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Nell Martin

Having lived through two World Wars, Nell travelled from Bombay to Ballymena and has many special memories to share.

Nell Martin

Armistice WWI - First Living memory of a war baby

Article Update - 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.


Article by
Marty Johnston
Nov 2004
Picture of Nell Martin circa 1940
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 rejoicing.

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 home”.

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.

Audio Clip 1: Armistice day 1918



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 in Palestine.

The 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 too.

Eventually when they arrived at Haifa they were not allowed ashore!

HMS Ramillies - circa 1940
HMS Ramillies

Audio Clip 2: Glorious Gibraltar



Map showing British India in the 1930s
India - as it was in 1930s

Indian Summer
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.

Audio Clip 3: Life in British India



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 - cool.

Audio Clip 4: The train to Bombay



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 - torpedoed in 1939
SS Yorkshire - 58 lives lost

Audio Clip 5: The convoy home



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 - made it safely to Liverpool
SS Britannia - left the convoy

Audio Clip 6: "That was the worst moment of my life..."



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.

Audio Clip 7: Safely to Armagh



German bombers over  Britain
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.

Audio Clip 8: not so safely to Kent



Belfast Blitz and the evacuees
Although living in Ballymena, Nell clearly heard the bombers the night of the Easter Belfast blitz in 1941.

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 after Easter air raids of 1941
Belfast - Easter 1941

Audio Clip 9: Evacuees


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 in 2004
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
General Wavell's Guard - at Mount Canaan
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?

Bill writes:

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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