THE ROYAL NAVY's battle to protect British shipping during the Second World War owed a great deal to John Ouvry's cold-blooded, lonely and frighteningly slow gallantry in dismantling a German mine out on a muddy beach near Shoeburyness, in Essex, on a November afternoon 54 years ago.
By the middle of November 1939, the Navy had lost two destroyers and over two dozen merchantmen in inshore waters, and the newly commissioned cruiser Belfast had returned to dockyard hands with a broken back. All these casualties were caused by an influence mine as opposed to a contact mine, and coastal shipping was approaching immobilisation. The Navy knew something of magnetic mines; it had developed and laid a few in 1918. But they did not know whether the new weapon was magnetic. It might be acoustic; it might even be both. It was hoped that it was not pressure activated. But unlocated it could not be identified.
On 22 November 1939 a German seaplane was seen to drop by parachute what resembled a sailor's kitbag off the Essex shore. Ouvry and Lt-Cdr Lewis, with CPO Baldwin and Able Seaman Vearncombe were sent with all despatch to Shoeburyness where they had the good fortune to find not one but two of these objects, and both conveniently close to an army experimental range whose staff gave them much help. The next night was dark, and wet: the beach was mainly mud; nothing could be done until the tide went out. Ouvry and Baldwin would tackle the first; they settled a draft procedure with Lewis.
Ouvry once said that he was not pretty, intelligent or brave, but was blessed with steady nerves and strong hands. This deprecating self-assessment was typical of the man, but nerves and hands however strong are not much use unless they are controlled by a brave mind.
The next two sweaty hours brought Ouvry and his team into history. He did not know, he could not tell, how the mine was armed, and until he found out, nobody else could be any the wiser. So he set about that 'menacing object', half embedded in the muddy sand by 'two unpleasant looking fittings' which turned out to be stabilisers. They did not prevent him from deciding to turn the whole thing over when it was necessary to get at the hydrostatic valve which he removed, with two primers, each with its own detonator, and two items which were the real targets of his search. These turned out to be a delayed-action arming fuse, which was to bedevil the situation when the item was dropped as a land mine, and an electro-magnetic fuse which was activated when it was laid as a sea-mine by the passage of a metal hull.
These new dimensions of warfare were assessed and dealt with thanks to Ouvry. The measures taken to protect ships, the development of the Rendering Mines Safe Section and then of the Land Incidents Section all derived from Ouvry's courage.
Ouvry and Lewis were awarded the DSO and their ratings the DSM in recognition of 'their great courage and skill in rendering safe and ready for inspection enemy mines at great risk of their own lives', and King George VI paid them the significant compliment of visiting Vernon, the Torpedo and Mining school at Portsmouth, to invest them in front of the ship's company with the first naval honours of that war. The King had been advised that not even Ouvry qualified for the obvious VC because whatever he had done had not been done in the face of the enemy. There are still those who think that it is unrealistic to distinguish between the human and the mechanical presence of the enemy, that several hundredweight of fused explosive deliberately delivered is a palpable manifestation of his literal presence, and that it is metaphysical nonsense to pretend otherwise. The fact that the King instituted the George Cross within months sustains their argument.
There is a legend that Ouvry was invited but declined to exchange his DSO for the new GC. Had the offer been made, it is safe to assume that he would have turned it down, but it is impossible to reconcile the myth with the terms of the Royal Warrant instituting the later award.
Ouvry had entered the Navy as a 12- year-old cadet in 1908, and passed through Osborne, Dartmouth and the training cruiser to serve at the Dogger Bank and at Jutland before ending the First World War in Inconstant as the youngest mining officer in the Fleet.
Despite that, and two years' useful loan service with the RAN (1928-30) which was also something of a honeymoon, he seemed destined to end an orthodox career as a lieutenant-commander, to which rank he had been promoted in 1926. Six years later be was appointed to Vernon, and stayed on her books for the rest of his career. Ouvry was promoted Commander in 1941 and retired from the active list in 1946 and was employed as a retired officer in the editorial section of Vernon until 1954, after 46 years' service.
In recent years he was still physically in good health but his mind had become gently exhausted and he had lived increasingly in a world of his own, as courteously diffident as ever. He had married Lorna Evison in 1928 and they enjoyed a contented half- century together, raising four boys, until she died in 1978.