Copper helmets, typically of UK or European, manufacture and associated equipment.

Leut Frederick Lowrie RAN

This year (2017) marks the 75th anniversary of RAN (navy) diving at HMAS Penguin. HMAS Penguin (II) (Balmoral) was commissioned on 14 July 1942. This post is about the first officer in charge of diving at HMAS Penguin.

Leut Lowrie

Leut Frederick Lowrie had served in the RN before emigrating to Australia and enlisting in the RAN. Lowrie’s first association with diving is in his report of 22/8/1932 – 19/6/1934 when he was denoted as Officer in charge of diving at HMAS Penguin (Garden Island). Prior to that he was fulfilling general officers duties and earlier, gunners duties. There is no record of him ever being trained as a diver but he did have a prior record of “training boys” and was highly regarded for his training abilities. Garden Island was then the site for diver training.
He remained in this position till an appointment briefly to HMAS Adelaide on 1st September 1939 and then to HMAS Kanimbla 30th October 1939.

German Ship Hohenfels

On 25th August 1941 HMAS Kanimbla attacked the Port of Bandar Shapur and seized the port and shipping. The crew of the German ship Hohenfels scuttled her by opening her sea cocks.
PO Humphries RAN was awarded the George Medal for ‘skill and courage of the highest degree’ during twelve extremely hazardous dives to enter the flooded engine room of the German prize ship Hohenfels to shut the bilge suction valves. He was without communications or a standby diver, and his descent included three long and two short ladders.
In September 1941, the Commanding Officer of HMS Kanimbla, Capt W. Adams, RN; wrote a report containing the following paragraph:
“Mention must also be made of Mr Frederick George Lowrie, Commissioned Gunner, Royal Australian Navy (Emergency List), who was in charge of all diving operations. By chance, although “KANIMBLA” is not allowed any diving equipment, he, who has for many years been diving instructor at Garden Island, Sydney, Australia, is one of her company. At the age of 59 years, this Officer was in charge of all diving operations in connection with “HOHENFELS” and his continued energy and cheerfulness in conditions of great responsibility, and long and irregular hours, was much appreciated by me in the temperatures prevailing. He is strongly recommended for promotion to Lieutenant.”

Attack by Japanese Midget Submarine

Harry Brutnall trained under Leut Lowrie at Garden Island. Harry was billeted on the HMAS Kuttabul when she was sunk by a Japanese midget submarine on the night of 31st May – 1st June 1942. Fortunately for Harry he stayed ashore that night. The next day he was diving on the Kuttabul to recover bodies and equipment under the supervision of Leut Lowrie.
In his unpublished manuscript, A Knockabout Sort of a Fellow, Mervin Lynam, says he was transferred to the diving boat as “pumping party”. The exact date is not specified but it is 1939 or later. He says the diving officer was an old dug out English Leutenant and they had 4 divers. The work was laying the boom net across Sydney.
Lynam claims diver Buggs a WWI veteran was sent down on the sub at Chowder Bay (Taylor’s Bay is on the same side of the harbour as Chowder Bay but a couple of bays further in). While Leut Lowrie is not mentioned by name it would appear that he was involved in this tragic but historic event.

Leut Lowrie Appointed to HMAS Penguin

In April 1943 he was appointed to HMAS Penguin in charge of diver training and as Port Officer (in charge of the Port of Sydney).

End of Career

Leut Lowrie was posted to HMAS Rushcutter on 11th Nov 1946 and demobilised 18th December 1946. He was promoted Lt Commander after his retirement on 1st January 1957.
He passed away on 8th November 1968.

John Johnstone

John Johnstone (Johnno) was borne in England and emigrated to Australia as a young man.
He was already well known as a diver in Australia when he was asked to take part in the salvage of the Niagara. This ship had been travelling from England to the US loaded with gold bullion to pay the US for supplies provided in WWII. After stopping in Sydney it moved on to Auckland. A German ship had recently mined the shipping lane out of Auckland and the Niagara hit a mine and sank quickly on leaving the harbour.
For this operation Johnno did not actually dive. The team copied the diving bell used by the Italians to salvage the Artiglio. From the diving bell Johnno, or his brother who had been seconded from the RAN, would direct the grab that was used to first tear away the ship and then to bring up the gold. The team recovered almost all the gold making it the most successful salvage to that time. As there was a war on and the gold belonged to the crown, the team received nothing but their standard pay.
Afterwards, Captain Williams, who had commanded the salvage operation, was asked to set up the Commonwealth Salvage Board. All around the world governments were doing likewise to carry out salvage during war time. Capt Williams asked Johnno to join the team and he did. The Commonwealth Salvage Board ordered some of the only mass produced, Australian made, diving helmets, the Robison. The Robison was made, with permission, as a copy of the Heinke pearler helmet. The Robison helmet is the emblem of the Historical Diving Society Aus-Pac.
One of the first things Johhno did was to travel to New York where the Normandie had caught fire and sunk at the dock. This was a large ship and needed to be cleared from the dock. Due to the need for ships for the war and also for promotional purposes the US government had set up a major operation to salvage the Normandie. This was used as a training ground for salvors and divers. As a result Johnno recommended the US made Mk V as a superior helmet and the Commonwealth Salvage Board switched to the Mk V.
On returning Johnno had a falling out with Capt. Williams
After the war Johnno returned to civilian diving and spent his remaining diving years travelling around the South Pacific salvaging wrecks.
There are a number of books and a documentary on the topic. These include “Johnno, The Deep-Sea Diver” a biography by Peter Dawlish; “Niagara’s Gold” by Jeff Maynard; Niagara’s Gold video documentary and “Deep Water Gold” by Keith Gordon.

Diver in Robison helmet Portland Rally 2017

NAUI Standard Dress Course & Rally 10 – 12 June 2017

The 2017 NAUI Standard Dress Course and Rally sets record number of participants

Sixteen students took the course with almost all of them successfully completing it.  Due to a couple of problems one student will return next year to finish the course.

Meanwhile the rally was attended by approximately 30 divers.  That’s a record number and with the large student contingent the number of attendees was the largest ever.

A big thank you to Frank Zeigler of Professional Diving Services (PDS) for hosting us again.  Thanks to all his staff that helped, especially Leslie Zelenc who was in charge of all the pre event organisation.  A big thanks to Steve Taylor who ran the class work again and some of the diving training.   Of course we couldn’t do it without our safety divers who spend a long time in the cold water (it’s the middle of winter in Australia for those overseas).

A highlight of the weekend was getting 2 Robison helmets back in the water.  The Robison is the only mass produced, Australian made helmet.  They were only made during World War II and the numbers were fairly small.  Leon Lyons was told only 75 were made.  HDS Aus-Pac’s highest recorded number is in the high 40’s.  Based on the Heinke Pearler they were not popular with the navy and other government organisations who ordered some of them.  While it’s not known how long since one of them was dived it would be a significant time and great to see 2 in the water.

Picture: Diver in Robison helmet exiting the water after a successful dive.

Helmet Diving Video

Max Gleeson, author of several excellent books on NSW shipwrecks, and the Yongala, and cinematographer, has kindly made available online a video of the NAUI Helmet Diving Course held in Portland, Victoria. 

Diver Adverts

As mentioned in previous issues of our magazine, we are running free classified ads for members in “Classic Diver” magazine.

If you would like to advertise your interests, equipment you are looking for, books you have for sale or exchange, gear you have for sale – anything related to diving history please email a short description directly to our Editor, Jeff Maynard at

Make sure you include your name and email (along with address or phone number if you want).