19 April 2024

‘I want to give something back to my home town’

Withernsea’s Blue Light Weekend is set to attract dozens of emergency services representatives to the resort this August – but for John O’Brien, it will be an especially poignant homecoming. By Sam Hawcroft

John, who is now an instructor at the Royal Navy’s Defence Diving School based at Portsmouth, is Withernsea-born and bred, and the son of the hugely popular Withernsea High School teacher Roy O’Brien. As a highly experienced diver and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) expert, John will be bringing a vehicle from Bravo Squadron to Withernsea’s promenade across both days of the Blue Light Weekend on August 12-13.

He’s doing this, he says, “to give something back” to the town, where he went to school with Steve Medcalf, the man who first dreamed up the idea of an annual celebration of our emergency services. Steve, who was the operations manager at Withernsea RNLI, died in December 2022 aged just 52 a few weeks after a fire at his home. The following January, hundreds of people turned out to pay their respects as his coffin was transported along the promenade by the town’s lifeboat.

John is clearly emotional as he recalls the event. “I went back home for the procession and the funeral, and it was just massive. The sense of community really struck me. After the funeral I met up with all my old mates, and I got myself a room at the Alex – no expense spared! The next morning, I went fishing… and caught three cod. I just love Withernsea. I know everyone says it’s a bit of a dump, but it’s home to me. I just wanted to give something back. I felt a duty to the town, and to Steve, so I thought, I’ve got to do try to do something, even if it’s just me driving up in the bomb wagon.”

In the event, John has managed a bit more than this – he’s secured a bomb disposal 4×4 that will be marked up as a blue-light vehicle, and it will be carrying lots of types of ordnance for people to look at, as well as a small robot used to defuse improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

“I’m also bringing a bomb suit,” he says, “so people can see what the actual operators wear, as well as a diving set which I’ll have set up. I’ll be bringing as much as I possibly can to try to make it interesting!”

A team from Hull Royal Navy Careers, based at Wenlock Barracks, will also be on hand to talk to visitors – because, aside from the personal motivation, John is keen to point out the numerous job opportunities across the service. And where better than Withernsea for the Navy to recruit?

“There’s not a lot of job prospects, really, is there? Towns like Withernsea are ideal places for us to come and get our recruitment message across.” John also acknowledges that career trends are changing, and that the Navy perhaps has to work harder than it used to on finding the kind of fearless people who work all over the world to keep the public and maritime traffic safe from unexploded devices. It’s hard work – but it’s exciting, well-paid and, despite perceptions, only as risky as any other manual job, he says.

“I like to see it as just a normal job, and I think most of us do. There are lots of dangerous jobs out there. I think driving, or working on a building site, is probably more dangerous… and maybe fishing for cod off Withernsea is pretty risky too! But it’s actually the diving that’s more dangerous than handling the ordnance, which we’re all highly trained to do.”

From a very young age, John knew he wanted to be a diver, taking inspiration from two of his fellow Arthur Street residents. “There was one guy who was a diver and also worked on the Spurn lifeboat, and our next-door neighbour was in the Navy, too, so the eight-year-old me was a little bit in awe of these people who’d come back with all these stories of life at sea.”

However, back then, boys were generally told by their parents that they “needed a trade”, so on leaving school at 16, John started work as a joiner in Burstwick. “Don’t mention to anyone I was a joiner because I was terrible, and there’ll be roofs I’ve put up in east Hull that will be falling down by now!” John laughs. “But I never wanted to be a joiner – I always wanted to join the Navy and go to sea. I tried to go to Trinity House when I was 12 but failed the exams miserably because there was a lot of maths and I was thick as mince. Like everyone else at the age of 16, I didn’t really have a clue what to do so I ended up as a YTS joiner and was taken on as an apprentice, but I never really enjoyed it. When I was about 18 when I went to the careers office, and they told me to come back when I knew a bit more about the Navy… and it was a process of about 18 months to get in.”

John was 21 when he eventually joined the Navy, and the move from civilian to rigidly structured military life was a “massive change” that took him a while to adjust to, especially because he was that bit older and already a little more set in his ways. He’d initially wanted to be a clearance diver, but back in the early 1990s there was no direct route to becoming one. “You couldn’t just join and be a diver,” he says, “so I joined mine warfare, because I wanted to work on small ships such as minesweepers. And the benefit of doing that was you could get to know the divers and their role and see if you liked it or not.”

A few years later, around 1995, John thought it was about time he pursued his original ambition of being a clearance diver. “I suddenly thought, now was the time to start getting myself fit, because I’ll admit I’d lost the drive a bit because the clearance diving course as it was then, and as it is now, is very long, hard and arduous, and you’ve got to be extremely fit – and I wasn’t extremely fit. “I spent about a year losing weight and getting fit. And then I applied to be a ship’s diver. The course was four weeks long, and it qualified me just to dive to 21 meters. On the back of that, I did my clearance diver’s aptitude, and then I became a leading seaman, before taking a course for my next rating. Lots of things came on top of each other at that point, but then it took me about two years to get out of the branch I was in, and I didn’t qualify to be a clearance diver until 1998.

“It wasn’t just a case of ‘I would like to go diving,’ and everyone says, ‘Yeah, crack on, off you go!’ The branch needs to agree to let you go because you’re fully trained and they don’t want to lose you – which is the issue a lot of Navy branches are facing nowadays. “The job of a clearance diver at first is to go onto a minehunter and dive to a maximum depth of 60 meters, identify possible ordnance, and then deal with it, but there are lots of other diving teams as well. The further up the chain you go, you can become a petty officer and ultimately an IED operator.

“There are lots of dive teams doing different jobs. Some work with Special Forces, and some, like the Bravo Squadron, whose kit I’m borrowing to bring to Withernsea, are area bomb disposal teams, and there are three of those within the UK.”

It’s not just at sea, either – Navy diving teams can also be called to jobs on land, such as bombs found in people’s back gardens, or grenades discovered in dusty lofts. “We do exactly the same course as the Army do,” adds John, “and we have the underwater part as a bolt-on. I remember my first job was in Guildford, about 30-40 miles inland, and I once dealt with a bomb near Southampton, just on the edge of the New Forest, because we were the nearest unit and the others were busy. We deal with lots of stuff on land. Our main remit is to deal with high water and below – but we’re all EOD operators. For instance, we had EOD teams out on the ground in Afghanistan.”

Today, there is still plenty of ordnance found on UK shorelines decades after the end of the Second World War. “When I was an operator on the bomb team from 2011 to 2014, we would average about six or seven a week,” says John. “We’d go through periods where you might not get hardly anything for a couple of weeks, and all of a sudden, you’d go out to one and there’d be several others. A lot of the German mines were made out of aluminium, and they don’t rust away. When you pull them up, they often look brand-new, and they can still be dangerous.”

Wartime ordnance is just a small part of what clearance teams work on now, though, John says. There are few parts of the world where some sort of conflict is not ongoing, and, as he puts it, “We’re always ready. It’s a brilliant job, and I would recommend joining the Navy to anybody.”

It’s a job that has taken him all over the world, having done IED exercises in places as diverse as Iceland, San Diego, Hawaii, and Australia. He travels less now, in his role as an instructor, though he still spends six weeks a year teaching diving off the Isle of Skye, and is currently in the middle of a 30-week course teaching Navy officers how to dive and be diving supervisors.

He’s relishing the prospect of coming back to Withernsea – and, who knows, he might even pack his fishing rod…