English Sea Scouts

Drama at Sea 1950

Greater London is a conglomerate of a large number of villages. One of those villages is Mortlake situated on the Thames’ south bank in the western part of the Metropolis. On the river banks many Sea Scout groups were founded and one of them was the 1rst Mortlake Sea Scouts. The group was in the spotlight twice. In June 1940 when their vessel “MINOTAUR" participated in the British Army’s retreat from the Dunkirk beaches and in August 1950 during a drama in the Strait of Dover.

The group possessed a vessel named ‘’WANGLE III’’. It was a Whaler. That is a type of vessel which in the olden days was used to hunt whales. With a number of men manning the oars and a man in the bow armed with a harpoon. When the vessel was near to the whale the harpoon was thrown whereupon the wounded animal used to pull the whaler along until it was exhausted. The whaler thereupon used to tow the whale to the mother ship. Later these rowing boats were replaced by steam or motor vessels.

For other purposes, during World War Two, in 1942, the Royal Canadian Navy had several whalers build on a wharf near St William in Ontario. These vessels were 8 metres long and about 1.5 metres wide, provided with oars, a mast and sail. When WW II was over 7 of these rowing boats were put at the disposal of the British Boy Scouts Association. One of them was allotted to the 1rst Mortlake Group which named her ‘WANGLE III’’. They sailed in her on the River Thames, the Thames Estuary and occasionally they went to Calais on the French Coast.

To France
Such a trip to France was also planned for August 1950. Skipper John Weedon was an experience sailor. During WW II he had served in the Royal Navy and his last rank was that of a Lieutenant Commander. He was a small boats expert and had served in Motor Torpedo Boats based in Dover. The MTBs operated in the North Sea, the Dover Straits and the Channel. Waters John got to know very well. He was awarded the DSC (Distinguished Service Cross). After the war, apart from being Groups leader of the 1rst Mortlake, he was also acting as a London Scout County instructor for Seas Scouts based on the ‘DISCOVERY’, moored in the River Thames alongside the Thames Embankment.

                      

The ‘WANGLE III’’ was prepared for sea. On August 11th, 1950 she took on board Skipper John Weedon, 6 Senior Sea Scouts: William Woods (16), Maurice Percival (16), Robert Warford (18), William Towndrew (18), Brian Peters (17) en Peter Frederick White (17). Further two Scouters/instructors Donald Amos (24) and Bernard Bell (25) and as a passenger and guest Kenneth Black, the District Commissioner for the London district of Kensington.

They sailed down the Thames to Ramsgate and after a short stay set course to Calais where they arrived on Wednesday, August 16th. The crew paid a visit to the city. On Saturday August 19th two crew members visited the Harbourmaster’s office to collect the weather forecast. Apparently the office was not fully staffed and – strange though it may seem – it seems that no one spoke English. The conversation was in French and one wonders whether the two British visitors mastered that language. Later on during the official inquiry it was stated that the French officer present would have said that the weather conditions were unfavourable and that it was not advisable to leave port. The official weather report said: wind south by southwest, choppy sea, overcast, showery, good visibility.

Skipper John Weedon went ashore to mail a picture postcard to his wife and at 10 am the French saw that the ‘’WANGLE III’’ left port and put to sea, without having informed the Customs and the Port Police.
That was the last time the boat and her crew were seen.

The Dover Strait
is also known as the Strait of Dover, the Pas de Calais (French), the Nauw van Kalis (Flemish) or the Straat van Dover (Dutch). Standing on the White Cliffs of Dover, on a clear day, the French Coast is clearly visible. It is one of the world’s most used sea routes with traffic going north and south, whereas this traffic was crossed by the many ferries plying between the French and Belgian ports to Dover and Folkestone. Twice daily with great force enormous quantities of water are being pushed through the Strait from the North Sea to the Channel and also twice a day in the opposite direction. These very strong currents can be traced in the North Sea as well as in the Channel, as the story will show, and between Dover and Calais they cause difference between low and high tide of about 6 to 7 metres.

Missing
On the way home the crew no doubt steered a course for Ramsgate. What has happened will for ever remain a riddle but it is certain that the boat and all that sailed in her disappeared. Overwhelmed by the powerful waves? Overran by some freighter, container vessel or a ferry?

When the ‘’WANGLE III’’ did not arrive at Ramsgate the alarm was given. Royal Air Force planes and Coast Guard helicopters searched the Strait. Shipping was asked to scan the waters. The next day the searching was resumed. DC Black of Kensington’s two brothers chartered small planes that also participated. The Dover, Deal and Ramsgate life boats were sent to the notorious Goodwin Sands. In vain. Nothing was found.

On August 26th the Headquarters of the Boy Scouts Association, after consultations with and permission of the Royal Air Force and the Admiralty, issued a press statement saying that there was no more hope.

On September 10th, a service of remembrance was held in St Mary’s Church in Mortlake. The service was led by the Bishop of Kensington in the presence of the Chief Scout of the United Kingdom, the Chief Scout of England, many Scout Commissioners, many Scoutleaders and Scouts, Royal Navy officers and of course members of the 1rst Mortlake group and the local Girl Guides.

Found

Texel
On the 14th of September, 1950 the Dutch Coast Guard authorities informed their British colleagues that on the west coast of the Island of Texel, two bodies of English Sea Scouts had been found.

The Texel Courant, the local newspaper, published the following article:

 

TWO BODIES WASHED ASHORE.
On Wednesday on the beach near Den Hoorn, (near post 11 and post 8) two bodies washed ashore. One of the remains turned out to be a Scout. There maybe a possibility that the other body is also a Scout, as not long ago in the Channel an English Scout vessel sank. So far no other victims have been washed up.

 

The two bodies were identified as being those of William Woods (16) and William Towndrew (18). On the beach of the neighbouring island of Terschelling Maurice Percival (16) was found. Further on, in the German Bight between Helligoland and the German North Sea coast the floating remains of Skipper of John Weedon, Peter Frederick White (17) en Brian Peters (17) were recovered. Apparently the sea never returned the bodies of Donald Amos (24), Bernard Bell (25) and DC Kenneth Black.

Meanwhile William Woods and William Towndrew had been buried on the General Cemetery of the village of Den Burg on the Island of Texel. Maurice Percival’s body was united with the three found in the German Bight. On Wednesday morning the 15th of November the coffins arrived on the island of Texel. The funeral was arranged by Major Milsom [2] of BAOR (British Army of the Rhine stationed in West Germany) and Commissioner van Griethuysen of the National HQ of the Vereniging de Nederlandse Padvinders (NPV the Dutch Scouts Association). The UK NHQ in London was represented by Charles Freeman. One relative, Peter Frederick White’s father, was also present. [1] The NHQ/NPV was represented by not only the Chief Commissioner and International Commissioner Jan Volkmaars, but also Skipper Viëtor, AHQC Sea Scouts, and Reverend Kranenburg, AHQC for spiritual training. Further Mr van Velsen, IC-VKJB (the Roman Catholic Scout Ass.).

The ceremonies began in one of Den Burg’s local churches at noon of the Wednesday. The service was lead by the Reverend Dye, of the BAOR in West Germany. Jan Volkmaars, Chief Commissioner and International Commissioner of the NPV [3] also spoke. “” The Dutch Scouts cannot do very much but I can assure you that we consider it as our honour to look after the grave’’. The Den Helder NPV Group ‘’De Jutters (The Beachcombers) ’’ adopted the grave. (4) After the service Den Burg villagers carried the four coffins, covered with the Union Flag, from the church to the cemetery. The procession was led by Den Helder Scouts and Sea Scouts carrying wreathes. The bodies were committed to the earth next to the boys buried earlier. A large number of Dutch Cub Scouts, Scouts, Rover Scouts, female and male Leaders acted as a guard of honour. The Reverend Dye spoke at the open grave and so did C. de Koning, the island’s Burgomaster, who also laid a wreath on behalf of the islanders. Further wreathes were laid on behalf of the London County Scout Council, de 1rst Mortlake Sea Scout Group, British Salvation Army, the Den Helder Group ‘’De Jutters’’, the Dutch Sea Scouts and many others.

A memorial stone with all the names was unveiled in the 1rst Mortlake’s group building. When in later years the hall was destroyed by fire, the stone, which was saved, was placed in St Mary’s Church in Mortlake .

The British Ministry of Transport ordered an inquiry into the loss of the ‘’WANGLE III’’ which took place in London on Monday, 19th of August 1950. It was stated that there was no evidence that the vessel was not seaworthy. Also that there was no reason to criticize the equipment and that there was nothing wrong with the way the boat was manned. Tribute was paid to John Weedon, D.S.C. the Group Scoutmaster who was in charge of the boat. He was a Lieutenant-Commander of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve having very considerable experience of the navigation of small boats. What caused the disaster was speculation.

The French and English coast.
How changeable the powerful sea currents in the Straits of Dover are was proven by the fact that the bodies had been recovered rather far away from where the accident had happened. Shortly after her disappearance a person swimming near the French Coast saw two Sea Scout caps floating in the water. He managed to recover one of them. Later still in the western part of the Solent, between the Isle of Wight and the mainland, near Hengisbury Head and Beaulieu (New Forest) four more Sea Scout Caps were found and between Poole and Bournemouth wreckage that was identified as belonging to the ‘’WANGLE III’’ . But so was some woodwork detected on the Island of Texel.

Far away from the Dutch and German North Sea islands where the bodies had been found.

                          
                                               The grave of the English Sea scouts in Den Burg, Texel.

Far away from the Dutch and German North Sea islands where the bodies had been found.

Notes:
[1] Today’s readers, used to holidays in foreign lands, are wondering why only one of the parents came to the Island of Texel to attend his son funeral. One should not forget that this was 1950 - the post war time with its many restrictions - which did not stimulate travelling abroad. There were monetary restrictions as a result of which was one not allowed to buy much foreign currency. Further travelling was expensive and one did not just board a plane whereas a return ticket from London, by train to Harwich, then by ferry to Hook of Holland, by train to Den Helder via Amsterdam was also expensive. So it is very likely that the parents were simply not able to go.


[2] At the time the British Army was still in occupation of the British Zone of West Germany and British bodies were handed over to the British Military authorities. Reason why an officer of the British Military Government and a British army chaplain got involved.


[3] Dutch Scouting knew one Chief Scout only. Vice Admiral J.J.Rambonnet, retired (1864-1943). In 1920 he assumed the task of Chairman of the Vereniging de Nederlandse Padvinders (NPV). When in 1928 the rules of British Scouting were translated and introduced the British ranks were also translated and affective. So the Chairman became the Chief Scout, in Dutch: Hoofdverkenner. After the successful 5th World Jamboree (1937) which was held in the dunes on the Dutch North Sea coast near Vogelenzang, the Dutch RC Episcopate suddenly decided that Roman Catholics could no longer be allowed to be members of institutions which did not have a 100% RC leadership. Thus the RC Scouts were obliged to leave the NPV and a new movement was created: the RC Scouts. From that moment on each movement was led by a Chief Commissioner. This lasted until 1973 when one National Scout/Guide Movement (Scouting Nederland) was founded and is active since.


[4] This task was later taken over by the Texel Scouts: the Jeroen Group. Not only do they care for the grave, they also meet and accommodate visiting relatives, which in later years used to visit regularly. Texel Scouts also visited Mortlake and strong bounds grew. (The 1rst Mortlake ceased to be.) The British Scout Association recently (2009) decided to grant the Jeroen Group with a special award in recognition of their taking care of the grave and of the friendship with the next of kin during 58 years. Representatives of the Jeroen Group were invited to come to London on Sunday 21 of June 2009 to accept the well deserved award.

© Piet J. Kroonenberg, Amsterdam, March 2009.

With thanks to the Dutch newspapers DE TEXELSE COURANT [1950], HET PAROOL [1950], and the British THE TIMES ( 1950], Peter Ford IBC/UK and Clifford Rogers RNLI/UK