Working with the Queensland Police Dive Squad

By Tim Playne

In 1962, Ivan Adams, A Senior Constable with the Queensland Police, was transferred to the Queensland Water Police. He was an avid Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA)  Diver.  Soon after, he was formally asked to establish the diving squad.

Tim Playne under diving instruction

Tim Playne: ‘After working as a boat builder until the 1960’s I applied for the Queensland Police force and underwent a three-month probation in the Police Barracks in Caxton Street. I was sworn in in 1961. I was then sent down to the traffic branch which I didn’t like, but had to accept because I didn’t want to leave Brisbane. However, I thought the water police looked better suited for me so I applied for a transfer to the water police. My application was successful because they needed people to form the new diving squad and required good swimmers and people experienced with boating activities.

At that time the Water Police station was situated behind the Port Office Hotel. They were housed in a small convict-built building. Underneath the building had access straight to the river and in the old days they used to launch there and do their patrols by rowing boat. They’d send about 4 constables out to row up and down the river. 

When I was transferred to the Water Police they had twenty-one staff and were led by Sub Inspector Morris. Soon after I joined, the unit was moved to Howard Smith wharf nearby. It then occupied the main office building and a large shed on the upstream side of the Story Bridge. These building are still standing and converted to cafes etc. We also had control of fair length of wharfage at which we moored the Police Boats.

At this time, about 1962, the department commissioned a new thirty-two foot timber motor launch built by Clem Masters. It was powered by a V6 Detroit Diesel.  She was called MV Seymour. We also acquired an inboard/outboard speed boat on a trailer which was towed by an F100 Ford. This was used for access to rivers and lakes and more remote jobs that required a quick response. About this time Sub Inspector Morris retired and the new Sub. Inspector in Charge was L. Ingram.

Learning the Beat (photo: Courier Mail Tuesday October 15, 1963)

‘Beside learning the physiology of diving, we also had to learn ‘dark water diving’. We were taken to somewhere like Peel Island’s Horseshoe Bay where the water was clear, and then they’d put a blank mask on each of us so we couldn’t see, then we had to learn to search where we couldn’t see anything. Most of the jobs we had to perform were in the Brisbane River where there was with little visibility searching for bodies or stolen property. The way we conducted such searches was off the back of a dinghy and they’d drop what they called a shot line down to the search area, then two of us would go down together. One of us would stay on the shot line and hold a rope for the other diver who swam in a circle round the shot line. When he had done a complete circle, the diver at the shot line would give the rope a couple of tugs and let out another couple of metres for the operation to be repleted. Once I remember I was doing the search and another bloke was on the shot. However, the rope must have become caught on a snag and I did another circle so that I came back behind him, so I grabbed hold of his legs and he thought he was being attacked by a shark and went very quickly to the surface!

Divers using the shot line

‘One of the jobs we had to do was to recover the bodies of three youths from a car that had missed the turn and plunged into Stockyard Creek about five miles from Mt. Gravatt. 

The car wreck at Stockyard Creek (photo: The Courier Mail)

Another job we performed was the rescue of crew from the ‘Kaptajn Neilsen’ a dredge that had overturned off Tangalooma in Moreton Bay. I was not involved because I was on leave at the time, but my boss, Ivan Adams, and another diver, Joseph Engwirda, showed extraordinary bravery bringing to the surface 12 survivors, for which they both received awards for bravery.

The Water Police Launch ‘Vedette II’

The police launch was Vedette II. The Water Police Vessel ‘VEDETTE II’ was launched on 15th April 1954 for use in Brisbane.  This image was taken on the Brisbane River, c1964.  Senior Sergeant Alec Powe is standing on the prow, other officers I think are Sergt McIvorRobertson on the helm and Myself. This was on some official occasion going to collect some VIP’s Both this vessel, and the ‘SEYMOUR’ attended the capsized dredge ‘Kaptajn Nielsen’ in September 1964. 

Another task we had to perform was to recover bodies from the water. They might have been derelict/ homeless people who had fallen off a wharf or some such. If they had been in the water for some time, it was a very unpleasant task. Others were people who had accidentally drowned due some mishap.

At that time, we used to be the call point for the Pinkenba pub and we got involved in some of the brawls down there. But people respected men in uniforms then. Our uniforms were very similar to those of the merchant marines so a lot of people didn’t know who we were, which suited us fine. However, a lot of the time we were in overalls.

The water police had powers that the general police did not have: we were deemed to be fishing inspectors, and we also had legal authority on foreign and Australian owned ships, but in most cases, we had to get the duty officer or skipper to come with us. Once we went down to investigate a Swedish ship on which a bloke was causing havoc with a knife. When we went aboard, he had kicked in beautiful wood panels in the rather luxurious crew cabins. 

I was a boat builder, and Senior Constable Sid Marshall was a shipwright (they do the timberwork on a steel boat) and there was another bloke who was a carpenter, Constable Kevin Morahan. We used to do most of the maintenance on boats and during my time there we became good mates and we all earned various marine tickets.  This enabled us to do the odd job crewing on Hayles tourist boats for some extra money. Mainly down to Bishop Island at the mouth of the Brisbane River which had a café and dance floor.  Bishop Island has now disappeared due to the port extension.

Another task we used to deal with in the water police was to be an after-hours VHF relay for the Harbours and Marines. In those days, the pilots were put on board the ships just off Cape Moreton. One day there was a Japanese long liner steaming at 12 to 15 knots up the port and he hadn’t taken a pilot onboard. We were called to deal with it, so with a pilot on board we sailed downriver and met the ship just off the Pile Light at the mouth of the Brisbane River. Seymour was not identified as a police boat but with the pilot standing on top of our cabin, we steamed alongside the Japanese craft. As soon as he got aboard, he slowed the ship down to a legal speed for the river.

After about six years, during which my wife and I had bought a sold a couple of houses, and due to the poor wages of the police compared to that of a tradesman, I resigned from the water police and went back to house building, where I started a small building company.

After I had left the police in 1967, I was doing a bit of work for Joe Enwirda who had designed a type of barge that could be used to remove the anchors from an oil rig that was situated just on the edge of the drop off, about 10 or 12 miles off Cape Moreton. The oil rig it was probably about a 150 foot long catamaran and the actual hulls were pulled down in the water below their normal water line to create a stable drilling platform. This was done by using large very heavy anchors splayed several hundred meters out in all directions. These were then winched down by the drill rig itself. 

Tim’s sketch of the platform anchors

We could see the Cape quite clearly from our barge. We were towed out by tug and pulled the rig’s anchors up one by one. The rig was self-propelled and steamed off after we loaded the last anchor on board. We were there about five days while they were dismantling the rig. As far as I know they failed to find oil there which is probably just as well because any spillages would have polluted the Gold Coast beaches.

Tim Playne, September 2022

After the ‘Kaptajn Neilsen’ Disaster

Following on from my blog of 29.01.2022, here is a photo of the ‘Kaptajn Neilsen’ dredge before the disaster of September 18, 1964:

‘Kaptajn Neilsen’ at work (photo courtesy Brian McGrath)

After the disaster, and her righting and refloating following patching and essential work in Cairncross Dry Dock, she departed Brisbane under tow by the powerful Dutch salvage tug ‘Tasman Zee’ for repairs in Holland, after which she was put back into service by her owners.

‘Kaptajn Neilsen’ in Cairnscross Dry Dock (photo courtesy Brian McGrath)

The ‘Good Neighbour’ Tues 1 February 1966 further reported:

Diver Joe Wins George Medal

Diver Joe Engwirda, from Sittard, the Netherlands, who rescued ten Danish seamen from a sunken, capsized dredge off the Queensland coast received the George Medal from the Governor of Queensland, Sir Henry Abel Smith, at an investiture at Government House, Brisbane, last month.

The George Medal, one of the highest decorations in the British Commonwealth for civilian bravery, was also awarded to two other men concerned in the rescue of the Danish seamen. They were Constable Ivan James Adams of the Queensland Police diving squad, and Erik Viktor Poulsen, 22, of Copenhagen, a member of the crew of the dredge. Seven other Australians who helped in the rescue work also received awards.

Said Joe of his George Medal: “I am surprised at receiving the award. Naturally, I am delighted, and am pleased that those who worked alongside me have also been honoured”.

The dredge, the 3,000-ton “Kaptajn Nielsen”, capsized suddenly when fully laden as its suction equipment was being lifted. Fifteen of the crew of 24 survived.

After the sinking, Erik Poulsen dived down to escape through a hatch, rested on the upturned hull which was awash, and then swam four miles across Moreton Bay to Moreton Island to raise the alarm three and a half hours after the disaster. Joe, awakened by police at his Brisbane home, took Constable Adams with him in his 16-foot speedboat 25 miles down-river to the scene. Joe, who concentrated on the crew’s quarters in the bow, rescued ten. The rescue of two of these was accomplished with help from Constable Adams.

Joe with his main souvenir of the dredge – its barnacle encrusted wheel from the bridge.

Trevor Jackson, master of the Brisbane dive boat ‘Esperance Star’, discovered the ship’s wheelhouse on the seabed in 13 metres of water off Tangalooma in 2001. He surmised that when the dredge rolled over, the wheelhouse was sheared off in the shallow water. Looking at the photo at the top of this page, you can see that the tall bridge would have been included in the shear.

Since that time, many dive boats have visited the wreckage. You may have a virtual dive there too if you click on the link below:

Neil McMillan Todkill – Deep Sea Diver

Val Knox writes…

Neil McMillan Todkill was born on June 8th 1921 in Maryborough, to Norman and Mary Todkill, the fourth of eight children, Mina, Alexander, Bon (William Norman), Neil, Ronald, Ashleigh, Robert and Beverley. The family moved to Brisbane in 1924 living at 50 Coutts Street, Bulimba.  Along with his brothers and sisters he attended the Bulimba State School until 7th Grade and had his first job at a Sweet Factory near the Bulimba Avro Picture Theatre and then obtained a job at Hardie Brothers at Newstead.  While growing up he and his brothers spent their spare time swimming, fishing and sailing in the Brisbane River. 

He married Valma Ruth Thompson in 1939 (the youngest daughter of Les Thompson) and they lived at 47 Love Street, Bulimba.  They had eight children, Valma, Mary, Neil, Stanley, Donald, Suzanne, Phillip and Amanda.  In 1962 the family moved to Barton Road, Hawthorne and in 1986 Neil and Ruth retired to their house at Bribie Island which he had bought in the 1950’s.  In July 1991, they returned to live in Brisbane at Tarragindi.  He lost Ruth, his partner of 59 years, on the 2nd March 1998.

Neil was well known to the sailing fraternity on the Brisbane River and raced in the 22-foot restricted yachts, 16-foot skiffs and 18-foot skiffs.  He was a Life Member of the Brisbane Sailing Squadron and a Life Member and Vice-Patron of the Brisbane Eighteen Footers’ Sailing Club.  After his retirement, Neil enjoyed playing bowls and when he lived on Bribie Island, looked after the greens for a period at the Bribie Island Bowls Club where he became a Life Member. He was also a member of the Wellers Hill Bowls Club and the Colmslie RSL.

Salvaging Wrecks

His salvage career began in July 1942 when the “Rufus King” ran aground on South Passage Bar near Point Lookout.  The salvage team on the “Rufus King”, which included Neil Todkill, was under the control of Captain Jim Herd, Master of the tug, “Tambar”.  Neil rejoined the vessel when it sailed to Darwin to salvage the ships sunk by the Japanese and he worked as a diver with The Marine Salvage Board over a period from 1942-1946 working on the wreck of the “Koolama” off the coast of Western Australia, and also on the “Portmar”, “Kelat”, “Meigs” and “Mauna Loa” in Darwin Harbour.

During the war, he walked from the Edward Street Ferry to the Story Bridge underwater clearing debris from the area to be ready for dredging.

In 1946 he formed a partnership in wharf construction and diving with Harry Fennimore who died shortly afterwards while diving in the Brisbane River.  He carried on as a Marine Contractor and the business was known as N Todkill and Sons changing to Todkills’ Marine Services when his sons Stanley and Donald joined the business.  Many of the pipelines crossing the Brisbane River and marine constructions in the Brisbane River, Moreton Bay, and in ports up and down the coast of Queensland, were the result of work carried out by him.  His son, Donald, carries on the business as Todkill Marine Services.

The stricken ‘Marietta Dal” on Smith’s Rock. Behind can be seen Les Thompson’s “Warrior” (Photo courtesy Val Knox)

When the “Marietta Dal” ran aground on Smith Rock off Cape Moreton in June 1950, Neil formed a syndicate with Norm Wright and Bill Morgan and bought a tug to salvage the cargo.

In 1951, a three-engined Drover plane crashed in the Huon Gulf, New Guinea, and Neil established the fate of the crew and worked to salvage gold from the wreck over a period in 1951/52.

Some of the notable shipwrecks he has worked on are the “River Burnett” – Port Phillip Bay; the “Palana” – holed off Townsville; and the “Eifuku Maru” on Wreck Reef, East of Mackay in 1957.

When the Whaling Station was established at Tangalooma, he built the Slipway for the Whaling Station and was there when the first whale was pulled up to the flensing deck.  He later dismantled the deck when the Whaling Station became a tourist resort.

He carried out a survey of the Queensland Coast from the coastline to the Continental Shelf, from 1963 to 1965 for the Commonwealth Government with his vessel, “Pacifique”.

Neil skippered the “Olive R” for fishing charters in the early 1960’s before it went to the Gippsland Lakes in Victoria and was renamed “Tambo Lady”. He bought the “Tambo Lady” in May 1965 and sailed her back to Brisbane where he was contracted to run the Ferry Service to Tangalooma on Moreton Island from 1965 to 1972.  He was Manager of the Tangalooma Tourist Resort for three years during that period.

He took part in many Brisbane to Gladstone Yacht Races and skippered various boats up and down the Queensland Coast as well as doing delivery trips along the eastern Australian seaboard.  He also skippered the Game Fishing Mother Ships, “Melita” and “South Pacific II” in North Queensland.

In 1997, Neil was awarded a Certificate of Appreciation and plaque in recognition of valuable diving assistance provided to the Queensland Police Service from 1944 to 1964.

Sadly, his last few years were marred by ill health.  He is remembered for his many daring diving exploits in helmet and suit, his fine seamanship and his great love of the sea.

Neil Todkill with his diving gear, 1952 (photo courtesy Val Knox)

(Extract from ‘Moreton Bay Letters’ Peter Ludlow 2003)