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Rear-Admiral Bob Timbrell
12:03AM BST 27 Apr 2006
Rear-Admiral Bob Timbrell, who has died aged 86, 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 an RN 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.
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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 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 in the training ship Conway on the Mersey, and then a midshipman, RCN, in the monitor Erebus and the cruiser Vindictive. He served in the battleships Barham and Warspite and the battle cruiser Hood in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic.
After the Dunkirk evacuation Timbrell was in 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 in 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.
After the war Timbrell commanded the frigate Swansea and then the cruiser Ontario, when she took Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip from Prince Edward Island to Sydney, Nova Scotia.
He was vice-commandant of Royal Roads Service College, British Columbia, and, after a staff course at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, was appointed captain of the new destroyer St Laurent.
Three years on the staff of the Supreme Allied Commander at Norfolk, Virginia, was followed by command of the aircraft carrier Bonaventure when she ferried Canadian troops to Cyprus in the mid-1960s.
Timbrell had two years as commander of the Canadian Defence Liaison Staff in Washington, and then at Maritime Command (1971-73); but these were unhappy years for an RCN officer in Canada's unified forces who was made to wear a gaudy green uniform.
He came into conflict with the Chief of the Defence Staff, and retired a year after being appointed Companion of the Canadian Order of Military Merit in 1973.
In retirement Timbrell was president of the Dominion Marine Association until 1985, when he left Ottawa to settle in Chester Basin, near Halifax.
He returned to Dunkirk in 2000, aboard the British destroyer Somerset, for the final commemoration of the evacuation. Llanthony, which had been restored to her original condition, was unable to make the ceremonies because of bad weather. "Timbrell," said one contemporary, "was a no-fuss sort of fellow who never tooted his own whistle. "
Bob Timbrell died on April 11. He married, in 1946, Patricia Jones, who survives him with their daughter; a grandson is now a sub-lieutenant in the RCN.