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All Mine! The `Explosive' Lt. Noel Cashford MBE (RNVR)

Posted Friday, July 6, 2007

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Lieutenant Noel Cashford M.B.E. (R.N.V.R.)

Cromford man Noel Cashford is no ordinary mortal.

`with nerves of steel and the delicate touch of a skilled surgeon'

He is one of a special breed of men with nerves of steel and the delicate touch of a skilled surgeon.

A man specially trained to distinguish between positive and negative electrical wiring in total darkness simply by the touch of his sensitive fingertips. His job was literally a matter of life-or-death.

One slight error of judgement, one tiny mistake through tiredness or lack of concentration and..... Boom! - instant oblivion!

`a job whose average career expectancy was just ten weeks'

Noel – or to give him his full title, Lieutenant Noel Cashford RNVR. MBE, put his life on the line almost every day for five years doing a job whose average career expectancy was just ten weeks - for he was a Naval Bomb and Mine Disposal Officer during the Second World War.

`only 25 of the 60 Navy Bomb Disposal Officers survived the war'

The fact that only 25 of the 60 Navy Bomb Disposal Officers survived the war makes Noel a hero, and he received the rare Military M.B.E. by order of King George V1 in May 1946 after ‘rendering safe’ 57 mines on the south coast of England in just three days! But of course like all heroes he would have none of it: ‘I’ve never regarded the MBE as a personal award’ he told me, ‘I was part of a team and I’m simply the custodian of it’, and he claimed that in serving his country so valiantly he was only ‘doing his duty’.

That ‘duty’ revealed an extraordinary life lived by an extraordinary man.

Born in 1922 in Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent, Noel and his twin brother John joined the Sea Cadet Corps whilst still at school, and later, at the outbreak of the second world war, along with a sister in the W.A.A.F. and a brother in the Tank Corps (who was Monty’s driver) they too joined the war effort.

‘John became a Mosquito pilot in the R.A.F.’ said Noel, ‘whilst in 1941, after a short spell with the Home Guard, I joined the Royal Navy as an Ordinary Seaman’.

At the age of nineteen Noel was posted to HMS Pembroke at Chatham where he got in some sea time on submarines, and learned that he had been recommended for a commission. He attended the Naval College at Greenwich from where, aged twenty, he was Commissioned as Sub Lieutenant RNVR.

‘I had no idea what I would be doing, but I knew what I wouldn’t be doing’, he said. ‘I wouldn’t be on active duty at sea – because whilst on submarines I suffered with terrible headaches and it was also discovered that I had poor eyesight, and so I was assigned to Special Duties’. After receiving his commission Noel was sent on two weeks leave. At this time he had no inkling of what lay ahead!

Two days into his leave the local constabulary delivered a message that he should report immediately to the Admiralty in London.

He was met by a Commander who ushered him inside the blacked-out building, along a corridor and into an office. Noel takes up the story....

‘Suddenly a Rear Admiral appeared, and grabbing me enthusiastically by the hand said, “Well done Cashford, you are now a member of the explosive elite of the Navy. We’re going to teach you to render safe bombs, mines, sea-mines, parachute mines and anything that goes bang, and what’s more, we’re going to teach you to do it underwater!” Noel admits to being shocked: “To coin a modern colloquialism, I was gobsmacked”.

He had joined an elite band of naval officers who were specially trained to render safe unexploded bombs, sea-mines and, in fact, any unexploded device found in sea or shore surroundings.

After training in bomb disposal at HMS Volcano and later at HMS Vernon, Headquarters of the Naval Bomb & Mine Disposal Unit at Portsmouth, Noel underwent diver training, which he admits, he disliked intensely.

His daring war-time exploits are the stuff of legend; for example, his first encounter with the enemy occurred along a cliff top road near Southampton when a low flying Luftwaffe machine-gunner strafed his bicycle!

From 1942 until he was demobilised in 1947 Noel was stationed mainly along the south coast of England and rendered safe hundreds of mines and bombs of all shapes, sizes and nationalities – including British!

“The first floating mine I ever saw was from the conning tower of a captured German U-Boat’ he explained, ‘and little realised at the time that during the next five years I would be seeing hundreds more at much closer quarters!’ Noel’s memoirs reveal the vital role that Naval Intelligence and the Bomb Disposal Unit headed by Commander John Ouvre played in staving off capitulation during the early days of the war after Hitler’s ‘secret weapon’ had sunk 128 merchant ships in a matter of a few weeks.

‘No submarine activity, no enemy ships, no air strikes – we had no idea what was sinking our ships, and although it wasn’t known publicly, we were on the verge of capitulation when Churchill, as First Sea Lord offered £1000 to any diver who would search the sea-bottom. There were no takers, explains Noel. “Then in November 1939 intelligence reported two German aircraft leaving Holland for the Thames Estuary and the Observer Corps saw them drop two parachutes into the Thames. When the tide was out two packages lay on the mud flats and were retrieved by the Navy Bomb Squad. They were magnetic mines – which attached themselves to the hull of ships passing overhead with fatal results. Commander Ouvre had captured the biggest prize – Hitler’s secret weapon. This discovery by Ouvre and the bomb squad helped the boffins at Admiralty to negate the mines effectiveness by de-magnetising all shipping around our shores – and saved us from capitulating to the menace of Hitler’. ‘So you see, said Noel, ‘just how vital a role the Naval Bomb & Mine Disposal boys played in helping us defeat the enemy!’

Identification of any explosive device was of paramount importance and Noel spent weeks of intensive training identifying, disarming and rendering safe all kinds of devices. ‘Of course, all the explosives had been removed first, said Noel, ‘so if you made a mistake a bell would ring – but to make it more authentic your name would then be placed on a deceased list on the notice-board. It certainly gave you food for thought! he added with a grin. Noel is also a talented artist.

‘The Germans were always inventing new devices, many of them booby-trapped’, Noel recalled, ‘and I would sketch every detail and pass them on to the boffins who were then able to record and identify them. This was an integral part of my job”.

He had numerous ‘lucky escapes’. On one occasion he was saved when a booby-trapped 1000 lb sea-mine failed to detonate because during its manufacture someone, possibly a slave worker in a German munitions factory, had placed a piece of celluloid film negative across the contacts.

“Otherwise, says Noel, I would have been completely evaporated”.

It is also a fact that, of the hundreds of sea-mines that he was called to deal with, ten exploded whilst Noel was on his way to render them safe!

Since his retirement in 1987 – and not content to rest on the laurels he has so richly earned – Noel has given illustrated talks to a variety of organisations about his war time activities. Typically he waives his fee and expenses and asks instead for a donation to be sent to Cancer Research or to Weston Park Cancer Care Hospital, Sheffield – where Noel himself is a patient having recently being diagnosed with prostate cancer.

To date his efforts have raised around £10,000.

With the erudite skill of a natural storyteller Noel Cashford has put his memoirs into writing and his book, `All Mine - Memoirs of a Naval Bomb & Mine Disposal Officer’, which he has illustrated himself, is now published! I dare say without fear of contradiction - that it is set to become an explosive best seller!

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