Flt Lt W F Martin DFC – Story Behind the Stone
“On the night of 21 June 1944, Lancaster Mk III ND 471 “A-Able” of No 57 Squadron took off from RAF East Kirkby at 2302 as part of a raid on an oil plant at Wesseling, Germany. It did not return, although its crew did, being forced to ditch in the North Sea in the early hours of 22 June, having completed their mission and taken flak returning over the Dutch Coast, which holed the fuel tanks and steadily cut the engines. The Navigator was Flying Officer William Fisher Martin who, for his actions on this and other missions, was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. The raid on Wesseling was one of 32 operational missions he completed with 57 Sqn, based at RAF East Kirkby. Having completed this operational tour he went on to be the Navigation Leader for 617 Sqn, based at RAF Woodhall Spa, and deployed to the Far East in early 1945 as part the Tiger Force effort preparing for War with Japan.
These are his memories of the night they ditched:
“We huddled together in the rocking dinghy, seven very scared, very wet and very much at sea airmen. We watched with a sense of loss the large starboard wing of good old A for Able sinking lower in the water. She had carried us safely through our last 15 ops and she was now going down into the depths of the North Sea, leaving us on the surface, crouched miserably in our all too small dinghy, still only half realising our predicament. It had all happened very quickly. One minute we were happily wending our way homewards, 5,000 ft, 175 on the clock and the contented feeling of another ‘job’ successfully completed”.
“It had been a tough one, with four separate attacks by a rocket-firing night fighter and we had been very very thankful when we crossed, safely as we thought, the Dutch coast, and headed out to sea. Suddenly, for no accountable reason, A for Able swung round in a semi-circle and headed East again.”
The fuel tanks had been holed and both starboard engines had stopped. The Flight Engineer soon found that fuel tanks which should have contained more than 200 gallons were now empty. The port inner engine had also stopped and the last remaining engine was coughing badly.
“The Skipper’s voice came quietly to us over the intercom. “Prepare to ditch.” A few minutes while everyone collected their remaining wits about them and made their respective preparations. I hastily fixed our position and passed it in message form to the Wireless Operator, who had immediately commenced distress signals.”
“All too soon came the dreaded order “Ditching stations!” We took off our harnesses, inflated our Mae Wests and scrambled back to our crash positions. “Escape hatches off!” “1000 feet”, “500 feet”, “200 feet”, “Prepare for impact!” – we braced ourselves for the crash – and then oblivion!”
“When I scrambled to my feet the water was up to my knees and ‘Snow’ the Bomb Aimer was thrusting the dinghy packs into my hands. Automatically in pitch blackness I stumbled to the upper escape hatch and thrust them up to the awaiting hands – dinghy and radio followed and then I scrambled up through the hatch and breathed a sigh of relief as I saw the Skipper crawling along the top of the cabin – good old Nick – were we all out then? A quick scramble on to the wing – already awash – and then into the dinghy, steadying it to help Nick aboard (she was already floating) “all present?” “Jack?” “Geoff?” “Johnny?” – all correct! “OK, cut the line” – momentary panic as A for Able keeled over on her nose and stood threateningly above us, a huge mass in the darkness. “Paddle! Paddle for God’s sake!” It seemed hours until we worked our way by pushing on the wing and thrusting off from the clear wing tip and then we were left, watching her go down – our trusty old kite – damn Jerry anyway”.
“Slowly we quieted ourselves and tried to take stock. The Skipper’s face was a mess, he was bleeding freely and was a bit dazed. Someone fumbled in the darkness for the first aid kit. Then we realised there was more water in the dinghy than we would like. Snowy tore off his flying boot and we began to bale. Eventually we got organised, rigging the mast for the portable radio transmitter and turning the handle, which gave us a ray of hope. The occasional wave broke over us and soon we were cold and miserable and feeling very sorry for ourselves. Dawn came slowly, after we had been in the water for nearly 3 hours”.
“At about 8 o’clock, we were roused by the sound of engines and saw, low and well to the South, a couple of aircraft speeding Eastwards, probably off to photograph the damage we had done the previous night. Time dragged by until we heard engines again and saw a large aircraft below cloud and well to the South. Miserably we watched it turn away and disappear. Later we heard it again and I took the flare pistol from my battle dress. As it turned some distance from us I fired off a cartridge. It carried on. They hadn’t seen it!”
“Shortly before noon it reappeared and I waited until it seemed near enough and fired off another cartridge. Again it turned away and we sat back, our hopes dashed. Then it turned and, this time, seemed to head straight for us. I reloaded hastily and fired again, and this time there was no mistake. They had spotted us! Scrambling to our feet we cheered and waved as they banked and flew over us. A bigger dinghy was dropped and inflated on impact. We paddled over to it and climbed aboard. It was wonderful, the lift in morale, once we felt safe”.
“The aircraft kept station above us and signalled that help was on its way. Sometime later it headed away East, then swung round towards us again and soon after we saw the bow waves of a naval launch approaching. When it arrived we were helped aboard, given dry clothing and a large mug of naval rum. Never had a drink been more appreciated, and I remember little else until we docked at Yarmouth later, having been in a deep sleep”.
“The Skipper and I spent a couple of nights in a naval hospital and then we were driven to the nearest airfield and flown back to East Kirkby, where the rest of the crew had already arrived. We learned that the base had lost 11 aircraft that night and morale was low, so that our arrival had brought a great boost to the Station as a whole, and I can well appreciate the hopes raised by our return”.
Downed at 0210, and spotted by an Air Sea Rescue aircraft around midday, when they boarded the rescue launch they had been afloat for 12 hours. An investigation revealed that their emergency calls had not been heard and that they had been lucky to have been rescued so soon. The aircraft that spotted them was on a separate mission looking for dinghies that had been dropped the previous day, but once they were seen the air-sea rescue system swung quickly into action.
On the afternoon of the flight, the crew had carried out the usual pre-ops check flight, a short trip to make sure that everything was working correctly and flown early enough to allow the engineers to fix any snags. It was a bright, sunny day, and the trip was uneventful. After they had made their way back to their parking spot, the pilot made an unusual decision that was to prove vital to their survival that night. He decided they should practice their ditching drill. Ignoring the hoots of derision from their colleagues and groundcrew in the June sunshine, they went through the ditching routine, even extracting the dinghy from the fuselage and carrying it out onto the wing. The Skipper could not explain why he decided to run the drill but, when debriefed, the crew attributed their safe escape to the fact that they had just practiced for the event. It was a message quickly passed to other bomber units.
The Wesseling raid itself was a disaster for 5 Group; of 133 aircraft that were airborne that night, 37 were lost, mainly due to night fighters that intercepted the bomber stream over Holland. 200 men lost their lives, 44 became prisoners of war and 9 evaded capture. RAF East Kirby alone lost 11 aircraft that night; A-Able’s crew was the only one of those to return.
Flt Lt William Fisher Martin’s DFC citation reads as follows:
This officer has participated in many operational sorties against a variety of targets. He has proved himself a most efficient navigator, and has always displayed outstanding courage and determination throughout his operational tour. His fine technical skill has largely contributed to the success of many missions. In April 1944 his aircraft was detailed to attack Schweinfurt. On the outward flight it was attacked and damaged by an enemy fighter. The rear gunner was wounded and the inter-communication system and the elevator were damaged, both turrets also being rendered unserviceable. Flying Officer Martin calmly navigated the damaged aircraft to the target, which was bombed, and safely back to this country, where a successful landing was accomplished. Again, in June 1944, during an attack on a target in West Germany, his aircraft was damaged by anti-aircraft fire and the petrol tank was holed. On the return flight, owing to lack of fuel, the bomber was forced down on to the sea. After more than twelve hours in the dinghy, the crew were rescued. Despite slight head injuries, Flying Officer Martin’s cool courage and cheerfulness were a source of inspiration to the rest of the crew”.
Happily, Bill Martin survived the War and, although he died not long after retirement in 1980, he was able to meet up with the rest of his crew in 1979 at the first reunion of 57 and 630 Squadrons. He had 3 daughters, Margaret, Sheena and Alex. His granddaughter Wendy joined the RAF in 1991 and is still serving today (2022).
“In June 1944, my Mother Mary was six months pregnant with me. Safe at home on her parents’ farm in Scotland her world was shattered on 22nd June by the arrival of a telegram advising that my Dad was missing following operations on the night of 21st June. The thought that he may never return nor see his first child must have been devastating. On 23rd June however, a second telegram arrived bearing the joyful news that Dad had been safely rescued at sea.
I arrived on 1st December, 1944 and it was several months before we met due to his continuing wartime service. From the time that he was demobbed until his death in 1980 we enjoyed a loving and special father and daughter relationship. He was indeed a remarkable man and he taught me much about the natural world, patience and kinship.” Margaret Rothery née Martin
“My Dad was my hero. Not because he was a war hero, just because he was my Dad. He WAS a DFC, MiD, Goldfish Club war hero, but we heard little about that growing up as, like so many other survivors, he didn’t talk much about his wartime service. However, I knew there was something important about him, that he had a medal – once, when I was about 9 or 10, I “borrowed” his DFC & took it to school for show & tell, but didn’t tell anyone. Of course, my mother chose that day to clean the china cabinet ………. !
Growing up, he was just like every other good dad – our mentor, our teacher. He taught me about the night sky, without me realising at the time that was how he had navigated his Lancaster Bombers. He once got me up, again in the night, to see the Northern Lights on a rare occasion they were visible where we lived.
My dad passed away when I was 26 & pregnant with my first child, so he never met my children. But I KNOW he has watched over them. My first born regaled us with tales of his “dreams” until he was in his early teens. In those dreams, my father came to play with him & took him in his plane, showed him his navigator’s station (and my son described it in accurate detail, which even I didn’t fully appreciate until I saw it for myself in Just Jane some 30 years later).
To us he was, and will always remain, quite simply our much loved, always missed, ever-present hero dad.” Sheena Cowan née Martin
“I arrived in 1964 when my dad was 50! I only had him in my life for a very short 16 years…never had him walk me down the aisle. So my memories of my hero my dad are short and limited however he was the most lovely caring softly spoken Scotsman that I will never forget.” Alex Martin
“I was just 12 when my Grandfather died in 1980, but was fortunate enough to be present with my parents the previous year at East Kirkby at the inaugural gathering of the 57/630 Squadrons Association when he was reunited with the other 6 members of his crew. I recall there was a lot of laughter that weekend as memories were recounted and stories told of derring do. Although I did not know then that I would join the RAF some years later, I remember thinking what a marvellous organisation it must be! The horrors that my Grandfather’s Crew endured would only become apparent many years later as I researched their 32 operational missions. The stories my Grandfather told undoubtedly left their mark and provided the inspiration for me to follow in his footsteps and join the RAF, and here I am more than 30 years later. I have been attending the annual 57 and 630 Squadron Association reunions annually since 2010 and have been fortunate to have met many of the men and women who served at East Kirkby at the same time as my Grandfather: heroes one and all. Per Ardua ad Astra.” Air Commodore Wendy Rothery