. Hours were spent de-oiling equipment using liquid soap, degreaser and steam cleaning in order to keep the gear operational. When our work in Kuwait was over, the lifespan of some of our equipment was also over. Not all our work was confined to the water. We also cleared wharves, buildings and ships, examining them for IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices, or booby traps to the uninitiated) and caches of explosives and small arms. The port itself was dotted with sandbag bunkers, from the entrances of which spilled small arms ammunition, RPG rounds, grenades, blankets, webbing, clothing, boots, shaving kits, and other evidence of a hasty departure. Iraqi sabotage was evident in the buckled cranes and distorted pipelines seeping oil to fuel the greedy flames that burned night and day. Every port vehicle had been damaged in some way, and all were stripped of wheels and tyres – apparently these were taken back to Iraq, where they were expensive to buy. Explosions and sporadic gunfire from the surrounding countryside was a daily occurrence; we never left the CDT3 team area alone, and always heavily armed. Fortunately, the CDT’s small arms training and the advantage of having a nucleus of ex-SAS counter-terrorist trained divers in the team ensured that our weapons skills were kept up to scratch.

Mines, our bread and butter and our ticket to the Middle East, became a reality in Kuwait. While none were encountered within the port, the beaches to the north and south were littered with contact mines that the Gulf waters had washed ashore. Some were beaten and battered from rocky encounters; others were covered in oil; some were perfect; yet all were deadly. Each day a small party would locate and render safe a number of these mines, while the majority of the team continued with the diving task. During a period of five days, the team spent 56 hours in the water, and cleared 450,000 square metres of harbour seabed.

Finding a mine was the easy part. Getting to it could be a real ordeal. If you were lucky, it might be on rocks, but usually it would be on the beach, entangled in lines of razor wire and barbed wire. With the additional ever-present threat of land mines, a team member would begin the arduous and trying job of probing a path to the mine. 20 minutes at a time was the most a man would stay at this task; after that the concentration could wane and mistakes could be made. After successfully negotiating a path through the soft sand, the cutting of the barbed or razor wire would come next – a bitch of a job. If there is one thing the Iraqis did properly, it was the laying of razor wire; quite a few men wear scars to vouch for that! After the probing and the wire, defusing the mine itself seemed a snap – but of course it wasn’t, although it is a relatively easy job for those trained to it. Removing arming switches or fusing devices was done remotely in case some bright spark had decided to add an anti-removal device.

Watching the ships enter the cleared port on March 12 marked the end of our stay at Ash Shu’Aybah, and provided us with the gratification of knowing we had done the job properly. A number of the mines we rendered safe are now on display in military museums in Australia. With this success under our belts, we turned to our next task, the clearance of the deserted Kuwaiti naval base Ras Al Qulai’ah. This was to be a solo effort by CDT3.

Ras Al Qulai’ah

On the morning of March 14, we stood in Ras Al Qulai’ah, stunned by the devastation. A combination of allied air attacks and Iraqi sabotage had reduced this modern naval base to a jumbled mess of concrete and steel. Plastic explosives, detonators and various small arms littered the wharves. Splitting into clearance teams, we commenced searching the wharves and buildings for booby traps and demolition charges. Treading lightly, and with senses on full alert, we cleared what had been an Iraqi mine-laying factory. Buoyant mine components and containers filled the warehouse, but alas, the mines themselves were going to be harder to find – all the boxes were empty! Moving through the buildings and onto the wharves, we began to encounter unsuccessful demolition charges and unexploded cluster bomblets, which received particular care. These could explode at the slightest touch. After remotely jarring the bomblets, they were removed to a safe disposal area to await destruction.

To escape the bombing, the occupying Iraqi forces here had lived in the service tunnels under the thick concrete wharves. We carefully picked our way through the subterranean villages by torchlight, stepping over cooking utensils and skirting mattresses perched on brick stilts above the two inches of slimy water that was the carpet of these impromptu barracks.

After three long days of continuous diving, we completed the clearance of the harbour areas of the port. The good visibility (up to three metres at times), and the fact that no mines or corpses were encountered, made this port more pleasant to dive – but the fact that numerous cluster bomblets littered the seabed made it damned treacherous. Some shattered, but most intact, the bomblets lay threateningly on the sand. The deadliest stood vertical, nose fuses buried in the sand, where the impact of entering the water had slowed them down sufficiently to strike the seabed without detonating. Hopefully you would see them before stumbling into one, and you prayed that your buddy would too; the slightest movement or jarring could result in a detonation that would not only incapacitate the offender, but any other diver in the vicinity with the resultant shock waves. We normally operated 20 to 40 metres apart. After a two hour search in such an environment, everyone was glad to be hauled back into the Zodiac for a well-earned wash down and hot brew.

Once again, our mine disposal parties continued to clear the nearby beaches, with the daily hazard of sporadic gunfire in their vicinity. On one memorable occasion, a team member began to receive incoming rounds as he was attempting to probe his way to a beached mine. Feeling a tad indignant, our gallant member grabbed his M203 (an M16 with grenade launcher attached), and stormed off to the nearby abandoned houses to investigate. There he found a group of young Kuwaiti men teaching themselves to shoot an AK47. As our man explained the advantages of clearing a mine without having bullets whistling around your backside, the group were last seen scurrying at high speed into a car, leaving behind a fast-diminishing cloud of dust and Aussie rhetoric.

Once again the environment affected our operations, and on occasions it became so dark during the day that torches had to be used. Six days after entering the naval base, we declared it and the surrounding areas safe for use. We had swum over 41,100 square metres of harbour in 44 hours of diving over three days. Groaning at the thought of packing our gear once again, we struck camp and headed to rejoin the other diving units for the clearance of the main port of Kuwait City.

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