HISTORIES AND MYSTERIES OF DARTMOOR: The Dartmoor man who rescued 900 men from the Dunkirk beaches

Tavistock-born Rear-Admiral Bob Timbrell was a young Royal Canadian Navy officer still at the gunnery school on Whale Island, Portsmouth, when he was summoned from his class and told to take a boat to Dunkirk in May 1940.

Aged 20 he was given command of Lord Astor’s motor yacht Llanthony with a crew of six Newfoundland woodsmen, two London bus mechanics and a Royal Navy petty officer whose equipment consisted of a First World War pistol, an uncorrected magnetic compass and a minefields chart.

Having taken on board barrels of fresh water for the troops waiting to be evacuated from the beaches, Timbrell immediately ran into a broken-down Thames pleasure steamer laden with troops, and towed her to Ramsgate.

After reaching the beaches on his second trip, he was taking 16 men at a time into Llanthony’s two small dinghies when a German shell exploded by the port bow, severing both anchor cables, breaking the fuel lines and stranding the ship. Timbrell had dug the propellers and rudder out of the sand when a sergeant, with eight guardsmen, offered help in return for a lift.

The sergeant commandeered a tank in the town and drove down the beach and into the sea until its engine stopped; it was then used as an anchor to winch up

Llanthony while her engines were repaired.
For his next trip Timbrell was given command of a flotilla of Scottish trawlers, whose skippers all seemed to have been at sea before he was born.

One of the boats hit a mine and disappeared in a flash, leaving flotsam but no survivors. On the next crossing Timbrell’s guardsmen, whom he had persuaded to stay with him, drove off air attacks and surprised two E-boats with a Bren and two anti-tank guns.

Returning for the last time to Dunkirk, he was greeted by a drunken soldier staggering down the beach as he dodged the German shell fire; the man insisted on paying for his passage with a case of brandy purloined from a French inn, then fell

asleep in the wheelhouse.Timbrell returned to Portsmouth with a sorry-looking Llanthony – her boats were smashed, her funnels riddled with bullet holes – and stopped a bus outside the dockyard gates.

Looking at the dishevelled and dirty crew, still with their anti-tank guns and brandy, the conductor asked: “Are you just back from Dunkirk, sir?”

The civilian passengers were still on board as the bus took them to Whale Island. Sub-Lieutenant Timbrell was personally responsible for the rescue of some 900 troops from Dunkirk, and was the first Canadian of the war to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC).

The son of a British railway engineer in Canada, Robert Walter Timbrell was born at Tavistock, Devon, on February 1 1920 and went to West Vancouver High School, British Columbia.

At 15 he became a cadet on the training ship Conway on the Mersey, and then a midshipman, RCN, on the monitor Erebus and the cruiser Vindictive. He served on the battleships Barham and Warspite and the battle cruiser Hood in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic.

After the Dunkirk evacuation Timbrell was on the destroyer Margaree when she was run down in rough seas by a freighter, and was rescued with a handful of survivors.

For the rest of the war he specialised in
anti-submarine warfare duties on convoy, serving on the RCN ships Annapolis, Ottawa, Qu’Appelle and Micmac, first as second-in-command and later staff officer to various escort commanders.

He was mentioned in dispatches for his part in the destruction of U-621 in the Bay of
Biscay on August 18 1944 and of U-984 two days later. Bob Timbrell died on April 11 2006.

Ben Fox

Author: Ben Fox

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