In the late 1980s, on the tiny island of Anguilla (1992 population 9,000) in the British West Indies, a group of visionaries decided to clear abandoned/derelict ships from the beaches and harbors and create artificial reefs/dive sites off-shore. By 1990, a total of seven ships were refloated, towed off the north coast of Anguilla and scuttled in 60 – 80 feet of water.
Unfortunately, in September 1995, Category Five Hurricane Luis made a direct hit on Anguilla, destroying the buoy marking the location of one of the wrecks – the 130 foot inter-island freighter M/V Meppel – along with records and maps kept at the Fisheries Department that showed the location of the wreck. Because of the usual poor underwater visibility in this area, after the hurricane this wreck was never found.
In 2009, I received an email from a L/Cpl. Rebekah Anderson in the UK, enquiring about the location and condition of the Meppel; her grandfather had once been its captain in the 1940s when it was named Hilda. Questions were asked of local dive operators and fishermen, and most thought the wreck had been moved by Luis – or possibly even torn apart – as it had not been seen since 1995. When Rebekah was told that the wreck was lost, she wrote back with some additional information which led the Anguilla Archaeological and Historical Society to make a more detailed search of the area for the ship.
The Society also researched the history of the ship through public records and Rebekah's family. "Operation Dynamo," the May1940 evacuation of 338,000 Allied troops from Dunkirk on the north coast of France, was one of the most celebrated military events in British history – ironically, a direct result of one of her most crushing defeats. That same month, the 130 foot Dutch freighter Hilda, owned by Geert Zoutman and captained by his son Hemmo Zoutman (Rebekah's grandfather), was "loaned" to Britain for the duration of the war, and immediately placed into service in "Operation Dynamo." (Geert was later imprisoned in occupied Holland, and then escaped, because he refused to tell the Germans where his boat was.)
The Hilda arrived at Dunkirk 28 May, put into the beach (her draft was only 8.5 feet) and took on 500 allied troops who waded out. These were delivered to waiting destroyers, then another 400 were shuttled out, and finally that day, 100 serious causalities were shuttled to destroyers. On the 29th, the Hilda took on another 600 evacuees but because of heavy shelling of destroyers, was forced to deliver the troops directly to Dover, in the UK. She returned to Dunkirk on the 31st towing six smaller boats to be used for the evacuation, and evacuated another 600 troops to destroyers. Her final pick-up was 100 troops on 1 June, but while delivering these troops to the destroyer Keith, both the Keith and the smaller M/S Skipjack were shelled, and Hilda picked up the survivors from both. Finally, while returning to England, dive bombers sank two smaller private boats (the Scotia and Brighten) in convoy with Hilda, so she also picked up these survivors, disembarking a total of 530 troops and survivors at Ramsgate, UK. She returned to Dunkirk one last time on 3 June, but found no troops to evacuate.
Official records show that Hilda evacuated a total of 835 troops to the UK, while experiencing constant shelling from shore batteries but, as can be seen from the ship's log entries, she rescued many hundreds more from the beach to waiting destroyers. She served the remainder of the war years doing barrage balloon duty and after the war, went back into service with the Zoutman family. She was finally sold in 1970, renamed the Meppel, then sailed many years as an inter-island freighter in the Caribbean until the mid-1980s, when she was abandoned in Anguilla.
Once the true history of the Meppel was learned, I, along with Marine Archeologist Lilli Azevedo and dive operator Douglas "Dougie" Carty, began a further search for the wreck. In October 2009, the Governor's Office arranged for the loan of the helicopter from the visiting HMS Iron Duke in an unsuccessful attempt to locate the wreck from the air. Dougie continued the search on many of his dive trips at his own expense, and finally – on 23 March, 2010 – he located the wreck by chance off the north coast of Anguilla. The wreck is in an upright position and in excellent condition in 80 feet of water.
Anguilla is proud to be the final resting place for this heroic little ship, and encourages anyone interested to visit the dive site. Much additional information provided by the family (including a copy of the actual ship's log from "Operation Dynamo") as well as pictures of the wreck today can be found at www.anguilla-diving.com/meppel.htm.
Anguilla sailor Steve Donahue is a board member of the Anguilla Archaeological and Historical Society Limited, www.aahsanguilla.com