An ex-military diver has told how a rare machine gun he and a team of wreck hunters brought up from the depths of a shipping channel was found to be in full working order despite being underwater for 73 years.
Flt Lt (Retd) Rik Saldanha MBE said he believed the Vickers K Gas Operated .303" machine gun - one of only a handful thought to be left in existence since the Second World War - would have still fired after it was stripped down of rust and soaked in freshwater for nine months following a dive to retrieve it from the estuary bed at Milford Haven in Wales.
The Vickers K gun was used by the Royal Air Force, Special Air Service and US Army Rangers during the war.
Flt Lt (Retd) Rik Saldanha told how he and a team of divers from the Pembroke Dock Sunderland Trust (PDST) Dive Group discovered the gun by accident in 2013 when one of the team dropped his weight belt upon getting back into the boat.
After returning to the water to recover the belt, the diver found it draped over the barrel of what looked like debris from a wreck.
The divers were in the area to take a closer look at the wreck of a former military flying boat, named T9044, a Mark I Short Sunderland Flying Boat, which had been discovered laying in 20 metres of water.
Divers were keen to explore the wreck of the vessel that had sunk at its moorings on November 12, 1940, at a site opposite RAF Pembroke Dock, a vital flying boat base during the Second World War, at Milford Haven.
Debris included the machine gun, which, after being brought to the surface, has since been restored and professionally deactivated by the specialist weapons proofing centre, the Birmingham Proofing House, an accredited firearm and ammunition testing establishment set up to ensure small arm user safety.
The Vickers K Gas Operated .303" machine gun is now on display inside its original turret at the visitors' attraction, Pembroke Dock Heritage Centre.
Flt Lt (Retd) Saldanha, who was there when the Vickers K GO .303" machine gun was recovered, said that, upon discovery, the dive team told the police what they had found deep underwater. Speaking about the team's conversation with the police, Mr Saldanha said:
“When it was recovered, we immediately informed the local police who stated, ‘Don't worry about it, it's been in the sea for the last 73 years.’”
Having spent time with the gun since its discovery and deep clean, the veteran believes that if the barrel had been extremely well cleaned it would have fired.
Mr Saldanha is a Royal Air Force veteran and trustee for the Pembroke Dock Heritage Trust. He is also the MOD license holder for diving on T9044 with permission to recover artefacts.
His main sport, while he was serving, was sub-aqua diving which took him around the world with the RAF.
How Did They Find The Vickers K?
The T9044 sank with nobody on board, meaning the area is not designated as a War Grave but it is a protected historic wreck. However, another Sunderland that went down on the same night - N6138 - had two airmen on board who both drowned. While this aircraft was recovered shortly afterwards along with the two dead airmen, the T9044 was left where it had sunk. Mr Saldanha said:
“The first indication as to where she sank, was in 1955 when the Royal Fleet Auxiliary tanker Eddyness hauled up her anchor with part of the Starboard wing and one of the four engines.”
The T9044's location was discovered again in 2000 when a local fisherman asked a diver to recover his lobster pots which had been caught on the sea bed.
What the diver found was the wreck of a large aircraft so, after asking the Pembroke Dock Museum Trust for advice, he realised he had found the wreck of a Sunderland Aircraft.
To help solve the mystery, Channel 4 programme 'Wreck Detectives' investigated the area in 2003 and brought up the port inner engine. The BBC's 'One Show' visited in 2011 to film the recovery of T9044 with historian and presenter Dan Snow taking part in the dive.
The recovered engine was a Bristol Pegasus XXII, the only type fitted to the Mark I Short Sunderland Flying Boat and, as there was only one aircraft of that type lost in Milford Haven, the wreck was identified as T9044.
The team were able to verify that the Mk I Sunderland had sunk at its moorings and not crashed because all the propellor blades were still straight.
Vickers K GO .303" In Numbers
- Length of gun overall with flash eliminator: 3'4"
- Length of barrel: 1'8"
- Approx weight of gun: 19.75 lbs
- Ammunition used All types of Mk. VII S.A.A.
- Method of feed: Magazine
- Approx speed of fire: 900 rounds per minute
What Were Vickers K Used For?
The Vickers K was, at first, an RAF observer’s gun due to its high rate of fire, making it suitable for shooting at high-speed planes as accurately as possible in a short amount of time.
Weighing almost 20 lbs and cooled by air, the Vickers K would often be found mounted to an aircraft and eventually vehicles, as explained by the Imperial War Museum:
"While the high rate of fire (and therefore high ammunition consumption) of the weapon made it unsuitable for infantry use, it proved successful when fired from trucks or Jeeps against other softskin vehicles or against aircraft."
The Vickers K, mounted in pairs on Jeeps, was used by the Special Air Service during the Second World War and they carried on doing so into the early 1960s when they were using them on their Land Rovers.
The Long Range Desert Group, a British unit specialising in raids and reconnaissance behind enemy lines and highly skilled at desert navigation - also used them at the early part of the Second World War.
US Army Rangers also used the Vickers K as extra firepower during cliff assaults. One soldier would have control of three of these machine guns at any one time.
The machine gun is one of the many collections at the Pembroke Dock Heritage Centre which focus on the history of the town and the surrounding area since the establishment of the Royal Dockyard in 1814.
Visitors are welcome at the centre, which is open from 10am to 4pm Monday to Friday, with admission fees.