Llanthony and Dunkirk
NOTE: The majority of information here is borrowed from The Association of Dunkirk Little Ships
Rear-Admiral Robert W. Timbrell of the Royal Canadian Navy (Retired) was a newly-fledged Sub-Lieutenant stationed at Whale Island, Portsmouth, in May 1940 when he was summoned by an old Naval Captain sitting at his desk with a pile of paper in front of him. Twenty young officers had been told to report rather hastily after getting their gas masks, toothbrushes and shaving kit and they wondered what it was all about. Robert Timbrell knew better than to ask an irritable old Captain for details when he brusquely told him "to join the Llanthony". He had no idea what kind of ship this was and was amazed when he discovered he had been chosen to command her. He was even more astonished to find that she was a gentleman's yacht built for Lord Astor of Hever Castle and ill-equipped for naval duty. Her compass had not been swung and the only armament was the 1914 Colt 45 on Timbrell's leather belt.
With his crew of two civilian diesel engineers from London Transport and six sailors from Newfoundland (they were actually lumberjacks), he was ordered to proceed to Ramsgate where the yacht was fuelled and provided with charts. They were then told to set course for Dunkirk. There they were to anchor off the beach and embark as many troops as they could using the two tenders swung from their davits.
On the way, they encountered a strange variety of craft: sailing yachts, mud hoppers and Thames pleasure steamers. One of these they found broken down half way across. This boat was loaded with troops and so they towed her all the way back to Ramsgate.
Forty years later, Admiral Timbrell told his story to Cameron Graham of the Canadian Broadcasting Service:
"It was a very shallow beach and at low tide, the water went out a long way. We were being shelled by the Germans, the town was in flames and after we had anchored, I sent the Petty Officer in with the boats; I stayed with the yacht. We could take about 120 on each trip and our instructions were to return as soon as we were loaded. We did that for a couple of trips. Then, on the third or fourth trip, we got bombed. Although the RAF were doing a marvellous job, the odd German got through. We were hit on the fo'cs'le. I lost about five of the crew and both my anchors snapped. The fuel tanks were forward of the engine room and the fuel pipes were severed so that both engines died. We drifted up on the beach. It all happened so quickly - one minute we were there and the next we were damaged, drifting and running aground.
It was a sunny afternoon and there were shells falling all the way down the beach with thousands of soldiers asking to be taken back to England. It was Day four of the evacuation and a stream of ships were going in and out. We drove some trucks into the water to form a small jetty. Then, at high tide, we could go alongside the trucks and men could walk on top of them and jump aboard.
While I was high and dry, I heard the English voice of a sergeant marching some troops down, calling out the order to halt. He was tired and his uniform was not parade ground standard, but he was still smart. He turned out to be from a Guards regiment. He asked if he could help and I told him to get a Bren-gun carrier and drive it out as far as he could in the water until the engine stopped so that I could use it to anchor by. That is what he did and my two civilian diesel engineers repaired the fuel pipe, got the capstan going and winched us off. They put a plate over my bombed fo'cs'le and we sailed back to England.
By then I was an old hand, in the eyes of the authorities, so I was given four trawlers to add to my fleet. They had come down from Scotland and their old skippers had twenty years' experience - more sea time than I will ever get in my life.
I told them the form: 'We'll sail from Ramsgate. You stay close to me and we will go straight into Dunkirk, anchor, load and come back.' As simple as that. We sailed by night and loaded by day because at night the German E-boats were coming down the coast. My Guards sergeant had got me some Bren-guns and anti-tank weapons so now the Llanthony was armed with something more than my Colt 45. The trawlers stayed close to me - almost too close - and the port one went over a mine. She disappeared in a flash and we were not able to pick up survivors. The rest of us did two or three more trips. On one of them we had a fight with an E-boat. Thanks to my sergeant and his troops we were able to hold it off and they were surprised at our volume of fire. The Guards sergeant stayed with me for the whole time. While we were on the beach, one of the soldiers came towards us on a zig-zag course which miraculously avoided all the German shells. This was not good fieldwork, but due to a whole day spent in a French pub! He was drunker than anyone I have ever seen and he told us not to go back to England without him. He said he would come back with his ticket. He staggered back to his pub and returned with a case of brandy. 'Here's my ticket, sir, to get back to England. Don't leave me behind'. With this, he shoved his case of brandy aboard and fell asleep in the wheelhouse.
Our last trip was the tightest. The Germans had started to enter the town and to close the ring around Dunkirk. There was no way we could return any more. Back at Portsmouth I had a job to find anyone who would take over Llanthony from me. She was beaten up with bullet holes in her funnels and her boats were smashed. We took off the Bren-guns and anti-tank weapons as well as our case of brandy and tried to get back to Whale Island, three and a half miles away. I stopped a bus and asked the conductor the best way to get back to our ship. The conductor said, 'Have you just come back from Dunkirk?' and when I told him we had, he walked around to the front of the bus and told the driver to take us there - with apologies for the detour to the civilian passengers. We got back to Whale Island complete with the brandy despite some protests concerning our army crew from the duty officer."
Timbrell was the first Canadian decorated in WW2. He was also the last of the skippers of the "little ships" to die (in 2006).
The Llanthony rescued 280 troops from Dunkirk and Lieut. Timbrell was awarded the Navy's Distinguished Service Cross. The Guards sergeant got the DSM - a rare naval award for a soldier.
Between 1985 and 1993, known as Golden Era, she cruised between Greece and Turkey as an elegant charter yacht. In 1995 she was discovered lying in Rhodes harbour in an extremely dilapidated state by her present owner Ms. Nicola Mcgrail. She was put to sail on one engine and taken to Marmaris in Turkey in 1995, where she has undergone extensive renovation and the complete rebuild of her Daimler-Benz engines. She has become a showpiece at Netsel Marina, Marmaris, now restored to her former glory and retains all her original fittings. She returned to British waters for the first time in thirty years to attend The Diamond Anniversary Reunion in June 2000.