Petty Officer John Thomas Humphries

Humphries, John Thomas

John Thomas Humphries was born on 26 October 1903 in Sebastapol, Victoria, the first surviving child of John Thomas Humphries (a miner and later 1st AIF veteran) and Susanna Humphries nee Thomas. Educated at the Redan State School and Ballarat Technical School, the younger Humphries entered the RAN as a Boy 2nd Class on 18 July 1918, listing his trade as messenger. After fourteen months in the boys training ship HMAS Tingira he moved into the seagoing fleet, commencing a seven year engagement once he had turned 18.

Leaving the Navy as a Petty Officer on 25 October 1928, Humphries moved to Brisbane. Here he briefly served in the Lighthouse Service, then trained as a diver and worked on the Grey Street Bridge foundations, later performing similar work on the Story Bridge and receiving high praise for his skills and courage. In May 1938 he enrolled in the Royal Australian Fleet Reserve and was mobilised for service on the outbreak of war in September 1939.

Humphries joined the armed merchant cruiser HMS Kanimbla (an Australian passenger and cargo vessel commissioned into the Royal navy by manned by members of the RAN) and served in her until December 1942. In August 1941 she was sent to the port of Bandar Shapur in Persia (modern day Iran) as part of a combined Allied force that took part in Operation COUNTENANCE, to seize control of the country to prevent pro-German elements gaining control of the Government and siding with the Nazis. Eight German and Italian merchant vessels were sheltering in the port, and to avoid capture their crews attempted to scuttle them. One vessel, the 15,000-tonne German vessel Hohenfels, sank in 15 metres of water. On board was a vital cargo of 7000 tonnes of ilmenite sand, used in the production of case hardening steel.

Although not qualified as a naval diver, Humphries' professional skills were called upon. For five weeks he dived for up to three hours at a time and, despite working in total darkness, he completed the repairs that allowed Hohenfels to be re-floated and towed to a British port. On twelve occasions Humphries descended into the flooded engine-room to shut bilge suction valves. This required him to go down three long ladders, thence forward along the entire length of the engine room and then down two short ladders to the tunnels under the coal bunker. Some 40 metres of air pipe and rope were required with the constant risk of the lines becoming fouled. As there was no telephone communication, as soon as Humphries descended the first ladder he was out of communication with his attendants, with no hope of assistance should something go wrong.

Humphries was quoted as saying “It was a job to be done, and I did it”, and claimed that the greatest incentive to complete the task was the thought of seeing his wife and children again. For his “skill and undaunted devotion to duty in hazardous operations” he was awarded the George Medal on 17 February 1942, the highest award made to an Australian rating during the war. In addition, having proved his ability, he was also granted the non-substantive rank of Diver 1st Class. Except for a brief period serving in the tug HMAS Heros, Humphries spent the remainder of the war years serving ashore.

After being demobilised on 29 May 1946, Humphries returned to Brisbane where he remained until his death at the Greenslopes Repatriation General Hospital on 23 August 1987. He was survived by his wife and two daughters.