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Martin, Sir Harold Brownlow (Mick) (1918–1988)

by John McCarthy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sir Harold Brownlow Morgan Martin (1918-1988), ‘dam buster’ and air force officer, was born on 27 February 1918 at Darling Point, Sydney, second of three children of Irish-born Joseph Harold Osborne Martin, medical practitioner, and his New South Wales-born wife Colina Elizabeth, née Dixon. Harold was educated at Lindfield Public and Randwick Boys’ Intermediate High schools and left Australia in 1937, intent on seeing the world.

In England in 1940 Martin joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. Training initially as a fighter pilot, he was promoted to pilot officer in June 1941 and transferred in October to the Royal Australian Air Force’s No.455 Squadron, Bomber Command. After carrying out thirteen operations flying Hampden bombers, mainly against highly defended German targets in the Ruhr Valley, he was posted to No.50 Squadron, RAF, which operated Lancaster bombers. He completed a further twenty-five sorties, finishing his first tour in October 1942; he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross the following month.

During this period ‘Mick’ Martin developed an effective method of penetrating enemy defences at night, flying at low level. When No.617 Squadron (the ‘Dam Busters’) was formed in March 1943, its commanding officer, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, aware of Martin’s low-level flying technique, had him posted to the squadron. Martin’s main task was to train air crews in the art of low-level night flying, in preparation for a planned attack on German dams.

On 16 May, flying at 150 ft (46 m), Martin (Gibson’s no.3) was in the first wave of aircraft briefed to breach the Möhne dam. At a height of 60 ft (18 m) he flew over the dam three times; his aeroplane was struck by anti-aircraft fire. He acted with Gibson to distract enemy guns from the other attacking aircraft and, after the dam wall had been successfully breached, flew the Lancaster safely back to base. Awarded the Distinguished Service Order, he was promoted to flight lieutenant in June.

Martin remained with No.617 Squadron, taking part in precision bombing of Italian targets in July and, more importantly, in a costly attack in September on the Dortmund-Ems Canal, Germany. The squadron’s commanding officer was killed during the raid and Martin took over the lead; five of the eight attacking Lancasters were lost. He was awarded a Bar to his DFC and, as acting squadron leader, was placed in temporary command of the now heavily depleted squadron. When (Baron) Leonard Cheshire assumed command, he and Martin devised an effective low-level target-marking technique. In February 1944, when Martin took part in the unsuccessful and tragic raid on the Antheor Viaduct, France, his aircraft was badly damaged. Awarded a Bar to his DSO, in March he was posted to Air Staff Headquarters.

On 14 October 1944 at St Barnabas Church of England, Kensington, London, Martin married Wendy Laurence Walker, a widowed civil servant and daughter of the Melbourne artist Ida Rentoul Outhwaite. He transferred to No.515 Squadron, flying Mosquitoes, in which he undertook intruder operations in support of Bomber Command’s main force attacks. When finally removed from operations late in 1944, he had completed eighty-three sorties. In November he was awarded a second Bar to his DFC. Cheshire considered Martin a greater operational pilot than Gibson ‘and indeed the greatest the Air Force has produced’.

Martin was appointed to a permanent commission in the RAF with the rank of flight lieutenant, effective from 1 September 1945. In 1947, flying a Mosquito, he set a London to Cape Town, South Africa, record and then commanded the first jet flight across the Atlantic made by an RAF squadron. Promoted to squadron leader that year, he was awarded the Britannia Trophy and, in 1948, the Air Force Cross. Martin served (1952-55) as air attaché at the British embassy, Israel, and as aide-de-camp (1964-66) to Queen Elizabeth II. Rising to air vice marshal in 1966 and air marshal in 1970, he filled a number of staff appointments, including air officer commanding No.38 Group, Air Support Command (1967-70), commander-in-chief, RAF Germany (1970-73), and commander, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation 2nd Tactical Air Force (1970-73). He was appointed CB in 1968 and KCB in 1971. In 1973, as air member for personnel, Ministry of Defence, he unsuccessfully opposed service cuts.

Following his retirement from the RAF in 1974, Sir Harold joined Hawker Siddeley International Ltd as an adviser. Interested in horse racing, painting, sculpture, tennis and travel, he retired in 1985. Survived by his wife and their two daughters, he died on 3 November 1988 in his home at Kensington, London, and was buried in Gunnersbury cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Nelson, Chased by the Sun (2002)
  • C. Burgess, Australia’s Dambusters (2003)
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004)
  • Daily Telegraph (London), 4 Nov 1988, p 25
  • Times (London), 4 Nov 1988, p 16.

Citation details

John McCarthy, 'Martin, Sir Harold Brownlow (Mick) (1918–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/martin-sir-harold-brownlow-mick-14937/text26126, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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