Obituary: Commander J. G. D. Ouvry

John Garnault Delahaize Ouvry, naval officer: born 19 September 1896; DSO 1939; married 1928 Lorna Evison (died 1978; four sons); died Sway, Hampshire 19 February 1993.

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.

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Recruitment Genius: HR Advisor

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our Client has been the leader ...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project