Thursday, 27 May 2010

The Truth about Benjamin Martin, RN.




HMS Dorsetshire was a gorgeous ship. A County Class, three-stack heavy cruiser. She was fast, very fast, and packed a wallop. She could lift her ten tons to clip at 32.5 knots if so inclined, but she had no ASW equipment, or anti-submarine warfare. As you might imagine, this would play heavily on the mind of anyone charged with the responsibility of commanding her.

In late May 1941, the Dorsetshire was one of the ships which engaged the German battleship Bismarck in the North Atlantic. On 27 May, the Dorsetshire was ordered to torpedo the Bismarck, which had by that point been crippled by repeated aircraft and naval attacks. The Dorsetshire torpedoed the Bismarck, which then sank rapidly, either from the damage she had received from the British, or from the Bismarck's crew working to scuttle her. The Dorsetshire was able to recover only 110 of the Bismarck's crew from the ocean, before being forced to leave to evade a suspected U-boat.

So goes the official line.

Let's now take a closer look.

As with the Bismarck, it is important to develop a sense of the man who commanded this mighty British warship. His name was Benjamin Charles Stanley Martin, born July 18th, 1891.





Benjamin Martin was no stranger to the sea. He joined the Royal Navy as a boy sailor in 1907. He rose through the ranks of the lower deck, eventually rising to the rank of Warrant Officer, the highest non-commissioned rate in the Royal Navy. He saw action in the notorious Battle of Jutland during the first World War when serving in HMS Malaya. By the end of this infamous engagement, when Admirals Jellicoe and Sheer had their only direct head-to-head engagement, 24 ships would be on the bottom. 6000 British and 2500 German sailors would be dead.

Benjamin Martin knew a very great deal about battle at sea. He was there.

Much has been said about HMS Dorsetshire's failure to pick up more than the scant few of some 800 of Bismarck's survivors in the water after her sinking. I, too, for many years, found it unfathomable that he failed to do so. I believed he was a brutal man, so embittered by the sinking of HMS Hood that he used the pretext of a proximate submarine to abandon those men and boys, many still clinging to the ship's side. He steamed away and left them to die, one by one, in their hundreds.

Time plays tricks on the truth though. History merges with legend. Legend becomes myth, and in no time at all, the truth becomes obscured by the bullshit of opinion and diluted fact. I am as guilty as anyone in this regard and I now hold an entirely variant view of Captain Martin. I sincerely believe him to be a distinguished and highly experienced officer and warship commander who did the only feasible thing available to him at the time.

I have recently had the privilege of meeting a member of HMS Dorsetshire's ship's company. I cannot mention who, not because I think he would object to being mentioned here, but simply because I have not obtained his permission. To name him here without it would be quite improper, but suffice it to say, this sailor worked intimately with Captain Martin and knew him better than any other person onboard the ship.

Captain Martin was held in immensely high regard by the lower deck in HMS Dorsetshire. He was known, with tremendous affection, as "PINCHER" Martin and many of the survivors of her ultimate sinking would go on to offer the view that their ship would never have been sunk at all if "PINCHER" was still in command off Ceylon that Easter Sunday of 1942, rather than the show pony Augustus Agar, VC.

Martin was "stern when needed" and a "good humoured man" with a "strong sense of duty". According to my wonderful witness, Captain Martin was never further than shouting distance from his bridge when underway.

As to reports of brutality and suicides, it must be remembered that HMS Dorsetshire was based in Plymouth. As such she was, at that time, a Guz ship, in naval slang. 'Guz', or Plymouth, was repeatedly bombed during the war and suffered terrible destruction. There was rarely any news from home. No knowledge of whether loved ones, their children, were alive or dead. This played ferociously on the minds of all on board, but for two it became too much to bear. By May of 1941, HMS Dorsetshire had been away from home port for three years. She visited GUZ only once in all that time and then for only a month, permitting 2 weeks leave for each watch. Apart from this, there was no family contact, no mail, no news. The strain of it lead to two suicides under the Captain Martin's Command. One, a leading torpedoman, hanged himself and a junior gunnery officer shot himself. Both from abject despair at separation from those they loved.

As to the abandonment of those German men and boys in their hundreds.

An extract from 'Pursuit', by Ludovic Kennedy.

The Dorsetshire came round from the port side where she had fired her last torpedo, lay stopped in the sea a little way off; and survivors who had wondered if they were not escaping death by shellfire for death by drowning, felt a new surge of hope: even if it meant being taken prisoner, they were going to be rescued, they were going to live.

They struck out as well as they could towards the cruiser, though with the high seas and the oil from Bismarck's tanks and the wounds of many, it wasn't easy. Mullenheim-Rechberg, swimming along, passed a man who said, "I've no left leg any more". Staat remembered being told that when you died of cold, you first felt it in the testicles, but it was his feet and fingers that were getting numb. After more than an hour's swimming the first of them reached the Dorsetshire's side, where rafts, ropes, scrambling nets, fenders, lifelines of all kinds had been let down. Mullenheim-Rechberg noticed that many men, not seamen, didn't know how to grip a straight rope, urged them to get into ropes with bowlines. Staat's fingers were so frozen that he couldn't grip the rope at all, seized it with his teeth, was hauled on board that way. Mullenheim-Rechberg put his foot in a bowline rope, was pulled up by two sailors: when he reached deck level he tried to grab the guard-rail, was too exhausted and fell back into to sea. He got into the same rope again, was hauled up by the same two sailors, this time took no risks, said in immaculate English, "please help me on board", which they did. Midshipman Joe Brooks of the Dorsetshire went down one of the lifelines, tried to get a bowline round a German who had lost both arms and was gripping the lifeline with his teeth. The ship rolled heavily, they both went under. Brooks never saw him again.

The Dorsetshire had picked up some eighty men and the Maori some twenty, many more were in the process of being hauled up and hundreds more were waiting in the water when an unexpected thing happened. Dorsetshire's navigating officer, Lieutenant Commander Durant, sighted on the starboard bow two miles away a smoky discharge in the water. He pointed it out to Catpain Martin and others on the bridge. No one knew what it was but the most likely explanation was a U-boat. The Admiralty had sent a warning that U-boats were on the way and they were lucky not to have encountered any already. And if it was a U-boat, Dorsetshire, laying stopped in the water, was a sitting target. In the circumstances, Captain Martin had no choice but to ring down for full speed and in HMS Maori, Commander Armstrong did the same.

Bismarck survivors who were almost on board were bundled over the guard-rails on to the deck: those half-way up the ropes found themselves training astern, hung on as long as they could against the forward movement of the ship, dropped off one by one, others in the water clawed frantically at the paintwork as the side slipped by. In Dortsetshire they heard the thin cries of hundreds of Germans who had come within an inch of rescue, had believed that their long ordeal was at last over, cries that the British sailors, no less than survivors already on board, would always remember. From the water, Bismarck's men watched appalled as the cruiser's grey side swept past them, believed then that tales they'd heard about the British not caring much about survivors where true after all, presently found themselves alone in the sunshine on the empty, tossing sea. And during the day, as they floated about he Atlantic with only lifebelts between them and eternity, the cold came to their testicles and hands and feet and heads, and one by one they lost consciousness, and one by one they died.



My expert witness to these dreadful events, corroborates Kennedy's version of events. In fact it was he, my witness, who ran Captain Martin's order to the commander overseeing the rescue operation. Captain Martin further ordered denton rafts and anything that floated to be tossed overboard to provide whatever assistance he could. We should all remember that the principal responsibliity of ALL warship captains, is to his own ship and crew. A ten ton heavy cruiser, dead in the water, would have presented a tasty target indeed to a U-boat, none of whom knew the fate of Bismarck. They were racing to the scene to help her make Brest.

And now from the German point of view.

Baron Burkard von Müllenheim-Rechberg, refered to in the above extract from Ludovic Kennedy's book, was the senior ranking officer among the survivors of Bismarck, hauled aboard HMS Dorsetshire. I'm delighted to show you this.....


It is a note sent by Captain Martin to the German the day after his rescue.


von Müllenheim-Rechberg writes in his book 'Battleship Bismarck, a Survivor's Story'.....

Escorted by the first officer, Commander CW Byas, I went to see how our men were getting along. Everything was satisfactory; the ship's surgeon was taking care of the sick and injured, and they all felt they were being treated very well. They were getting five meals a day and eating the same excellent food as the crew. The smokers among them were being issued twenty cigarettes a day. I learned later that it was no different in the Maori, which picked up twenty-five men, bringing the number resuced by British ships to 110, about 5 per cent of the more than 2200 on board.

When Byas took me to the bridge, Captain Martin greeted me in a friendly enough manner and gave me a Scotch. The gesture was well meant but I was still too horrified at his leaving all those men in the water the day before to really appreciate it. "Why', I burst out, "did you suddently break off the rescue and leave hundreds of our men to drown?" Martin replied that a U-boat had been sighted, or at least reported, and he obviously could not endanger his ship by staying stopped any longer. The Bismarck's experiences on the night of 26 May and the morning of the 27th, I told him, indicated that there were no U-boats in the vicinity. Farther away, perhaps, but certianly not within firing range of the Dorsetshire. I added that in war one often sees what one expects to see. We argued the point back and forth until Martin said ubruptly: "Just leave that to me. I'm older than you are and have been at sea longer. I'm a better judge". What more could i say? He was the captain and was responsible for his ship.

Apparently, some floating object had been mistaken for a persiscope or a strip of foam on the water for the wake of a torpedo. No matter what it was, I am now convinced that, under the circumstances, Martin had to act as he did.


I would like to end by mentioinng Martin Smith, son of Allon Smith, observer on the Dorsetshire's Walrus. Martin has been a faithful correspondent here on this blog and has been equally faithful to the remembrances of his father. Martin Smith has written here that Allon Smith, Dorsetshire's observer aircrew member, thought of Captain Martin, "a proper bastard". I would like to wonder out loud that, if in the entire history of the fleet air arm, Mr. Smith is the only junior officer who though ill of his captain. For many, even today, it is de rigueur.

Finally, much has been written of Midshipman Brooks and his attempted rescue. My witness has reported that, whilst he was certainly reprimanded by Captain Martin, he was NOT confined to his cabin. I have, in my research, unearthed quite a bit of material about what became of Midshipman Brooks and will publish it in the days ahead.

In conclusion, I think Captain Martin has been inadequately remembered for his part in one of the great naval battles of history. His was an unenviable position on that late morning, sixty nine years ago today, but my research has revealed he was an honourable man, a brave and dutiful officer, first-rate warship captain, and a decent man possessed of a strong moral core and excellent qualities of leadership. His memory deserves to be dishonoured no longer.




14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dear Every Sailor
Thank you so much for putting the record straight regarding my grandfather.
I hope my last posting to you gave a few tips on where to contact the right sources. I had a call from your contact survivor, (who was my grandfather' messenger boy)telling me about your interest and meeting.
This survivor is a truly wonderful man, as are all the other survivors of 'Dorsetshire'.
I do hope your column will now put paid to the untrue stories posted on your site regarding Capatin Benjamin Martin.
Thank you once again.

One proud grand daughter

Every Sailor said...

Dear Lady,

You are most welcome. The truth is all that really matters. Now and always.

At midnight tonight, from far away, I shall toast the memory of your Grandfather, a man I feel I now know quite well, along with all those no longer with us, lost unto the eternal sea.

With every best wish,

Every Sailor.

Anonymous said...

Hello there!

I have been though your latest account. I was disappointed that you haven’t come across a paper giving the reasons for Martin’s dismissal. We shall probably never know.

I must admit I felt very badly done by when I read the reference to me and my father. I have copied and read through your contribution and made a few comments in italics. I also corrected a few spelling and punctuation mistakes. I’m very perfectionist about that.

You had better start by reading the end as there is a personal comment about me which I would like you to remove from the blog.

I seem to have lost all the italics during my copy and paste, so you'll have to deduce the difference between my comments and the original.

I will have to post my contribution in two parts as it won’t all go on.

Regards,

Martin
+++++++++++++

As you might imagine, this would play heavily on the mind of anyone charged with the responsibility of commanding her. (The chances of coming face to face with a submarine when going after the Bismarck were much higher than staying on convoy duty in the middle of the North Atlantic)

In fact Dorsetshire was only present for the final hours of the Bismarck because Captain Martin had taken the initiative to leave his convoy to go and joint the chase. I would like to thank Martin Smith for this information, whose father was an eye witness to Martin’s announcement of their breaking off convoy escort to go after Bismarck.

Whether this decision led to Martin being subsequently relieved of his command, as believes Mr Smith’s father, no documentation has been found to prove or disprove this.

Much has been said on this blog about HMS Dorsetshire's failure to pick up more than the scant few of some 800 of Bismarck's survivors in the water after her sinking. I, too, for many years, found it unfathomable that he failed to do so. Without any concrete evidence to support my opinion,

I would like to thank Martin Smith again for doing research and finding references to the fact that there was indeed a U-Boat in the area, but without any torpedoes. I also failed to make the deduction that if there was a submarine in the area, it would eventually surface and succour the men in the water, even though there would not have been enough room to take them all on board. So logically Captain Martin could assume that they may be rescued.


Time plays tricks on the truth though. History merges with legend. Legend becomes myth, and in no time at all, the truth becomes obscured by the bullshit of opinion emotion and diluted fact. I am as guilty as anyone in this regard and I now hold an entirely variant view of Captain Martin, which vindicates certain people I have rather rudely treated on this blog. I sincerely believe him to be a distinguished and highly experienced officer and warship commander who did the only feasible thing available to him at the time.

I would like to thank the people who contributed to this blog who defended Captain Martin’s decision to leave the men in the water and to whose position I eventually rallied. This includes Martin Smith, who, all to his credit, has otherwise given a somewhat negative opinion based on his father’s “brushes” with the captain.

many of the survivors of her ultimate sinking would go on to offer the view that their ship would never have been sunk at all if "PINCHER" was had been still in command off Ceylon that Easter Sunday of 1942, rather than Augustus Agar, VC, the “show pony” as he has been portrayed to me. Whether of course Dorsetshire had still been afloat if Martin had engaged her against Bismarck is another story.

As to reports of brutality which I have not corroborated and suicides, it must be remembered that HMS Dorsetshire was based in Plymouth.

Anonymous said...

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Martin Smith for the information on the suicides which he had found during his own research and that I had not put on the blog.

She visited GUZ only once in all that time and then for only a month, permitting 2 weeks leave for each watch.
I however do not know what percentage of the ship was from Plymouth, so all this is speculation.

An extract from 'Pursuit', by Ludovic Kennedy, which I had ignored or not read before formulating my original condemnation of Captain Martin’s behaviour:


I would like to end by mentioning Martin Smith, son of Allon Smith, observer on the Dorsetshire's Walrus. Martin has been a faithful correspondent here on this blog and has been equally faithful to the remembrances of his father, who is now in such a state of dementia to no longer be able to answer the doubts thrown on his version on this blog. Martin Smith has written here that Allon Smith, Dorsetshire's observer aircrew member, thought of Captain Martin, "a propper proper bastard". The reason for his father thinking Martin was a “propper (sic) bastard” was the fact that he had disrespected protocol and deliberately put the crew of his Walrus in danger of death by failing to turn up at a rendezvous point in mid Atlantic. To his credit, the captain did not punish his father for subordination, although his father had burst in on the captain and shouted at him accusing of irresponsible behaviour and putting in jeopardy the lives of the Walrus crew, for whom he was responsible. But we could imagine that Captain Martin did not want the incident to be committed to paper, which he would have had to do if some punishment had been made. Martin did not apologise for the incident, just giving the excuse that he had gone off to look at something suspicious. Mr Smith’s opinion had initially been forged when Captain Martin had decided to abandon his convoy with his 1920s cruiser and head to intercept the state-of- the-art Bismarck, which had sunk the Hood and badly damaged two battleships, to try and stop her from reaching Brest.


I would like to wonder out loud that, if in the entire history of the fleet air arm Fleet Air Arm, Mr. Smith is the only junior officer who though thought ill of his captain. For many, even today, it is de rigueur.
Delete: It had nothing to do with the Navy-Fleet Air Arm rivalry. This is an insult to my father. The “junior” officer who for good reasons took a disliking for his captain because of the latter’s irresponsible behaviour towards him, his Walrus crew and his ship (during the Bismarck “ interception” incident). If you read John Moffat’s book “I Sank the Bismarck” he relates how on 27th May 1941 the Navy denied the Fleet Air Arm the rightful privilege of finishing off the work they had started by actually firing warning shots at the Swordfish flying over head! So it’s not exactly one-sided rivalry!


I believe he was an honourable man, a brave and dutiful officer, first-rate warship captain, and a decent man possessed of a strong moral core and excellent qualities of leadership. His memory deserves to be dishonoured by me no longer.

Anonymous said...

I never said that Captain Martin was a bad captain. All I said that he was always “looking for a scrap”. His decision to go and intercept Bismarck before she (sorry “he”) got to Brest reflected a will to put his ship in unreasonable danger;

Being a bastard doesn’t mean you are a bad captain from a military point of view. That raises the question whether all military commanders have to be bastards to be effective. After all, they decide over life or death.

No person is wholly white or black. Take Montgomery. He was a hero in El Alamein, but his decision to parachute troops into Arnhem was one of the most disastrous decisions of the war.

+++

Something personal, which I would like you to remove immediately from the blog if you can. I suffer from an autistic spectrum disorder, known as Asperger’s Syndrome. I was delighted when I found your blog, because I had found someone interested in the same things as me. Asperger sufferers have very narrow interests, mine being, amongst other things the Dorsetshire.

I have been saying to myself since the beginning that your reaction to my statements has been very similar to those to be expected of someone suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome(as has been mine to yours). That is a very narrow minority interest in something, an impossibility to accept that one is wrong, or the desire always to be right, a difficulty understanding other people’s emotions and reactions (you’re very good at that) and a talent for languages. Do you have Asperger’s syndrome?

This may well have led to me giving a one-sided version of my father’s opinion of his captain, after all he did call me Martin, so he can’t have been that traumatised by the name!

Every Sailor said...

My Dear Martin,

Thank you again for your kind visit. I'm terribly sorry to have upset the apple cart of your emotions, as seems likely once again. No, I don't have Asperger's Syndrome I'm afraid, nor any other syndrome I'm aware of. Thank you for pointing out my spelling mistake. I've corrected it with gratitude.

You are wrong. Captain Martin wasn't relieved of his command upon arrival in Newcastle, he was reassigned as a matter of course. His period of command was up, having been Captain of Dorsetshire for the allotted period and it was his time to move on. Captain Martin finished his career in the rank of Vice Admiral. Hardly the fate of an officer held in opprobrium by the Admiralty. I'm afraid we were both wrong on that one, dear friend.

I mentioned you because I'm grateful to you for your interest and contributions to date, but if you wish to share a variant opinion with the world, as seems likely since you offer no facts in support of your claims, other than the reminiscences of a junior Fleet Air Arm Officer, may I suggest you begin your own blog, rather than spending so much time criticising mine. I think you would find some measure of peace in so doing, because I will not reject the truth as I have learned it to be, from someone who was there.

Certainly if there's any specific item that I can remove to which you've taken particular offence, as it relates to you directly, then by all means let me know and I'll happily comply, provided it doesn't materially impact on my site. You haven't made clear which part you'd like removed, and so perhaps at your next visit you'd kindly so inform me.

Mit freundlichen Grüßen,

Every Sailor.

Anonymous said...

Just the bit about Asperger syndrome. Thanks.

Mawg said...

I write this in frustration and some anger. While there is account of flotsam and rafts supposedly thorwn over to those left in the water when other boasts arrived and began to pluck bodies from the sea none of the rafts where present. Only German lifevests floated corpse and no other evidence of flottion "thrown to survivors" was in evidence.

War brings out the most destructctive of mans feelings towards one another. The fact that so many of those lost where young between 17 and 25 angers me evermore.

With a capitol ship having just been sunk beneath her Cruiser could have expected flotsam and items of all type to rise from the waters for some time.

Again I can but offer a prayer to those souls lost in all Of Bismarks travels and travail...

Anonymous said...

So you must of known my grandfather Arthur Martin, whose uncle was Benjamin Martin. Arthur was also in the Navy.

Magnus Soevgaard said...

What 'truth' or straightening of record has there been?? No U boat was ever seen or reported after the ship left those men to die. Hatred for the sinking of the HMS Hood ran deep, any of you who deny that are only hiding in the shadows. There WAS NO U BOAT!!! The Truth is that British hatred of Germans trumped Humanity and they left those men to die a cold and gruesome death as recompense for the sinking of the HMS Hood. What bullshit all this backslapping and fake vindication is, Man is a creature of habit. If the Dorsetshire had been torpedoed you would be vindicated but it was not nor was there any sonar proof either that day or later. I lived in England for 5 years and they hated Germans, schoolkids who had never even met one. Using a battle dazed German sailor for backup is so lame it hurts. What do you expect him to say?? The men died, abandoned by a British captain well aware of what the Admiralty would do if he rescued all those men. Maybe you are fooled I am not. The Admiralty wanted blood for blood and they got it. The history of the British in any theater of war is hardly one of mercy a quick Google search will reveal that. Maybe the fire bombing of Dresden by an equally murderous British commander rings a bell. U Boat, what bullshit.

Anonymous said...

To extra bits of info about Captain Martin and Dorsetshire. A book that I have at my parents' house (i will look up the title), Captain Martin is quoted as having given the following speech over the PA system before going in to attack the Bismarck: “I’ve been told to intercept the Bismarck and sink her. We’ll go in with our main armament firing and when we get close, we’ll turn and fire torpedoes into her and then we’ll ram her amidships!” No comment.
Last night I saw a channel 4 documentary on the Bismarck in which John Moffat, Swordfish pilot and author of "I sank the Bismarck", relates how, when Bismarck was ablaze, his squadron of Swordfish came under "friendly" flak fire when they tried to go in and finish the job they had started. For Moffat the fire came "most probably" from Dorsetshire. In other words, Captain Martin probably gave the order to shoot at Fleet Air Arm planes, so that he could take the credit for finishing off the Bismarck. The incident is related in Moffat's book "I sank the Bismarck". In defence of Martin, you could say that, having arrived later on, he did not know the decisive role of the Swordfish in crippling the Bismarck.

Martin

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to post a quick thank you to Every Sailor for this interesting article.

I'm yet another relation of Benjamin Martin, although somewhat removed from the grand daughter who commented above. If I remember correctly, Benjamin Martin is my great uncle.

His reputation in my side of the family is obviously significant. I was always told that he was a stern but fair man, which mostly rings true with what has been written about him here.

Regards,

Julian Martin (julianmartin [at] gmail.com if you wish to contact me)

Anonymous said...

It should be viewed as a war crime that those German sailors were left to die a horrible death in the water.

Disgraceful that they were abandoned in such a cowardly way by the British.

So much for the law of the sea where you are supposed to rescue the helpless !

I can't imagine the Admiralty looked too happy when they realised Martin's abominable actions.

Anonymous said...

My father joined HMS Dorsetshire in 1937, as a Boy Bugler Royal Marines aged 14. He was 18 years old at the time of the sinking of Bismarck. He was the Bugler who played the Last Post at the funeral of the German sailor.
He said a German sailor raised his arm to make the salute but it was pulled down by another German.
They were all shocked when the order was given to leave the area,
but believed a U boat had been reported. He also stated that so much was being thrown overboard to help the German sailors that complaints were made by some of the crew of Dorsetshire.