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Batterham, Maurice Samuel (Batts) (1906–1996)

by Jake Linton

Maurice Samuel Batterham, OBE Navy commander, mines and bomb disposal expert. Born Williamstown, Victoria, February 3, 1906. Died Cowes, Victoria, August 20, aged 90.

Commander Maurice "Batts" Batterham was the Royal Australian Navy's expert on the laying and disposal of underwater mines and explosives, the father of modern diving in the RAN and a key figure in the development of Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus with Jacques Cousteau. He was also instrumental in introducing some of the first recreational diving equipment into Australia. Batts was born in Williamstown, Victoria, and educated at Geelong Grammar School. He became interested in diving as a boy, when he made dives in Corio Bay, Victoria, with the aid of a kerosene tin, a garden hose and a car pump. He became an electrical and mechanical engineer, and tried to join the navy before World War II, but was rejected as medically unfit because of a scar on his ankle.

At the outbreak of war he again applied, but was again rejected because he was in an essential job with Preston Motors in Melbourne. Batterham persevered and (to quote him), in early 1942, the navy, "finally realised it might be handy to have people with specialised knowledge of one sort or another". He was appointed, as a sublieutenant (on probation), Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve, to HMAS Lonsdale and then HMAS Cerberus in 1942. His appointment read, "additional for mining training", and this was to set the scene for a life involved in this field.

From the completion of his initial training he was employed in Rendering Mine Safe and Bomb Disposal duties and, after adding a diving qualification to his repertoire, included salvage and work on the protective boom at Darwin to his duties. In Darwin he had his baptism of fire when he was given the task of dismantling a Japanese mine that had come ashore on Melville Island. In a typical understatement, he said: "I was given the job of pulling one to bits to see what made it work." Around this time, Batterham was sent to the United States to lecture on mines and mine warfare. These tasks continued until 1944 when, after promotion to lieutenant (Special Branch), he was sent to Britain for service with the Royal Navy. After arriving in Britain, he was employed in bomb disposal and RMS duties, and was part of the research and development unit responsible for the introduction of self-contained diving apparatus into the Royal Navy, the first of the "frogmen" units.

The equipment used by divers to work on underwater mines had to be as acoustically and magnetically clean as possible, as World War II saw the advent of influence mines that could be detonated by an acoustic, magnetic or pressure influence or, indeed, any combination of all those. The equipment developed by the team proved to be the forerunners of today's military and commercial scuba.

After the cessation of hostilities in Europe, Batts was placed in command of naval port parties employed in the clearance of mines and obstructions along the French, Belgian and Dutch coasts. These parties became known as "human minesweepers". Using diving techniques, they worked in extremely difficult and dangerous conditions to clear European harbours of all manner of explosive ordnance. The work required great fortitude and courage. During his service, Batts rendered safe more than 500 German and Japanese mines.

In 1946 Batts, then a lieutenant commander, was sent to New Guinea where, with Lieutenant Commander C. G. Croft, he led a small team of specialists in clearing Rabaul of Japanese explosive ordnance stockpiled for the invasion of Australia. Caves around Rabaul had been filled with thousands of tonnes of bombs, mines, artillery shells, torpedoes and suicide craft. Batts helped in the demolition of more than 2400 tonnes of explosive ordnance in the area. One of the most hazardous tasks was the destruction of minefields laid by the Japanese in the waters around Rabaul. Hundreds of mines and depth charges were laid in the water up to 18m deep, all interconnected with a spider web of control wires. Apart from the danger from the explosives, sharks caused some concern and, on one occasion, Batts had a close encounter that ended with a shark taking the haul of fish he had collected after detonating a mine.

HMAS Warrnambool was sunk by a World War II mine near the Great Barrier Reef, and in 1948 Batts and a team of salvage personnel were sent to recover sensitive salvageable material from the wreck before leaving it as a war grave.

During his service career Batts spent 5280 hours underwater, attending to mines and explosives, helping to survey harbours and other submarine tasks.

In the early 1950s, largely through his efforts, the clearance diving branch of the RAN was formed, creating the basis for what is one of the RAN's most effective units. Members of the branch have been responsible for the recovery of crashed aircraft, military and civilian, and assistance to the community in the repair of public utilities such as the Eucumbene Dam in the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme. (Batts planned and supervised this task, taken on by the RAN because no civilian contractor would take the job with any form of guarantee.) The clearance divers, along with the Special Air Service arm of the Australian Army, formed the basis of the Australian Counter-Terrorist organisation.

In 1952, Commander Batterham was awarded the Order of the British Empire and, in 1953, its Charter of Dignity, for "sustained courage and devotion to duty". "Since 1943, Acting Lieutenant Commander has been engaged intermittently on mine clearance and other duties of a hazardous nature," the citation read." His duties included the clearance of former enemy-held ports in Europe and RMS duties in Rabaul after the Japanese surrender. By his skill, courage and leadership, he was an outstanding example to his subordinates." Batts was revered by his subordinates and highly respected by his superiors as a man of quality. His quiet, confident manner put those around him at ease when the going got tough.

He is survived by his wife, Marjorie, and children Peter, Robin and Judy.

* Retired Naval Commade Jake Linton trained in the RAN's first clearance divers course.

Original publication

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Citation details

Jake Linton, 'Batterham, Maurice Samuel (Batts) (1906–1996)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/batterham-maurice-samuel-batts-27851/text39302, accessed 6 December 2021.

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