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Sea Scout Ship Minotaur

Thrilling Sea Scouts Work at Dunkirk

Most people are aware of Operation Dynamo which evacuated the British Expeditionary Force of over 300,000 personnel from the beaches of Dunkirk in May and June 1940. Few would realize that Sea Scouts played their part amongst ‘the little ships of Dunkirk’ of saving the British Army from capture and allowing them to fight another day.

The following extract was written by the Group Scout Master of the Mortlake Sea Scout Group which crewed the 45ft motor picket boat Minotaur during Operation Dynamo. The Scout Master is believed to be Mr Tom Towndrow and he received Admiralty orders on the night of 29 May to sail the Minotaur to a staging area in the Thames Estuary to wait further instructions by the Royal Navy.

“By midnight the Crew was found, and at 8:30 a.m. we were under weigh down river, refueling and taking on stores and water as we went. At 8 p.m. we reported to our destination and were given further instructions to proceed to a south-east port. We made it at 9 o’clock the next morning.”

At Ramsgate two Naval ratings joined the crew of the Minotaur and assisted with the loading of fuel and provisions. They all received detailed operational instructions on the morning of 31 May before making the crossing to Dunkirk and would have had little knowledge of what they would encounter.

By 10:45 a.m. we were on our way. The crossing took five-and-a-half to six hours, and was by no means uneventful. Destroyer after destroyer raced past, almost cutting the water from beneath us, and threatening to overturn us with their wash. We approached the beach with great caution at Dunkirk, because of the wrecks. We found things fairly quiet, and got on with our allocated job of towing small open ships’ boats, laden with soldiers, to troop transports anchored in deep water, or of loading our ship from the open boats and proceeding out to the transports.

Conditions did not remain quiet for long. We were working about a quarter of a mile away from six destroyers. Suddenly all their anti-aircraft guns opened fire. At the same time we heard the roar of 25 Nazi planes overhead. Their objective was the crowded beach and the destroyers. Salvo after salvo of bombs was dropped. Adding to the deafening din were air raid sirens sounding continuously on the shore. One ‘plane made persistent circles round us. Another Nazi ‘plane was brought down in flames, far too close for our liking!

After the raiders had passed, we shakily got on with the job. Eventually our fuel ran low and the engine made ominous noises, so were relieved. We took a final load to a trawler, returned to our East Coast base, re-fuelled and turned in for a few hours’ sleep. We were then told to stand by, as fast boats were making the next crossing. We shipped aboard another motor boat as crew. We left before it got back dark under convoy of a large sea-going tug. Our job this time was to work from the mole at Dunkirk Harbour in conjunction with the tug. The operation was supposed to be carried out under cover of darkness, but with the petrol and oil tanks on fire it might have been daytime. Having loaded the tug we came away barely in time. As we left the mole the Germans got its range, and a shell demolished the end of it.

On the way back we Scouts transferred to a Naval cutter, full of troops, which was making the return journey. The officer in charge had lost his charts. Knowing the course back we were able to take over. After a nine-hours’ crossing we made our East Coast base once more. German aircraft constantly followed all small boats out to sea, gunning the crews and troops on board. Three more members of our Sea Scout Troop crewed other boats from Chiswick which were short of men.”

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Post Script

In many ways the Dunkirk evacuation was the real start of Scouting’s involvement in the Second World War and its aftermath. The skills and training were the key to dealing with the challenges ahead on the home front as a result of the aerial bombardment of Britain just as much as they were used in combat operations. For those unfamiliar with the Dunkirk evacuation I heartily recommend the 1958 film Dunkirk staring John Mills and for a modern twist on the story try Atonement released in 2007.

Map used by the Crew of the Minotaur at Dunkirk

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