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Batterham, Maurice Samuel (Batts) (1906–1996)

by Hector Donohue

This article was published online in 2021

Maurice Samuel Batterham (1906–1996), naval officer and founder of clearance diving in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), was born on 3 February 1906 at Williamstown, Melbourne, fourth of eight children of Victorian-born parents William Batterham, soldier, and his wife Emily, née Hyams. William became maintenance foreman at Geelong Church of England Grammar School with his family living adjacent to the school, which Maurice briefly attended (1914). He later studied at the Gordon Technical College in Geelong, and trained as an electrical and mechanical engineer with General Motors-Holden’s Ltd. In 1933 Batterham and his brothers Alexander and John were awarded the bronze medal of the Royal Humane Society of Australasia for rowing out in a dinghy in heavy seas to rescue three men from an overturned boat in Corio Bay, one of whom was their brother Joseph. Maurice, a powerful swimmer, bravely entered the water to lighten the overloaded rescue boat and swam beside it until they were picked up by a larger vessel. On 10 October 1936 he married Marjorie Kate Earle, a typist, at Christ Church, St Kilda.

At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Batterham volunteered to join the RAN but was rejected because he was in an essential job with GMH. On 6 August 1942, however, he was appointed as a sub-lieutenant in the RAN Volunteer Reserve. In October he qualified in bomb disposal at Bonegilla army base, Victoria, and was posted to the shore establishment HMAS Melville, Darwin, in December for diving and bomb and mine disposal duties. He was promoted to lieutenant in January 1943, and qualified as a diver II at HMAS Penguin in Sydney in October. Over the following twelve months he helped salvage materials from ships sunk in Darwin Harbour by Japanese bombing, and rendered bombs and mines safe.

Serving with the Royal Navy from October 1944, Batterham commanded two Port Clearance Parties (P1572 and P1574), removing mines and other hazards from formerly enemy-held ports in northern Europe. His outstanding service was attributed to his leadership, tact, and zeal, with British colleagues affectionately recalling him as ‘a tall, loose-limbed Australian’ (Grosvenor and Bates 1956, 118). On returning to Australia in January 1946, he joined the Torpedo School at HMAS Cerberus, Westernport, Victoria, as a mine disposal instructor. In September he deployed to Rabaul as an acting lieutenant commander with a RAN bomb and mine disposal team. A gas mask diving system that he devised to enable greater freedom of movement underwater helped the team dispose of over 150 mines and other ordnance. He received a Naval Board commendation, and returned to Cerberus in July 1947.

Batterham dived on the wreck of the corvette HMAS Warrnambool off the north Queensland coast in October 1947 and May 1948 to recover the confidential books from the commanding officer’s cabin, an arduous and hazardous operation conducted in strong currents. Naval Board commendations followed for all eight team members. In July 1948 he was appointed to Navy Office in the Directorate of Ordnance and Underwater Weapons, and in June 1951 was confirmed as a lieutenant commander. He initiated the establishment of a Clearance Diving Branch in the RAN, leading to his being sent to Britain in early 1951 to learn the latest developments in the field. In November 1951 he returned to Navy Office and, drawing on his experience, became the driving force behind the development of clearance diving in the RAN. He was appointed OBE in 1952 for ‘sustained courage and devotion to duty,’ his citation recording that since 1943 he had ‘been engaged intermittently on mine clearance and other duties of a hazardous nature,’ and that ‘by his skill, courage and leadership he was an outstanding example to his subordinates.’

After overseeing the RAN’s first clearance diving course from March to September 1955, Batterham continued to serve in Navy Office and guide the evolution of RAN clearance diving and mine countermeasures. He was responsible for introducing use of the Australian-designed ‘Porpoise’ compressed air breathing apparatus, which he had helped the Melbourne-based inventor Ted Eldred to develop and was then superior to any other. In June 1956 Batterham was promoted to commander. He planned and supervised a deep-diving operation in February 1961 in support of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority to clear a diversion tunnel at the Lake Eucumbene dam. Diving was conducted to two hundred and eighty-five feet (87 m) over four months, one of the deepest diving operations on air undertaken to that point. Its success owed much to his expertise and resourcefulness.

Batterham remained in Navy Office until his retirement on 3 February 1966. He became a director and consulting engineer with Australian Divers (Spiro) Pty Ltd until he retired to Phillip Island in 1969. Affectionately known as ‘Batts,’ he was respected by superiors and subordinates. Leadership was natural for him, and his quiet self-assured manner instilled confidence. Survived by his wife and their two sons and one daughter, he died at Cowes on 20 August 1996, and was buried in Phillip Island cemetery. His younger son, Robin, was a chemical engineer and chief scientist of Australia (1999–2005).

Research edited by Stephen Wilks

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Times. ‘Navy Reject Retires as a Commander.’ 4 February 1966, 8
  • Grosvenor, J., and L. M. Bates. Open the Ports: The Story of Human Minesweepers. London: William Kimber, 1956
  • Jeffries, Anna. ‘Diving Legends: Maurice Batterham.’ Sportdiving Magazine (Narre Warren, Vic.), August-September 2004, 38–40
  • Linton, Jake. ‘Mines Expert Dived into Danger.’ Australian, 26 September 1996, 14
  • Linton, Jake, and Hector Donohue. United and Undaunted: The First 100 Years: A History of Diving in the Royal Australian Navy 1911–2011. Queanbeyan, NSW: Grinkle Press, 2015
  • National Archives of Australia. A3978, Batterham M. S
  • National Archives of Australia. A6769, Batterham M. S Pfennigwerth, Ian. Bravo Zulu: Honours and Awards to Australian Naval People. Vol. 1, 1900–1974. West Geelong, Vic.: Echo Books, 2016
  • Turner, Mike, and Hector Donohue. Australian Minesweepers at War: Minewarfare Operations by the Royal Australian Navy During the Two World Wars. Canberra: Sea Power Centre Australia, 2018

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Hector Donohue, 'Batterham, Maurice Samuel (Batts) (1906–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/batterham-maurice-samuel-batts-27851/text35603, published online 2021, accessed online 25 October 2021.

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