Martin and Leggo at the Palace

Jack Leggo and Mick Martin pose for a picture outside Buckingham Palace in February 1943. [Pic: AWM UK2008]

Blog reader Cliff Harding has kindly sent me the text of a letter which turned up in the papers of his late mother-in-law, Marjorie Roberts, a cousin of the Leggo family. The original is a carbon copy of a letter which was sent by Flt Lt ‘Mick’ Martin to his parents. It describes the Buckingham Palace investiture at which Martin and Jack Leggo received DFCs, having both completed a tour of operations on the RAAF’s 455 Squadron.

The investiture took place on either Tuesday 16 or Tuesday 23 February. It would seem that Guy Gibson was also at the palace for this occasion, receiving the DSO for a number of operations in 106 Squadron. It is likely that this is where Gibson and Martin made each other’s acquaintance and discussed low-flying techniques.

The letter reads:

25th February, 1943
My dear Mum, Dad and kids,

Your letter posted just after Xmas arrived yesterday. At that, there appears in your letter a certain degree of panic as to the safety of Leggo and myself. You may rest assured that both he and I are still very much alive and free. However the root of the evil may lie in the fact that three members of my crew are now missing – they are Jimmy O’Neill, Harry Smith, and my Flight-engineer, Frankie Martin.

Unfortunately when I went on rest with Leggo, Foxlee and Simpson who have been with me on Hampdens and Manchesters, the other three lads were posted to another pilot to finish their tour of operations before they, too, went on rest. But as for being shot down at Milan – is rubbish. I would be furious if I fell to the Italians. It’s only good luck, and not ability, if they get anybody down, apart from the odd one or two, who fall to the German gunners.

Recently Jack Leggo and myself, went up to town to collect our “Gongs”. The next page or so I will more or less copy from my diary.

We arrived in London on a Monday afternoon and took up residence at the Strand Palace Hotel. I detest the place really but it was so central, and furthermore the tariff is quite reasonable. I met John in the lounge at 6 o’clock, with a friend of his, Frankie, and I had Beverley and Bill Sellars with me. Sellars was a solicitor in the Canadian Pacific Railway before the war, and is now a control officer. He has been extremely good to John and me during the whole of our tour. For that matter he still is. You know the type – a big lumbering Cannuck, with a fatherly air.

We dined at Shepards, determined to keep the evening quiet, knowing full well the party that would naturally follow the investiture the next day would be unparalleled. But the chance presence of one or two friends altered the course of the evening, and it was past the hour of midnight before we went to sleep.

Next morning we rose early and bathed, and set course for the Palace, at 10 o’clock. But there was pandemonium first – because I had lost my stud. And do you think I could beg, borrow or steal one. Eventually I wired my collar to my shirt with a hair-pin.

All was set, so we called for a taxi, and with studied nonchalance and thumping heart I said “Buckingham Palace, please.” We drove down the Strand, down Whitehall, past the Cenotaph, to the Palace.

The old cabby would accept no money. We passed through the gates into the Precincts, and joined a line of people up there, apparently, for the same business. Soon we found ourselves in a large room, with people of many types, from many places. We were briefed by an Admiral on the ceremony, and what we were to do. He was Rear Admiral Evans of “Evans of the Broke” fame.

Soon afterwards we filed into a large room, hall or court, and stood in line along a slightly raised platform. Looking up from seated portions were hundreds of upturned faces, belonging to friends and relatives of the men to be decorated. There was silence more poignant then any I have ever known, broken only by the music created from down the hall by an extremely good orchestra. Everyone was a master musician, and everyone playing as he would be expected to play for the ears of the King.

On a platform imperceptibly higher than the one on which we were standing, was the King. He was wearing the uniform of an admiral of the Fleet, and in consequence, was addressed as “Sir.”

A line of people were in front of us, and they were gradually called up and then in a booming sort of a voice I heard “Flight Lieutenant Harold Brownlow Martin DFC. Bomber Command.” I don’t know what stopped my legs from giving way beneath me. I do not remember when I have felt so nervous as I felt during those seconds. Momentarily one pauses, then walks forward, and halts in front of the tiny mark on the carpet; turns left, and bows and then looks into the eyes of the King. He pins your medal on, shakes your hand, and congratulates you on your efforts. You step back, bow, turn right, and march down a gangway, and down a hall through all those faces. Your gong swings and hits a button, and you wonder if it is going to fall off. And so, in a daze, you walk through an archway, when all of a sudden a hand shoots out and grabs your gong. By the time you recover from this assault and the blow on the chest, a figure in uniform is proffering it to you stowed prettily in a little black box, with a silken lining, and you smother your desire to strike this arch sadist, who takes fiendish delight in provoking nervous people, whose systems, if they are anything akin to mine, are near to breaking point. You accept it, smile, and walk on, seeking somewhere seclusive to stand where people won’t see you, and you can allow your face to resume its normal hue. Others are decorated, time passes, and as the last man leaves the dais, the band strikes up “God Save Our King.”

As the last bars die away, he seems to look at everyone momentarily, and then, in the company of Lord Louis Mountbatten, he stops forward into a large doorway, leading to the next room. One then resumes possession of cap, coat and gloves, and makes an effort to join one’s friends. Eventually you find them and make your way across the Palace yard, move again through a multitude of people, and press photographers who want to take your photographs, and the only thing you want in the world is a drink. You look for a taxi – but there isn’t one to be had, and then a kind red-faced cop notices your pallid look and beckons you over. Soon you are in the lounge of the Piccadilly and the Carlton.

Later you turn up to a matinee, the tickets for which you have bought the previous day. The show is half over before you got there, but that doesn’t matter. After the show, back you go to the hotel, a bath, a clean collar and a shave – and then the party – a thousand faces -and you know them all – so it seems. If you don’t you dance and talk just the same. There was fun and laughter, drink and tears, and the night battles of the sky over the province of Europe are remote and far away. Your consolation lies in the fact that this was a wizard party – really a wizard party. You spend the day in the dives of London, meeting this one and that one, and so you call a taxi – your train leaves at ten – “King’s Cross, please, but drive there by St. Paul’s.” And the party is over.

One would gather from the foregoing lines that the whole business was a long Nero debauch, but, believe me, it was far from it – its more or less traditional that one should have a party after an investiture and we sincerely did our best to follow this time-honoured custom. I promise you dear mater, that my D.T.’s of today are not as shattering as those suffered during adolescence; and the occasions are rare indeed when I drink more than I can hold – so let us have peace in the house of Martin.

Remember me kindly to Dr. Marsh and, Dr. Bullock – they are both great guys, and I have a lot to thank them for.

An abundance of love to all at Tamworth – Sophia, Jack, Tom and everyone that asks after me. Lots for you, Mum
Mick

Ray Wilkinson logbook and medals to be auctioned for charity in Australia

Update Thurs 22 November: The collection was sold for AU$24,000.

Ray Wilkinson occupies a unique place in history. He was the only man to took part in both the Dams Raid, Operation Chastise in May 1943, and the final attack on the Tirpitz, Operation Catechism in November 1944. On the Dams Raid, he was the rear gunner in Bill Townsend’s aircraft ED886 AJ-O, which attacked the Ennepe Dam but failed to breach it. He occupied the same position in Flg Off Arthur Kell’s NG181 on the Tirpitz attack. On this, the crew’s Tallboy bomb was recorded as registering ‘a hit or a very near miss’ as it ‘fell in the centre of the smoke coming up from just in front of the superstructure.’

Wilkinson won the DFM for his part in the Dams Raid, and this is the star item in his medal collection which is being presented for auction in Sydney, Australia, on Thursday 21 November. The auction will also include his logbook (shown above), invitation to the premiere of The Dam Busters film and other memorabilia.

An interesting extra to the logbook is the small photograph which seems to have been pasted on the page shown above. This shows his Dams Raid Lancaster in flight, in a snap which may have been taken during a training exercise by a member of Les Munro’s crew.

Ray Wilkinson, his wife Iris, and their family moved to Melbourne in 1968 to start a new life in Australia. Ray died in 1980 but Iris lived until last December. In her will she specified that her husband’s medals, log book, invitation to the film premiere and other Dambusters memorabilia should all be auctioned to raise funds for two charities of her choosing.

More information in this article in the Sydney Morning Herald:

[Thanks to Graeme Jensen for the tip.]

They shall grow not old

My good friend Dom Howard has kindly let me use this video he created a few years ago as the Dambusters Blog’s contribution to Remembrance Day. It shows the crests of all the squadrons who made up Bomber Command, to whose fallen members we particularly pay our respects this weekend.

The voice you will hear at the end is that of Sgt Dennis Over, a rear gunner who survived the war. Dennis joined the RAF as soon as he turned 18 and served on 106 and 227 Squadrons. In his later years, he ‘discovered’ the internet and in particular a couple of forums dedicated to Bomber Command. To one of these, the much-missed Lancaster Archive Forum, he contributed more than a thousand posts, full of experience, wisdom and wit.

Dennis died on 4 October 2015. He grew old, but many of his comrades did not, and he never forgot them. May they all rest in peace. 

 

Maltby “Bear mascot”: Family cannot authenticate

Sqn Ldr David Maltby (left) with Wg Cdr Guy Gibson, photographed at RAF Scampton in July 1943. [Pic: IWM TR1122]

The following comment has been made by the grandsons of Sqn Ldr David Maltby:

“It has come to the attention of the Maltby family that a forthcoming auction by East Bristol Auctions features a toy teddy bear called Pinnie the Wooh which allegedly belonged to Sqn Ldr David Maltby DSO DFC, the pilot of AJ-J on the Dams Raid.

It is asserted that this toy bear is authenticated by a typed label which was authored by Ettrick Maltby, David’s father. The label has not been signed by him so the handwriting cannot be compared to the many handwritten letters of which he was the author.

David Maltby’s son, John Maltby and his two grandsons, are alive and well. Having lost his father, John was educated as a boarder at the school, Hydneye House, owned and run by his grandfather Ettrick. Other family members were also at the school, which closed in 1969. The family wish to state that such a personal item would have been retained by the family, that they care for his items deeply, and have never considered selling or profiteering from such an item.

Ettrick and Aileen Maltby had eight other grandchildren besides John, most of whom visited Hydneye when young. None of them can recall any such item being in the school.

The Maltby family are aware that this item was presented for auction on a previous occasion, on which matter they commented similarly at the time. As a family, they are therefore unable to authenticate this item.

They are making this comment in the hope that it will come to the attention of anyone thinking of purchasing this item. They would prefer this item, and any other similar item which might come up for sale in the future, be carefully authenticated and if appropriate preserved as part of a publicly-accessible museum or collection, and that any fees which might arise be donated to the RAF Benevolent Fund in honour of all who lost their lives.”

What happened to the Dams Raid Lancasters: a definitive list

Lancaster ED825/G, one of the 23 Type 464 aircraft built for Operation Chastise. This was given the code AJ-T and was slated to be the spare. Because ED915/G AJ-Q was found to be faulty while preparing for take-off, Joe McCarthy and his crew eventually flew this aircraft on the raid, and attacked the Sorpe Dam. [Pic: IWM ATP 11384C]

Frank Pleszak has done a great service to other Dams Raid researchers by compiling a definitive list of the fate of the 23 aircraft built for Operation Chastise. These were all constructed over a period of two months in 1943 as a variation of the production run of Model BIII Lancasters taking place at the Avro headquarters factory at Chadderton, with final assembly at Woodford, both in Greater Manchester. The special model was given the name of Type 464 (Provisioning).

In total 23 Lancaster Type 464 conversions were produced. Nineteen of these flew on the Dams raid and eight were lost, leaving fifteen. None were ever fully returned to standard Lancaster BIII configuration (although some were part-modified) as it was too difficult or too costly to refit the bomb bay doors and mid-upper turret.

Over several days in August 1943 nine of the aircraft were used for trials with forward-rotating Upkeep mines at the Ashley Walk bombing range in the New Forest. During the trials ED765 was caught in the slipstream of others as it flew in close formation and crashed. The pilot (Flt Lt William Kellaway) and bomb aimer were seriously injured while the rest of the crew had more minor injuries.

Over the following six months some of the aircraft were used on occasional operations, as well as for training and other trials. On 10 December 1943, on an operation to drop supplies to members of the SOE, ED825 and ED886 were both lost. The crews were skippered by Wrt Off G Bull and Flg Off Gordon Weeden. Weeden and all his crew were killed, but Bull and four of his crew managed to bale out and were captured. The final wartime loss of a Dams Raid Lancaster occurred on 20 January 1944 when ED918 crashed on a night training flight near Snettisham in Norfolk. The pilot, Flt Lt Thomas O’Shaughnessy, was killed along with his bomb aimer.

Three were used after the war, in August and December 1946, in an mission which was given the name Operation Guzzle: the disposal of the remaining 37 live Upkeep mines in the Atlantic Ocean about 280 miles west of Glasgow. The eleven Type 464 Lancasters which survived the war were all finally scrapped in 1946-7.

Here is Frank Pleszak’s list:

You can read Frank’s full post on his blog here.

Dam Busters film pilot meets Queen

Ken Souter is in the flying helmet on the left of this shot from his own collection. Picture taken during the shooting of flying sequences for The Dam Busters. Pic: The Sun

Dom Howard tipped me off about this recent story in The Sun.

Flt Lt Ken Souter was one of the RAF pilots who flew the Lancasters used in the 1955 film The Dam Busters. He had served in North Africa during the war and in the Malaya Emergency afterwards before being selected to fly the aircraft, which were taken out of storage and hired out to the film company at the princely cost of £130 each per hour.

Now 100 years old, Ken and his wife Brigitta live in a Haig Housing veterans’ retirement home in south London, which was recently visited by the Queen. According to The Sun they met, and then chatted about the card she sent him for his 100th birthday. But then Ken forgot to mention his place in cinema history to the monarch!

The flying re-created for the film was almost as dangerous as that undertaken on the raid itself, Ken later told the newspaper:

“The director wanted two aeroplanes to fly very low over the water and then climb up the side of a mountain. As we flew up the mountain, we were getting lower and lower to the ground. There was nothing we could do about it. We were on maximum power and maximum climb and the ground was coming up fast. We couldn’t climb any more and I thought, ‘This is it’.
How we managed to scrape over the top of that mountain I’ll never know. It was very dodgy but we ­survived. We were flying lower than we had ever flown before, even ­during wartime, and I had arguments with the film company about it.
I kept telling them we were going to be killed, but they insisted.”

Despite the danger, Ken Souter and his colleagues didn’t get any extra money for their work on the film, having to rely only on their normal RAF pay. However, they can be assured that they have their own special place in cinema history, even if Ken forgot to tell the Queen about it.

Thanks to Dom Howard.

Update on “Gibson letter” to Liddell family

10.45pm UK time: Big result!

Blog reader Arthur Rayner has been in touch, informing me that the “letter from Guy Gibson” about which I blogged this afternoon has now been removed from eBay. Arthur has been in touch with the vendor, who told him that he had “no idea” that the letter might be a fake, and that he had purchased it earlier this year from Alexander Autographs in the USA. He sent the link to this company’s auction site, which you can see here. As you can see, the purchaser paid the sum of $2813 (£2259 according to today’s exchange rate) for the fake letter.

Alexander Auctions has been trading in Maryland, USA, since 1991 and prides itself on its reputation. According to its website it is “a leading auctioneer of fine historic autographs, documents, militaria from all conflicts, and relics.” It has “a renowned reputation as being one of the premier auctioneers of historic autographs and collectibles in Northeast [USA], with our customer base extending across the country and around the world. Our goal is to deliver history into the hands of collectors – it’s how we’ve built our reputation. Thorough research and careful cataloging of items by a professional staff, the utilization of the latest technologies and a priority on customer service, Alexander Historical Auctions can stand behind every piece we sell.”

A badly-executed fake letter concerning the RAF’s most famous Second World War bombing operation must somehow have got through Alexanders’ “thorough research”. I like to think that it wouldn’t have got into a sale from a similar UK-based operation, but past experience suggests that this confidence may be misplaced.

Alexander Auctions have actually had six other Dambusters-related items for sale in the last year, although only one has been sold. The items that came up are:

Correspondence (mainly collected by Alan Cooper)
Estimate $750. Did not sell.

Wooden Lancaster model made for Sgt Stephen Burns
Estimated $600-$700. Did not sell.

Various photographs and signed first day covers
Sold for $50

Letter from Sgt Stephen Burns to family
Estimate $300-$400. Did not sell.

Letter from Flg Off Geoff Rice from Stalag Luft III to family
Estimate $200-$300. Did not sell.

Gauntlets owned by Sgt Stephen Burns
Sold for $1169

Some of these items have been on sale at UK auction houses in the last couple of years. See these items (lot number 1021) sold by DNW for £7000 in May 2016.) It’s not clear whether they were all placed with Alexanders by one particular vendor. Whoever it was that sold the “Liddell” letter probably made a tidy profit. But this would have been eclipsed by the eBay vendor if he had achieved the asked-for price of £14,995 – a cool 575% on the price he paid!