Specialist Ship's Diver

After the war the blocked seaways and harbours of the world had to be cleared.
Vic Sperdutti was a salvage diver undertaking this dangerous task.

By Jim Dyer
First published in the Western Mail 1988

© Jim Dyer 2012

When fully incarcerated in his heavy diving-suit Vic Sperdutti resembled a creature from 20000 Leagues Under The Sea. Sealed from the outside world it was heavy enough to keep the strongest of men affixed to the sea bed - 180 lbs in all.

The helmet and corselet weighed 45 lbs, each boot 22 lbs and 22lb weights on the chest and back. This was standard diving gear towards the end of the war and when the Royal Navy realised there was a shortage of salvage divers, 23 year-old Vic Sperdutti volunteered for training.

Over the years dressed up in his diving gear became second nature and as an expert, his services were in demand.

Vic Sperdutti preparing to dive
Preparing to dive, Vic Sperdutti dons the helmet and corselet weighing 45lbs,
boots 44lbs with added weights on the chest and back the total weight of the diving suit is 180 lbs.
This was the standard Royal Navy diving gear towards the end of World War II.
Pictures from a photocopy of the 1988 Western Mail article.

Vic, of Italian descent, is well-known in Newport and has a calm personality, a great asset for a diver alone fathoms beneath the surface. Until recently retiring in 1986, he was the popular landlord of he Church House used once by the famous tramp poet W. H. Davies. Now living in Ridgeway he maintained friends with old shipmates and keeps a keen interest in the sea.

Divers' Training

In 1938 Vic trained as a rating engineer on the 'stone frigate', HMS Drake and it took him six weeks chasing around the Chinese coast before catching up with his first posting aboard the cruiser HMS Dorsetshire, Shanghai.

Later in the Atlantic he helped to fish-out survivors of the Bismarck, but left the ship shortly before she was sunk by the Japanese off Ceylon.

He joined the monitor, HMS Roberts bombarding at the invasion of Salerno and Anzio but left the ship to take-up diving when it returned for the Normandy landings.

Vic trained at the Royal Navy diving school in Alexandria where the rules of good and safe diving were pumped into him. From this start he was able to help shift wrecks all over the Mediterranean often working with explosives.

His training was thorough and claustrophobic and the prospect of being helplessly stuck on the seabed held no terrors for him. 'We had such a long training that getting in and out of the suit was easy. We were taught how to dress and the right things to do. The value of safety was drilled into us.'

Diving in the Mediterranean

His first diving job was at Metruh, west of Alexandria, where the team worked from the salvage tug Prince Salvor. They raised a German merchantman, the Brook, which was riddled with shell holes and blocking the harbour. Once above water the gutsy tug towed the wreck to Tobruk where it was used by the RAF for target practice. He compared walking on the bottom in the heavy suit as struggling against a severe wind, but there were dangers particularly if the diver’s airline snagged or the wrecks shifted.

'You have to be careful inside a ship and watch your lines do not get tangled. Sometimes we were working in pitch darkness and your lifeline is essential to find your way back.'

On one occasion Vic was working below when he felt his airline being constricted caused by the ammunition barge above moving towards the tug and compressing the lines. In a typical Sperdutti fashion he kept calm and traced the fault back.

Some of his fellow divers were not so lucky. One was killed in Malta raising the Tribal class destroyer, Maori, bombed in 1942 when his airline was cut. Another was killed carrying out a patching repair his diving suit sleeve ripped off and asphyxiated him.

Back in Alexandria he helped to raise and cut-up two trawlers. On the Greek island of Kithira they lifted the French ship Pierre Gabalt which had ran aground. 'I was sent down to shut-off the deep tanks. We pumped her out until she floated and towed her to Pirheus.'

He was then down in Salonika, northern Greece, to shift the Borgas which the Germans had sank to hamper the invading allied army. Dockside cranes had been toppled on to her as well and it took six months to cut her up.

At Tobruk they spent some time surveying the numerous wrecks and damage around the port and at Benghazi he helped construct a jetty into the harbour. At Malta he pumped out a floating dock working with burners, patching and sealing.

The ports of call for a diver are varied, and closer to home in southern Ireland he found himself helping to untangle the screws of minesweepers. Off Scotland he was patching the old battleship Nelson being used for bomb penetration practice by the RAF before towing her to the scrapyard.

After 1949

Vic qualified as a first class diver at the end of 1949 and joined the cruiser HMS Newcastle at Malta as ship's diver. He voyaged the Med again, periodically inspecting the underside of the ship and training the crew. If anything lost overboard he was sent down to retrieve it.

Before leaving the service in the early 'fifties he joined the naval diving school as an instructor passing-on the skills he had learnt. When he first entered the Royal Navy he recalls the words of an officer present when he passed the swimming test.

'Go through your time as cool and calm as this and you will have nothing to worry about'. Fitting encouragement for a young rating who has never found time to search the seabed for treasure as there was too much work to be done.

Jim Dyer - 25th December 2011


First published in Western Mail in 1988