Wartime Issue 26 - 'Tough and dangerous work'
lipping into the dark, oily waters of a polluted harbour and feeling one’s way round live sea-mines in the silt at the bottom might not be everybody’s idea of a great time. But for the men of the RAN’s Clearance Diving Team Three, or AUSCDT Three, this was just the job they had been training to do, in many cases for years. In Iraq in 2003, they got their chance.
The Navy’s clearance divers are trained to deal with all types of explosive devices in ships, on land, and underwater. They can dive to a depth of 54 metres, but are equally at home working on dry land. They are also fully able to defend themselves and provide their own security. Moreover, Australian clearance divers are more versatile than their American and British counterparts: American divers tend to rely on trained dolphins and on sensors mounted in metrelong unmanned underwater vehicles to locate suspicious objects, which the divers then dispose of; British divers focus on destroying objects located by minehunter ships; but the Australians have retained the capability to search wharves and port areas, locate and identify suspicious objects, and dispose of them themselves.
AUSCDT Three is an ad hoc unit formed whenever the divers are sent into a combat area. At the height of the operation, AUSCDT Three in Iraq – the largest ever deployed – consisted of 32 men, drawn from two standing units, AUSCDT One, based in Western Australia, and AUSCDT Four, from New South Wales. It was not the first time the unit had been sent to the Persian Gulf. In March and April 1991, in the aftermath of the First Gulf War, AUSCDT Three had gone into action for the first time since Vietnam. On that occasion, 23 Australian divers cleared several Kuwaiti ports, a naval base, and a number of beaches. With the coalition in 1991 intent simply on ejecting the Iraqis from Kuwait, the divers had worked entirely in that country. This time the job would be in Iraq itself.
After a period training with other coalition divers in the United States, AUSCDT Three left Australia in February 2003, staged through Bahrain, where they loaded much of their equipment on the USS Gunston Hall, and then flew on to a naval base in Kuwait. A few weeks later, when the war began, the divers moved forward overland to a former US Marine camp in the desert, near the Iraqi border. There they were in the path of Iraqi missiles being fired south; since it was feared the missiles might be carrying chemical weapons, the divers repeatedly had to don gas masks and charcoal-impregnated protective clothing – very uncomfortable in the Kuwaiti heat.
The first group of divers into action was a detachment deployed to the Australian ships operating in the northern Persian Gulf. On 20 March, when boarding parties based in HMAS Kanimbla discovered some Iraqi tugs and a barge carrying sea mines, the Australian divers worked with their American counterparts to check the mines for boobytraps and certify that they were safe to transport to Kuwait for further examination.
Four days later, the main party crossed into Iraq and travelled by road to the port of Umm Qasr, near the junction of the Khawr ’Abd Allah inlet (the KAA) with the Khawr Az Zubayr waterway and the Al Basra canal linking Iraq with the Persian Gulf. The port of Umm Qasr became important during the Iran–Iraq war of the 1980s, when the Shatt Al Arab, the river to the east dividing these two countries, was the focus of much of the conflict. Now, with fighting still flaring in the town of Umm Qasr, it was essential to make the port operational as quickly as possible, to allow the coalition to bring humanitarian aid into southern Iraq. Iraqi plans to lace the area with a large number of mines were thwarted, but nobody could be certain what the murky waters of the port concealed.
After settling into their quarters in a rundown warehouse, next morning the divers ventured into the coffee-coloured waters of the harbour. It was tough and dangerous work. Powerful tidal flows meant that the work had to be done in limited windows of opportunity as the tide turned. The need to ensure adequate separation between divers working with potentially explosive ordnance meant that only a small number could be underwater at one time. Visibility was so poor that the divers had to work by touch alone.
A particular problem in the port was a sunken Iraqi PB 40 minelayer, with four LUGM-145 sea mines aboard. It was in a position where blowing up the mines in situ could damage the pier, at which it was hoped the first humanitarian aid ship would be able to dock in a few days. So after American divers removed the frame of the PB 40, the AUSCDT Three divers were able to wrestle the mines into a position where they could be lifted and then transported to a site where they could be destroyed.
In other cases, where suspicious objects were located in the silt at the bottom of the harbour, explosives were set to ensure that anything that could blow up did blow up. The danger of trying to raise mines prior to destruction was that they might have deteriorated and become unstable, or that they might have been deliberately modified to explode when lifted. At the same time, the urgency of reopening the port meant that often there was not time to identify a suspicious object; it was quicker to set an explosive on it and see what happened.
While the harbour was being cleared, some of the divers helped check the port buildings for ordnance and booby-traps, and others worked with British commandos to clear the town of dangerous items. In the grounds of a school they found a cache of mortars and two rocket-propelled grenades. The latter were too dangerous to move and were destroyed where they lay, after moving the watching crowd back to a safe distance. Outside the town, the divers also helped dispose of 25 sea mines found hidden in the desert; on one occasion they had to drove a mob of sheep off the area they were using.
The first ship bringing aid, Sir Galahad, arrived on 28 March (and berthed at an uncleared part of the wharf). Two weeks later the port was declared clear and open for business. The Australian divers then moved about 10 kilometres north to Khawr Az Zubayr, located on the waterway of the same name and serving as the port for the town of Az Zubayr. The task was similar to that at Umm Qasr, but complicated by a very large number of abandoned and derelict vessels. Once again the tidal flows made diving hard work, and the oily waters of the port kept visibility low.
While some of the divers worked at Khawr Az Zubayr, each day another detachment drove north from their British camp to Basra, then south to the southern coast of the Al Faw peninsula, where tidal flats met the Khawr ’Abd Allah. Along this entire coastline they cleared unexploded ordnance in the area between the main road and the low-water mark, walking – or sometimes crawling – very carefully through areas known to be littered with mines. They disposed of hundreds of explosive devices, thereby helping to make the area much safer for the local people.
The team also worked at Khawr Az Zubayr heliport and at a large facility which had housed the Iraqi navy’s mine warfare school. Here they found huge underground bunkers and outdoor storage areas crammed with sea mines, anti-submarine mortars and other ordnance. Destroying all these items – and keeping local people scavenging on the site away from the detonation areas – was another large job.
At the end of May, the members of AUSCDT Three returned to Australia. Without sustaining casualties, this small group had made a significant contribution to coalition operations in Iraq, and once again shown what a small number of people can do with the right training, experience, equipment and attitude.
The author would like to thank Lieutenant Commander Scott Craig, who commanded AUSCDT Three in Iraq, and Dr David Stevens, RAN Director of Strategic and Historical Studies, for their assistance with this article.
Dr Peter Londey is a senior historian in the Military History Section, and the author of the forthcoming history of Australian peacekeeping, Other people’s wars.