Obituary: Vice-Admiral Sir Hugh Martell
Thursday 25 February 1999
He is remembered by an unusually large sample of naval society because of his forceful role as Admiral Commanding Reserves, by defence historians for his part as commander of the naval element in Operation Mosaic, the series of British nuclear tests at the Monte Bello islands, and by pretty well all the other people that he met for the sheer force of his personality. He was the father of 14 children, and in retirement served not only the defence electronics firm Racal, but also the European operations of Penthouse and related publications.
Martell's middle name, Colenso, suggested some ancestral connection with the South African war, although his father had been an engineer-captain in the Royal Navy. He qualified as a gunnery officer in 1938 after the long course at the gunnery school, HMS Excellent, on Whale Island, Portsmouth, and when the Second World War broke out was a lieutenant in Nelson, the Home Fleet flagship.
When she was mined, he went back to the gunnery school, from which he went to Dunkirk and then to the heavy cruiser Berwick in the Home Fleet, which involved Russian convoys. After a refresher course at Whale Island he was appointed as gunnery officer of the famous Illustrious in which he served in the Far East and Pacific Fleets, surviving the kamikaze attacks off Okinawa.
He was mentioned in despatches and promoted Commander in 1945, relieved to have got his brass hat before the Fleet began to dwindle with peace and the need for economies. He spent a year as Naval Assistant to the Director of the Ordnance Board, that archaic body which at least had an official issue of sherry, and in 1947 was given his first command, the battle class destroyer Sluys.
The next decade was orthodox - Commander (G) in the Royal Naval Barracks at Devonport, staff of Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean, naval adviser in the Ministry of Supply and then promotion to Captain in 1955, appointed to Bigbury Bay and in command of the 7th Flotilla. He had overtaken the mass of wartime veterans, all experienced seamen but just too senior now to expect more sea time; in fact Martell could scarcely expect a third command.
But in 1956 he was appointed to command the eight ships of Task Force 308 and, his Commodore's pennant in the tank landing ship Narvik, arrived that May off the Monte Bello islands, the archipelago near the coast of Western Australia. There was urgent operational research to be done before Operation Grapple, the series of tests on the use of atomic bombs as triggers for their thermo-nuclear descendants which would be carried out at Christmas Island the following year. The first bomb, "Hotshot", was detonated on 16 May; at 15 kilotons, it was more powerful than the Hiroshima or Nagasaki explosions, and in June was followed by "Flashlight", vastly more powerful at 98 kilotons. All seemed to have gone well; the scientists were satisfied, and Martell was appointed CBE and sent to Belgrave Square for the 1957 course at the Imperial Defence College.
As expected, there was no more sea time, but at least he went back to Excellent in 1958 as Captain of his Alma Mater before returning to Whitehall as Director of Tactical and Weapons Policy in 1959. And then, he said to his astonishment, he was appointed Admiral Commanding Reserves. Apart from two notable exceptions, this had traditionally been a Vice-Admiral's post; Martell was the first of six Rear-Admirals to hold it before it was abolished.
Martell was an ardent Admiral, and reversed a turgid trend in the history of the Reserves. Many of the old RNVR had resented their merger with the old RNR, and the obvious use of that name for the new combined, if not always united, body.
It took some time for the new concept of a naval service with more integrated regular and reserves components to dispel the notion of a separate part- time navy and, perhaps wisely and perhaps fortuitously, Martell began the process of integration when, contriving to "borrow" the retiring cruiser Belfast, he completed her crew with Sea Cadets and mobilised all the Coastal Minesweepers of the 11 RNR Divisions, and hoisted his flag and sailed for Gibraltar. A base party, including members of the WRNR, was flown out, and two weeks of intensive and realistic training took place. It was hard to convince Nato allies that the ships were manned almost entirely by part-time reservists, and the mission did much to restore the confidence and image of the new RNR, becoming a four-week event for many years.
Martell was promoted Vice- Admiral and returned to the Mediterranean as Chief of the Allied staff until he retired in 1968. His retirement was disturbed in 1985 when an Australian Royal Commission, inquiring in London into the safety of the Monte Bello tests, alleged that because of a change in the direction of the wind, the mainland had been contaminated. Martell was adamant that his orders had provided for such an eventuality, and resented the tone of the investigation.
Martell married twice. His first wife, Marguerite, was the daughter of Sir Dymoke White Bt; they had five sons and a daughter before the marriage was dissolved. He then married Margaret Glover, and they had two sons and six daughters.
Hugh Colenso Martell, naval officer: born 6 May 1912; Overall Operational Commander, Nuclear Tests in Monte Bello Islands 1956; CBE 1957, KBE 1966; Director of Tactical and Weapons Policy, Admiralty, and Naval Member, Defence Research Policy Staff, Ministry of Defence 1959-62; Admiral Commanding Reserves and Director-General, Naval Recruiting 1962-65; CB 1963; Chief of Allied Staff, Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Sea 1965-67; married first Marguerite White (five sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved), second Margaret Glover (two sons, six daughters); died 25 December 1998.
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