Lieutenant Douglas Martin was the 9th Parachute Battalion’s liaison officer with 3 Parachute Brigade. In February 1944 he married Eileen Hart and he was granted a . forty-eight-hour honeymoon. However, due to the D-Day preparations, by May 1944 they had only been able to see each other on just two subsequent week-ends.
On the 12th June, the 9th Battalion was involved in the epic defence of the Bois des Monts on the Breville Ridge. With the ammunition level becoming serious, Colonel Otway the 9th Battalion CO, ordered Lieutenant Martin to fetch some from Brigade HQ, along the road at Le Mesnil. At Brigade HQ, he managed to acquire a jeep, much to the disgust of the driver who was reluctant to part with it. The ammunition was loaded, and with the ‘owner’ sat beside him and his batman in the back, they set off. Dougie Martin was in a hurry: I said, “I will drive.” It [the Battalion] was near enough running out of ammunition. I was belting down [the road to the Bois des Monts].
Just as they were approaching the Bois des Monts, Martin was hit from behind by a sniper’s explosive bullet which carved through the left side of his neck and shoulder before blowing his jaws out. The jeep overturned several times and came to rest ten yards from the Bois des Monts gate. Pandemonium ensued. The Paras immediately fired smoke bombs into the air to try and reach the casualties, but these hit branches overhead and the phosphorous began falling onto some Black Watch who were in one of the roadside ditches. CSM Wally Beckwith dashed out and got the Lieutenant into cover. Miraculously still alive, Martin was taken into the Battalion Regimental Aid Post.
On the day that it happened, Eileen knew that he had been wounded:
I was walking in the office and I had this dreadful pain, and I said to the people in the office, “Doug’s been shot,” and they said, “Oh stop being fanciful,” you know. It’s all in the mind, but it wasn’t, it was exactly as I’d imagined it. He was brought home two days later by sea and taken to The British Hospital (Rooksdown) at Basingstoke, to the plastic and jaw unit.
The authorities did not ask her to go down on the Wednesday because he was not expected to live.
I had a telegram and I went down in the afternoon of the Thursday [15th]. The only thing recognisable on Dougie was his forehead, that hadn’t changed shape, but the rest of his face down to his shoulders…. Where his face had been blown apart, they’d put big stitches just to hold it together. I looked at him and he didn’t know me, he just lay in the bed. His eyes were completely dull. And then all of a sudden it was as if someone had turned an electric light on in a room. His eyes suddenly lit up, and she [the nurse] said, “He remembers you.” I noticed his now paralysed arm and leg. They were enormous, swollen right up and I could see all the injuries up here [around the neck] obviously, and I thought ‘Say nothing.’ His neck looked just like a shell had carved at it. It carved his neck right out before it blew his jaws out. You could see the nerve endings…. I went down the next day. They’d told me they didn’t really think he’d really live. I went up to the nurse who said, “I’m afraid he’s gone.” Of course, I immediately thought he had died, but she meant he was in the ambulance outside ! He was being transferred to Hackwood Hospital.
That night my sister came down with me to Hackwood, and he was in the middle of the ward because the surgeon said he’d got to be moved, but they didn’t have anywhere else to put him. They stuck him right in the middle of the ward. He was shaved ready to go down to the theatre, so we couldn’t stop that day.
The surgeon who examined him said, “Get him out of the ward straight away, because he’ll kill everyone.” He had gangrenous gas in his neck.
That’s when they found this huge abscess in his neck. He had a tracheotomy put in. The pus that came out, and the stench…. For about three weeks or more, he had this great wad of cotton wool on his chest. They were changing it every half-hour because it was saturated with pus. He was having penicillin then, an injection every three hours at that time. His behind and everything was like a pepper pot, they couldn’t find a place to put it [the needle] in.
Eileen then began a constant bedside vigil. She had been warned that there was an ulcer on his carotid artery and that the wall was very thin. If any blood started to trickle from Dougie’s mouth she was to call the Doctor immediately. This would mean that his carotid artery had burst and that he only had minutes to live. On 28 June, as she was feeding him, a small trickle of blood began run out of the corner of his mouth. He was immediately rushed into surgery.
They were emptying his lungs because he wasn’t allowed to move after the operation for this carotid artery and Hoyle-Campbell [the doctor] saw me afterwards. For five and a half hours he operated on him. He said to me “He may wake. If he wakes he may never walk or talk again,” and I went berserk and he caught hold of me and he shook the living daylights out of me. “I’ve worked for five and a half hours on this man and now you tell me that.” I said, “At twenty-two, would you want a lifetime of lying flat on your bed on your back ? He wouldn’t want that.” He said, “Well, we’ll see if he wakes.” He said, “He’ll wake about eight if he’s going to wake”. Well he woke at eight. He ‘asked’ for a drink.
Well then I had to go and stay with the surgeon and his wife for the two weeks. I used to sit with him every day in the hospital. He was lying in a darkened room with his head down so that the blood could drain away. His carotid artery and all the subsidiary arteries, his jugular vein, were all tied up. The surgeon said to me that your duty is to make sure that he doesn’t move a muscle. He used to lie there and hold my hand… and I sat there for what, twelve hours a day. That’s when I started to smoke ! One day, a few days after this had taken place, I had to go and spend a penny. He was sound asleep I thought. Went up to the toilets which were only a couple of doors away and when I got back , he had forced himself up and I thought “Oh my God,” because I was afraid that the artery would burst again. So I shouted to Sister Monroe, who was just across the road from where he was in his private room, and she said, “I told you not to let him move,” and I said “Well I had to go !” She pushed him down and said, “Stay there !”
And then they put him into this main ward because he was comatose really, stupified. She put him right beside her glass [window]. She put the radio on and there was some Canadian jazz music, and it was driving him crazy ! I said to Sister Monroe, “Can he have the music turned off ?” and she said, “No !” “But he’s getting cross.” “Good,” she said, “The more cross he gets the more stimulating him… When a man who’s been very ill is getting better, it is a sign they’re improving. The more evil-tempered he becomes, the better pleased we are !”
He was over there six weeks and then he was transferred back to the British Hospital for the rest. The British Hospital, well, Sir Harold Gillis was marvellous. Over at the three year period he had bone grafts, skin grafts.
He was in hospital from ’44 to ’47, I think he had about fifteen operations. It was rather wonderful because they used to operate and when they’d recovered sufficiently from the operation, they used to send them home. And he’d have say six weeks at home. He couldn’t eat of course, his jaws were all tied up, so I got a feeding cup. I used to do a roast dinner all into this cup and do you know he was the only officer who went back at the end of the six weeks who would be A1 fit for the next operation. It was an experience of a lifetime. Not one that I would advise for everybody to go through ! He couldn’t walk, he couldn’t talk, he had no words.
The boys [in the ward] were wonderful. One day, he’d sang a little tune, God knows what it was, and when I’d gone into the ward that afternoon, they’d sat him up in bed with his officer’s jacket on and he had his red beret on his head, and they said, “Come and listen to Doug, come and listen to Doug !” And of course not a sound came out ! They got him walking and they sat me in the lounge and they went and got him. How I sat in that chair I’ll never know because his paralysed leg was going this way and he was going that way. But gradually, gradually, he managed to summon his energies and his strength and his concentration, and the only word he had at that time, starting from the Canadian Hospital was, “Look”. Everything he saw, it was, “Look, look.” If he wanted something, it was, “Look, look.” Where that came from I don’t know. Now, when he can’t think of anything, its “Can you…” I look because he’s usually pointing somewhere !
Author’s Note: Subsequently, he suffered from Myeloma, [a malignant tumour of the bone marrow]. His consultant believed that his immune system had fought so hard against the gangrenous gas, that he’d been lucky to live as long as he had, because he would pick up any infection very easily. His white cells triggered the slightest thing.
In 2001 Dougie Martin was still making regular trips to his consultant. He had learned to walk again, and his speech had improved immeasurably.
Dougie and Eileen were truly two remarkable people. In spite of everything they had been through, you could not have wished to meet a happier couple. They had one son.