Rapture of the deep

Sydney Knowles in primitive diving gear in Gibraltar
Sydney Knowles in primitive diving gear in Gibraltar
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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.

“I would have followed (Crabb) to hell,” says Sydney.

“He was wonderful.

“I started my diving in Gibraltar when I met him – I had never dived in my life until then.”

Sydney’s career, and his close working relationship with Crabb, continued in the years after the war.

The two dived together in the 1950s in search of a centuries-old Spanish galleon, reportedly filled with treasure, that had sunk off the Isle of Mull. It was a challenging and ultimately fruitless mission, which could have cost Sydney his life when he was pinned down on the seabed for almost an hour by a boulder which had fallen loose.

Five years later, Sydney took on a very different but no less dangerous mission with his former boss.

Crabb called upon his former comrade to accompany him on a top-secret exploration of the Russian warship, Sverdlov, organised by the CIA.

The Americans were keen to know what made the Soviet ship so manoeuvrable and, when it anchored in British waters at Portsmouth, they saw their chance.

On the covert night-time operation, Sydney and Crabb wore skull caps with black netting that hung down over their heads and faces, allowing them to see but breaking up the silhouettes of their heads when on the surface of the water.

Through careful probing in the dark waters, they discovered an opening in the hull, concealing a propeller that was the secret to the ship’s manoeuvrability.

A year later, Crabb went missing during another underwater mission.

He had been recruited by MI6 for further naval intelligence operations on Russian ships.

A body wearing a diving suit was found off Pilsey Island in 1957. Close relatives were unable to identify the corpse but a coroner later ruled he believed the body to be that of Crabb. Sydney has been called upon many times over the years to give his opinion on Crabb’s mysterious disappearance.

After almost 50 years, he has decided to put his own memoir, A Diver in the Dark, into print, detailing his time with Crabb and as a Navy clearance diver.

“I’ve been messing around with my memoirs in my head for about 30 years,” says Sydney, who moved to Spain with wife Frances 23 years ago.

“I decided I have to get it off my mind. I’ve got a lot to say.”

A Diver in the Dark is published by Woodfield Publishing, priced £14.95. To buy a copy, call 01243 821234 or log on to www.woodfieldpublishing.co.uk