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Kenneth Kempsell

Bomb disposal expert.

Born: January 6, 1931; Died: April 19, 2014.

LIEUTENANT-COMMANDER Ken Kempsell, a Glaswegian who has died aged 83, was a career Royal Navy officer with a job very few RN recruits tend to apply for. He was a diver, a bomb and mine disposal expert, sometimes working underwater, sometimes on beaches, sometimes not knowing whence the bomb had originated, or when.

Regardless, his job was to defuse the bomb, which he did throughout his career, receiving the George Medal for bravery. He probably saved many lives and, perhaps most remarkably, he survived the many dangerous moments of his own life, succumbing finally and peacefully to natural causes at home in the village of Limekilns on the Firth of Forth near Dunfermline.

Lt-Cdr Kempell was 31 when he faced one of his most dangerous challenges, at RAF Kinloss on the Moray Firth. On August 15, 1963, a "friendly" torpedo had accidentally exploded in the base's armoury, bringing down the specially-reinforced roof weighing almost 20 tons, killing two men on the spot and leaving 24 other torpedoes exposed and leaking acid.

Other lives were at stake and so it was a case of calling in Lt-Cdr Kempsell, his RN colleagues and a bomb disposal team from Northern Ireland, who, although this was before the start of the Troubles, knew a thing or two about explosive devices.

When Lt-Cdr Kempsell arrived on the scene, he asked to speak to the base officer who knew what type of torpedoes these were. "That's him, over there," he was told by an RAF officer pointing to one of the dead bodies. Lt-Cdr Kempsell's response is not publishable.

Given that the unexploded torpedoes (which he estimated contained about two and a half tons of explosives) were scalding hot and giving off a bubbling and hissing sound, and that it was pitch dark, he decided it might be better to wait for daylight.

According to his own later recollection: "I slept like a log." But he returned to the scene soon after dawn, dressed only in asbestos suit, with no helmet, not like the modern-day bomb disposal experts, and crawled into a gap, barely higher than his body, beneath the collapsed roof, to reach the unexploded torpedoes.

Time meant nothing to him at that point but RAF officers outside reckoned he was in there for more than 70 minutes, placing explosive charges on the torpedoes in the hope that he could get out and detonate them from a safe distance. When he rose from his crawl-hole, witnesses recalled, he stood tall, in a suit covered in acid, and "sauntered back to safety as though he was strolling down Sauchiehall Street".

"To those watching, it would have looked bad to run," he said afterwards. "I have never been so scared in my life but I didn't want that to show." He told everyone to get about three football pitches' length away before he huddled down behind a hummock and pressed the plunger to blow the whole deal up.

What he called a lovely big bang broke windows in farms and villages for miles around. He did not know that at the time and he later apologised to locals for breaking their windows. He would also walk away with something else: the George Medal for that act of bravery, one of so many in his life.

Kenneth Douglas Kempsell was born in Glasgow in January 1931. During the war, while the city was being blitzed, he attended Spier's School (now demolished) in Beith, North Ayrshire, an area it was assumed the Luftwaffe would not bomb.

He loved the school because it reminded him of the red sandstone of Glasgow University which he often used to pass as a child.

He left school in 1946 at the age of 15 to join the navy and see the world, first training as Boy, 2nd Class on the RN "stone frigate" HMS Ganges, by then a shore-based training centre, in Shotley, Suffolk, where it is now a popular museum.

From Boy, 2nd Class, he worked his way up through the naval ranks. He served on board the Scotstoun-built RN sloop HMS Black Swan during the post-World War Two Malayan campaign, in the famous Yangtze Incident of 1949 and as a sonar operator during the 1950s Korean war.

After qualifying as a mine warfare and clearance diving officer in 1961, aged 30, he was put on the staff of what was then the Flag Officer Scotland, based on the Clyde but responsible for the coast of the entire country. In 1963, he was called to an Aberdeen-based trawler that had netted a Second World War mine and trapped a trawlerman beneath it.

After more than three hours, Lt-Cdr Kempsell made the mine what he believed was safe and freed the trawlerman. The following day, Lt-Cdr Kempsell, having hoisted the mine into the sea and away from the boat, blew it up in a massive explosion, witnessed by many folks lining the shore.

Lt-Cdr Kempsell later served on the RN minehunter HMS Kirkliston, on the staff of the Britannia Royal Naval College in Darmouth, on the minelayer and mine counter-measures support ship HMS Abdiel and latterly on the minehunter HMS Nurton.

From 1975, he was commander of HMS Reclaim, a Royal Navy deep-diving and submarine rescue vessel, perhaps best-known for one of Lt-Cdr Kempsell's diving and bomb-disposing predecessors Lionel "Buster" Crabb. Lt-Cdr Kempsell commanded the Reclaim, the last British warship to have sails (although they were rarely used), until it was decommissioned in 1979 and broken up in 1982.

Lt-Cdr Kempsell later became staff officer to the Tay and Clyde Divisions of the Royal Naval Reserve (RNR), an organisation first formed in Dundee in 1861, where the served as commander of several training ships including the minesweepers HMS Walkerton and HMS Hodgeston, the latter often based in Glasgow or Rosyth.

In 1980, Lt-Cdr Kempsell, who always looked the part in full beard, was named as Resident Naval Officer at Invergordon, Easter Ross, and two years later as Queen's Harbour Master for Cromarty Firth, responsible for all naval vessels and ports in the area.

He retired in 1986 at the age of 55, concentrating on defusing not bombs or mines but on spending time with his beloved Cairn terriers.

Lt-Cdr Kenneth Kempsell died peacefully at home in Limekilns. He is survived by his wife of almost 60 years, Doreen (née Fluker), their sons Ian and Neil and several grandchildren, one of whom, James, has followed the footsteps of his father and grandfather in the Royal Navy.

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