Obituaries : John Miller
Friday 06 January 1995
John Miller was one of three men of the same name to hold the George Cross. He was one of the oldest and most senior survivors of the first class of RMS (Rendering Mines Safe) Officers to pass, albeit briefly, through the capable hands of Lt-Cdr John Ou
v ry in HMS Vernon in 1940. Ouvry's own DSO was in lieu of the Victoria Cross which many believe was wrongly denied him, a denial which certainly caused the institution of the George Cross.
Miller was awarded his GC after dealing with a dozen mines for a singularly tricky incident. In the early winter of 1940, only weeks after the Blitz began, a large mine was located, stuck vertically in the muddy bottom of the River Roding, an otherwise little-known feeder of Barking Creek, downstream from what is now the City Airport on the old Royal Docks, below Woolwich and the Thames Flood Barrier. The area can be scarcely less insalubrious today than it was that wintry afternoon. The sew
e rage works loom, the creek and the river may be marginally cleaner; in those days there was also an open sewer outfall. The mud was glutinous; the mine seemed immovable. There was a limit to what Miller and his faithful assistant could do, though between them they dealt with one fuse. However, a crane driver agreed to extract the great cylinder, guided by a rope held by Miller, and it was finally disarmed in relative comfort on the bank. It was one of the largest then known, and full of menace.
The award was gazetted on 14 January 1941. Soon afterwards Miller dealt with a mine in a situation of greater importance and perhaps even greater personal risk. Either might have detonated. Each must have killed him if it had. But the second called for more cold-blooded courage. To disarm it he had three times to lie on his back in a puddle on the viaduct outside London Bridge station, his arms above his head and his head and shoulders beneath and behind a mine whose fuse was towards the edge of the platform. His face was less than a foot from the fuse. If it began to tick, he had 22 seconds in which to remove himself. Twice it did; twice he did. Both times it stopped. He returned after a cup of tea for a third attempt, mindful of Their Lordships' doctrine concerning a situation in which "damage could not be accepted". This was one of them. So back he went. All went well.
Either way he was a very brave man. It is said that he was recommended for a bar to his George Cross. He certainly received a special royal commendation.
Miller would have been the first to insist how much he relied on his assistant, a three-badge Able Seaman, Jack Stephen Tuckwell, who tacitly and obstinately declined the convention whereby in critical circumstances the officer carried on and the rating moved off. He too deserved his Cross.
John Miller was born in 1903, and a Scholar at Rugby and at Hertford College, Oxford, where he coxed the Torpid and the Eight, and took a Second in Greats in 1925. After contemplating Westcott House with a view to ordination, he opted for Roman Catholicism as his faith and educational administration as his career. After five years in Hampshire he left as Deputy County Education Officer to go as senior Assistant to Northamptonshire in 1935; in those days, Education Officers, like senior policemen, tendedto become either County or City men. He was happy in both appointments, and might have escaped national service had he not chosen to join the RNVR. At the age of 37 he was commissioned in August 1940 after five weeks at King Alfred, the basic training establishment at Hove.
Small-boat sailing and the influence of a brother in the Navy probably accounted for his choice of the naval service: therein, his preference for the infant but expanding and hazardous world concerned with the disposal - a mild and neat word - of unexploded bombs and mines, today referred to as ordnance, derived perhaps from the prevailing excitement at the call for 12 volunteers from the Fleet to deal with a new menace in the developing air raids; mines not unreasonably seeming to be an Admiralty responsibility even if they were dropped on land - hence the setting up of Their Lordships' Land Incident Section.
There Miller survived, to acquire a second stripe and then promotion to lieutenant- commander though only, as he would say, by passage of time and nothing to do with merit.
It is hard to exaggerate John Ouvry's influence on the psychological as well as the technical training of his pupils. They were essentially individuals - there are few lonelier tasks than bomb disposal. The attitude of each to his personal confrontation with the enemy varied accordingly. Some affected a monocle; others, like the great Earl of Suffolk and Berkshire, a long cigarette-holder. Miller's normal practice was to sign himself with the cross though, as he disarmingly admitted in the moving autobiography Saints and Parachutes (1951), "If the mine was really very bad I didn't do it, as fiddling of any sort seemed unnecessary." He was adamant that "We were always pretty terrified on the job; we were not some sort of superman devoid of fear or humanweakness."
After the more hectic days of 1941, Miller acted as Secretary of an interdepartmental ASW Committee, and after the war had a brief spell in the Control Commission, in Germany, in the equivalent rank of Brigadier, which he relished as a relief from havingto salute more than a few seniors. But education recalled him, this time abroad. In Ethiopia he was instrumental in setting up a university; he then served in Kenya until 1957, very persona grata to Jomo Kenyatta, and after that in Rhodesia. In 1965 he concentrated on farming.
There is a portrait of Miller in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, and in his book a photograph of a bespectacled officer, correct in cap, collar and tie, the only concession being a pullover instead of a jacket, and gumboots instead of "pusser"'s shoes. But his hand is up the tail of a very large mine which he is steadying on the end of a crane's sling before removing its fuse and detonator, and he is grinning quietly.
A. B. Sainsbury
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