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Library Reference Number: 258

Pembroke Dock 1942

Wing Commander Derek Martin OBE MID BSc

On 14th March 1941, Wing Commander Martin was involved in a horrendous crash in his Sunderland Flying Boat at Oban resulting in serious wounds (See website article 213). It was during this long period of recovery that he was instrumental in forming the Guinea Pig Club. In an extraordinary turn of events, Wing Commander Derek Martin was to eventually make such a remarkable recovery, that after about a year in hospital he returned to operational flying and later commanded a Flying Boat Training Unit at Pembroke Dock. Derek Martin describes those duties in his own words.

At the end of April 1942 I left Castle Archdale and made my way to Pembroke Dock in South Wales. I had been there briefly in 1940 and of course had visited the base during my time with No.10 (RAAF) and No.210 Squadrons, for Pembroke Dock (or PD as it was known to all flying boat crews) was the main flying boat base for the United Kingdom. Located at the eastern end of Milford Haven it provided sheltered water for flying boat operations in a defended area and without the hills and mountains which surrounded the base at Oban in Scotland.

The base itself was a former Royal Dockyard, transferred from the Admiralty to the Royal Air Force in in 1930. The history of the base is admirably covered in John Evans' "Flying Boat Haven" published by Aviation and Maritime Research (ISBN 0 951041 OX).

My task at PD was to form a unit which would collect new Sunderlands from the factories and fly them to PD where they would be equipped for operations. Concurrent with this, pilots and aircrews would be posted in. My unit was then responsible for putting the crews together and training them before allocating each crew a new aircraft. After a few weeks settling down as a crew they would be despatched either to a squadron in the United Kingdom - or more usually - to Gibraltar where they would be allocated to overseas squadrons based in west Africa or the Mediterranean.

The task was very heavy and not eased until my staff ferry crews were posted in. Collections were initially from Short Bros' factory at Rochester but as more factories were opened, extended to Belfast (Short Bros & Harland), Windermere and Dumbarton on the Clyde. It may be interesting to note that 749 Sunderlands were built at the places shown below, but not all of them were collected by my unit which was not formed until more than 2½ years after the war started in September 1939. The reason for its formation was simple: As I have already mentioned, we were very short of operational crews and aircraft to protect the convoys on which the country's life depended, so it made sense to relieve of the job of collecting and ferrying new aircraft. Once my unit was organised, replacement aircraft could be delivered direct to the front line squadrons. It was not long before my crews were used to ferry flying boats within the United Kingdom when they needed factory repair or overhaul.

Factories making Sunderlands
Rochester (Short Bros) 331
Windermere (Short Bros) 35
Belfast (Short & Harland) 133
Dumbarton (Blackburns) 250

In the early days the only way we had of getting from PD to Rochester was by train via London. In spite of all the problems of wartime the trains were generally reliable and kept good time. After a while I would travel with only one crew member to attend to the mooring of the aircraft and help generally. It sometimes seemed strange that I should be flying this very large aircraft practically solo, but it was quicker to travel with only one, and others could be getting on with various tasks back at PD.

Travelling through London, we sometimes stopped overnight. Certain hotels were favoured because of location and service in spite of the war, and nights were sometimes noisy with the air raids. The National Liberal Club kindly offered me honorary membership for the duration of the war, so I could stay there when I was passing through London. The Club is located between Whitehall and the Embankment and this gave me the opportunity to see the most heart-warming event of the war.

I had walked down to the Embankment one evening and was standing in the blackout looking at the river when I heard the sound of aircraft engines. It was clear that there were a lot of aircraft, but the engine noise was not that of the Luftwaffe but of British aircraft - and the balloons had been hauled down. The noise became louder and louder until I could see the silhouettes of hundreds and hundreds of aircraft, flying a few hundred feet above London, and they were all flashing the 'V' for Victory sign in Morse on their downward recognition lamps. They were obviously on their way to make a saturation raid on Germany, and it was a stirring sight. It was a wonderful piece of psychology. London had been heavily bombed, much of it in ruins, and there we were hitting back at the enemy. Whoever thought of routing the bomber force at low level over London on their outward journey should have received a knighthood - but he probably didn't.

In January 1943 the Battle of the Atlantic was considered to be won, and the urgent need for Flying Boats receded. The Air Ministry decided to allow six to be diverted to B.O.A.C. for civil use. As I always liked to do any new task myself, I went to Rochester and collected the aircraft and flew them to the B.O.A.C. base at Hythe. I delivered the first aircraft G-AGEU on 8th January 1942, G-AGEV and G-EGEW on 29th January.

By this time I was getting known to the B.O.A.C. people at Hythe and it was then that they offered me a job as Flying Boat Captain with B.O.A.C. - an offer which I refused because I was very happy with my life in the air force and did not want to exchange it for the routine of civil flying.

One of the most worrying events of a flying boat unit commander's life is the protection of the aircraft when at moorings during gales. Often in the evening a Met Officer would telephone the mess to give gale warning and the duty officer would come into the ante-room and announce in loud tones "GALE WARNING." If the gale was likely to be serious (and most were) it was necessary to put a pilot and an engineer on the aircraft. They had to monitor the moorings and if the aircraft showed signs of coming adrift from the moorings, the pilot would start the engines and hold the aircraft in position while signalling the shore for help.

One such night early in 1943 I detailed Plt Officer White to gale watch on one DV958. The next morning I was woken with the news that one of my aircraft was on the rocks at Hobbes Point. Dressing quickly I went down to Hobbes Point (a rocky outcrop to the east of the mooring area) to find the Station Engineer Officer and crowd of others standing on the quayside and a Sunderland firmly on the rocks. The tide had gone down, but the gale was still lashing the area and would soon rise and probably sink the damaged aircraft.

I went on board for a quick survey and found the bottom of the hull gashed and the port float torn off by the impact when the aircraft was blown on to the rocks. The propellers and engines appeared to be ok. I thought there was a slight possibility of salvage if the engines could be started as the incoming tide reached the aircraft, and if the bilges could be pumped out quickly enough using the APU (Auxiliary Power Unit), and if the aircraft could be taxied under its own power to the bottom of the slipway, and if the ground crews there could get the beaching legs and trolley on and if …if… There might be a chance of saving the aircraft. I explained what I had in mind and asked if any of my crews would like to come with me.

When all was safely secured I wanted to know what Plt Officer White had been doing to get this aircraft on the rocks when he was on boat guard duty. It was a simple explanation. He had sat on the flight deck all night shining the lamp on the buoy to make sure that the aircraft had not slipped its moorings. All seemed to be in order until suddenly he felt the aircraft run aground on the rocks. The buoy itself had become detached from the anchors on the sea bed and Plt Officer was exonerated from all blame.

One afternoon Gpt Capt Carey telephoned me to say that an Australian aircraft had been badly shot up and was unable to alight on the water because the hull had been damaged. After waiting at the airfield for about an hour the damaged aircraft approached and did a low pass over the airfield, from which could be seen the badly damaged hull. The pilot then took the aircraft on a normal airfield circuit and touched down on the grass. Remembering that the pilot sits perhaps 20 feet above the keel of the aircraft which has no undercarriage, landing a flying boat on dry land is not easy even for an experienced pilot. However, he made an excellent landing and 'Crackers Carey' sped across the airfield in pursuit of the aircraft. I ran up the wing, dropped through the hatch and switched off the remaining engines. The aircraft was later transported back to PD base but never flew again.

During my time at PD, Group Captain Carey called me in and told me that a French squadron was coming to PD for training. We would then give them a complete squadron of new Sunderlands which they would fly to French West Africa to operate under allied control protecting the convoys sailing to the UK from the South Atlantic. The operation was to be conducted with complete secrecy. It was so secret that there is no mention in my log book of any flying with the French.

It must have been a difficult time for them, their country having been defeated while they were serving overseas and then having to take orders from their Vichy government to fight against the Allies. One pilot had a Croix de Guerre for shooting down a Sunderland off the west coast of Africa. We made them as welcome as possible in wartime Britain although it must have been cold and damp for them after their tropical base. They owed their allegiance to the French General Giraud, and were obviously glad to be fighting under Allied guidance and control against the invaders of their homeland. After their training, they set off for Gibraltar, following a route that so many of my previous trainees had followed and I never heard from them again. After about 18 months at PD I was posted to Cranage to take a specialist Air Navigation Course.

Published by kind permission of Wg Cdr Derek Martin OBE MID BSc. Edited by Jack Burgess BEM

Footnote
Derek Martin was also patron of the Pembroke Dock Sunderland Trust, backing efforts to recover a sunken Sunderland. Parts of the aircraft, which he had flown in 1940, are on display at the Pembroke Dock Flying Boat Centre, which Derek Martin opened in 2009.