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Sea Scout Boat Minotaur - A Dunkirk 'Little Ship'

One of the defining moments of the Second World War was in 1940 when the retreating British Army Expeditionary Force needed to be brought back home from the beaches of Dunkirk. The Royal Navy's troop transporters and other warships could not, because of the shallow waters, get close into the beach and had to 'stand off' whilst an entire army under constant air attack had be ferried out to them in smaller vessels, which the Royal Navy just did not have! The call had gone out for any vessel that could do the job. Convoys of boats were assembled and crossed the channel. Despite the attention of submarines and dive bombers they succeeded in ferrying most of the 330,000 trapped men to the waiting ships. It is a little known fact that amongst the requisitioned and volunteer vessels was the Sea Scout boat Minotaur and her Sea Scout crew.

I have been researching the history of this historic vessel since 2002, and as time went by and I found out more and more, I was hopeful that at the conclusion of the article I would I be able to reveal the present whereabout of the famous 'Little Ship'. I reasoned that such an historic vessel would never be destroyed - being made of wood any part could just be replaced. Well, I was wrong! This article is now one of the few remaining tangible pieces of evidence of a story that should be far more widely known.


ON May 26th 1940, a secret cipher telegram was sent by the War Office to the Admiralty stating that the emergency evacuation of troops from the French coast was required immediately. A contingency plan, long prepared under the code name 'Operation Dynamo' - the name being derived from the control centre at Dover, a generating station overlooking the harbour - was to be executed. In overall command was the Vice-Admiral Commanding Dover, Bertram Ramsay. The following day, May 27th, the Small Craft section of the Ministry of Shipping started telephoning various boat builders and agents around the coast requesting/ordering them to collect all small craft suitable for the work of taking troops from beaches where larger vessels could not penetrate. What was needed were boats of shallow draught and this directed attention in particular to the pleasure boats, private yachts and launches on the Thames and also in muddy estuaries and creeks in deserted moorings along the South and East coasts which were ideally suited for such an operation.

Mr. Douglas Tough of Tough Brothers, Teddington, who, with Ron Lenthall, assisted in collecting many of the boats on the upper reaches of the Thames, was later to recall a story that illustrates just how secretly and speedily this 'operation' was carried out. The owner of one of the boats which was commandeered in his absence on hearing that it had been taken away, informed the Police that it had been stolen and pursued it to Teddington Lock. More than one hundred craft from the Upper Thames were to be assembled at the Tough Bros Ferry Road Yard.

The Minotaur and 'GSM Gill'

THE Scout Association's Weekly News Bulletin Issue 519 of June 1940 takes up the story.

Bullitin 519
The Scout Association'sWeekly News Bulletin - Issue 519
" 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 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."

Minotaur Flotilla
'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'.
Dunkirk Chart

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.

'Lofty' Christmas

'LOFTY' CHRISTMAS contributed two small articles based on his Dunkirk memories to the BBC WW2 People's War archive of memories in December 9th 2003. One starts with this statement "The British have never been called a boastful nation, trumpet-blowers never." The author lives up to his premise because in his articles, written only to ensure that the memories of his colleagues that withstood the 'hell' of Dunkirk are never forgotten, he only very sparingly lets us into the secret that he was at Dunkirk, on a 'Little Ship', and aboard Minotaur. " The ex-naval steam pinnace 'Minotaur' had been converted to serve as a Sea Scout training vessel, normally moored at Mortlake, ten miles above London Bridge. She was skippered by Mr. Tom Towndrow, Sea Scout Master [The real name of Minotaur's Sea Scout skipper] with a Rover Sea Scout as engineer. Upon her arrival at Ramsgate, the naval authorities allocated two R.N. ratings to join her. They were armed with two 303 rifles, 600 rounds of ammunition, tin hats and first aid equipment. We took on stores and fuel then made our crossing, which took about six hours. Reaching the beach safely we proceeded to ferry troops to the transports lying some way of shore. The noise of the battle was deafening. The German Stuka dive bombers had spats fitted to their wheels, which contained air activated sirens, producing a terrifying scream, add to this shell fragments and flaming onions (sic) that were falling around us, it was enough to send shivers down our spines. Our skipper decided we must move away from this dangerous area, away from the larger ships that were being targeted by the bombers."

The italics in the above paragraph are all mine, and are important as they are the understated but conclusive proof that 'Lofty' Christmas was indeed on Minotaur and at Dunkirk. 'Lofty' must have one of the two RN ratings. His articles include this moving first-hand testimony, which does not appear to have been dimmed by the passage of time and is free of the censor's pencil which would have certainly been applied if it had been written, as was "Giles" 1940 account, (- really that of Tom Towndrow, a fact confirmed by Hilary St George Saunders in his Left Handshake - See Written Resources at the end of this article.)

To return to 'Lofty' Christmas's account, "Dunkirk could only be described as an inferno and anyone who was there felt the 'HEAT OF HELL'. Those who returned time and time again were spitting in the face of the Devil. Craft of every description had to run the gauntlet of mines, E. Boats, submarines, shore batteries and wrecks, but most of all the dive-bombers. The RAF were unable to provide enough air cover, for example on the 29th May the RAF claimed they had shot down 67 German planes, for the loss of only 19 of their own. After the war Germany revealed that only 18 aircraft were lost on that day, some being shot down by warship Anti-Aircraft fire .... The Germans shelled and bombed hospital ships, without the possibility of claiming it was an error on their part. Only a small percentage of ship losses are mentioned on these pages and the strain on officers and men was immense. The commanding officer of the destroyer H.M.S Vanquisher asked to be relieved of his duties, after three trips to Dunkirk. Destroyer H.M.S Verity had trouble with crew and officers, Admiral Somerville went aboard and talked to the crew. The ship then returned to Dunkirk. At least three ships had to be re-commissioned owing to their crews suffering from hysteria and fits of crying, this affecting both officers and crew. On H.M.S Vimy, whilst returning to Dunkirk on 27th May, the captain left the bridge and did not return. The ship was searched from stem to stern, without result, so the first lieutenant took command. What was it that drove men on, losing all sense of time, suffering hunger, thirst and having little sleep? "

"The answer to that question was the thought of tens of thousands of men waiting in that inferno suffering, praying, cursing and dying, but knowing that eventually their sea-going comrades would arrive, whatever the situation."

"How can this nation forget the 68,000 souls who lost their lives."

"Many veterans feel, with bitterness, that Dunkirk would not be forgotten, if the Americans had been at Dunkirk."

"I conclude these facts hoping that they will convince readers that we should - NEVER FORGET DUNKIRK."

I cannot verify the accuracy of Lofty's angry uncensored assertions. It should be recalled though that they were first submitted to the BBC's Archive Series WW2 People's War for possible broadcast to be heard by other veterans. One has to conclude that 'Lofty' believed every word he wrote. He strips away the 'official gloss', that Dunkirk was some sort of glorious victory and exposes it for what it was, a terrible carnage, where sitting duck targets were slaughtered unmercifully. We are listening to the authentic voice of an eye-witness.

We also learn from Lofty Christmas's account specific details about the Minotaur that also bourne out by other sources, the most important of which is that Tom Towndrow was both the skipper of the Minotaurand Mortlake's Scout Master. Towndrow was is not then Rover Sea Scout who acted as the tantalisingly un-named engineer. 'Giles' of the Scout Association's Bulletin was then an invented name, presumably by the censor, probably to protect Towndrow because, as I was later to find out, he went on to become a serving officer in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve engaged on 'classified', that is to say, top-secret duties.

Tom Towndrow

ACCORDING to Saunders in the The Left Handshake, Towndrow was confronted on May 29th 1940 by a Naval Commander and two Petty Officers who had an order demanding that Minotaur proceed as soon as possible to Sheerness in Kent. We are told that Towndrow roused his boss the Town Clerk of Barnes, to obtain leave to accompany the vessel on what was to be its most historic cruise.

Bullitin 519
The Minotaur in the early 1950's on the Thames, just downstream of the Chiswick Bridge

The following information however was unfortunately only discovered by Milestones after Towndrow's death on September 4th, 2006. (What a pity that despite my efforts to locate him, I was only able learn of Tom's full life after his death.) What follows is a compilation of obituaries from The Times and his local newspaper, the Surrey Comet .

Thomas Austin Towndrow was born on October 6, 1914. and was the second of the seven sons of Austin Octavia Towndrow of Barnes. He was educated at East Sheen County School and joined the Town Clerk's Department of Barnes Borough Council in 1933, at the same time joining Mortlake Sea Scout Group. He threw his energies into refitting the groupís training vessel, the former naval steam pinnace Minotaur. In due course he became her skipper and by 1940 he was Group Scout Leader.

Whilst on Minotaur at Dunkirk he recalled having to restrain a crew member from engaging a German fighter plane with his rifle and thereby inviting massive retribution. [This could only have been one of the two naval ratings, as they were the only ones on board who were armed, one of which as we know was 'Lofty' Christmas (see above)]

Croix de Guerre
The 1939-45
Croix de Guerre

After Dunkirk, Towndrow was commissioned in the RNVR and was to spend a good deal of the remainder of the war in liaison duties with the Free French Navy. He was sent to act as assistant to the Commanding Officer of the elderly battleship Paris, which had escaped from the port of Brest at the fall of France and sailed to Plymouth where she was utilised as an accommodation ship for Polish naval personnel. He was then appointed Liaison Officer to the submarine La Sultane, based at Oran in Algeria which was engaged in landing secret agents in occupied southern France. La Sultane, with Towndrow aboard was more than once was compelled to dive to depths beyond the limit of safe operation in order to avoid German attacks. The French Government awarded him the Croix de Guerre. The citation praises his,

" ... intelligent action and frank comradeship during the course of three special missions and six patrols, one of which in May 1944 resulted in the destruction of an enemy submarine chaser."

It is interesting to note that neither Towndrow nor any other Dunkirk veteran received a medal specifically for the taking part in what Winston Churchill described as the "miracle of deliverance"" at Dunkirk. A 'miracle' that was only achieved by the bravery of a great many individuals, many of whom like Towndrow were volunteers, who had no experience of war whatsoever prior to their 'baptism of fire' at Dunkirk.

At the end of the war Towndrow returned to council work, settling in Bexley, Kent, with his wife, Vi, whom he married in 1948, and his stepson. He qualified as a solicitor and ran the local Sea Scout troop. Daughters Sue and Tricia arrived and he went on to hold appointments at Maidenhead, Windsor and finally Frome, Somerset, where he served as Town Clerk. After his wifeís death in 1975 he settled in Lymington, Hampshire, where he was an active member of the sailing club and Sea Scouts. He died on September 4, 2006, aged 91 survived by his two daughters and stepson.

Another Eye-Witness Account

COL. HTB BARNARD TD RA was not aboard Minotaur, but he was at Dunkirk commanding another famous 'Little Ship' Bluebird that belonged to the Land and Water Speed Record holder Malcolm Campbell. Barnard was himself a famous yachtsman and his account of what it was like on board a 'Little Ship' in Dunkirk harbour helps visualise the terrible nature of the task faced by the two Sea Scouters and the perilous danger that the vessel and its crew was in. The account is from Bluebird by Martin Summers, Collectors Books Ltd 1990.

"Conditions in and around the harbour were appalling and proved difficult enough even for experienced crews to navigate. The sea had turned to a black, treacly oily mixture; the air as dense and fume laden as a man could tolerate with difficulty. The harbour was full of sunken wrecks; the advancing Germans had got its range and shrapnel from shells was flying about. Stray tow ropes, the debris from vessels blown out of the water and reduced to pieces, fuel drums, floating human bodies and limbs, and innumerable discarded items of clothing including heavy great coats were all potential hazards. The boats themselves, jostled for position, were being over-run and occasionally overturned by too many eager evacuees who were sometimes just as much a danger to each other. And from above came the constant bombardment from the air; strafing the embarkation points, bombing the 'Little Ships' and screaming out to sea to engage and sink the larger vessels packed solid with men. When a laden troop ship set off, the German aircraft screamed into the attack and the crew of many a Little Ship, as it sailed back through the carnage, saw the same men it had just rescued and placed on board, back in the water."

What became of Minotaur?

Minotaur at 1929 World Jamboree Minotaur on the Seine, moored near the Sub-Camp Marine at the Jamboree de la Paix 1947 (and below)

IMMEDIATELY after Dunkirk, Minotaur was taken into naval service and assigned to duty on the East Coast patrols. At the end of the War she returned to the ownership of the Mortlake Sea Scout Group and crossed the channel again as a part of the UK contingent to the 1947 World Jamboree 'De la Paix', held at Moisson, France. Once again GSM Towndrow was in charge. The voyage, including the river navigation, took seven days and, despite some 'unpleasant weather', was accomplished without incident. The boat was anchored in the Seine close the Sea Scout 'Marine' sub-camp. She was photographed, dressed overall with a compliment of Sea Scouts for the Jamboree Newspaper Le Journal. (The 'sliding watermark' to the right of this page was the emblem of Sub-Camp 'Marine')

Minotaur at 1929 World Jamboree

Minotaur was eventually disposed by the Sea Scouts(date not known) and was acquired by Mr Alistair Milne. Milne had worked as a tea-planter and an engineer in India but now he has his wife were driver and 'clippie' (bus conductor) on a Green Line bus out of Addlestone Garage, London. They had purchased the boat in 1961 after a holiday on the Norfolk Broads - and made Minotaur their permament dwelling at a mooring on the Thames between Shepperton and Chertsey Locks. They totally refitted the vessel installing a new six cylinder petrol Chrysler engine and many other 'mod-cons' such as refrigeration which would have been unusual at the time. The information and the picture below comes to us courtesy of London Transport who were kind enough to send me a copy of an article aboutMinotaur and her 'Coach Crew' printed in the London Transport Magazine of October 1961.

After that the trail went exceedingly cold and despite my appeals to the Thames Conservancy and elsewhere for information nothing was forthcoming until Mr Roy Masini, a friend in Scouting currently researching a book on the History of Sea Scouting contacted me. Roy has links with the 1st Mortlake Sea Scouts and at a recent reunion he was reliably informed that around 1978, the 'Little Ship' was hauled out of the water for repair, an activity which unfortunately led to braking her 'back' i.e. the boat's keel was fractured. It is at this point that it was decided the historic vessel was beyond repair and so it was burnt.

adls flag
Mr and Mrs Milne cruising the Thames in their much modified 'Minotaur'

The Association of Dunkirk Little Ships


REGRETTABLY the ADLS do not maintain any details of Minotaur on their website register (see Web-based Resources below), though they assured me in 2003 that they were aware of the vessel's history. I have supplied them with the photograph taken at the 1947 World Jamboree as used on this site. I trust these pages might prompt further interest in the unique history of the ex-Sea Scout 'Little Ship'.


THOUGH I have been able to assemble rare and previously unpublished material about Minotaur I feel that much of what I have achieved prompts more questions than I have answers! In order to make further progress I have chosen to 'publish' my incomplete researches in order to enlist the renowned capacity of Milestone's readers to fill in the missing gaps. Should any of our readers be a member of, or know, any of the families of the persons mentioned in this article notably Tom Towndrow, or the un-named Rover Sea Scout engineer, or 'Lofty' Christmas or the un-named 2nd armed Naval Rating that travelled with the boat to Dunkirk, then Milestones would be glad to hear from you. We would also welcome any further pictures of the boat and or her crew and details of her final funeral pyre. It would of course also be interesting to record on this page the history of the 1st Mortlake Sea Scouts?

In the London Transport Magazine article mention is made of " a plaque on its [Minotaur's] side that bears witness to its historic record." that at least must surely be preserved and a photograph would be gladly added to this page with suitable acknowledgement

The story of Minotaur is not just part of our Scouting History, it touches that of the Nation.

Acknowledgements and Resources

My particular thanks to:
John Ineson - for his usual encouragement and the loan, for scanning purposes, (illustrated) of an original copy of the June 1940 Bulletin 519
UK Scout Association Archives, for the large sepia photo of Minotaur at 1947 World Jamboree and the chart of the Dunkirk beaches
Roy Masini - for his continued support with all matters Sea Scouting
Printed Sources
The Left Handshake, Hilary St George Saunders, Collins, 1948,
Sea Scouts at Dunkirk, Percy Westerman, Blackie and Son, 1947
Bluebird, Martin Summers, Collectors Books Ltd, 1990
Internet Sources
Association of Dunkirk Little Ships
Obituary, Tom Towndrow, Times on Line
Obituary, Tom Towndrow, Surrey Comet

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