Boatyard boss aims to bring heroic Dunkirk ship Count Dracula back from the dead

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David Wilson owns Count Dracula ship (Image: ZacharyCulpin/BNPS)
David Wilson owns Count Dracula ship (Image: ZacharyCulpin/BNPS)

As it answered a rally cry to evacuate Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, the little

ship embodied the wartime spirit.

The vessel was part of the 800-strong flotilla which helped 300,000 stricken soldiers escape the clutches of Adolf Hitler in 1940. And onboard was Mirror reporter Ewart Stanley Brookes, whose powerful account relayed the horrors of the Second World War rescue mission.

But now another SOS has been sounded – to save the historic ship from falling into disrepair. The 50ft wooden ship has spent years languishing at a boatyard in Chichester Harbour, West Sussex. Boatyard boss David Wilson, whose late father, Sgt William Wilson, was one of more than 700 Allied soldiers rescued by the ship.

Mr Wilson, 84, said he became the “accidental” guardian of the vessel after the previous owner gave up on a project to restore it. He is appealing for anybody who can help pay the £4,000-a-year storage fees to take the pressure off of his boatyard in the short term.

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Boatyard boss aims to bring heroic Dunkirk ship Count Dracula back from the deadMirror’s Brookes (Rowan Griffiths)
Boatyard boss aims to bring heroic Dunkirk ship Count Dracula back from the deadSgt William Wilson during his time as a soldier (BNPS)

And he hopes a museum or institution will step in and pay a six figure sum to have it restored to its former glory. Mr Wilson said: “I am under pressure to get rid of it because it doesn’t pay its way. It would have to be broken up. I most certainly do not want that to happen. If it did it would be a tragedy, a crime.

“I wouldn’t know how to start a big fundraising appeal but I am hoping that if someone reads this they would come forward and pay for the laying up fees, that would really take the pressure off. But I am really hoping an organisation would be prepared to come on board and pay to have it restored.

“It was an absolute coincidence that it came to my boatyard. I knew my father was saved at Dunkirk by a little ship called Count Dracula and it was mind-blowing when the former owner brought it to my boatyard. It is a happy accident that I now own it.

Boatyard boss aims to bring heroic Dunkirk ship Count Dracula back from the deadCount Dracula on SMS Hindenberg before its 1919 scuttling (KevinKilkenny/BNPS)

“I’d like someone to help do some proper research on its role at Dunkirk. It would be wonderful to find out the names of the men it helped save. I wasn’t aware that a Daily Mirror reporter was one of those men but it does show just how much more there is to learn about this little ship.”

He added: “It is deteriorating quite rapidly and is in a poor state. I’m under pressure to get rid of it but I am loath to do this. It saved my father’s life and his freedom in the war.” Intrepid Mirrorman Ewart, then 40, was on the south-east coast to cover the Navy-led evacuation on May 26, 1940, but could not just stand by and watch.

He found a “little white painted yacht” called Count Dracula, skippered by a doctor, and they left for France. They spent 17 hours under fire ferrying soldiers from the beach to warships to bring them home. It was Ewart’s harrowing report, published on June 3, 1940, which first brought home the heroism of skippers aboard the Little Ships and the defiance of the stranded troops.

Boatyard boss aims to bring heroic Dunkirk ship Count Dracula back from the deadEwart Brookes’ daughter Jocelyn and photograph of him (Rowan Griffiths)

Ewart did not tell his wife he was sailing into the “jaws of hell” to cover the story. His daughter Jocelyn, of Crymych, Pembs, told the Mirror in 2017: “It was not until he came back that we realised where he’d been. Mum was angry. But she was so grateful to have him home safe.”

In a letter to his mother, Ewart described Dunkirk as “HELL with the lid off”. In his June 3, 1940 despatch, Ewart wrote: “For 17 hours we have been pulling aboard members of the BEF, just some of the many thousands at Dunkirk. It looked like a holiday cruise as we set course. Then we closed up on the Flanders coast.

“When the coastline was only a grey smudge, above us was heard a deep drone. Bellowing machines flew low over the bigger ships off the coast, ships we were to load from our trailing string of small boats. “’Look for a black mass on the beach,’ said my skipper. ‘That will be soldiers.’ Then I saw a black mass. It looked like seaweed. The soldiers waded out to us, deadbeat, heavy-eyed, bomb-stunned, and clamoured aboard.”

Boatyard boss aims to bring heroic Dunkirk ship Count Dracula back from the deadPaint peels inside Count Dracula (ZacharyCulpin/BNPS)

His report added: “I saw men at the last gasp. I saw men die, shattered and bloody. I saw men die ashore before we could get to them.” Count Dracula was built as a German tender in 1913 and salvaged by the British after being scuppered, along with SMS Hindenberg, at Scapa Flow in 1919.

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It became a private yacht and its London owner Carl Greiner named it Count Dracula. In June 1940 he sent his son Alan to take her to Ramsgate, Kent, to join the flotilla. With two 35ft lifeboats in tow, Count Dracula rescued 702 British and 10 Belgian soldiers over the course of the evacuation.

One of those men was Sgt Wilson, who was left behind with a group of engineers to blow up a bridge. Mr Wilson said: “My father only spoke a few times about Dunkirk but he told me Count Dracula rescued him.” After the war, it was a houseboat before being abandoned on the Thames Estuary.

* To contact Mr Wilson about donations or helping with the restoration email [email protected]

Dan Warburton

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