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

Snaps from behind the scenes at Scampton in Gillon photo album

debriefing-crewsFay Gillon debriefing an unknown bomber crew. Another copy of this print has the date 1944 on its reverse, and this ties in with the map on the table which is of Northern France. It may be of a 44 Squadron crew, and taken at RAF Dunholme Lodge.  [Pic: Gillon collection; thanks to Robert Owen for further information.]

In March 1943 Fay Gillon, seen in the picture above at work debriefing an unknown bomber crew, was a WAAF officer based at Scampton when 617 Squadron moved in to start training for the Dams Raid. Within a few days, Guy Gibson asked to meet her:

‘Sit down,’ said Gibson as she entered his spartan office. ‘The first thing is: can you keep a secret?’ Gibson’s misgivings about the general inferiority of the opposite sex were made even plainer when he added: ‘I don’t often ask women this.’
The Intelligence Officer assured Gibson that she was well able to keep secrets. Gibson probed further, checking his understanding that Gillon was married and that her husband was overseas. Gillon surmised that the reason for these questions was that as a married woman she would be unlikely to have boy-friends with whom she might talk about squadron matters.
Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995, p146.

Gibson went on to give her the important task of liaising with 5 Group headquarters over the routes for the training programme, and installed her in an office next to the squadron Navigation Officer, Jack Leggo. Gillon became good friends with Leggo, his skipper Mick Martin, and the rest of his crew, and she flew with them on the final dress rehearsal on the Friday before the raid. Her full account of this trip was published in Morris’s book, as mentioned above, pp160-2. The next day, Saturday 15 May 1943, she was again looking over Martin’s aircraft after its Upkeep mine had been loaded. She may have inadvertently pressed a cockpit lever which dropped it from the aircraft onto the hard standing below. Everyone scattered as quickly as possible, but fortunately the mine didn’t explode.
Fay Gillon died on 5 November 2009 and her wartime photograph album now belongs to her granddaughter, Carissa Howard. Last year, she allowed Australian writer Ian Andrew to publish some of the pictures it contains on his blog. The images provide a further insight into life at Scampton in the spring and summer of 1943.
One of the most interesting informal shots shows a group of officers and some civilians, probably taken outside the officers mess.

617-sqn004[Pic: Gillon collection]

Left to right, this shows: in civilian clothes, the two Vickers test pilots most associated with Operation Chastise, Mutt Summers and Robert Handasyde, an RAF officer with face obscured, Guy Gibson (in sunglasses), Les Munro, Richard Trevor-Roper, Les Knight, unknown RAF officer (holding glass and turned towards camera), David Maltby, Fred Spafford and another unknown RAF officer with face obscured. (Thanks to Robert Owen for identifying Summers and Handasyde.)
Gillon was one of the WAAF officers who accompanied the 617 Squadron contingent by train to London for the investiture at Buckingham Palace. Although she is not named in adjutant Harry Humphries’s account of the riotous railway journey, she is likely to have been a witness to the incident when a drunk and trouserless Brian Goodale was pushed into the compartment in which she was travelling. Humphries had to remove Goodale hurriedly as there were “ladies present” whose modesty had to be protected at all costs. She attended the investiture and the album includes some photographs taken there, including one of the Australians who were in attendance.

617-australians-and-wc-gibsonLeft to right: Tom Simpson, Lance Howard, David Shannon, Bob Hay, Jack Leggo, Mick Martin, Fred Spafford. [Pic: Gillon collection]

By September 1943, 617 Squadron had moved out of Scampton to Coningsby. However, by then her WAAF colleague Ann Fowler had become engaged to David Shannon and Gillon attended their wedding.

dave-shannon-and-ann-fowler

[Pic: Gillon collection]

After the war, Fay Gillon and her husband Peter moved to France and started their family of four children. They later lived in London and then moved to Perth, Australia, in 1980. She returned to the UK on a number of occasions, and was very helpful to a number of people researching the history of 617 Squadron, including myself.
Thanks to Carissa Howard for help with this article.

Dambuster of the Day No. 15: Harold Martin

Martin AWM UK0235

Pic: Australian War Memorial

Flt Lt H B Martin DFC
Pilot
Lancaster serial number: ED909/G
Call sign: AJ-P
First wave. Third aircraft to attack Möhne Dam. Mine veered left after dropping and exploded at side of dam.

Harold Brownlow Martin was universally known throughout his long RAF career by his nickname ‘Mick’. He was born in the Sydney suburb of Edgecliff, Australia on 27 February 1918, the son of Dr Joseph Martin and his wife Colina. He went to Randwick High School, Sydney Grammar School and Lyndfield College. Before the war, Martin seemed destined for the medical profession like his father. In 1939 he had accepted a place at a medical school in Edinburgh, but shortly after he arrived in Britain his intentions were overtaken by the outbreak of war. He first joined the Australian army, but then in 1940, he transferred to the RAF, and began pilot training. He qualified as a pilot in June 1941, and his first operational posting came in October, when he was sent to 455 (Australia) Squadron, an RAAF outfit flying Hampdens. Two of his regular crew came to include fellow Australians Jack Leggo as navigator and Toby Foxlee as wireless operator/gunner.

On 18 February 1942, another Australian gunner, Tom Simpson, arrived on the squadron and was immediately assimilated into the crew. They flew on a trip to Cologne that night, thereby becoming the first all-Australian crew to fly on operations over Germany. When Simpson reported for duty to the gunnery section the following day, the officer in charge said that he would get him crewed up. Simpson replied:

‘I am crewed up. I flew last night.’ He looked at me in quite blank amazement and said ‘Well, who did you fly with? I wasn’t told anything about it.’
I said: ‘I flew with a Pilot Officer who told me his name was Martin … a Sergeant Foxlee told me that I was in his crew.’ The Flight Lieutenant then said ‘Well, there’s not much hope for you if that’s the case because Martin is as mad as a grasshopper; he likes flying his own style.’(Tom Simpson, Lower than Low, Libra Books, 1995, p40.

The crew went on a further dozen operations together until, in April 1942, 455 Squadron were transferred to Coastal Command. Martin, Leggo, Foxlee and Simpson then moved to 50 Squadron in order to continue their tour in Bomber Command. 50 Squadron was flying Manchesters at the time, but was in the process of moving over to the more powerful Lancasters. Three more Australians (Plt Off Burton, Sgt Paton and Sgt Smith) joined the Martin crew on their first 50 Squadron sortie, the Thousand Bomber raid which attacked Cologne on 30 May 1942. They thereby became the first ever all-Australian crew to fly a Manchester operationally.

By October 1942, Martin had completed his tour, with thirty-six operations, and was awarded the DFC. He had acquired a reputation both as a low flying specialist but also as someone who prepared meticulously for an operation, personally polishing the Perspex on his cockpit canopy, since a smear could easily obscure an approaching fighter. He demanded the same high standards from those who flew with him. According to Max Hastings, he and his crew ‘achieved an almost telepathic mutual understanding and instinct for danger.’ (Bomber Command, 1979, p165.)

It must have been at the investiture ceremony for this DFC that Martin first met Guy Gibson. It is recorded that it was there that they had a conversation about low flying methods. A few months later, Martin was just coming to the end of a spell as an instructor in 1654 Conversion Unit at Wigsley. Gibson recalled the earlier conversation and was quick to recruit him for the new project.

Martin set about bringing back together a crew mainly based on old 50 Squadron comrades, with a New Zealander from 75 Squadron, Len Chambers, as wireless operator. He also seems to have been instrumental in bringing in other men to the new squadron, often other comrades from 50 Squadron.

On the Dams Raid, Martin lined up to attack the Möhne Dam just minutes after disaster had overtaken Hopgood. Gibson joined his attack, flying slightly ahead on his starboard side. This tactic seemed to distract the dam’s gunners and Martin was able to drop his mine correctly. However, something must have gone wrong as the mine veered off to the left and exploded some 20 yards short. Later, as both Young and Maltby attacked, Martin joined Gibson in diversionary tactics, putting himself at further risk. Luckily, although one of his fuel tanks was damaged it had already been emptied, and he was able to fly back to Scampton when the Möhne was breached.

After the Dams Raid, Martin was a key figure in many of the celebrations and at the investiture in London, where he received the DSO. The Australian press and broadcasters were very keen to have pictures of their boys shown back at home, and with his distinctive moustache Martin was often recognised.

In September 1943, Martin was acting CO of 617 Squadron in the unhappy circumstances following the catastrophic attack on the Dortmund Ems canal when six pilots and most of their crews were lost in two days. Strangely, this was the only period during the war when he took command of a squadron.

Later, when Leonard Cheshire arrived, Martin participated in attacks on targets in France, Italy and Germany. In February 1944, during an abortive attack on the Antheor Viaduct in the French Riviera, Martin’s Lancaster was hit by ground fire, killing the bomb aimer Bob Hay, and causing Martin to force land his crippled aircraft in Sardinia. This was Martin’s forty-ninth (and last) heavy bomber operation. However he flew another thirty-four operations in Mosquitos in 515 Squadron.

Martin stayed on in the RAF after the war, and had a distinguished career. He broke the speed record for flying from England to Cape Town in a Mosquito, and then went on to a succession of staff jobs including being an ADC to the Queen, C-in-C RAF Germany and the Air Member for Personnel. He was knighted and rose to the rank of Air Marshal before retiring in 1974. Martin was described by Ralph Cochrane as being the greatest pilot the RAF produced during the war. (Paul Brickhill, The Dam Busters, Evans 1951, p163.) There would be few who would dispute this view.

Martin married his wife Wendy Lawrence in 1944, and they had two daughters. He died in London on 3 November 1988 after complications following a road accident. He is buried in Gunnersbury Cemetery in London.

More about Martin online:
Entry on Wikipedia
Entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Survived war. Died 3 November 1988.
Rank and decorations as of 16 May 1943.
Sources: Richard Morris, Guy Gibson, Penguin 1995
John Sweetman, The Dambusters Raid, Cassell 2002
Chris Ward, Andy Lee, Andreas Wachtel, Dambusters: Definitive History, Red Kite 2003

The information above has been taken from the books and online sources listed and other online material. Apologies for any errors or omissions. Please add any corrections or links to further information in the comments section below.

Further information about Mick Martin and the other 132 men who flew on the Dams Raid can be found in my book The Complete Dambusters, published by History Press in 2018.

Dambuster obituaries

I have been scouring the interwebnet for online material about the aircrew who took part in the Dams Raid for a project I will be unveiling shortly, but in the meantime, I thought I would share the fruits of part of my research. So far, I have come across these online postwar obituaries:

Ken Brown
George Chalmers
Edward (Johnnie) Johnson
David Rodger
Danny Walker

Thanks to a helpful library subscription, I have also come across four other earlier obituaries which are not generally available in online sources, but can be turned up in newspaper archives. These are of:

Basil Feneron
Harold (Mick) Martin
David Shannon
Paul Brickhill

(I know the last of these did not take part in the Dams Raid himself, but I thought his obituary might be of interest.) I have posted these four obituaries on my other website, and you can see them here.

If you can add any further online or offline material to these links then I would be glad to hear from you.