The Minotaur and 'GSM Gill'
THE Scout Association's Weekly News Bulletin Issue 519 of June 1940 takes up the story.
" It can now be revealed that Sea Scouts played an important part in the epic of Dunkirk - A thrilling story is told by the Group Scout Master of Mortlake Sea Scouts."
The Scout Association'sWeekly News Bulletin - Issue 519
The Bulletin article had no proper 'byline' to say who had authored the article, but some of the reportage was in the third person with references to the originator of the story, in the repeated phrase "continued Gill". No other mention by name of any other person involved was reported. It must be remembered that June 1940 corresponded exactly with the 'Battle of Britain'. The Second World War had long passed its 'Phoney War' stage and was biting hard into the everyday life of the entire nation. There is no doubt that the Scout Association would have required War Office approval before running the story, but once approved, the Scout Association may even have been encouraged to publish it on the basis of its moral-boosting potential.
GSM Gill was not on board the Minotaur while she was at Dunkirk nor was such a person the GSM of Mortlake Sea Scouts. The name was merely a 'cover' probably instituted by the censor. We shall encounter Mortlake's real Group Scout Master later, as it was his words that are reported below. The story that he had to tell is inspirational, however as it is very much bound up with that of the Sea Scout Vessel Minotaur, we ought to at least try to establish the history of this vessel prior to its most famous voyage.
According to a later owner, Alistair Milne, (of whom we shall also learn more later) she was built in 1915 as a steam pinnace "designed to work as an Admiral's Barge". Her design was certainly suitable for such prestigious work for she had " a triple-skinned teak hull". She was 45' in length, had a beam of 11' and a draft of 5'foot. She had seen service in the North Sea and the Mediterranean and was bought (according to Hilary St George Saunders in his The Left Handshake) by Mortlake Sea Scout Group in 1929. The group modified the boat and a new engine was fitted in 1934. The vessel then took part in a Sea Scout camp on the Isle of Sheppey, and just prior to the Second World War crossed the Channel with a crew of Rovers to visit France. The boat's home mooring was at Mortlake, ten miles above London Bridge.
At 11pm on 29th May 1940, the Admiralty issued instructions for the Minotaur to report 'down river' as soon as possible: 'GSM Gill' wrote,
" By midnight the crew was found, [a Rover Sea Scout engineer] and by 8.30 a.m. next day 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 instructions to proceed to 'a south east port', [Ramsgate] we made it by 9 o'clock the next morning."
'Little Ships' being towed down the Thames at the start of 'Operation Dynamo'. 2nd row forward, 2nd from the right looks very much like Minotaur?
Two armed navel ratings then joined the boat. [One of these was 'Lofty' Christmas who was later to write a very brief account of the voyage for the BBC's
The People's War, which will be reported later.] Fuel and provisions were taken on board and detailed operational instructions given to proceed to part of the French coast.
"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 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 the allotted job of towing small open ship's boats, laden with soldiers, to troop transports anchored in deep water, or off 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 open fire. At the same time we heard the roar of 25 Nazis planes over head." [These were 'Stuka dive bombers' two were shot down by fire from British destroyers] Their objective was the crowded beach and the destroyers. Salvo after salvo of bombs were 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 we were relieved. [That is allowed to 'stand down'.] We took a final load to a trawler, returned to our East Coast base 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 dark under convoy of a large sea-going tug. Our job this time was to work from the mole [The 'mole' is a temporary pier] at Dunkirk harbour which was supposed to be carried out under the cover of darkness, but with the petrol and oil tanks on fire it might as well 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 " [The two of them, 'Giles' and Sea Rover Scout Engineer] " transferred to a Naval cutter, full of troops, which was making the return journey. The officer in charge had lost his charts, but 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."
The Bulletin Article concluded with 'Gile's' assertion that three more members of his Sea Scout Group crewed other boats from Chiswick which were short of men that also travelled to Dunkirk. It should be emphasised that the personnel referred to would have been adult leaders and NOT boys. After the war, in 1947, Sea Scout Author Percy Westerman published a book with the tantalizing title Sea Scouts at Dunkirk, though it may have been inspired by the story of the Minotaur and the background story of Dunkirk was real enough, there were no boys of Scout age present on Minotaur or, as far as I know, any of the other 'Little Ships'.
The above chart, showing the Dunkirk beaches pencilled in red, was discovered in the Scout Association Archives quite recently. There was no indication of when or who lodged it there. The only recorded link between the Dunkirk beaches and the Association is Minotaur. It seems reasonable them to assume that the chart was given into the care of the Association by somebody connected with Minotaur. Of the very few people who fit this description, Jim Towndrow seems the most likely benefactor.