The "Little Ships"

There are many reasons why Dunkirk Little Ships have a unique place in history. The image of these small private vessels saving British and French soldiers under German fire is powerful and was skillfully used by Churchill to convert an ignominious retreat into an example of British bravery, resolve and innovation. However, from the more distant viewpoint of the 21st Century, the most remarkable part of the Little Ships story is about their survival in significant numbers when almost all artifacts from those events 75 years ago have decayed and the soldiers they helped to save are fading away. So to board a Little Ship allows the visitor to make physical contact with a rare relic of the Dunkirk evacuation and to stand in the place where exhausted soldiers began to realize that they would live to fight another day.

By surviving to the present day, the Little Ship must have avoided being sunk or irreversibly damaged during the Dunkirk operation, and also will have been maintained and nurtured through the intervening years against the ravages of rot and rust. Many have been lost to decay and neglect. The official records at the National Archives state that 464 "small craft" were used in Operation Dynamo and of those, 365 were recorded in June 1940 to have survived. This number has dwindled further over the years and it is difficult to estimate how many are still afloat and in a seaworthy state. The Association of Dunkirk Little Ships lists around 150 though many more are known to exist in the UK and abroad.

Aquabelle is one of these survivors. Her history before and after Dunkirk is unbroken, but not without incidents and accidents that could have led to her demise. After 75 years she is largely as she was built, and is now under ownership with direct family links to the man who commissioned her construction in 1939, Benjamin Taylor.

The Construction and Launch

Benjamin Taylor was a self-made businessman who pioneered developments in reinforced concrete. With family roots in the North West he attended Salford Technical College to gain engineering qualifications whilst working for a local engineering firm, Johnson, Clapham and Morris. He rapidly rose to become manager of a subsidiary company, Johnson's Reinforced Concrete. When the parent company decided to close the subsidiary, Benjamin attracted sufficient funding to buy a controlling share. In the 1920's the company specialized in the design of reinforced concrete structures. This caused him to collaborate with an established architect, Ernest Souster who was also an acclaimed artist who had exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Johnson's main factory, where steel reinforcing mesh and composite beams were manufactured to his own patents, was based in Slough, Berkshire. By the mid-1930s Benjamin was wealthy enough to buy a house on the Thames at Hampton Wick and to purchase second-hand his own 40 foot motor yacht which he called BenTruda, a mixture of his first name and that of his wife, Gertrude. With BenTruda, the Taylors were active members of the Thames Motor Cruising Club which had the clubhouse nearby at Hampton Court.

Seeking to replace BenTruda with a more up-to-date vessel, Benjamin Taylor visited the autumn 1938 Earls Court Boat Show, looking for a quality boat builder from which to commission a yacht built to his own specifications. He was particularly impressed with the 40 ft "Condor" design from William Osborne's of Littlehampton, appreciating details like the careful rounding of the woodwork on the wheelhouse. Recognising that most guests on board these boats tended to congregate around the helmsman, he lengthened the wheelhouse and asked Osborne to include a fixed table, the centre of which formed a trunk open to the engine room, thereby giving good headroom for servicing the engines below. With the enlarged wheelhouse the boat was extended to 45ft in length.

The design for Aquabelle used high-quality wood, with mahogany planking on oak frames for the hull and double-skinned decks finished in teak, the planking tapered in with black caulking. The deckhouse, hatches and skylights were also mahogany. She was fitted with twin three-cylinder Ailsa Craig diesel engines of 36 hp each with contra-rotating propellers and twin rudders. She was of 11ft 6ins beam and drew 4ft. With two masts and her hull painted in white with a blue waterline, the design promised an elegant vessel with balanced proportions.

William Osborne built his first cabin cruiser at Littlehampton in 1919 and also developed a range of small racing craft in the 1920s which he regularly piloted. A small number of beautifully finished motor yachts established his reputation as a high quality boat builder and a series of standardised cabin cruisers, known as Everyman Cruisers was designed with a characteristic mahogany swept gunwhale. William Senior's untimely death in 1931 at the age of 51 handed the company to his son, also William, who developed the range of boats to include high speed cruisers with powerful engines. Ultimately, this experience stood Osborne's in good stead during the Second World War as they supplied the War Ministry with fast gunboats and assault ships and later built a large number of lifeboats for the RNLI.

The Taylor family (Benjamin, Gertrude, and children - daughters Joyce (25) and Mabel (Mabs - 16) and son Geoffrey (22)) regularly visited Littlehampton to watch their yacht being built. Joyce recorded in her diary that the ribs were in position on January 7th 1939 and the hull was planked up one week later. On the 21st the deck beams were being fitted and on the 28th, floors and wardrobes were under construction.

On 3rd February, the design for Aquabelle was given a single page write-up in Yachting World Magazine where she was described as a "well-fitted, well-found and well-built ship".

In preparation for her launching, Aquabelle was moved from her construction shed to the slipway on the River Arun. On April 5th the family drove to Littlehampton in two cars and, on a day of sunshine and showers in front of 19 guests, Aquabelle was launched by Mrs Souster, the wife of Benjamin's architect associate, breaking a champagne bottle on her bows using a hammer! The event was managed by William Osborne Junior, the son of the boatyard's founder.

Aquabelle was secured to a pontoon and her clinker-built 10 foot dinghy was also launched and rowed to join her by Joyce, with Mabs holding the bailer in case of leaks. As it was high tide, other boats were launched and meanwhile, Benjamin Taylor helped Mrs Souster and Gertrude aboard to admire his beautiful new yacht.

The event was captured on 16mm colour cine-film which also showed a pair of RAF rescue launches moored close to Aquabelle. These were also built by Osborne's and hinted at darker days to come.

Return to Hampton Wick

For the next four days, the family enjoyed a number of trial sea trips on Aquabelle from Littlehampton before returning home. During this time, the magazine Yachting World and Power Craft were permitted to test the new yacht, culminating in a very complementary two-page article later published in the 19th May edition. Of great interest to future restorers, the article also included sketches and photographs of her interior, detailing her galley and helm and illustrating the dual role of the wheelhouse table. It was noted that Aquabelle was comfortable at 8 knots with the engines spinning at about 1000rpm. The report particularly praised her maneuverability; by using her twin engines and rudders she could be berthed at a most awkward mooring.

On 21st April, preparations were complete for Aquabelle's long voyage to the Taylor's home on the Thames and, captained by a professional skipper, she set sail for Newhaven. This first short leg was uneventful and the family spent the night at the port. The next day the weather deteriorated and, although they set off for the next leg of the voyage, they found themselves in a full gale with heavy seas. The severity of the weather was dramatically captured by cine-film and, with seasick passengers (except Joyce, who was never seasick) they were forced to return to Newhaven. The next day the family returned home by car, leaving it to the hired skipper to pilot Aquabelle to Hampton Wick alone. He reached Teddington at midnight on April 28th and the family brought Aquabelle to her home mooring at the end of their garden the next day.

Cruising Before the War

With their new yacht, the Taylors continued to enjoy a busy social calendar with fellow members of the TMCC. During May and June the family sailed Aquabelle on the Thames, reaching upstream as far as Goring and downstream to Teddington. Joyce recorded in her diary meeting the Ryelands, who were friends and fellow TMCC members, and who had purchased BenTruda from the Taylors and re-named her Ryegate II. This boat also participated in the Dunkirk evacuation and has survived the subsequent 75 years.

Remarkably, a cine-film of these carefree days just before the war captured images of Thomas Dimbylow accompanying the then Commodore of the TMCC (Sidney Owensmith) receiving the salute of the club members during a sail-past. Joyce dipped Aquabelle's ensign in response without realizing that the young man on the TMCC launch would become her husband 3 years later.

Thomas Dimbylow became part of the privileged Thames boating community despite a relatively austere childhood in the West Midlands. He was born in Wolverhampton to a family who were mostly servants to the local estates. His father was killed in the First World War when Thomas was only three years old, leaving his mother a widow with six other children and no war pension as his father's body had not been found. Although she re-married after the war, adding another three children to the family, they were never well-off and as everyone grew up the house became rather crowded.

Thomas had a series of local jobs but decided to move to London to find more gainful work. His maternal aunt and uncle, the Owensmiths, who lived on a houseboat at East Molesey near Hampton Court, were happy to accommodate the young man and draw him into their world of yachts and boating. He was an enthusiastic rower and rowed competitively for Molesey Boat Club.

At the end of July 1939 Benjamin and Gertrude, their two daughters and a friend, Wally, set sail on Aquabelle for a longer voyage to Calais and then a cruise along the South Coast of England to Poole. Skippered by a professional sailor (just known as "Smith"), they left Teddington lock and joined the tidal Thames accompanied by "Mousine" a smaller motor cruiser owned by the Barbers, fellow TMCC members. Mousine had engine trouble at Brentford which was later cured. The two boats anchored overnight at Queenborough on the mouth of the river Medway in Kent, and woke up the next morning to strong wind. With the tide against them they opted to stay at anchor but this dragged and the wind overturned their dinghy. By mid-afternoon with high tide and rain they decided to stay at their mooring another night, noting that three yachts had been sunk that day.

The next day (Tuesday 1st August) in sunshine and despite a strong wind the two yachts left Queenborough at 11.00. Aquabelle's two small sails were hoisted to steady her in the choppy sea. They rounded the North Foreland and entered Ramsgate Harbour. When in the harbour, Benjamin realized that he had forgotten passports and boat document, both being essential for their planned Channel crossing to France, and also the cine-film camera. Gertrude volunteered to return home to retrieve them and meet them in Calais. This she did, taking the train home and to Dover, then sailing to France on a steamer, perhaps relieved that she could cross the Channel on a much larger vessel! Aquabelle, still accompanied by Mousine entered the inner dock in Calais at midnight and moored, awaiting customs and Gertrude's arrival. The Barbers parted company and headed north to Belgium in Mousine.

With customs satisfied and passports stamped the Taylors took a train to Etaples and Paris Plage in heavy rain, staying in the Grand Hotel for three nights and enjoying rides on electric cars and a sand yacht before returning to Aquabelle via Boulogne by train.

On Tuesday 8th August Aquabelle re-crossed the Channel, leaving Calais at 4.30 AM and reaching Newhaven at 5.00 PM. Joyce recorded the sea to be slight at first but rough later and, as the only family member not seasick, helmed Aquabelle during some of the crossing when the skipper needed a break. Co-incidentally, they moored alongside the Taylor's old boat, now Ryegate II, in Newhaven. The next day Aquabelle sailed in rough seas to her birthplace in Littlehampton and moored overnight. As they were suffering some vibration from a propeller hitting a submerged object, they discussed the problem with William Osborne who suggested they moored opposite the yard where the dropping tide would ground Aquabelle and enable the suspect propeller to be examined. This was successfully accomplished the next day although heavy rain and piles of discarded fish rotting on the river bed made the job rather unpleasant.

On the 12th the Taylors set sail for Poole, Wally having left for home the day before. Sailing non-stop in sunny weather but some headwind, Aquabelle reached their mooring at the Royal Motor Yacht Club by teatime.

Using the RMYC as a base, the family spent the next three weeks sailing around Poole Harbour, with several trips out to sea past Sandbanks Ferry to Studland and Swanage. They were occasionally joined by friends from the yacht clubs and also by their small launch called Midway, which Benjamin had shipped from their home at Hampton Wick. They also were visited by the Sousters for an excursion round Brownsea Island, who returned the favour by treating the family to tea at the nearby Haven Hotel. On several excursions Aquabelle towed Midway to Swanage where they enjoyed using the launch in the open sea.

A reminder of the growing unrest in Europe was the arrival of five destroyers which dropped anchor off Swanage. Cine-film of the warships allowed three to be identified by their pennant number as V&W Class Destroyers of WW1 vintage: HMS Vivacious (D36); HMS Wakeful (H88 - poignantly she was sunk at Dunkirk during the evacuation) and HMS Vanessa (D29).

Geoffrey Taylor joined the family for a week before going to Crusader Camp; he would later join the Royal Navy as an engineering officer. Although Benjamin and Gertrude occasionally returned to London, having two cars at their disposal enabled the three children to continue their excursions to Poole (to visit Ryegate II), Bournemouth and Swanage despite the growing political tension.

On 3rd September, in Aquabelle in Poole Harbour in rough weather, Benjamin, Gertrude, Joyce and Mabs heard, by an 11.00 broadcast by Neville Chamberlain, that Britain was at war with Germany. A blackout had been declared two days earlier. Leaving Aquabelle at the RMYC, the family drove home in their two cars, but returned a week later to collect bedding and other personal possessions and then to lay her up out of the water for the winter at Hamworthy on the western side of Poole Harbour, probably at the Dorset Yacht Club.

A Brief Reunion

After a very cold winter when parts of the sea by the shore at Hamworthy froze, Benjamin and Joyce returned to Aquabelle on April 24th to make her ready for the long return trip home to Hampton Wick. Again crewed by a professional skipper, alone this time, Aquabelle set sail the next day to Newhaven. She was at Ramsgate on April 29th and reached their home on May 1st. The Taylors immediately re-joined the boating social scene; the only concession to wartime was the fitting of blackout curtains to Aquabelle's wheelhouse. They then took Aquabelle up river for a longer trip, starting on May 10th and reaching Marlow (May 11th) then Wargrave, where they left her and returned home until the following weekend. Their cruise continued with a visit to Henley then again leaving Aquabelle at the Wargrave mooring before returning home.

Dunkirk

On the morning of May 30th, Joyce was visiting her father at his office in Coombelands near Addlestone when he received a telephone call from the Admiralty that they wanted Aquabelle immediately. This was not a total surprise as several days before, the TMCC had been asked to provide a list of boats over 30 feet for an unnamed purpose. As Aquabelle was still moored at Wargrave, Benjamin and Joyce set off immediately and telephoned Gertrude to follow, driven by their chauffeur, with provisions for the trip. Their start was somewhat delayed as her dog, Cesar, escaped at the last moment and proved very difficult to catch! Both parents and daughter set off that evening down river, having been told that all the locks would be opened for Aquabelle and also one other requisitioned yacht. As it got dark, it became very difficult to judge the path of deep channel and to remember which side of the islands to navigate. As Joyce could see better in the dark, her father handed over the controls to her. Joyce vividly remembered how the lockkeepers would open one gate then shine a torch onto it to guide the boat into the lock. At about 10.30 PM they decided to moor up at Cookham Lock and have a short sleep. They moved off again at 5 AM, arriving at their mooring at the end of their garden at about 12.30. Mr. Taylor phoned to say they had arrived and got busy unloading clothing and personal possessions from the boat, which was like a second home to them.

Three R.N.V.R men arrived very quickly and set off in Aquabelle downstream; Joyce recalled feeling very sad but proud. They had been told that British soldiers were stranded on some beaches but were not informed exactly where.

After an hour or so, to their great surprise, Aquabelle arrived back at their garden. The crew said that a telephone message had told the lock keeper at Teddington to close both locks until further orders and to let no boats through at all. There was quite a lot of commercial shipping on the river at that time. Steam tugs with barges of coal or wood and also small oil tankers taking petrol to a terminal at Walton where it went in underground pipes to feed the army vehicles.

The sailors rang up London and left the Taylors after a cup of tea. Mr. Taylor decided to unscrew Aquabelle's big bell with its name on and retain it as a keepsake. In the evening a different crew of five men arrived and told the Taylors that an enemy spy had closed the lock, making several boats miss the high tide. They took Aquabelle away for the second time and the family waited for news. Later on, they met other members of the Thames Motor Cruising Club (TMCC) who had all lent their boats and they were told that one boat had been sunk at the Nore, where the Thames meets the North Sea.

Joyce Dimbylow made a list of all the TMCC boats that were requisitioned for Dunkirk. There were eight in total but one, Bobeli (owned by Messrs Millar and Cox) did not return.

On 9th June the Taylor Family learned with joy from the TMCC that Aquabelle was back at Teddington from Dunkirk, along with many others. There was a picture in the newspaper of her towing five other motor boats back up the Thames. The Taylors were not surprised as Aquabelle was considered particularly capable because she could carry 100 gallons of diesel fuel for her twin diesel engines and could run continuously for several days, whereas the petrol boats, which usually carried about 30 gallons of petrol, could only run for 8 hours. Mabs later recalled being told by the RNVR that Aquabelle made several crossings under her own power and towed some other boats back; however no detailed record of her contribution to Operation Dynamo has survived.

The Taylors climbed on board at Teddington and found that their beautiful new boat which had shining polished mahogany and white sides (it was only launched fourteen months before), was now very dirty and the forward hatch cover was broken in half and one large chromium cleat had been pulled right out of the deck, leaving a gaping hole. There was a tin mug inside and an odd army sock.

They thought Aquabelle would soon be mended and cleaned up, but their joy went to dismay (mixed with pride) when they heard she had been commandeered for the rest of the war, along with four other TMCC yachts: Nanette II, Ryegate II, White Orchid and Sylvia.

Naval War Service

Following repair at Gibbs Boatyard in Teddington, Aquabelle sailed to the East Coast port of Brightlingsea. Benjamin Taylor was told the Navy had fitted a small A.A. gun on her forward deck and she would be operating in the North Sea defending the lighthouses from attack by German planes.

Admiralty weekly war records of ship movements, the "Red List" identifies Aquabelle as being assigned to the Nore Command, Harwich Area, Brightlingsea on 21st July 1940 as an Auxiliary Patrol Vessel, Motor Boats, number 63. Later entries allocate her to Accounting base Nemo (Her Base Ship - actually a shore establishment). The weekly records continue unbroken until 7th December 1941 where her name, plus another dozen similar vessels, disappears from the list. From March 23rd 1941, her name is annotated with a symbol which ascribes Aquabelle to the Royal Naval Patrol Service.

The RNPS were formed in August 1939, with their Central Depot at Lowestoft. The advantages of using small ships for minesweeping and other duties had been recognized during WW1 and many of the crews of the peacetime fishing fleets had been encouraged to join the Royal Naval Reserve.

In addition to numerous requisitioned vessels including Aquabelle, this unglamorous arm of the Royal Navy eventually comprised of 70,000 men and 6,000 ships which included trawlers, whalers, drifters, motor launches and, later, specialised minesweepers.

The RNPS fought all over the world in all theatres of the war and were involved mainly with minesweeping and anti-submarine work. Vessels from RNPS were on convoy duty in the Atlantic and the Arctic, in the Mediterranean and the Far East, but their prime function was keeping clear the sea routes in the North Sea and Channel. Throughout the early years of the war mines were laid by the Germans by sea and air around the British Isles in an attempt to strangle the coastal convoys which were used to keep Britain supplied. It was the work of the RNPS to keep the shipping lane clear so that the convoys could continue and this meant constant minesweeping because as soon as an area had been cleared it was a simple task for E-Boats or aircraft to mine it again. This was a most hazardous task. Because the majority of sailors were Royal Naval Reservists the RNPS became 'a Navy within a Navy' and was given a number of unofficial titles, 'Harry Tate's Navy' and 'Churchill's Pirates' being two of the more polite.

There is little further information about Aquabelle's role in the RNPS apart from being spotted at Newhaven carrying the number 25 on her hull. Ministry of War Transport records show that Benjamin Taylor was compensated for the loss of his yacht by a chartering payment of £ 20 per month from her requisition for Dunkirk (1st June 1940) to 9th September 1941 when she was compulsorily acquired by the RNPS. In December 1941 Aquabelle was transferred to the War Department. No records have been found of her role and location for this part of the war.

Post War

Joyce Taylor recollected that Aquabelle ended up at Fareham in Hampshire after the end of the war. Photographs taken by the Taylors show her moored together with other boats, sporting a smaller foremast with crosstree and no mainmast. On the sides of her hull were extra rubbing strips, one below the foredeck above the portholes and the other (a double strip) midway up her hull from the wheelhouse to the stern. She appears to be moored at what is now Portsmouth Marine Engineering at Fareham Quay and this is where Benjamin decided to buy her back from the War office.

The Taylors had one last trip on Aquabelle in May 1947, into Portsmouth Harbour to watch King George VI return from South Africa. Dated 11th May from archive photographs, the Royal Family were aboard the battleship HMS Vanguard. Princesses Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II) and Margaret were seen on the Bridge by the family.

Mr. Taylor sold Aquabelle in 1947 because his crew (usually Joyce Taylor - now Mrs. Joyce Dimbylow - and her younger sister Mabel) had left home. As Gertrude was partially crippled and had little use of her left hand she was unable to take their place.

The family saw Aquabelle once more in about 1965 in Poole Harbour, spotted first by Mabs and captured on a photograph. They owned a flat in the Golden Gates apartments located at the end of the Sandbanks Peninsula overlooking the entrance to the Harbour. Benjamin remarked that she was sailing much faster than she could when he owned her without realising that she had been fitted with more powerful engines. She was not seen again by the Taylors.