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

5 thoughts on “Martin and Leggo at the Palace

  1. Tony Knight November 27, 2019 / 2:56 pm

    What a fascinating overview of the day’s events.

  2. priscilla littmoden November 27, 2019 / 3:17 pm

    such a joyful read.

  3. Clive Smith November 27, 2019 / 4:47 pm

    Great account by Mick Martin! His other crew members that he refers to were lost in 50 Sqn Lancaster W4382 on a minor op to Soltau in Germany, not Milan as he believed.

  4. Tim Parry November 27, 2019 / 6:46 pm

    They are not gone who live in our hearts.What a cracking letter to send your mum and dad,how modest,expressive and erudite.
    Thank you for posting.

  5. Philip Johnson November 28, 2019 / 2:00 am

    What a great resource the Dambuster Blog is !. More ‘power to your elbow’ to reveal more and more stories to identify the characters we have come to know and respect. I was fortunate to meet Micky Martin later in his life when he was recuperating in hospital in London and my father Flt. Lt. E.C. Johnson DFC. was unable to make the journey and asked me to visit to pass-on his best wishes. Micky Martin remained the same fascinating raconteur in spite of his hospitalisation. ‘Memory of a lifetime’. PJ

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