Monday 22 January 2024

Martin Middlebrook (1932-2024)

 I was saddened to hear about the death of Martin Middlebrook today. Most people can point to two or three individuals who, outside of family, have had a profound impact on their life. For me, one of those people was Martin Middlebrook whom I first met through my father in the 1980s. There are three occasions when acts of kindness by Martin had a particular influence on my interest in military history and for which I am very grateful. Indeed, had I not known Martin I may not have ended up doing a Masters in the subject. Let me elucidate.

Collection of Martin Middlebrook books - all signed

I think Martin's friendship with my father developed over a mutual interest in Bomber Command and the old airfields of Lincolnshire. Martin and his good friend and business partner, Mike Hodgson, had a passion for aviation heritage and since our family lived adjacent to  the old 617 Squadron airfield at Woodhall Spa it was perhaps inevitable that paths would cross. It was a while before I got to know Martin notwithstanding the fact that he was good friends with my father (I had left home by then). However my first reading of Martin's magnificent book 'The First Day on the Somme: 1 July 1916' changed all that and when my father asked me to join Martin and himself on a trip to the old battlefields of the Western Front I jumped at the opportunity.

Lochnager - A special place for Martin

It was on the way out to France that the first act of kindness occurred. In the 90s I taught myself HTML code and built myself a website - it was all very new and exciting back in the day. I had moved to Swavesey in Cambridgeshire by then and had decided to research the names on the local war memorial. There were two 1st July 1916 casualties and in telling their stories I had acknowledged Martin's book. It really touched me when Martin produced copies of the website pages which he had put into an A4 booklet and which he asked me to sign. What an inspiration for a start-up researcher - to receive that sort of encouragement!

We toured Martin's favourite places and I remember him getting particularly emotional at Lochnager where he described a man being shot in the head. Apparently, an eye witnesses saw a trail of red blood against the white chalk from the lip of the crater right down to the bottom where the man had rolled down to his last resting place. 

Later, in a second act of encouragement Martin had noted my interest in the 11th Battalion, Suffolk Regiment and took time to take me through his research notes for the veterans from the Battalion whom he had spoken to prior to writing his first book.

Example Question for 'The First Day'

Martin always described himself as 'just a chicken farmer' and had a little bit of a chip on his shoulder about professional military historians. He probably had cause, as his knowledge and expertise was not fully recognised until much later. For the 'First Day on the Somme', Martin went through phone books to track down every veteran he could find. He then sent out a letter and questionnaire to all that he was able to find addresses for. The first page of the questionnaire asked for biographical information but it was the second page which provided the insight for the book: 'Please give details of what YOU saw on 1st July 1916'. This sort of empirical analysis was a first and the book was a tour-de-force.

Martin used the same technique for his follow up 'The Kaiser's Battle' and his numerous books on Bomber Command. Living in Boston, Lincolnshire, he was well connected with the RAF veterans who lived nearby. He shared my fathers' anger that Bomber Command had been treated so shoddily after the end of the Second World War. Books such as the Berlin Raids, the Schweinfurt-Regensburg Mission, the Battle of Hamburg, the Peenemunde Raid and the Nuremburg Raid are unsurpassed. 

One of Martin's hand-drawn maps

I once asked him about his favourite book, and he naturally had an affection for 'The First Day on the Somme' which coincidentally was his best seller. Also for the Somme guidebook which he wrote with his wife Mary, 'The Somme Battlefields: A Comprehensive Guide from Crecy to the World Wars'. He was less happy with his collaborative work, 'Battleship: The Loss of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse' and whilst proud of 'Arnhem 1944: The Airborne Battle', was disappointed with the reaction he got from some of the veterans. I think upon reflection he felt he had been over critical of the attempts to break through at the St Elizabeths Hospital. For his book 'The Fight for the Malvinas: The Argentine Forces in the Falklands War' Martin tracked down and interviewed Argentinian veterans - a novel approach which resulted in a an excellent book which is sadly under-appreciated.

The final act of kindness was the result of a phone call I got from Martin in late 1999. He was researching what I think was his final book, 'Your Country Needs You: Expansion of the British Army 1914-1918' and he asked me a couple of questions - which perhaps surprisingly I was able to answer. He sent me a signed copy of the book and I was touched to see that he had acknowledged my extremely modest contribution within the pages.

Martin's elevation to a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1984 was something that pleased him greatly though he didn't make it obvious. Recognition for a body of work which has inspired so many people, like me, to learn more about the nature of conflict from the point of view of the man in the trench, or in the cockpit or on the deck. Martin Middlebrook will be missed but his legacy lives on in the books that he has left and the primary source documents whch he has deposited at the Imperial War Museum. 

Rest in Peace Martin.