A ‘Kingpin in the Service' -

Willam 'Bill' Martyn, RN, DSC and Bar, M.i.D. (3)

William 'Bill' Martyn.Among the Canadian-born naval pilots flying with the British Fleet Air Arm (F.A.A.) during WW II, William Martyn became the naval pilot most honored and decorated by the British Government, receiving the Distinguished Service Cross (D.S.C.) and Bar as well as three Mentions in Dispatches (M.i.Ds), while establishing a significant number of firsts in the F.A.A.

William 'Bill' Martyn was born in Winnipeg in 1915. During his early childhood, his family moved to Calgary. After high school graduation, Bill was accepted in a one-year Aeronautics Program at the Provincial Institute of Science and Art, which he successfully completed during the term 1935-1936.

Bill was strongly advised to pursue his hope of becoming a pilot by joining the Royal Air Force (RAF), and by early August 1936 he was on a train headed for Toronto in on the first stage of a journey to England.

While in the service, Bill wrote hundreds of letters home. Here are some excerpts:

  • Sept. 12, 1936- I am to be a pupil pilot from Oct. 12, 1936. I am to be posted to Uxbridge and then to Grantham for advanced flying (No. 3 Flying Training School). I will be at civil training school till after Christmas.
  • Oct. 12, 1936 - Arrived in Woodley, Berks today at 10.00 a.m. was issued flying equipment, had lunch, and was in the air in the afternoon. My instructor is Flying Officer Wilson. You should see the fellows dressed in fur-lined coveralls with huge collars. Seat pack parachutes, leather gloves, goggles and fleece-lined high shoes. There are 24 other flyers here. Three pupils to my instructor. Our plane is a blood red monoplane. I sit in the back seat - Boy is it windy.
  • Oct. 31, 1936- Four of us went solo today and the rest of the 14 will go tomorrow or soon anyway I hope.
  • Nov. 24, 1936- There are hundreds of branches in the RAF but to be a Pilot Officer and wear the wings on your chest makes you Kingpin in the service.

Today I received my A license from the Air Ministry for flying all types of machines. It looks like a passport. My official number in the files of the Air ministry is 10925.

  • Dec. 6, 1936- I wouldn’t trade this job for anything in the world.
  • Dec. 22, 1936 - I am now Acting Pilot Officer Martyn on probation of the RAF.
  • Jan. 13, 1937 - When it comes to Great Britain, we have the finest equipment and personnel in the world! My crew say "our machine is the best one of the flight" – real spirit.

Air Commodore Nutting told me that being a Canadian, I might find things quite different, but that guts and courage were great assets, but discipline will pull you through stickier do’s than guts.

  • May 19, 1937 - My back is nearly broken. Spent hours today rehearsing for AOC’s parade. Are we smooth!

The C.O. has recommended yours truly for Single-Seater Fighters along with a New Zealander by the name of Thompson, and two Englishmen, Hoare and Ferris.

One drawback to Fighters is that you come under Air Defense of Great Britain and have little chance of going abroad unless with the Fleet Air Arm. So, if I can, I shall go Fleet Air Arm for a while to see the world.

  • Sept. 1, 1937 - Just finished passing out parade – inspected by Air Vice Marshal Pattison, A.O.C. 23 rd Group.

Last week here and then away to 41 Fighter Squadron at Catterick, Richmond, Yorkshire.

Flying with an RAF Squadron
Sept. 2, 1937 - Flying with the squadron is very interesting and there is much to do such as battle climbs, interceptions of bomber squadrons, altitude tests, formation drill, etc…Everything is done with R/T and it is very satisfying to talk back and forth, high in the air with your ground station.

Much of our work is very secret and very highly developed. All I can say is that Britain is miles out in front with the latest types.

  • Mar. 9, 1938 - We are unique in being the only Squadron in the RAF to be equipped with Super Furies and will be the first squadron to get the Supermarine Spitfire (the fastest military fighter in the world ). Martlesham Heathe test pilots get the first two and we get the next batch.

Peacetime flying with the Royal Navy

  • July 7, 1938 - I have been offered a commission to fly for the Navy, which I am accepting. It is for seven years and I will travel and serve on shore stations and ships afloat.
  • July 7, 1938- My rank will be Sub-Lieutenant (A) and on October 12, 1939 I shall become a Lieutenant. In fact, I shall be an old man of 30 when I finish the seven years. I am taking the commission because of increased experience and the added opportunity of world travel with the British Fleet.
  • The old name Fleet Air Arm is obsolete now that the Admiralty has taken over and it is called the Naval Air Arm and I have been selected for the Air Branch of the Royal Navy. I am proud to know that the Admiralty considers me fit to hold a naval commission and fly for them.
  • July 12, 1938- Today I received preliminary instructions through the Air Ministry from the Admiralty. I am posted straight out to 802 Fleet Fighter Squadron aboard HMS Glorious for duty in the Mediterranean. It came as a surprise because I thought I would go to a naval flying school in England first.
  • Nov. 13, 1938 - American carriers have 888 feet to land on compared with our 480 feet. A babe in arms could land on an American carrier.
  • Jan. 13, 1939 - The log of the Fall Cruise was: Left Malta 16 Sept., arrived Vatika Bay, Greece, Sept. 18. Crisis developed and left Greece on the 21 st and raced full steam to Alexandria, arriving 22nd. Left Egypt Nov. 5th and arrived Malta on the 9th.
  • May 21, 1939 - Last week I was sent to Aboukir (RAF Depot Middle East) to superintend erection of our new fighters, which have just arrived from England. I flew mine back to Dekheila on Friday. They are the Gladiator high performance day and night fighter specially adapted for naval air arm work.
  • Aug. 26, 1939 - World conditions, of course, don’t look so hot at the present time, but we are ready for any eventuality.
  • Aug. 30, 1939 - What we wouldn’t give to get our hands on Hitler and his terrible crew of henchmen. If we don’t stop him soon we will have to stop him later, if we are able to. But we might as well get it over with. Needless to say we are on the top line and ready.

Wartime Flying as a Pilot with the Royal Navy

On December 17 1939, Bill Martyn reported to Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Eastleigh, Southampton, also known as HMS Raven. His task was to fly security patrols over the North Sea.

Bill conducted a total of 29 daylight raids over enemy territory, aside from fighter work over the Fleet in the North Sea. Of the 29 sorties, 10 were over France and Belgium, and 18 over Norway, with one over Tromso, in the Arctic Circle. Enemy interceptions, mostly by Messerschmitt Bf-109s, occurred in all instances, except during the last three raids on Norway, when the Germans were concentrating on sending aircraft to France to support their May offensive. As of November 9 1940, Bill Martyn was first in the number of daylight operational raids of all FAA pilots and was so recognized by the First Sea Lord, who nicknamed Bill ‘Digger’.

The attack on Tromso in the Arctic Circle on October 16 was from HMS Furious, which accommodated #801 squadron throughout the last three months of 1940. Bill, serving on 801 Squadron, flew Skuas from HMS Ark Royal throughout the spring of 1940. During 1940, Bill was also assigned to escort the British Infantry Force safely to England from Dunkirk, and to lead flights of Skuas on a large gun emplacement at Calais, receiving a personal visit of thanks from Rear-Admiral Richard Bell- Davies, VC, who was in charge of naval air stations at the time.

These exploits led to Bill receiving his first M.i.D. on August 9, 1940, a second M.i.D. on October 4, 1940 and a Distinguished Service Cross on November 22, 1940, "for continued devotion to duty in operations against enemy forces." Bill had one confirmed destroyed, and two shared destroyed enemy aircraft by then.

On October 13, Bill joined #880 as senior pilot aboard HMS Indomitable flying Sea Hurricanes, and soon the ship headed for Norfolk, Virginia for repairs, having run aground on a coral reef near Kingston, Jamaica.

Bill flew off Indomitable on November 10 to operate from USNAS Norfolk and back to Indomitable on the 22nd as she proceeded to Jamaica for work-up and then arrived at Cape Town on New Year’s Eve. A few days later she proceeded to Ceylon waters where she operated from January to April 1942 as part of the new Eastern Fleet (Force Z). Indomitable was back in the central-western Mediterranean during the first two weeks of August with Bill flying No. 1 in his flight, repeatedly escorting a convoy to besieged Malta as part of Operation Pedestal.

On November 10 1942, Bill was awarded an M.i.D. for ‘Bravery and dauntless resolution and dauntless resolution when an important convoy was brought through to Malta in the face of relentless attacks, day and night, from submarines, aircraft, and surface forces’. A great convoy of merchantmen had gotten through for the relief of Malta. It had been the Royal Navy fighters’ greatest battle, and greatest victory. Some seventy fighters, only one of them armed with cannon, had faced opposition by a force of at least 500 enemy bombers, torpedo-planes, and fighter escorts.

Commanding Officer
In early September 1942, Bill was informed that he had been appointed Commanding Officer of #880 Squadron and was asked to report to RNAS Stratton for Seafire familiarization prior to his squadron embarking HMS Argus. Bill had thus become the first Canadian-born RN pilot to receive initial command of a single-seat fighter squadron during the Second World War. He became a Lieutenant Commander effective April 23, 1943.

For Bill, July 1943 off Sicily started with a bang: a forced landing on the carrier. Then on July 13 there was another bang: Indomitable was torpedoed by a JU-88 aircraft. Bill had displayed excellent leadership and decision making as Wing Leader, and consequently was asked to take part in the Fighter Leader’s course at R.A.F. Aston Down during January 1944. Then it was back to Ballyhalbert where Bill led 880 in preparing to fly aboard HMS Furious in anticipation of Posthorn, a series of air attacks on shipping off Norway.

On August 3, Bill attacked shipping off Bergen and upon returning to HMS Furious, was informed that had been appointed Commander Flying (Wings) on the carrier HMS Ruler. On August 15, Bill flew Hornet Moth #731 to HMS Furious from Skeabrae to say goodbye to the squadron and ship’s officers with Captain S. Wruwop of Furious commending Bill for his outstanding service.

Bill prepared to join HMS Ruler; he was apprehensive that as ‘Wings’, his intensive flying days could soon be over.

Bill had no sooner settled aboard Ruler than he was informed that he had been granted a Bar to his D.S.C. “for courage and skill in strikes against enemy shipping while operating from HMS Furious.” And on September 19 he received a personal letter from the Office of the High Commissioner for Canada, Vincent Massey, adding his congratulations on Bill’s outstanding contribution to the war effort (he had by then received a D.S.C. and Bar and 3 M.i.D.’s.)

On March 7, 1945 Bill wrote his parents “it has been so long since the fall of 1939, I can not remember when we were not fighting!” Now in late June 1945 with talk of Ruler joining Task Force 37 for an assault on Japan itself, Bill felt that his war was over. In the last ten months as Commander Flying he had fulfilled his obligation with constant vigilance and great dedication but it had taken its toll and he felt considerable stress. His multi-faceted role had proven very demanding mentally, with many accidents resulting in death and injury to aircrew under his command. Bill was experiencing battle fatigue and perceived that a younger and fresher pilot should become ‘Wings’ on Ruler.

Moreover, Bill truly missed the exhilaration of flying. In the years leading to his appointment to Ruler, Bill had flown 532 times from shore bases and from the following aircraft carriers on which he had served: Glorious, Ark Royal (2), Furious(2), Indomitable, Argus, Stalker and finally Ruler, more often than not under battle conditions. Yet, in the ten months aboard Ruler, Bill had never once flown from her deck, and had a total of only one hour of flying from three short flights at shore bases. Lieutenant Commander (A) William ‘Bill’ ‘Digger’ ‘Moose’ Martyn, D.S.C. and Bar, M.i.D.(3), RN was going ashore.

The End of the War for Bill
Bill, a few months short of thirty years of age, was given a one month leave and was asked to report to RNAS Nowra, about 90 miles south of Sydney, Australia at the end of the first week of August 1945. The Admiral immediately assigned Bill to fly a variety of dignitaries wishing to know about the war and wanting to witness its culmination from the safe distance of various bases in eastern Australia.

After one of these flights, Bill, who was a man of few words, did confess to one of the dignitaries that his first M.i.D. had been earned for reasons beyond those in the citation. Bill confided that in mid-June 1940, the newly created French underground had reported that huge long-range guns were being installed in the Calais region. Bill and his Observer, ‘Johnny’ volunteered to fly a Skua to try and locate and photograph this activity. Both knew that it would be similar to flying through a shooting gallery, especially at the assigned height of 1,000 feet. They spotted the guns and began taking pictures when ‘all hell broke loose’. Bill’s aircraft was shot at repeatedly. The flaps were torn off. There was a huge hole in the port wing. The fuel tank was leaking and an explosion had occurred in the aircraft behind Bill and ‘Johnny’ was not answering Bill’s call. Somehow Bill managed to gain enough altitude to coast back toward the white cliffs of Dover, twenty five miles away, in time to save the life of the badly injured Observer who would not be able to return to flying for fifteen months. The fact that Bill led a three-squadron bombing sortie a few days later to annihilate the long-range guns was really an anti-climax.

And so the end of Bill’s courageous and extended service arrived with his last flight on November 27, 1945. It was time for his repatriation to Canada, and peace. He had flown 48 different aircraft types and had landed in 102 different aerodromes in 16 countries. He had operated from seven different aircraft carriers (probably a first) and flown 1,769 hours since October 10 1936, with the great majority of wartime flights less than an hour. Canada’s Naval Aviators by John MacFarlane and Robbie Hughes credits Bill with shooting down four aircraft himself and having eight probables as well.