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Shropshire Annie sails to rescue of Dunkirk hero boat named after her

By Toby Neal | News | Published:

For years Shropshire's Annie Gabb and her family assumed that her grandfather's boat, after which she had been named, had been sunk during the epic operation to pluck hundreds of thousands of Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk.

PJ Darby at the stern of the Anne. Extreme right is Sammy Lewis, who was killed at Dunkirk. Anne's father Jack Thompson is next to him, and her mother Joan is fourth from left.

Requisitioned by the Royal Navy, the 30ft pleasure cruiser built in 1925 was one of the heroic flotilla of "little ships" whose glorious exploits in 1940 are the stuff of legend.

The Anne was never to return home.

Annie Gabb

So when Mrs Gabb discovered two years ago that not only had the Anne survived, but was rotting away after failing to sell on eBay and in a desperate state, it was time for a rescue of her own.

She bought the boat. And now an extensive, and expensive, restoration has borne fruit with the Anne ready for her maiden voyage which took place yesterday.

"It's cost a huge amount," said Mrs Gabb, who lives near Bridgnorth. "But it's been absolutely worth every penny.

Three of the armada of 'little ships' which brought the men of the BEF from the shores in and around Dunkirk, to the safety of British warships and other vessels.

"Why did I do it? It was probably a moment of madness. I felt that if there was a boat that I was named after which had been so brave, I didn't want her to die in a car park in Shepperton."

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The Anne had belonged to her grandfather, P.J. Darby, who lived at Green Royde, Hagley, near Stourbridge, but who had a house on the Welsh coast at Tenby.

"She was a gentleman's coastal cruiser, a pleasure boat for my mother and grandfather and uncles and aunts. He was known as PJ, but his name was Percy."

When the Dunkirk crisis blew up, small boats were called to action to help evacuate the British Army, and also some French troops, and the Anne was sailed from Tenby to Ramsgate by Sammy Lewis, who was the skipper of the boat.

From there she sailed across to Dunkirk with a navy crew and although Mrs Gabb does not know the precise details, she would have been involved in repeatedly picking up soldiers from the beaches and taking them to the larger ships waiting offshore.

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Work to do... the Anne before restoration

She said: "She did have bullet holes in her and, being run up the beach, she had damage to her bottom."

Sammy Lewis took part in the operation on another boat, but was killed.

Mrs Gabb knew of the story from her family but presumed the boat had been lost in the Dunkirk operation. She said: "I was born in 1943 and in my childhood I always knew about grandpa's boat called the Anne. Because she never came back to Tenby, I presumed she had sunk. But it turns out that she did come back, but never returned to Pembrokeshire, I think partly because she was in bad order and not seaworthy, and also of course there was a great shortage of petrol."

Extensive restoration has made the Anne ship-shape once again

Then, in June 2015, Mrs Gabb - whose name is Anne but is generally called Annie - was on a visit to Tenby with her children and grandchildren when fate took a hand. Visiting the lifeboat station, she got in conversation with a man on the till, and she mentioned the Anne, the Tenby boat that never returned. He encouraged her to find out what had happened to her.

She did. Through the internet, she discovered the Anne – her grandparents always called her "the Anne", although her name is actually simply "Anne" – still existed. She had taken part in the 2010 pilgrimage to Dunkirk as part of the 70th anniversary commemorations, and also in the Queen's golden jubilee celebrations on the Thames in 2012.

"After the jubilee she was towed up the river and left in Shepperton and abandoned. I found her there. She was in very bad order. One more winter uncovered, and she would have been a pile of firewood, and beyond repair.

"I bought her for very little. She was not worth anything, and spent a year and a half having her restored by a very good young man called John Turk."

She says her brother Nick Thompson has also helped hugely in the restoration, which has taken the Anne back to her 1930 appearance, when she had been bought by her grandfather.

The rescue at Dunkirk

Her motivation?

"She was a brave little ship and went to Dunkirk, and belonged to my grandparents, and I was named after her."

The Anne, which has had replacement engines, has now been returned to the water, with Nick breaking a bottle of champagne over her in traditional launching celebration.

"It was wonderful. It was a very happy moment, and it was an even better moment when the engines spluttered into life."

PJ Darby at the stern of the Anne. Extreme right is Sammy Lewis, who was killed at Dunkirk. Anne's father Jack Thompson is next to him, and her mother Joan is fourth from left.

Yesterday's maiden voyage, which was of course also her first trip on her, was taking the Anne from Shepperton to a mooring at Windsor.

"My idea had been to give her to Tenby as a heritage thing as they are quite keen on heritage down there. At my age, what do I want with a boat? But they couldn't give her a mooring. So I'm going to keep her at Windsor, which is much easier for us all, just using her as a pleasure boat, for fun.

"They have a classic boat event at Henley, and I hope to take her to that and, in 2020, if I can still walk, I hope to take her back to Dunkirk for the 80th anniversary."

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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