Steward Robert Russell Martin


Robert Russell Martin was an incredibly brave seaman who served in World War Two with the Royal Navy. Robert Russell Martin, C/LX 22660 was a Royal Navy steward who served aboard two ships, HMS Mohawk and HMS Welshman. He experienced on very many occasions being bombed by aircraft and attacked by U-boats, the list of sea actions that he was involved in is staggering. From day one he was involved in the Battle of the River Forth, then Dunkirk and no less than six of the major convoys sent to relieve the island of Malta.

Martin was married with two children and assisted his mother in her fruit business at 39 South Methven Street, Perth. He was the eldest son of Agnes R Martin of 290 High Street, Perth, and the husband of Margaret Young Martin. Martin’s Fruit Bazaar has now been in business in Perth for 102 years, starting in the Old High Street with a horse and cart and moving to South Methven Street in 1931.

Robert was on the HMS Mohawk, a Tribal-class destroyer when it was bombed by one of twelve Luftwaffe Junkers JU 88 aircraft in the Firth of Forth October on 16 October 1939. When bombs straddled the ship, landing 15 yards off the ship’s starboard side, the upward blast of the explosions scattered splinters and caused extensive casualties on the bridge and upper decks. The captain was wounded, 15 of the ship’s company including the 1st Lieutenant were killed, and 30 were injured from the ships compliment of 190. This was the first ‘real’ German air raid over the United Kingdom during World War II, the Battle of the River Forth.

The Germans had spotted a large British capital ship, HMS Hood during aerial reconnaissance earlier that morning, and that was their primary target. Initially no air raid warning was sounded, but then sirens did go off in some places. In Perth, which was not threatened at all, residents were kept in shelters for several hours. The German raiders were intercepted by RAF No. 603 Squadron (City of Edinburgh) and No. 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron. Flight Lieutenant Pat Gifford from 603 Squadron shot down the first German aircraft that day. RAF 603 were based at RAF Turnhouse, now Edinburgh Airport and RAF 602 were at Drem, not far away from (well worth a visit) the National Museum of Flight at East Fortune.

The Captain of HMS Mohawk, Commander Richard Frank Jolly subsequently died of his wounds. Jolly was wounded in the stomach but refused to leave his post or to receive medical attention. He continued to direct the Mohawk for the 35-mile passage to the dock, which took 80 minutes. After bringing the ship into port, he collapsed and died five hours later. Jolly was considered for the Victoria Cross; he was eventually awarded posthumously the Empire Gallantry medal (later the George Cross).

The Captain of his Flotilla reported, “Commander Jolly was an imperturbable Commander of careful judgment who devoted his energies to perfecting his ship and ship’s company for battle. His fearlessness and honesty in counsel were remarkable, and he proved his bravery and devotion to his wounded men when for a long period he manoeuvred his ship despite a mortal wound”.

In May 1940, HMS Mohawk was actively working off the coast of The Netherlands and Robert was on board when the ship made a score of trips to Dunkirk during the evacuation of Allied soldiers from 26 May 1940 to 4 June 1940. HMS Mohawk was active in the Mediterranean Sea, bombarding Bardia in eastern Libya on 3 January 1941 and the following week was part of the escort force for the of Operation Excess convoy bringing supplies to Malta. When HMS Gallant stuck a mine, which blew off her bow, Mohawk was detached and detailed to tow her stern-first to Malta. After refuelling she went to the assistance of the light cruisers HMS Southampton and HMS Gloucester which had been attacked by JU 88’s. Southampton’s fires were burning out of control, and she had to be scuttled.

HMS Mohawk was escorting battleships of the Mediterranean Fleet when the 14th Destroyer Flotilla was detached at dusk on 28th March 1941 to try and find and sink the severely damaged Italian Regia Marina Battleship Vittorio Vento. They spotted the burning Italian heavy cruiser Zara on the morning of the 29th. She had been crippled by British Battleships the previous evening, they picked up survivors and torpedoed the wreck. One hour later they rescued the crew of the Italian heavy cruiser Pola which had been hit by a torpedo earlier in the day. They then sank the Pola with three of their own torpedoes.

From 1-6 April, HMS Mohawk as part of the 14th DF escorted a convoy from Egypt to Greece and although they were attacked by the Luftwaffe, they were not damaged. They arrived in Malta on the night of 10/11 April 1941 and were given orders to attack Italian supply convoys to Libya. On their third patrol they attacked a small convoy of 5 cargo ships and three destroyers in the early hours of 16 April 1941.

HMS Mohawk and HMS Nubian were in the rear of the flotilla formation, the lead ships opening fire at 02.20 am. Mohawk withheld fire as all targets were being engaged and when the leading Italian destroyer Luca Tarigo turned back, all ships opened fire. Whilst the Italian ship was sinking, it managed to fire two torpedoes.  The first of these struck HMS Mohawk as she was turning to avoid being rammed by the German freighter SS Arta shortly after 2.45 am. The torpedo hit on the starboard side knocking out both aft gun mounts and blowing off the upper stern. The Chief Engineer reported that Mohawk could still move but another torpedo stuck at 02.53 am causing the aft boiler to explode and the upper deck to split down the middle. HMS Mohawk capsized one minute later with the loss of 41 crewmen. HMS Janus put 4 shells into Mohawk’s buoyant forecastle to allow her to sink underwater in the shallow waters off the Kerkennah Islands.

HMS Welshman was an Abdiel-class fast cruiser minelayer, laid down on 8 June 1939 and commissioned in late August 1941. She was built at the R & W Hawthorn Leslie & Co shipyard at Hebburn-on-Tyne and launched on 4 September 1940.  HMS Welshman first saw service with the Home Fleet at Scapa Flow and later, on 23 September 1941 was attached to the 1st Minelaying Squadron at Kyle of Lochalsh. Her first operation was to lay mines in the Butt of Lewis which was part of the Northern Barrage.

In November 1941, there was a cancelled plan to lay mines off the Norwegian coast and in December she was detached to the English Channel for minelaying operations. On 15 December 1941, HMS Welshman departed to lay mines in the Bay of Biscay. The German battleships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were docked at Brest, and this was an attempt to prevent them from returning to commerce raiding in the Atlantic.

On 6 January 1941, HMS Welshman sailed for Gibraltar, Freetown, and Takoradi, transporting stores and personnel. On 1 February 1942, HMS Welshman was back at Plymouth; on 3 February 1942, she was deployed to Dover for minelaying operations in the English Channel. On 4, 5, 7, 9 February, she laid mines between Normandy and Boulogne, the route that the German Kriegsmarine Battleships, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau might take if they chose to return to Germany (The ‘Channel Dash’ of 11-13 February 1942).

On 12, 13, 15, and 18 February 1942, they were back laying mines in the Bay of Biscay. During March, HMS Welshman had a refit in a Tyneside shipyard. April 14, 17, & 20 saw more mine laying in the Bay of Biscay. On 21 April, she was transferred to Port ZA (Kyle of Lochalsh) but was diverted to Plymouth for conversion to carry petrol and other stores.

On competition of the conversion work, she set sail to join Force H, in Gibraltar to help support Malta, which was under siege by Axis forces. The Luftwaffe and Reggia Aeronautica air forces were relentlessly attacking the island and its supply convoys. In the early months of 1942, supplies of food, medicines, ammunition, spare parts, and fuel were almost running out and were desperately required. On 8 May 1942, HMS Welshman sailed from Gibraltar to Malta with 240 tons of stores and RAF ground crew to be transferred to the island. Apart from food and stores, the ship carried 100 spare Rolls-Royce Merlin engines.

This was part of Operation Bowery, an Anglo-American operation to deliver Supermarine Spitfires (‘Club Runs’), desperately needed to bolster the island’s defences. The convoy included the aircraft carriers USS Wasp and HMS Eagle. On 9 May 1942, 64 Spitfires took off and 61 arrived on the island. HMS Welshman was disguised as a (Free) French destroyer, the Léopard. The real Léopard was currently in a Kingston-upon-Hull dock being converted to an escort destroyer.

HMS Welshman was spotted twice by German aircraft but maintained a non-aggressive appearance and passed without harm – as a non-belligerent. On entering the Grand Harbour at Malta HMS Welshman detonated two mines with her paravanes (towed underwater ‘glider’) and sustained some damage. She discharged her cargo and returned to Gibraltar.

HMS Welshman arrived back at Gibraltar on 12 May 1942 and on 16 May 1942, set sail to Yarrow Shipbuilders yard at Scotstoun, Glasgow, for repairs. On 29 June 1942, she returned to Gibraltar arriving 1 June 1942. On entry to the harbour, she sustained damage to her bow and propeller shaft in collision with a tug. She was repaired in Gibraltar and set sail on 11 May 1942 for Malta as part of Operation Harpoon. The next day she was dispatched from the convoy and made her way independently to Malta. After she had offloaded her supplies, she returned to reinforce the convoy which was under heavy air attacks. On 16 May 1942, she returned to Malta with the two remaining merchant ships and their escort.

After returning to Scotstoun for repair and a boiler clean, HMS Welshman took part in three more convoy operations to Malta. Operation Pinpoint left Gibraltar on 14 July 1942. On 15 July, HMS Welshman made an independent run close to the coast of Algeria to try and divert attention from the convoy. She was shadowed by Axis aircraft and attacked by fighters, bombers, and torpedo bombers.

Operation Pedestal – with supplies dwindling in Malta – this was the largest convoy to date set sail from Great Britain (3 August 1942), passing through the Strait of Gibraltar on the night of 9 August 1942. It consisted of 14 merchant ships, including the large oil tanker, SS Ohio, and 44 escort warships, including the aircraft carriers, HMS Eagle, HMS Indomitable and HMS Victorious. The convoy was heavily attacked, the Ohio arrived undertow. The cruisers, HMS Eagle, HMS Cairo, HMS Manchester, and the destroyer HMS Foresight were sunk and there was serious damage to the other warships. Of the merchant ships, only three arrived, two on the 13th and one more on the 14th. Ohio eventually arrived lashed to two destroyers and towed by a third. She later broke in two in Valetta Harbour, not before most of the fuel had been unloaded. HMS Welshman arrived on 16 August 1942.

The last big Malta convoy operation for HMS Welshman was Operation Train on 28 October 1942. Despite attempts by German U-boats, Italian ships, and aircraft to intercept this convoy, none were successful. Ten Italian submarines were patrolling, and one Junkers JU88 aircraft managed to drop a single bomb – it just missed the aircraft carrier HMS Furious. Furious flew off 29 Spitfires for Malta’s defence.

On 11 November 1942, HMS Welshman sailed to Algiers with supplies for the support of Operation Torch, the Anglo-American invasion of French Morocco and Algeria. After that, she collected torpedoes from Haifa in Palestine and even carried seed potatoes to Malta. Mines were laid in the Skerki Channel (Strait of Sicily) and she transported troops from Beirut, Lebanon to Cyprus. By 30 January 1943, HMS Welshman was back laying mines in the Skerki Channel, and the next day she went back to Alexandria to load stores and personnel for Tobruk. At 17.45 hours on 1 February 1943, to the east of Tobruk, the German U-boat, U-617 fired a spread of four torpedoes at HMS Welshman. Two hit the cruiser, one caused a boiler explosion and serious flooding of the mine deck caused instability which could not be corrected.

After two hours, the ship capsized and sank quickly by the stern. Onboard HMS Welshman were 289 officers and men, 165 were killed and 124 survived. Of the passengers, two were civilians and four were aircrew who had been severely burned in an aircraft crash on Malta. The ship’s captain William Howard Dennis Friedberger, DSO, RN, along with five officers and 112 others were rescued by HMS Tetcott and HMS Belvoir. Another six people were rescued by small craft from Tobruk.

Albrecht Brandi the captain of U-617 identified the Welshman as a Dido class cruiser. He fired a spread of four torpedoes and observed two hits followed by an explosion which he assessed was the ships boiler exploding.

Extract from the War Diary of U-617, patrol of 27 January-13 February 1943:

16.05 Hydrophone effect at 355°

17.35 An unescorted cruiser at bearing 350° true. Inclination 5°, bows left, range 3,000m. I manoeuvre into an attacking position. Her shadow is very faint in the periscope.

17.45 Wind NW 3, sea 2, 6/10 overcast. Visibility 2,000m. Almost completely dark. Spread of four torpedoes fired. After 88 sec, two heavy detonations followed by a third. probably her boilers going up.

17.55 Surfaced. Cruiser capsized, sinking stern first. Several searchlights on land at a bearing of 180° true. We withdraw, course 0°.

18.13 Radar-warning readings of a number of ships on the 140-cm wave, volume 5. Alarm dive.

18.25 Surfaced. several more radar readings. A land-based station that sweeps in our direction every so often.

20.00 Wind NW 3, sea 2, rain, visibility 500m. I haul off to the north to reload and transmit W/T report.

2112 Outgoing W/T transmission. “At 17.45 in position Qu. (CO) 6776 hit cruiser with two torpedoes, depth 4 m, capsized and left sinking. ‘Dido’ type probably, but in darkness not sure. Brandi.”

23.05 Dived to reload.

Brandi, Kptlt and Kmdt.

Steward Robert Russell Martin is commemorated at the Chatham Naval Memorial in Kent, England. Twenty-four-year-old Robert Russell Martin had been in the Royal Navy for five years.

The crucial Operation Pedestal convoy, especially the arrival of the oil tanker, SS Ohio was regarded as divine intervention by the people of Malta. August 15 is the Feast of the Assumption of Mary, and the Maltese regarded the arrival of Ohio into Grand Harbour as the answer to their prayers. The SS Ohio was an oil tanker built for the Texas Oil Company (now Texaco).

It had been agreed at the time in Malta, that if supplies were not received, they would surrender. Operation Pedestal delivered enough for Malta to last until mid-November. Over 500 merchant and Royal Navy sailors were killed getting the supplies to Malta. The siege of Malta was lifted by the advance of Allied forces towards Libya after the Second Battle of El Alamein (23 October 1942-11 November 1942) and Operation Torch (8-16 November 1942).

Success in stopping the supplies to Malta for the Axis forces would have made possible a combined German-Italian amphibious landing (Operation Herkules) of Malta, supported by German paratroopers (Fallschirmjäger).

The movie, Malta Story made in 1953 depicts the heroic struggle to save the island. A Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) pilot, played by Alec Guinness arrives on the island and helps defend it. Scenes include photographing Axis invasion preparations, HMS Welshman, and the SS Ohio arriving lashed to the destroyers.

HMS MOHAWK (FL 16338) Stationary. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205121262

HMS WELSHMAN AT MALTA. 16 JUNE 1942. (A 10832) Supplies being unloaded from HMS WELSHMAN, directly into waiting lorries. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205144502

THE WELSHMAN AT MALTA. 4 DECEMBER 1942, GRAND HARBOUR, VALLETTA, MALTA. (A 13681) HMS WELSHMAN, minelayer, leaving Grand Harbour. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205146958

HMS WELSHMAN LEAVING VALLETTA HARBOUR, MALTA. 18 JUNE 1942. (A 11127) HMS WELSHMAN with HMS GALLANT in the foreground. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205144770

HMS WELSHMAN AT MALTA. 16 JUNE 1942. (A 10839) Officers watching the unloading operation. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205144509