Interview with Alfie Martin


Interview with Alfie Martin


Alfie Martin was born near Belfast in 1920. He applied for the Air Force but his mother was worried about the dangers and so he withdrew his application. He joined the army and when the RAF advertised for soldiers to transfer the RAF he volunteered. He trained as an observer in Canada. He was posted to RAF Pocklington with 102 Squadron. On his twelfth operation their aircraft came under attack and he baled out. While in hiding he heard a rustling and a cow appeared in view along with a young boy. The boy saw him and saluted. Alfie was enormously touched by this. This was the start of his evasion and eventual return to active duty in the UK.




Temporal Coverage




00:49:16 audio recording

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AM: Right.
JW: This interview is being conducted on behalf of the International Bomber Command Centre. My name is John Wells and my interviewee is Mr Alfie Martin. The interview is being held at Mr Martin's home [buzz] Dunmurry. Today is Wednesday the 30th of August 2017 and the time is ten minutes past eleven. Also present are Mr, Mr Martin's daughter, Julie and my wife Helen. [pause] Right. I wonder if you could, if you could start by just giving me a little background to your, where you were born and where you went to school.
AM: Well, as you know my name is Alfred Martin. I was always referred to that at home but during my time in the services I was always known as Paddy. Anyway, I was born in Finaghy which is a small area just outside Belfast. And I was born in 1920 so my age now is ninety seven. I’ve been fortunate in having relatively good health all my life. I was educated in [unclear] Avenue and then a Friends’ School in Lisburn. And I passed my senior certificate at the age of sixteen which was about two years earlier than most. I got the first job I applied for which was in the insurance business and I started that on the 20th of July 1936. Towards the end of the ‘30s the British government was beginning to get a little apprehensive about the desires of Hitler and there was a strong effort to increase the Territorial and Reserve services. I applied for the air, air force by signing up at Ann Street in Belfast and I would have been flying on weekends but when I got home my mother insisted that it was much too dangerous in the Air Force and I should not go forward with it. So I went down the next day and cancelled it. However, I continued to have a desire to help the Services and in [pause] towards the end of 1938 I joined the Territorial Army. Royal Engineers Antrim Fortress Company. And I was stationed with them during the war. I was called up on 28th of August 1939 and I went to Grey Point first of all but I also served at Kilroot and at Magilligan. That was for twenty months I was in the army, getting more and more bored because — but at the same time I I learned how to dig trenches, dig latrines and in addition put up barbed wire. At least in later years the experience in putting up barbed wire was of some, some help. As I’ve said, I was called up in August ‘39 and I served until 1941, at which time I found that there was an edict in the office stating that the air force were looking for volunteers. So I, I volunteered after requesting permission from my officers and four of us were selected to go for interview. As far as I can know I was the only one who was accepted at Clifton Street. And I was, at the same time I was accepted to go forward as, as an observer. That was their, their request. I was prepared to be a pilot but I was so tired of being in the army that I was quite, very happy in fact to, to train as an observer. It was only about two weeks later after that that I was called up for a real push job in my first station with the Air Force and it was the first army intake of the war. The first lot of army people who were taken into the air force. We had a really, a very cushy life initially. Initially [pause] initially we were stationed in Stratford on Avon at the, put up in the Shakespeare Hotel. And from there I went to Scarborough where we were in the Grand Hotel. Quite a luxury life. And then it was to a little place called Wilberforce or Wilbur. Not sure. Anyway, from there it was obvious we were going overseas for, for training. We sailed first of all from Liverpool and I and a lot, a crowd of us aboard the [pause] the, I can't remember the name of the, oh the Ulster. The Ulster Monarch I think it was. It was a boat which normally went between Belfast and Liverpool but we were on it to Iceland where they tossed us off and we had to spend about three weeks there. It was the middle of August so it was light for twenty four hours and the weather was quite pleasant. We enjoyed swimming in hot springs which were nearby and a temperature of about eighty five degrees highs. I enjoyed it very much. The water from that was then siphoned off to heat the houses in Reykjavik which was about twenty miles away. From [pause] after about sixteen days I think it was we, we were told to return to Reykjavik and they put us aboard the, the Canadian Pacific liner Montcalm which, in effect returned to to Belfast to pick up a convoy and we went on from there. And that, that that was my first experience of sleeping in a, in a hammock. And it was a really [pause] while you were in it it was quite comfortable but to get out was a feat of great strength and persistence. And I wouldn't really say I had desire to get into having hammocks again. Anyway, from there we went to St John in New Brunswick, unloaded and from there to Prince Edward Island, to a little place called Charlottetown where we were scheduled to do navigation. From there we, after about six months we, we were considered to be fit and we were sent for bombing and gunnery at Lake Ontario in a wee place called Picton. There we flew in, in Fairey Battle aircraft and we were able to bomb from a bombsight in the floor of the aircraft and fire a Vickers machine gun from the open cockpit. It was quite a cold experience. The temperature was about minus twenty and standing up in an open cockpit was, was not a thing to be desired. Having graduated from that we were all sent on leave and we were all made, having been leading aircraftsmen we became flight sergeants. And we were promoted to flight sergeant and sewed on our extra stripes and then returned to the [pause] a Scottish friend and I went to Boston for our, our short leave. On return I was, I was surprised but not displeased after being granted a commission for us, six of us we were granted commissions out of about thirty in the course. So, I returned to, returned to Britain in the SS Bayano and [knocking noise] Here are my carers. In the SS Bayano, and it took sixteen days of absolute boredom. But we kept a look out for enemy submarines and were fortunate enough to not have anything happen. I’ll just break for a minute.
[recording paused]
We kept look outs. On return we were posted to Bournemouth where we stayed in a top class hotel. And then we were posted on to Stanton Harcourt, Witney which were satellites of Abingdon and we did cross country runs from there. Very often across the Irish Sea up to Scotland and back again. Low level flying. In fact, one pilot managed to get the tips of his wings in the water and bent them a wee bit. And it was lucky he hadn’t got bent completely but the, that was flying up to Wigtown. Later on it was, it was as if the, the practice flights and so forth we were sent up to Scotland one time and I, and we were crewed up and I had became a navigator for a Canadian pilot who was a great big hefty fellow but not the best of pilots I’ve got to say. Anyway, coming back he seemed to get tired of flying and we saw lights below us which were Berwick on Tweed and he decided he was going to land there. So we did. We landed all right but the trouble was we landed about three hundred yards short of the runway in little, among little trees. We were flying a Whitley. A Whitley bomber, which was, had a very low landing speed fortunately for us. We sawed off the tops of a few trees and we came to rest but we were uncertain whether we were on the ground or where we were. I climbed out of the [unclear] wing and I found a tree, tree stump and I slid down it to the ground. And all, in the distance I could hear the station ambulance and fire crew calling out to keep, ‘Keep shouting. Keep shouting. We'll find you. We'll find you,’ and eventually they did. They took us in and they gave us medicals and packed us to bed. And then in the morning they packed us onto a train and sent us back to, to Stanton Harcourt. But after that my first operation took, took place a few days later. It was one of the thousand bomber raids and we went in a Whitley aircraft to Dusseldorf. And then the second one was to, was about three days later and that was to Hamburg. From there I managed to do about a dozen operations. It was early in the bombing command and the targets were pretty dangerous. I’m just going to say I went to Berlin and I went to Stuttgart. I went to Happy Valley, that's the Ruhr, a couple of times. And Nuremberg, Hamburg and then on to Lorient, St Nazaire, Turin and Genoa. Most of them quite long trips. The thirteenth trip was to Pilsen in Czechoslovakia. And we set off about eight o'clock in the evening and had to cross a lot of Germany. And we did. I think we landed. Sorry. We, we got to Pilsen at sometime about midnight. Our navigation aids at that time were very limited. In fact it was mostly by [pause] by ground. Ground marks and so forth. But I would think our bombs were dropped about fifty miles short of Pilsen. However, it had been a long trip. We turned and set the way back and again it was long. At 4.05 in the morning we had noticed that there was aircraft, there was foreign aircraft and being very active. And anyway shortly after we heard bullets coming from a gun and hitting our aircraft. At that stage we, we gathered out into the front of the aircraft, a Halifax and I prepared to parachute out if required. Unfortunately, I, I was in the nose side of, of the escape hatch which was about that size. And the job was to take it off its hinges and drop it down through the aperture. Well, in our case the lid as I'd call it refused to go because the wind caught it. The air stream caught it and jammed it angle-wise across. I was unable to have enough strength to clear it. I tried to get one of the crew on the other side of the [pause] of the [pause] of the —
JW: Aperture.
AM: Aperture. On the other side of the aperture to, to hit it or kick or something but he didn't seem to understand. Finally the pilot came on again and he called out with great vehemence, ‘Port engine on fire. Port engine on fire. Bale out. Bale out.’ And it was a wee bit stronger than that and I looked out and there was, certainly there was just a blue flame like a blow torch coming from the engine. It didn't look very healthy. I saw that the crew on the far side were doing nothing about the, the door of the aperture and I disconnected my, but I adjusted my parachute and to remove my [pause] my intercom apparatus and I just stood up and jumped on the edge of the, of the aperture door and out it went and I went out with it. And that started me off. It was absolute silence for [pause] I don't know. While I was, while I was out. Up ‘til then I’d been hearing the engines roaring for, as I think I said to you it was four o'clock in the morning when we were shot down and we'd been hearing the engines for at least eight hours so the silence was very welcome but rather unexpected. Anyway, I floated down. I checked to see what was, I was coming in to. I tried to turn around in the parachute but couldn't get it to turn so that I could see what was happening. All I could see was that there was the aircraft was burning on the ground and I couldn't see any other members of crew. But in retrospect they all got out with the exception of the rear gunner. And we presume that he was killed trying to get out of his, his turret which was not an easy thing to do but we were uncertain. When I hit the ground I just rolled over on my back but it kind of came out to hit you. Everything seemed to be very slow until the last sixteen feet and going down. But then our training took over and we were, had been advised to hide our parachutes. So I sorted around and found a damp place in a corner a field and stuck it in but it was a very bad hiding job. But anyway it was out of sight and then I set off hoping to go in a westerly direction. But as the aircraft was in that direction I had to go south. And it was through the fields and for it, for a couple of, for all night I stopped up the next morning and sort of decided I’d rest and see what was what. So, I think that was a Sunday morning I believe. And I found a little place between two hedges where I was kind of covered. About one o'clock, having had a bit of a doze suddenly there was a great rustling nearby and a cow appeared. And behind the cow was a little boy aged twelve who was driving it. And he stopped and stared me up and down and I got up and kind of stared him up and down. And then suddenly he saluted me. And I was extremely touched by that because I don't know how he recognized that I was anyone other than a refugee of some sort. But that little boy was Andre [Lelu], and he looked, he was the first to meet me. To recognize me. He brought along his mother and father and they brought me some food and they tried to help me on my way but said they couldn't really help. It was too dangerous for them. So I left it until the next evening when I set off. Again, I said I would only walk in the evenings and I did the best I could that evening but I I approached a couple of farmhouses but every time I did there was a dog barking and I was a bit scared of it and I moved on. And late in the morning, or late in the night I should say I got a bit tired of that then looked for somewhere to rest. And the only place I was able to find was a broken down chicken hut in which I slept by some of my equipment and I did a bit of changing of my appearance. And I stayed there for an hour or two checking on my escape equipment etcetera. That, that morning I set off again and I was told to go to a place by the name of [Lessies] where I should be able to get a train, I'd been told. But when I did get there after walking and crossing a river or two I found that it was very remote. All that was in the railway station the only thing you could see were a couple of men sitting outside on a, on a bench and quite frankly I was too frightened to go up and look for a train. So I set off further down the hill. Following the line but off the road. And suddenly I came in sight of a couple of gendarmes talking to a lady down below. Maybe a hundred yards away. And I think they had spotted me but I had decided that it was, it would be dangerous for me to turn and retrace my steps so I decided to go ahead and walk past them. And I did get part way past when they, one of them said, ‘Attention monsieur.’ And I stopped and they asked for my carte d’identite which I didn't, which I did have but not for publication. And I I acted dumb and sort of appeared to search in my pockets and so forth and tried to answer their questions in what I thought was the best answer. After about five minutes of this silence and so forth they indicated they wanted me to come with them and they set off up the hill the way I had been coming and I I went up beside them. And what I thought was the senior one of the two looked at me and said, ‘Anglais monsieur?’ And I said, ‘Oui.’ And he said, ‘Allez. Allez. Vite.’ And I allez-ed vite very vite-ly indeed. I understood and got back on my journey down the hill until maybe an hour later I came across a railway crossing and I was, went out on the road to cross there. I saw a lady in, in a house and I [pause] saw a lady in the house and I decided to go and speak to her. She was very frightened but I persisted and finally she kind of took me in and gave me a little bit of beer or wine and so forth and she said she'd find me a place for the night. So about, after a short period we set off up the road about a mile until we came to a farmhouse which was off the road. I was taken up there. We knocked the door. A man answered and my guide explained the situation. I was brought in in the understanding that I would be looked after for one night and then they'd have to do something else. But that one night turned out to be six weeks. And I was there for six weeks with people by the name of [Collene] and they couldn't be better to me. I, more or less, I’ve been in touch with them all my life. Although now most of them have passed on. But anyway I’m going to say from there on during that six weeks I had my, some of my coats and things dyed black and I had my hair dyed black because I was a ginger type. And I was told that we would have, there would be a lady come for me on the following night. But that night passed and no one appeared. However, a lady appeared the next night accompanied by a man. And that lady was Madame [unclear]. And incidentally the man was Monsieur [pause] I’ve forgotten his name in the moment but unfortunately he was shot later for helping. But that wasn't connected with me. Anyway, we, they took me to the railway station and we got on a train later than expected. We went to Lille and stayed in a third class hotel there. And I walked around on the streets which were full of German soldiers having a Saturday night out. It was up about four o'clock next morning and we got a train off to Arras where Madame [unclear] had a house. A safe house. And I’m just going to say that from there on I had all sorts of, a number of different helpers. Some, mostly female but some male. I went on to Paris. From Paris to a place called [pause] from Paris to Bordeaux. From Bordeaux to Dax from Dax to [pause] Biarritz. And I’ve forgotten the name of the —
Other: St John de Luz.
AM: Pardon?
Other: St John de Luz.
AM: Yes. But another place from that where we stayed one night. The following night we went to St John de Luz. De luz. And I omitted to say that in the, this railway station in Paris, in the east Paris — Gare de l’Est I found a group of men talking. And I looked hard at them and there, one of them was my pilot. And I had expected that he wouldn't have survived because we were quite low in terms of getting out of the aircraft but he told me later that he got out about five hundred feet and he’d no sooner opened the ‘chute when he hit the ground. I was delighted to see him but we couldn't talk to each other because it was too dangerous to show any expressions. But one of them was Wally Lashbrook. He and an American by the name of Doug Hoehn. We formed a little group who went on to, as I say Bordeaux, Dax, St John de Luz and from there over the border to Irun and St Sebastian and into a safe house in San Sebastian where we stayed for about four days. We were taken out in the evening. A car stopped beside us and we were told to get in. And it was a consulate from, from Spain, from Madrid who picked us up. And he, he was with his wife and the three of us were in the back and we were driven all through the night to Madrid where we stayed in the embassy for three days taking, getting the first opportunity to write to our folks at home and let them know we were alive. And after a few days we were put on a train to Lleida in the south of [pause] or the west of France, west of Spain. And from Lleida we walked over the border and into a Gibraltar. About three days later, having been issued with new uniforms and so forth we flew by public aircraft to Bristol. From Bristol by train to London where we were interviewed and given leave passes. And Wally and I, and we couldn't, we didn't have time to get home on that night so we decided to go to Pocklington which we had been stationed when we left and we had a right nice get together with our pals. From there it was back to Belfast and a meeting, a very fine meeting with my parents and my friends. And that's about my story but —
JW: Do you want to have a rest. Hold on a sec.
Other: You might find it interesting to look at this. Have a read.
JW: I’ll have a look at it afterwards. Yeah. When did you actually leave the RAF then?
AM: Well —
JW: Oh sorry. Before that did, did you go on further operations?
AM: I did say, I don't know that I gave the date but the date of being shot down was the 17th of April 1943.
JW: Right.
AM: So there was a fair bit of time and we were not permitted to return to operations because we might give away the — we might be interrogated again and give away the names of people who’d helped us and so forth. That precluded what we were going to do but in my case I, I was actually, I was posted to Britain to do a staff navigator’s course. And I was, the staff navigator’s course I was posted, but I exchanged with one of my friends who had been posted to Canada. So in effect I went to Canada to do a staff navigation course which I did and I was out in Canada for about fifteen months at, mostly in Ontario but also out in Winnipeg. My demob came in the end of ‘45 and I was, and I returned to Britain and sent up to near Catterick and demobbed in December [unclear] but it wasn't effective until March. Anyway, my job in the insurance business had been kept open for me and in effect, and well, in fact they had made up my salary in the early part of my induced, my Air Force career when I was getting about one and, one and three, one and six a day which went up to seven and six a day. But anyway the insurance company made it up to what I would have been getting with them which was very good. They called me back and I, I went back in the beginning of ’46 and I was an insurance inspector for the counties of Fermanagh, Monaghan and Cavan for about a year. And then I, I got, I wanted to emigrate. I checked on South Africa and Australia but I decided to go to Canada because I knew it and I knew I could get a job. So anyway, I went off to Canada where Sheila was born. Julie rather. And my wife, who came from Benburb.
JW: Right.
AF: She joined me in Canada and we were married there in ‘53. Yes. That is about it, I think.
JW: Thank you very much for, I’m amazed at the amount of stuff you've been able to remember. Can I ask you what rank you were when you were finally demobbed?
AM: Flight lieutenant.
JW: Flight Lieutenant. Yeah. Yeah. And I was going to ask if you knew your old service number because what they —
AM: Well —
JW: Will be able to do is dig out your old record.
AM: 2068004. That’s, that’s my army one. The original. 2068004.
JW: Two —
AM: 068004.
JW: 2068004.
AM: That's my army one. In the air force I was, in the air force I was 120240. I did have another number in between but it wasn't —
JW: And your actual date of birth you said was —
AM: 26 3 ‘20.
Other: And did you mention the DFC dad?
JW: Oh that. We forgot to mention. So —
AM: I was awarded the DFC on, on return from, from the Continent. So was Wally.
JW: Yeah. Congratulations on that.
AM: That’s about it.



John Wells, “Interview with Alfie Martin,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 24, 2024,

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