b. 1921 | Royal Air Force
John Martin grew up in London. He worked as a Wireless Operator for the Royal Air Force. After being shot down over Berlin, he was captured as a prisoner of war.
John Martin was born in Willesden, London in 1921 and recalls enjoying his childhood despite financial impoverishment. He passed the 11+ exam, but his father decided against his admission to Grammar school, as he believed that his son needed to contribute to the family income as soon as he was able to. John left school at 14 and started work in a local coachbuilder, working mainly with commercial vehicles. Money in this North-West area of London was scarce all round, and John observed many married men with families to support suddenly being laid off on a Friday afternoon.
After the long pause of the ‘phoney war’ which followed the outbreak of WW2, the first real action John witnessed was a solitary Bf 109 coming over Willesden and firing into the barrage balloons with impunity, facing absolutely no opposition. He remembers being able to see the docks burning. While his house wasn’t hit, the houses across the street were, blasting their windows in.
“At the time my mother’s mother had come to live with us and she had a little bedroom upstairs. Grandma was always moaning about her poor legs and how she couldn’t move and was unable to walk so everything had to be brought to her. I used to listen to her with little sympathy. I was in bed when this bomb dropped across the road. The explosion went off and I woke up and realised we had suffered quite a lot of damage. I then remembered that Grandma must be still upstairs and thought I had better go and help her get down. But before I knew where she was, Grandma came behind me and passed me like a Greyhound, nearly knocking me over. She was in the shelter long before I was!”
– John Martin –
John wanted to join the RAF, but when he went to the recruiting office, he was told he was in a reserved occupation. John’s boss, the owner of the coachbuilders, had contacted the RAF and said that he was needed to continue with his job. John remembered ‘I felt trapped and felt I was going to miss all the action in the War’.
Royal Air Force: Training as a Wireless Operator
Eventually, John noticed that the advertisements for aircrew had dropped the requirement for a secondary education, so he applied again, this time for aircrew, and hoped to become a wireless operator. Much to his surprise, he was selected for pilot training.
However, after starting pilot training, his whole class was reclassified without warning in order to meet a shortfall in bomb-aimers for the RAF. John stood up in the class and asked the Squadron Leader if he could be reclassified as a wireless operator, as this was his original choice. Clearly fortune favoured the brave, as the Squadron Leader later returned to tell John that he could commence training as a wireless operator.
John was posted to Blackpool to learn morse code and then onto a signals school for wireless maintenance training. Then came a four month posting to an army cooperation squadron at Stoneycroft, on the edge of the New Forest. There, John found an excellent CO who knew everybody by their Christian name. He really enjoyed his time there. This was followed by flight training from an airfield near Bristol on the De Havilland Dominie and then onto Percival Proctors. The Proctors were flown by fighter pilots who had recently been on front line operations and John experienced some hairy flights. In contrast, he found his flights flown by the Royal Indian Air Force pilots on the same station delightful.
“I was then posted to Stormy Down in Wales in 1943 to do some further training and after that up to North Wales to an Advanced Flying Training School flying Avro Ansons. We would take off over Anglesey, go across the Irish Sea and then over the Scottish Islands, mainland and Highlands, and then back again. Very enjoyable flying”.
– John Martin –
Shipped off to Cottesmore in Rutland to an Operational Training Unit, John flew a ‘half’ sortie in a Vickers Wellington which had been sent out to try to find an aircraft which had gone down in the North Sea, but sadly didn’t locate anything. He was then posted to Husband Bosworth, on the Leicestershire and Northamptonshire border. At a local dance there he met his wife, Adelaide, a WAAF Flight Mechanic at Little Rissington in the Cotswolds.
In January 1944, he was posted to an operational squadron at RAF Kirmington, Lincolnshire.
“We took off on our first operational sortie not knowing what to expect and were hit by flak. The second op also to Berlin was worse and we got hit badly by flak. The third, on 30th January 1944, we got attacked by a night fighter. Berlin was a hot target and we were coming up to the target when we were hit.
“There were cannon shells ripping around my right arm. Blue flashing lights all over. I think that the navigator must have been injured. I knew we had been badly hit and switched on the intercom just in time to hear the skipper say ‘bale out, bale out!’ The navigator couldn’t have been very badly hit because he and I were both getting our parachutes on at the same time. As I opened the door at the back of the cockpit to go down to our exit position, flames came at me and I saw that the whole of the fuselage was ablaze. In the split second that I opened the door I saw the mid-upper gunner climbing out of his turret which was completely wrecked and I knew that all I could do was to slam the door shut, so I went back into the cockpit.
“The aircraft was in a terrific dive. I climbed into the pilot’s seat (he was trying to get out through the escape hatch in the nose of the aircraft which had been blocked by the bomb-aimer’s body). I tried the dingy hatch but that wouldn’t move and just thought to myself, ‘well that’s my lot’. I then remembered that I hadn’t turned off the Identification Friend or Foe button on the wireless set so I went back to the set and turned the two buttons to switch it off. The next thing I heard was this enormous explosion and I was knocked unconscious.
“I half came to outside of the aircraft and saw this huge piece of Lancaster sail very closely past me and then my parachute jerked me into consciousness. I don’t remember pulling the ripcord at all and I what I imagine happened was that the ripcord got tangled up (in) wreckage of the aircraft and was snagged by that. So, I was extremely lucky. When we had been first attacked, we were at 20,000ft but by the time I regained some consciousness, I must have only been around 1000ft from the ground. Part of my harness had been ripped off, but I was aware enough to realise that I needed to cling onto the straps as hard as I could until I hit the ground far harder than I should have done.”
– John Martin –
Prisoner of War
John was quickly picked up by a Luftwaffe searchlight unit. This was something of a relief as the civilian population of Berlin was known to be very hostile to RAF aircrew, many of whom they attacked and even lynched. In Dulag Luft, near Frankfurt, he lost his identity discs, found himself accused of being a British agent and was told that he was being handed over to the Gestapo. Thinking that he may be tortured and executed, he was ordered into a room, when much to his relief he found himself face to face not with a firing squad, but many Allied Airmen.
On 16th April 1945, John was in Stalag 357 at Follingbostel not far from Hannover in North-Western Germany when the Royal Irish Hussars entered the camp and he and his fellow PoWs were liberated.
Repatriated, John returned to England and he and Adelaide married in September 1945, honeymooning in Wales and bringing up two sons, one of whom became a senior officer in the British Army. The couple eventually retired to West Wales where they still live today. At time of writing, they have been together 78 years. John’s book of his wartime experiences ‘A Raid Over Berlin’ (Parthian) has been on the Sunday Times Best Sellers list.