Courageous John Payne was part of the Royal Navy’s legendary P Party group of bomb clearance divers during the Second World War.
Forerunners of the navy’s current crop of clearance divers, the team was tasked with ridding hidden mines from ports and coastlines across Europe, allowing vital supplies to be ferried to Allied troops battling to liberate the continent from German rule.
John, 96 of Lancing, West Sussex, is now thought to be the last remaining survivor of the band of naval heroes and was invited to Gosport’s Diving Museum where he was given a guard of honour by serving navy divers from Horsea Island.
And while he was there, he was presented with a plaque with photos of him and his comrades during the war, in a move which brought the pensioner to tears.
‘This is just lovely,’ he said from his wheelchair as he brushed tears away from his eyes. ‘It is just lovely.’
Sheila Birchley, John’s daughter who joined him on the visit, was moved by her dad’s unexpected outburst of emotion.
She said: ‘He is just overwhelmed. When he saw that picture and saw all his team, it just overwhelmed him and brought him to tears.’
During his time in Gosport, John spoke to current navy divers about his wartime experiences as well as the bulky equipment he had to use - which is a far cry from modern day diving sets.
The opportunity was described as once-in-a-lifetime by Warrant Officer Simon Crew, of the Fleet Diving Squadron.
He said: ‘Meeting John has been absolutely amazing. It means so much to us all being here today and hearing about what he went through.
‘It’s amazing to see what they achieved at that time in what we would look at now as sub-standard diving equipment.
‘You can’t get more hazardous for a diver than what John was doing. They were incredibly brave to do what they were doing.’
Ginge Fullen, a former navy clearance diver, arranged the trip to the museum after being contacted by one of John’s relatives.
He said: ‘It is an honour and privilege to have met John. As a diver myself, who has dealt with bombs before, the amount of searches they carried out during the war is unparalleled.
‘The P Parties are the forerunners of today’s clearance divers. They’re held in so much regard. For me, this is like meeting a living history book. It’s just amazing. Everytime I speak to him I learn something new.’
Kevin Casey, museum director, was full of admiration for John and his comrades and said it was an honour to have him visit the heritage site, in Number 2 Battery, Stokes Bay Road.
‘Divers like John were critical to the liberation of Europe because if they didn’t clear the ports, we would have never got more troops, ammunition and supplies in,’ he added.
‘To anybody who has lived a life in diving, somebody like John is a hero. He was the bravest of the brave.’