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James Eric Gifford Martin (1904–1993)

by R. I. Harrison

This article was published:

James Martin, c.1944

James Martin, c.1944

Australian War Memorial, 064775

James Eric Gifford Martin (1904–1993), electrical engineer and army officer, was born on 17 April 1904 in South Brisbane, son of William Henry Martin, a New South Wales-born schoolteacher, and his Queensland-born wife Isabella Susan, née Laking. After attending Toowoomba Grammar School (1917–21), Eric studied mechanical and electrical engineering at the University of Queensland (BE, 1926). He resided in Emmanuel College from 1922, staying on as a mathematics tutor until his marriage to Dulcie Winifred Phillips (d. 1992), a nurse, on 4 August 1931 at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Bundaberg. In 1926 he had joined City Electric Light Co. Ltd, Brisbane. Initially an assistant engineer at the firm’s power station in William Street, he was later superintendent of its larger plant at Bulimba. He left in 1932 to become engineer and manager of Rockhampton City Council’s electricity supply department.

Commissioned as a lieutenant in the Citizen Military Forces (CMF) in 1923, Martin rose to lieutenant colonel and commander of the 42nd Battalion in 1937. On 13 October 1939 he was appointed commanding officer of the 2/9th Battalion, the youngest of the first twelve infantry unit commanders selected for the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in World War II. He trained his men hard; they considered him ‘tough but fair’ (Dickens 2005, 6). As a component of the 18th Brigade, the 2/9th sailed in May 1940 for Britain, which was then facing the threat of invasion. In December the brigade arrived in Egypt. Martin was appointed OBE the next month. The formation’s first operation—the capture of the Italian outpost of Giarabub, Libya, largely by Martin’s battalion—was accomplished on 21 March 1941, the 2/9th’s black-over-blue banner being hoisted above the fort.

From April to August 1941 the battalion took part in the defence of Tobruk. For the energy, leadership, and courage he displayed at the fortress, Martin was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. He was also mentioned in despatches. On 27 December he was promoted to brigadier and placed in command of the 19th Brigade, again becoming the youngest infantry commander of his rank in the AIF. The formation returned to Australia in March 1942 and from June was part of Northern Territory Force.

In November 1944 the brigade moved to Aitape, New Guinea. It led the advance towards Wewak (seized in May 1945) and then southwards, until relieved in late July. Confronted with Japanese soldiers determined to fight to the death from well-sited bunkers, Martin survived malaria, enemy sniper fire, and an air strike on his headquarters and supporting units by a squadron of American Lightnings. On 13 September he stood at Cape Wom with Major General (Sir) Horace Robertson at the surrender of Lieutenant General Adachi Hatazo, commander of the Japanese Eighteenth Army. Martin was awarded the Efficiency Decoration (1945) and appointed CBE (1946), the citation noting that he was ‘Continually with his forward troops and always in complete control of the situation,’ and that his whole service had been marked by ‘unselfish devotion to duty’ (CARO n.d.).

On 21 December 1945 Martin transferred to the Reserve of Officers. Back at Rockhampton, he became the first manager (1946) of the Capricornia Regional Electricity Board. In 1949 he returned to Brisbane and rejoined City Electric Light, as senior engineer; the Southern Electric Authority of Queensland absorbed the company in 1953. Martin was promoted to deputy chief engineer in 1957 and to chief engineer in 1968, taking increasing responsibility as the authority’s new power stations on the Ipswich coalfields—Swanbank A (1967), C (1969), and B (1970)—came into service. From 1970 he was SEAQ’s chairman and chief executive officer. He retired in June 1972. 

Martin had continued his CMF service, assuming command of the 7th Brigade in 1950. He was an honorary aide-de-camp (1953–56) to the governor-general, Field Marshal Sir William (Viscount) Slim. Following his retirement from the CMF in 1954, he became the first honorary colonel, Queensland University Regiment, which commissioned his portrait by Graeme Inson. His experience and skills were called on as chairman (1965–70) of development committees for the Queensland Institute of Technology (Darling Downs) and the Queensland Institute of Technology (Capricornia); as president (1955–68) of the Queensland branch of the Boy Scouts’ Association; as a board-member (1971–83) of St Andrew’s War Memorial Hospital; as a councillor (1951–69) and chairman (1959–68) of Emmanuel College, which named a wing in his honour; and as an elder of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland. He was well known for mentoring and encouraging junior engineers.

Although quietly spoken and slightly built, ‘Sparrow’ Martin had a remarkable presence. For recreation, he was a keen player at Clayfield Bowling Club. He died on 15 October 1993 in Brisbane and was cremated. His three sons and two daughters survived him. A memorial service for him was held at St Andrew’s Uniting Church, Ann Street, Brisbane.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Central Army Records Office, Melbourne. Unpublished typescript extract from J. E. G. Martin’s service record, n.d. Copy held on ADB file
  • Dickens, Gordon. Never Late: The 2/9th Australian Infantry Battalion 19391945. Loftus, NSW: Australian Military History Publications, 2005
  • Long, Gavin. To Benghazi. Vol. I of Series 1 (Army) of Australia in the War of 19391945. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1952
  • Long, Gavin. The Final Campaigns. Vol. VII of Series 1 (Army) of Australia in the War of 19391945. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1963
  • Maughan, Barton. Tobruk and El Alamein. Vol. III of Series 1 (Army) of Australia in the War of 19391945. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1966
  • Mercer, Doug. ‘J E G Martin.’ In Eminent Queensland Engineers. Vol. II, edited by Geoffrey Cossins, 76–77. Brisbane: The Institution of Engineers, Australia, Queensland Division, 1999

Additional Resources

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Citation details

R. I. Harrison, 'Martin, James Eric Gifford (1904–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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