- First Living memory of a war baby
- Sadly, my mother, Nell Martin, died on Saturday
16th April 2006 at the age of 92. She was very
proud of the fact that her story was told here
as are all of the family. It is wonderful that
we can still see her smiling face and hear her
stories. Liz Weir, Nell's daughter.
Nell Martin - circa 1940
Nell Elston was Born 90 years
ago in 1914, the year World War I started. Curiously,
Nell’s First living memory was of 1918 when,
on a cold November morning in Gravesend, Kent,
there was a lot of fuss and calamity on the streets.
The town crier had brought the very welcome news
that the Armistice had been signed between Germany
and the Allies. World War I was over. Women were
out shouting in the streets and waving blankets,
children were running around and there was general
The four year old little Nell was terrified having
no idea of what was going on. Her main concern,
as she recalls, was that her little brother was
out in the street with no trousers on. Then her
mother told her “your daddy’s coming
Her father who was in France was soon to return
home. He brought presents of toys and chocolate…
but there was a sombre side to his return. He
was the only one of four sons to come home alive.
His three brothers fell at the Somme.
The road to Palestine.
In 1936 British troops were involved in the rebellion
in Palestine. The intensity of this Revolt came at a
time when Britain was preparing for the possibility
of another world war and led to a review of the British
policy in Palestine.
Nell’s husband Billy was in Palestine with the
1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles and in 1938, Nell
got her movement orders from the army to make the long
journey, with her three children, to join Billy in quarters
first leg of that journey took her to Gibraltar
where her troop ship was held for several weeks.
There was time to relax and enjoy the surroundings
and Nell remembers how her ship was docked beside
HMS Ramilies and that the crew invited them all
for Sunday lunch and entertained the children
Eventually when they arrived at Haifa they were
not allowed ashore!
India - as it was in 1930s
But the Martins were not to stay long in Palestine,
for the Rifles were ordered to the North West
Frontier of India and service in the troubled
area of Waziristan and Rawalpindi.
Life was good to the Martins in the late ‘30s
and although their quarters were hardly palatial
they enjoyed the luxuries of having bearers and
servants. Nell even had a cook who had adjusted
well to the Irish regiment and could even make
soda bread. But Nell's abiding joy was that she
had her own horse which she rode in the cool of
the Indian mornings.
Epic train journey to Bombay
In 1939 when there were rumblings of another war in
Europe, Billy’s battalion had moved up country
and was engaged in defending the Khyber Pass against
the dissident Pathans. Nell and her family remained
in quarters in Rawalpindi.
With war now inevitable, the Rifles were recalled to
Britain and Billy had to tell Nell that the battalion
was being sent home. Nell remembers vividly the family's
epic train journey over four days and nights. From Rawalpindi
to Bombay the train only stopped to take on water but
the families were not allowed to get off. With no air-conditioning
in those days other than an open window, they used bathtubs
filled with ice to keep their food - and sometimes themselves
Outbreak of War - all leave cancelled
Nell and her three children survived the journey and
arrived safely in Bombay and a couple of days after
boarding the troop ship they were told that Hitler’s
troops had marched into Poland and war had been declared.
From that moment on everything was to change. The ships
captain was now acting under military orders and the
ship put in to harbour at Mombassa, Kenya where it stayed
for 3 weeks whilst it was repainted in grey and blue
camouflage and made ready for war.
Their ship then made its way up through the Suez
canal and stopped at Gibraltar which was in some
chaos. Here they were reassigned to a new ship
for the journey to the UK and Nell explains how
she sent a postcard to her mother from the “SS
Yorkshire”, which they were due to join.
A last minute change meant they boarded the "SS
Britannia" and, sadly, some days later she
and her children would have to watch the Yorkshire
sink with their friends aboard after having been
torpedoed by a U-boat.
SS Yorkshire - 58 lives
After the loss of the Yorkshire, the captain of
the “Britannia” felt that being in
the convoy was too dangerous and he took the decision
to leave the convoy and make full steam for Liverpool
alone. Their journey suddenly took a dramatic
turn in the early hours of the morning when they
ran across an enemy submarine. Nell tells of the
terror of waiting for hours in total silence.
No-one was even allowed to cough in case their
presence was detected.
SS Britannia - left
Going to Armagh
Arriving in Liverpool, Nell found the place to be in
turmoil and confusion. She wanted to take her children
to her old family home in Kent but she was discouraged
by the authorities because Kent was being bombed regularly.
Instead she agreed to take her family back to her husband’s
home in Armagh. Nell recalls the night in an Armagh
cinema, when the Pathe News covered the rescue of survivors
from the sinking of the Yorkshire and she was delighted
to see some of her friends had made it. Shortly after
this she was to relocate to Ballymena.
Kent was being heavily bombed
A visit home
to the air raids in Kent
Not unnaturally Nell got homesick for Kent and
wanted to go back there to see her parents, a
dangerous and rather unwise journey to make with
three young children since Kent was suffering
air raids almost on an nightly basis. Nell explains
what the journey was like and talks about the
destruction of the bombing raids and how they
ran for the shelters when the much feared doodle-bugs
came over. Her cousins were killed by the first
V1 that dropped over Kent.
Blitz and the evacuees
Although living in Ballymena, Nell clearly heard
the bombers the night of the Easter Belfast blitz
She knew they were German and she knew where
they were going. The next day she tried to get
news of what had happened but tells of how there
was a news blackout and no-one had any facts.
That same afternoon thirteen evacuee children
arrived at her gate…
Belfast - Easter 1941
The audio clips above are just a few excerpts of a long
conversation Nell had with Radio Ulster's Bob Crookes
during the summer of 2004. At the time of writing Nell
Martin is a sprightly 90 year old who, despite her experiences
of a world war, enjoys a refreshingly positive outlook
on life. With her infectious laugh she'll tell you that
she's been very very lucky.
Nell Martin at 90 - 2004
Shortly after the above article was published
on this website we received a letter from Australia
from Bill Martin, Nell's son. He wrote to offer
additional information about the story and also
included a couple of photographs (shown below)
of his father, Billy, taken shortly before WWII.
Billy Martin circa 1938,
went to France
in WWII and came out via Dunkirk
General Wavell's Guard
- at Mount Canaan
Billy Martin far left. Who are the others?
An hour after the Yorkshire was
torpedoed, the survivors were picked up by the
oil tanker "The City of Mandalay". This
ship should not have stopped but it did. As a
result it was hit by the next round of torpedoes.
A very young baby survived. Its life jacket was
made by my mother Nell before we were transferred
from the Yorkshire across to the Britannia.
The Britannia was carrying the
Ordnance for the battalion which was why we ended
up on it, so we were very lucky.
The Britannia was subsequently
torpedoed on its return journey to America. The
captain and mate survived for six weeks in an
open boat. After convalescing in America they
picked up another ship. That ship too was torpedoed
on its way back to England. On that occasion the
captain and the mate were both lost.
In the museum, the maps showing
Merchant sinkings during WWII show the graves
of both The Yorkshire and The City of Mandalay.
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