It is 67 years since R. M. Marshall was killed in action and too long for the story of this remarkable man’s story not to have been told in these pages. It seems fitting in 2012 to remind those who know and tell those who don’t something of the legend that became “Marshall”.
His entry in the Register makes impressive reading alone:
Head of School, Head of House, Praepostor, XV colour, Captain of football, XI colour, Captain of Cricket, CSM OTC, Shooting VIII, Gold Medal 1935, Oxford Blue (Rugby)1936, 37 & 38, England Rugby 1938 & 39 (5 Caps). Lt RNVR, DSC kia 1945. The story of Robert Michael Marshall, affectionately known at school as Marshall, is remarkable both for his success as a rugby player, and even more so as a Royal Navy Motor Gun Boat (MGB) captain in the Second World War. His rugby exploits would, had he lived, have made him the hero of many small boys and he was destined for both the captaincy of England and for the British Lions. Indeed he missed the 1938 tour only on the grounds of his youth and that “his time would come”. His naval adventures read like modern day versions of Patrick O’Brien’s novels – close range gun battles with the enemy and clandestine approaches to a hostile shore on moonless nights. Tragically, this distinguished naval career, which was recognised by two awards of the Distinguished Service Cross, ended four days after VE-day when his boat – on a special mission to Sweden to repatriate interned British ships – stuck a loose mine and was destroyed with heavy loss of life, including Marshall.
In 1940 he had married Muriel Stella Daubeny (born 1919) and they had two daughters.
Mike Marshall was born on 18 May 1917, at Pontefract in the West Riding of Yorkshire, the only son of Robert and Margaret Elizabeth Marshall. At the time of his admission to Trinity College in 1936 his father’s profession was given as coal merchant and his address as Wyke Lodge, Stainton Dale in the East Riding of Yorkshire. He went up to Oxford from Giggleswick. At school he had excelled at sport, rugby football in particular with an unprecedented four years in the XV, three years as captain – clearly he was blessed with an imposing athletic physique which was exceptional for his age. He also played cricket and was in the shooting eight as well as Company sergeant Major of the OTC (CCF) and not surprisingly was to become both Head of School and Head of Paley.
Mike Marshall’s rugby career beyond Giggleswick was exceptional and encompassed Scarborough RFC, Oxford University, Harlequins, the Barbarians and five caps for England, at Number 8 & lock forward. Marshall won three Blues for Oxford, in the games of 1936, 37 and 38 – he was captain elect for 1939 but left to join the Royal Navy on the outbreak of war. His England rugby career began against Ireland in 1938 at Lansdowne Road with a 36-14 win, Marshall scored a particularly spectacular try with a 50 yard solo run. Also in 1938 he played against Scotland at Twickenham, losing 16-21. In 1939 he played for England three times, winning against Wales and Scotland but losing to Ireland. Somehow Marshall also found time to get a 4th class degree in History!
Marshall’s career in the Navy was principally spent in coastal forces. The exploits of these small ships have been largely forgotten against the sweep of greater events but they were vital to the defence of British coastal shipping and they also carried the war to the enemy coastline. They were operating from harbours in England, such as Dover and Great Yarmouth, and were given considerable publicity at the time. The nature of the battles, usually at night and close range, gave much scope for initiative and daring to the boat commanders – who included numerous colourful characters, many with sporting pedigrees; Mike Marshall fitted that mould.
The British boats were either designated as MGBs or MTBs, the latter having torpedo armament but fewer guns. The MGBs role was twofold – to sink or drive off German E-boats, and occasionally submarines, attacking our convoys and to engage the escorts of enemy shipping while the MTBs raced in to sink their cargo vessels. Later in the war many MGBs were also equipped with torpedoes, so as not to miss attacking opportunities and were reclassified as MTBs – previously MGB commanders had sometimes resorted to the highly dangerous expedient of cutting in close under the bows of enemy ships and dropping depth charges as they passed. The German torpedo boats, designated with S numbers (for Schnell), were always referred to by the British as E (for enemy) boats – they were fine examples of German engineering, being very fast and with a low silhouette making them difficult to see – they were powered by diesel engines and thus were less at risk to fire than the British boats which were built of wood and mostly fuelled by petrol. However the later, D-Class British MGBs, although somewhat slower, were generally larger and more heavily armed.
Mike Marshall was an officer in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and as such was ‘in it for the duration only’. One photograph, in early 1942, shows him as a Sub-Lieutenant in the ‘wavy navy’ – with the sinuous gold band of the RNVR on his sleeve; (L C Reynolds, ‘Dog Boats at War’). By 1943 Mike had experienced many actions in the ‘narrow seas’ and, now promoted to Lieutenant, was with the 17th MGB Flotilla at Yarmouth as CO of a new D class MGB numbered 607 (these were known colloquially as ‘Dog-Boats’, but as a term of affection rather than criticism).
The climax Mike Marshall’s time with MGB 607 came on the night of 24/25 October 1943. A large force (30+) of E-boats made a concerted attack on a northbound convoy near Smith’s Knoll off the Norfolk coast. They were vigorously engaged by the escorting destroyers and by MGBs out of Great Yarmouth. Marshall, in 607, was leading his colleague Lt F R Lightoller RNVR in MGB 603. In the ensuing and confused battle these two MGBs sank two E-boats by gunfire and a third when Mike Marshall found himself in a close range battle with S88 which ended with a ‘ramming match’. S88 came off worse and sank, but 607 was badly damaged and suffered several dead and injured among the crew. 603 then took 607 in tow, but had to break off to engage and chase off some six other E-boats, before eventually getting 607 back in to Yarmouth. Mike Marshall was awarded the DSC for this action – the citation said: ‘His aggressive spirit was a fine example to all Commanding Officers of Coastal Force Craft, and is in the finest traditions of the service’.
Marshall’s first lieutenant on 607, subsequently recorded ‘In all situations Mike was an outstanding officer; big, tough, quick-witted, confident, decisive and very thorough and competent. He demanded high performance and got it. He engendered confidence in all serving with him, the officers and men of MGB607 (his boat) and other members of the flotilla who worked with us. Undoubtedly he was a leader of men. The qualities that earned him a blue for rugby at Oxford and a cap for England were always evident. He was a hard task master, a great teacher and a great man’.
In November 1943 Mike Marshall was transferred to the 15th MGB Flotilla at Dartmouth and took command of MGB 503. This involved delivering and collecting agents from the coast of France and Holland and bringing home allied airmen who had been sheltered and transported to the beach by the Shelburne escape line (which is another fascinating story in itself).
His exploits from November 1943 to March 1944 earned him a Bar to his DSC; the recommendation for this award speaks for itself:
‘ His first task was to get his ship into reliable running order… a series of serious mechanical breakdowns had undermined the morale of her crew…under Lt Marshall’s direction the ship rapidly became operational.
‘After accompanying two operations as an observer…Lt Marshall embarked on a series of 12 faultlessly executed expeditions.
‘Four of these operations were to parts of the North French coast not previously visited; Lt Marshall displayed outstanding skill in locating accurately these new pinpoints, entering narrow rock strewn channels without hesitation. On one occasion he pressed on and completed an operation of great importance in a North-Easterly gale gusting to force 8, under conditions which would have made a less determined officer give up long before reaching the French coast.
‘MGB 503 embarked 100 Allied airmen from a beach in enemy occupied France between January and March 1944. The procedure involved lying at anchor within a mile of enemy watchposts for between two and four hours at a time. The standard of efficiency to which Lt Marshall had trained his surf boats’ crews needs no emphasis in view of these figures.
‘By skilful tactics and cool and correct judgment, Lt Marshall avoided detection by enemy sea patrols and convoys indicated by radar and visually on a number of occasions. His high qualities of leadership and seamanship are worthy of recognition.’
This rather dry, factual account of these pick-up operations on the Brittany coast only hints at the hazard and tension involved, well described elsewhere, which needed a cool courage and determination in contrast with the aggressive spirit already displayed in battles with E-boats.
As France came under allied control MGBs 502 and 503 (now renumbered as 2002 and 2003) were transferred north to Aberdeen where they could support the clandestine operations to Norway, for so long performed by Norwegian crews based in Lerwick. Mike Marshall became Senior Officer of the 15th MGB Flotilla and was promoted to Lt Commander in this period. When the war in Europe came to an end MGB 2002 was selected to take Merchant Navy officers to Gothenburg to arrange the removal of three interned British ships. The CO of 2002, Lt Jan Mason, had been awarded the DSC and was required to attend Buckingham Palace to receive his award. Mike Marshall, now promoted to Lieutenant Commander, volunteered to take his place. MGB 2002 left Aberdeen on the morning of 11 May 1945 and was expected in Gothenburg by 20.00 on the next day. When no signal had been received from 2002 by 13 May an air search was ordered but no trace was found.
Marshall is commemorated on the Rolls of Honour at both Giggleswick School and Trinity College, Oxford. Having no known grave except the sea, his name also appears on the Royal Naval Memorial on Plymouth Hoe. A moving obituary by E. H. Partridge appeared in The Times on 6 August 1945 and paid a fitting tribute to his sporting ability and fine all round character. He was greatly missed at Giggleswick, where his wife Stella and daughters lived; he was to have joined the staff at the school on his release from the Service. It is said that Mr Partridge felt Marshall’s death particularly keenly. Part of that obituary follows below:
“Others can speak with greater knowledge of a service career, which though brief had already earned signal marks of distinction; but as the name and exploits of Marshall have in a few years taken on at Giggleswick something of a sanctity of legend, I hope I may be permitted a brief tribute to the rare excellence of character which won his assured place in our hearts rather than those athletic gifts which placed him, when little more than a boy, among the great rugby football players of all time. To those of us who has seen him go for the line, a breath taking vision of swift, beautifully balanced power, the exploit which earned him his first decoration came as no surprise. But it was not individual skill which made Marshall essentially great, I have seen no player who could by sheer force of character and the use of a minimum of words so change the adverse fortune of a game. He was not a first class cricketer, but when the team failed he retrieved the game more than once, with a devastating defiant century from low down on the list. As captain of a Rugby football side he can have no equal and war claimed him at a time when the greatest honours that the game could offer were well within his grasp. But we shall remember rather the head of school who enjoyed respect accorded to few masters, who ran his prefects with the same silent efficiency as his fifteen, and taught them to enjoy the greater and no more exacting game; the perfect companion who never wasted a word in idle chatter, was never put out, laughed loudest in disaster, was humble to a fault, and staunch unto death. As a school boy his physique was magnificent, but as he was truly formidable in action, none was more gentle off the field or where duty permitted relaxation, and his great gift of leadership was crowd by the respect he accorded without abating any of his demand upon him, to the smallest, weakest member of the house or school. We do not know the manner of his passing but at least we know that death found him unmoved, unhurried, undismayed, with the game for which he had played, as he had always played soundly and honourably won.”
JPB Nov’ 2012 with thanks to AW Thorning & M Mortimer esq.