Tuesday, October 09, 2012

AVM Sir Harold Brownlow Morgan "Micky" Martin, KCB, DSO *, DFC** AFC 1918-1988

Air Marshal Sir Harold (Micky) Martin, KCB, DSO and Bar, DFC and two Bars, AFC, was the RAF's greatest wartime exponent of low level bombing.

Though his name is less familiar to the public than those of men like Guy Gibson and Leonard Cheshire, to those who flew with him Micky Martin was the exemplar of the low-flying skills which were so daringly demonstrated in the famous Dambuster raid of May 1943.

Martin possessed in abundance those qualities which are the hallmark of the best fighting troops. He was swashbuckling and brave, with scant respect for authority, but with a compelling desire to be at grips with the enemy. But his bravery had nothing about it of bravado. He was highly professional and knew that gallantry was of no avail without skill and tactical sense. As a flight, and, later, squadron commander, his insistence upon rigorous flying standards enabled many young pilots to stay alive who might otherwise have died.

Martin was one of the most important members of the 617 Squadron team which Gibson assembled especially for the Dambuster raid. Born in Sydney on February 27, 1918, he had been pronounced unfit to fly in Australia, because of asthma, but he worked his passage to England, where he joined the RAF in 1940.

As a pilot in the days of Bomber Command's early attempts to hit targets and avoid getting shot down, he quickly appreciated the effectiveness of low flying as a method of evading enemy fighters, and he applied himself with relentless concentration to mastering the skills required.
To fly with Martin aircrew needed nerves of steel. On one occasion his Hampden bomber returned to base with a length of power line wrapped round one of its wings. When he went on to Lancasters his bomb aimers soon became used to the sight of foliage disconcertingly close beneath their noses.
As a result, by the time the Ruhr dams raid was mooted early in 1943, Martin was one of the most experienced 'on-the-deck' pilots in the RAF. He was therefore a natural choice to help in training for an operation which meant flying all the way to the target at 150 feet, and bombing from exactly 60ft to ensure that the dambusting weapon, the revolutionary 'bouncing bomb', devised by Barnes Wallis, could clear the anti-mine nets and hit the dams at the right angle.

In the weeks leading up to the raid 617's Lancasters were out night after night, roaring over the countryside at ever lower and lower level, stampeding the flocks in the fields, and causing floods of angry letters to pour into RAF Scampton. In his beloved 'P for Popsie', Martin was always at hand, to pass on invaluable advice over the intercom to the squadron's pilots as they got used to hair-raising manoeuvres, dodging pylons, treetops and power lines in the darkness. On a notable occasion, having returned to base with portions of a tree lodged in his aircraft's anatomy, one pilot observed shakenly to Martin: 'Christ, this is bloody dangerous'.

On the evening of May 15, after flying 2,000 hours of practice sorties which had involved the dropping of 2,500 practice bombs, the raid was ready to go. Eighteen Lancasters rolled out onto the runways at Scampton, the belly of each bulging with the secret weapon which was to test the meticulously thought-out defences of three of the Ruhr's great dams, the Mohne, the Eder and the Sorpe.

To attack a heavily defended target at low level, flying at a fixed speed, and showing the spotlight altimeter beams which were necessary to guarantee a consistent height was a formidable proposition, and the gunners in the Mohne's flak towers were soon busy. Gibson went in first and delivered his bomb satisfactorily. His second-in-command, Hopgood, was shot down during his approach, and his bomb burst harmlessly. Then it was Martin's turn; coming in hard and low he bombed with pinpoint accuracy.
But the dam still held, and as successive aircraft bombed, Gibson and Martin flew up and down the Mohne lake, drawing the German fire and spraying the flak towers with bursts from their own turrets.
At last, peering through the mist which had settled over the scene, they were aware that the parapet had crumbled, and soon a torrent of water began to pour through an ever widening breach. The code word for the dam's destruction Nigger was flashed back to the Group Operations Room at Grantham, where Barnes Wallis, until then regarded with some suspicion as men of genius often are, heard it with delighted relief.

Though the raid, which also breached the Eder dam and damaged the Sorpe, causing widespread destruction, did not deal the mortal blow to the Ruhr's power and water supplies that had been intended, it nevertheless caught the public imagination for its combination of scientific planning and cool courage, and has passed into Royal Air Force mythology.

Martin remained with 617 for a year after the dams raid, becoming acting commanding officer and passing on his knowledge to a succession of pilots who joined the Squadron. Leonard Cheshire, one of 617's most successful commanding officers and a low level expert himself at the time he took over from Martin, has attested: 'Much of what I learned about operational low flying I owed to Mick'.

After a raid on the Antheor viaduct in the South of France, during which his bomb aimer was hit by flak and killed, as he was making the approach, Martin was rested from operations for a while. But he was impatient to get back, and wangled his way onto 100 Group of night intruding Mosquitoes, where his skills were again put to good use.

Before the war was out he had added another Bar to his DFC.

But peacetime did not mean an end of the medals for Martin. On April 30 1947, piloting a Mosquito with Squadron Leader E. B. Sismore as navigator he set up a record for the flight from London to Cape Town, covering the 6,717 miles in 21hr 31 min, at an average speed of 310mph. This feat gained him an Air Force Cross, and was not in fact surpassed until the jet age, when a Canberra bomber set a new mark.

Though granted a permanent commission only in 1945, Martin had an immensely successful post-war career, and he rose to high rank. He commanded 2nd Allied Tactical Air Force and RAF Germany from 1967 to 1970, and retired in 1971 after a year on the Air Force Board as Air Member for Personnel.