The Book of the 1st Mortlake Sea Scouts

BWLeftBWRightWhen it was time to move from the Wolf Cubs  into the Boy Scouts, my mother phoned their Headquarters on Buckingham Place Road because she knew I really wanted to be a Sea Scout. And so, when I was twelve  I transferred to the 1st Mortlake Sea Scout Troop in England ~ twenty years later I started the 65th Ottawa Sea Scout Troop in Canada. (See photo at end).

Mortlake was a long way from where I lived in Acton. So, for the weekly night meetings I had to take two trains to get there even though there was a war on. (Not sure that many people these days would let a twelve-year old do something like that alone). On weekends I could ride my bike alone ~ must have taken at least an hour.

Anyway …. One of the first things I noticed when I went into the Troop Headquarters was a painting on one of the walls. A war-time scene with a rising column of smoke in the background, aircraft overhead, and small boats near a beach with soldiers in the the water. Dunkirk and one of the boats there was the one you are about to see on the River Thames in more peaceful conditions, which seems to be far too close to that very small boat in the water. Hopefully it is just a bad camera angle!

So, as you will read below, teenagers from the troop ~ which proudly claimed to be the second oldest Sea Scout troop in the world ~ were at Dunkirk..

FourGuysAnd two quick asides. First, Tom Towndrow mentioned below, and perhaps the oldest of seven brothers, will lead a summer camp in Cornwall in 1944. He had a motor cycle with a side-car attached and I would ride in it with him when we needed to get provisions or do other things.

Second, as a Rover Sea Scout home on leave from the sea, I shall have command of Minotaur on a couple of Thames cruises and my friend, Dave Hannel,  wearing the boiler suit, will be my Chief Engineer.
whaler being rowed past Minotaur with John aborad

Wnagle leaves Dover - the last known photo

Wangle III leaving Dover Harbour on her last voyage.

Note: The picture above and the text below come from the following web-site:

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 1st Mortlake Sea Scout Group which crewed the 45 ft 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-fueled 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 [A town just downriver from Mortlake] which were short of men.”



This next piece, which I originally titled “What is a Wangle?” is not a happy story at all. In fact it is a tragedy on a very small scale ~ ten lost lives. And I have wrestled a little with how to present it given the name.

You see Wangle is an English slang word that may be defined as causing an unlikely though desired turn of events to come true usually using persuasive or manipulative behaviour. 

For example: Even though I didn’t have a ticket to the Barbra Streisand concert I was able to wangle my way in.

She wangled the boss into holding the staff party at the best restaurant in town.



Canadian Sea Cadets in the Bay of Fundy

But why the 1st Mortlake Sea Scouts would name, not one, but three of their rowing boats Wangle, nor what each looked like, is a mystery for which we may never have an answer. However, what is known is that in 1942, The Royal Canadian Navy commissioned the McCall Boat Works, in St. Williams, Ontario, on the shores of Lake Erie, to build a number of twenty-seven foot wooden “whalers” that could be either rowed or sailed.

After the war the RCN donated a number of them to the Boy Scouts Association in England, one of which found its way to Mortlake on the river Thames which is better known to most as the place where the annual Oxford/ Cambridge boat race ends: I once rowed the film footage ashore in one of the troop’s dinghies because our moorings were just upstream from the finish line.

And so it was that on August 11th, 1950, Wangle III left there with my friends Robert Walford and Bill Towndrow, both eighteen, and Brian Peters and Peter White, both seventeen, aboard; along with two younger scouts, William Woods and Maurice Percival and four adults, John Weeden, the Group Scoutmaster, two other adult Scouters, Donald Amos and Bernard Bell, and as their guest Kenneth Black the District Commissioner. I knew them all.

By August 16th they had crossed the English Channel and arrived in Calais where they stayed for a couple of days. They left at 10.00 am on the morning of the 19th but when they did not then arrive at Ramsgate ~ the crossing is about twenty-one miles ~ the alarm was raised. RAF planes, Coast Guard helicopters, two private planes and three lifeboats made a search.

On August 26th an official announcement reporting them lost at sea was issued, at which time a decision was made by the troop that wherever the first body was recovered, there the others would also be buried.

And the English Channel tides had carried the bodies miles away north to an island named Texel, at the top of The Netherlands, where the bodies of the two William’s were washed ashore and buried in the General Cemetery at Den Berg on the island. The remains of Maurice Percival were found on the nearby island of Terschelling and the bodies of John Weeden, Peter White and Brian Peters were recovered to the East in the German Bight between the coast and Heligoland. The other three were never found.

On November 15th ~ I got leave from my ship in Rotterdam ~ the funeral for these last four was held in the local church officiated by an Anglican minister from the British Army of the Rhine. Dutch Scouts then carried the coffins aloft on platforms, from the church to the cemetery to be buried beside the other two.




1. And such are the ironies in life. During World War II Lieutenant-Commander John Weeden RN, served on Motor Torpedo Boats based out of Dover. I have a sense he may have been wounded in action but, in any event, he was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery.

2. In February of 1951, pursuant to The Merchant Shipping Act of 1894, a Formal Investigation into the loss of this open-boat was convened. In it’s subsequent report, The Court “having carefully inquired into the circumstances attending the above-mentioned shipping casualty finds … the probable cause of the loss of the Wangle III was that she was overwhelmed in a confusing cross-sea caused by a high wind against a contrary sea”.

3. In the summer of 2010 aboard my twenty-five foot Swedish built ~ hence her name ~ motor cruiser Valhalla, with an enclosed cabin, I am cruising north in JohnstoneStrait, off Kelsey Bay with another Albin. For some reason it is only afterwards that I will discover that this area is well-known for what happens when it is not slack water, and the wind and the tide are in opposition directions: “square” shaped waves.

Three hours of sheer hell, spray flying over the bow and the boat being tossed in every direction before we finally found calmer waters. An open boat would have had no chance at all. A hard lesson to learn but, unlike those boy-hood friends, I still have my life.

1st Moortlake