Sub. Lt .Martin Solomon, Commander of the Leigh Boats at Dunkirk

A rare photograph of
Martin Solomon

This is a slightly expanded version of the article that appeared in the newsletter, due to the greater amount of space we have available.

Sub. Lt. Martin Solomon was the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve commander in charge of the Leigh boats at Dunkirk.

Martin Herbert Bernard Solomon was born in Kensington, London, in October 1915. His father was a prominent British Zionist who, after the war until his death in 1948, advised the British authorities in respect of Jews in the British area of Germany.

Solomon was educated at Rugby and Christ's College, Cambridge, and became a theatrical manager and producer in London, working on shows at venues including the Savoy and Kingsway Theatres. One show for which Solomon was producer was 1937's Flying Blind at the Arts Theatre, Westminster. The lead was James Mason, just as his ascent to Hollywood stardom was beginning, opposite the actress who would become his first wife, Pamela Kellino. He would also manage the rising stars John Mills and Leigh-on-Sea-born Michael Wilding.

Solomon enrolled in the Royal Naval Volunteer Supplementary Reserve (attached to London Division RNVR) in 1938. Following just four days of training at HMS King Alfred (Portsmouth shore establishment), Solomon was one of four officers to graduate, those few being the only ones that had a complete uniform! All four joined Thames Naval Control based at HMS Leigh (Southend pier). With digs in the Palace Hotel, Solomon commanded a number of Thames tugs as the outer patrol.

In response to the new Admiralty commands requesting boats and the crews to go to Dunkirk, Commander Bowles* at Southend, ordered Solomon to assemble the Leigh and other Southend boats for dispatch to Dunkirk, but Solomon was ordered not to join them. He ignored this and later just claimed in his report that he had been ordered to go.

When the Leigh boats assembled at the pier, Solomon joined Defender, the largest of the six, as commander.

An account of what happened to the Leigh Boats at Dunkirk is available on this website here.

After the return from Dunkirk and the traumatic loss of Renown in the early hours of the 1st June, the crews of the five surviving Leigh boats were paid and discharged because the Navy had decided henceforth it only wanted boats capable of doing ten knots.

Solomon returned to Dunkirk later that same day. He initially tried to commandeer the tug Contest, but she was not ready to sail, so moved to another steam tug, the 105 tonne Fossa. By 20:00, Fossa embarked for France, towing the motorboat Thetis, which was crewed by a Petty Officer and two sea scouts.

Arriving at Dunkirk at midnight on the 2nd June, Solomon went ashore, where he acted as a liaison officer and a French interpreter. He left orders for Thetis to load a minimum of three hundred troops from the East Mole to Fossa. The motorboat's steering cable broke during her first trip into the harbour, and consequently Fossa embarked troops direct from the harbour wall.

German troops on Fossa, Dunkirk Beach 1940
Full of troops, Fossa attempted to head back out to sea towing with her not only the disabled Thetis, but also an additional open naval cutter full of French soldiers. Caught on the ebbing tide in the early hours of the morning, Fossa grounded outside the harbour entrance.

Two attempts were made to tow her off, but they failed and eventually about a hundred troops and crew were transferred to the MLC21, a motor landing craft. They returned to England, arriving at 14:15.  Meanwhile, Solomon remained on the shore, returning to Dover on the last ship out that night, HMS Winchelsea.

The following day he reported at HMS Lynx, where Vice Admiral Ramsay, who was in charge of the evacuation, dispatched him back to France as a liaison officer on board an RAF Seaplane Tender. Thirty men were on the motorboat when it was attacked.

In a letter written to Motor Boating magazine the following year, Solomon reveals that he was one of just two survivors. “I went through the unpleasant experience of being machine-gunned in the water, after we had been sunk, by four very persistent Junkers 87 diver bombers. They even dropped incendiary bombs in an attempt to catch any floating oil on fire. They have not got much mercy, those Germans. I then had to swim for seven hours towards a place that was already occupied by Jerry and eventually got back to England in charge of a French fishing boat, dressed as a French sailor, only to be arrested as a spy!”

Injured by the bombing, exhausted and suffering from exposure, he was hospitalised for some time. Afterwards. Solomon was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry for his part in the Dunkirk evacuations.

In 1941, when he wrote the letter referenced above, Solomon had been working with new motorboats out of Gosport, where he qualified as an anti-submarine officer. By the end of the year, he was based in Egypt, from where his MTB was involved in delivering supplies to the captured city of Tobruk, Libya. In the same campaign, Solomon rescued many men trapped in Tobruk harbour, whose entrance was under heavy fire from German tanks. Solomon laid down extensive smoke from his MTB to allow other craft to escape before picking up 100 men from a schooner hit by a shell. He won a second DSC for this display of gallantry.  

By the end of the War, Solomon was mentioned in dispatches, having become a trusted comrade of Anders Lassen, a Dane and the only non-Commonwealth recipient of the VC during the Second World War, in the Special Boat Section (later Special Boat Service, the sister to the SAS) in the Aegean. Under Lassen's leadership, the SBS was vital to the liberation of Thessalonica, though it was publicly portrayed as a victory for the Greek resistance forces. Solomon was awarded the MBE for his part in the relief of Greece.

After the war, Solomon was an exporter and, separately, a director for Pye Marine Radio. In 1949, he married a Londoner, Joan Vrint. In 1951, he stood as the Conservative candidate for Stepney in the general election, but was convincingly beaten by Labour. In 1953, he was re-engaged by the Navy for work in Korea.

In March 1956, he married Vida Bendix, a Spanish-born Norwegian cabaret star sometimes known as ‘Miss Freckles'. She had appeared on the BBC variety show CafĂ© Continental and in the Spanish film Minutos Antes ('Minutes After'). Just three months later, he died in what were apparently ‘mysterious circumstances' in the Crillon Hotel, Madrid, though greater detail is difficult to find. His body was flown back to London for burial.

Damien Lewis's book Churchill's Secret Warriors, which recounts the formation of Britain's Special Forces in the Second World War and their actions in the Aegean describes the now Lieutenant Commander as “short, chubby and forever cheerful” but is careful to note that he was a “steely-eyed warrior”. It is clear that he was a remarkably brave and resourceful individual.

Though they couldn't possibly have known it at the time, the Leigh fishermen couldn't have asked for a better man to lead them on their mission to Dunkirk.

There is one more Leigh link; Martin Solomon left his gold watch to Lt. Cdr. Reginald Joseph Bedford RNVR, who at one time lived in Leigham Court Drive and who was known to be an MI6 agent. If anyone has any information about him, we'd be very grateful.

The Trust is indebted to Mr Bruce McComish for kindly sharing his own research with us which greatly informed this article.

* in the newsletter we had the Commander at HMS Leigh as Boles, but we think it was more likely to have been Bowles.


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