Project Highball, led by divers from East Cheshire Sub Aqua Club and team members from five different BSAC clubs, was recently given Royal recognition with an award from His Royal Highness The Duke of Cambridge.
In conjunction with the BSAC Jubilee Trust, an award has historically been presented by HRH Duke of Edinburgh to the best underwater scientific project carried out by BSAC members. The Duke of Edinburgh created the prize when he was President of BSAC and the Jubilee Trust (the official charity of BSAC) and he personally judged the projects submitted and awarded the Prize. As The Duke of Edinburgh has now retired, The Duke of Cambridge has taken over the judging of the prize from 2017 onwards. The first of the Duke of Cambridge Scuba Prizes was awarded to Project Highball and was personally selected by the Duke who was very interested in the historical significance of the project.
Project Highball took place in July 2017 with two years of planning going into the preparations for the one week project. A team of specialist divers from five different BSAC clubs, commercial marine services companies and a team of mine clearance divers from the Royal Navy’s Northern Dive Group came together to survey Loch Striven and to lift two Highball Bombs from the bed of Loch Striven.
The Highball bombs were invented by Sir Barnes Wallis, and used the same technology as the Upkeep bouncing bombs that were used to such devastating effect against the dams of the Ruhr valley in the now famous Dambusters Raids. The Highball bombs were smaller than the Upkeep bombs and were designed to be used against Germany’s capital ships, in particular the Tirpitz (Sister Ship of the Bismark).
The Tirpitz was considered a huge threat to allied shipping and there were numerous attempts made to sink the ship using high level bombing and Midget Submarines. The Highball Bombs were designed to skip across the water and could be dropped over a kilometer away from the target and them skip over torpedo nets and hit their target; once at the target the spin of the bomb would keep them tight against the hull of the target ship and then they would explode underneath the armour belt when triggered by a depth charge fuse.
The Air Force created a specialist squadron (618 Squadron) to deliver the bombs using the lighter and faster Mosquito Bomber. 618 Squadron spent over a year on Loch Striven practicing with the bombs and perfecting the technology. Loch Striven was also the site of X-Craft testing and commando training and in 1943 was one of the most secret places in the UK. Shrouded by smoke screens and patrolled by guards, the activity in the Loch was kept top secret, leading to the Loch being known as the Secret Loch. Nearly 75 years later there are no intact examples of the Highball bombs anywhere in the world, so with the 75thAnniversary of Dambusters in 2018 looming, the interest in the bouncing bombs was bound to be high.
The Highball Project built on work done by Dr Iain Murray, who having written a number of books on the Upkeep bouncing bombs, identified Loch Striven as the site for the Highball tests from now-declassified military documents and excerpts from the test films that are now available from the Imperial War Museum. Dr Murray was convinced that some of the bombs would remain in the Loch and as luck would have it, Mark Paisey heard about his research and went up to Dundee to meet with him and the idea for Project Highball was born.
Planning for the project took two years, bringing together a set of skills that would enable the team to survey the loch and work on two sites, one in 35m of water and the other in 65m of water. Teams of specialists were identified and with everyone giving their time for free, the team managed to secure the services of a commercial survey company (Aspect Surveys). This brought in high definition Sidescan Sonar via GSE Rentals and Klein Marine Systems who supplied a state of the art high frequency towfish which was the first of its kind in the UK and used on the project as a trial.
In addition to this, we also secured the services of a professional ROV operator (Subsea Tooling Services) and the Royal Navy’s Northern Dive Group who were able to confirm the bombs were inert practice rounds and give us a Free From Explosives (FFE) certificate. The Royal Navy Dive team also brought a support vessel with a 10 tonne crane which made the actual lifting of the bombs much easier.
Our week in Loch Striven was planned in detail and consisted of a diver led jackstay search and detailed sidescan mapping of three different areas of the Loch, two target sites where we believe the bombs were dropped, and also a wider search for evidence of submarine operations (and the rumor of a lost Wellman Submarine). The search for the submarine proved fruitless but we did identify the bomb site and a large-scale debris field with over 100 highball bombs and we used this data to focus the lifting operations. We also found 5 X-Craft side charges – large 8 meter structures that were filled with two tonnes of explosive and bolted onto the side of an X-Craft submarine, then deposited on the seabed underneath a target ship.
Having identified suitable targets for lifting we directed the Navy Team to commence operations and the latter part of the week was focused on lifting two bombs for conservation and eventual donation to UK museums. Of the bombs we recovered for the museums, the Navy Team recovered one and the BSAC Team recovered the other. Both bombs are now undergoing conservation and one will be on display at the DeHavilland Museum in London Colney. The second will be on display as part of the Barnes Wallace Foundation at the Brooklands Museum in Surrey in time for the Dambusters Anniversary in 2018.
Team Highball produced a detailed dive trail which enables anyone to go and visit the Highballs in situ on the seabed:
Kevin Phillips, ECSAC Diving Officer said:
“All in all, the project was a huge success. From a personal point of view it was a real privilege to be part of the team and I really enjoyed diving with a purpose. So much so, that I have now started some Nautical Archeology Training and am aiming to run some more projects with East Cheshire Sub Aqua Club in the future as we have really caught the bug.”
You can find more details of the project, as well as the detailed survey results on the East Cheshire Sub Aqua Club website here.
You can view a 20 minute documentary on the Highball Project at www.youtube.com/watch?v=pVWhyhjF6NY