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Robert Marshall

Robert Michael Marshall was born on May 18th 1917 the son of Robert and Elizabeth Marshall,. Educated close to home at Giggleswick School in North Yorkshire the young Marshall soon showed his sporting prowess. Although only a moderate cricketer, he more than once saved the school eleven with a defiant century from far down the order, but it was on the rugby pitch that Marshall soon showed himself to be a force apart. A dynamic second row his athletic play earned him almost legendary status whilst at school, and this was a legacy that he would carry with him to Oxford as he went up to Oriel College in September 1936.

Marshall’s first blue for Oxford came just a few weeks after his arrival at University on December 8th 1936 at Twickenham, a ground that Marshall was to come to regard as being close to a second home for both club and country. Played in treacherous conditions Marshall and his Oxford team mates were eventually pipped by their adversaries from Cambridge by six points to five in a game that was by all accounts as close as the score would suggest. It is generally accepted that Cambridge were the better side on the day, but spent most of the match in defense battered by Oxfords forwards who were as good as their backs were poor. Three weeks later on December 28th Marshall also made his first appearance for the Barbarians in their annual Christmas fixture against Leicester . This debut had a more favorable result for Marshall as the Barbarians found success in the Midlands by twenty points to five.

Marshall was again picked for the Oxford varsity side the following season, playing at Twickenham in front of the King on December 7th 1937. Although Cambridge started the match as favorites Oxford took every attacking chance offered to them, however small, marking and tackling Cambridge out of the game as they achieved a notable seventeen points to four win. On the back of this game Marshall was again invited to travel to Leicester with the Barbarians that Christmas where they enjoyed an emphatic thirty four points to nil victory on December 28th.

By now Marshalls growing skills on the pitch were becoming all too apparent and he soon caught the eyes of the English selectors and he joined the English squad as they travelled to Dublin to take on the Irish on February 12th 1938. England proved to be the superior side in all areas, running up a twenty three points to nil lead during the first half, before allowing the Irish the barest glimmer of hope in the second in what was to be a thirty six points to fourteen win. Off the boil in the second half, probably due to the size of the points cushion that they had amassed in the first, this result never realistically looked in doubt. Marshall played well in his first international match went well and this fact did not go unnoticed. As the Times was to enthuse in its match report “RM Marshall, a new forward in the second row, was a stupendous success, and that not only because he ran some fifty yards to score the try of the match.”

Once again Marshall ’s form spoke for itself. He was now to retain his place in the England team for every international they played until the outbreak of the Second World War. Prior to England ’s next match he again played for the Barbarians, this time against East Midlands in the Edgar Mobbs memorial match held on March 3rd 1938. This was a close match that the Barbarians won by eight points to seven. Marshall returned to Twickenham for his first home international against Scotland on March 19th which was played in front of the King and the Queen. This was predicted to be a close match, perhaps with England running out as slight favorites. Unfortunately these predictions proved to be far from the mark as the Scots claimed their first win at Twickenham since 1926 also taking the international championship and the triple crown. In a fast paced match the Scottish pack proved just too resolute in their twenty one points to sixteen victory, whilst the English backs were distinctly off form.

Returning to Oxford Marshall was picked for his third blue against Cambridge on December 6th 1938. Oxford started as clear favorites, their pack considered to be a formidable proposition, but Cambridge rose to the challenge, holding their opponents in both the tight and the loose as they edged to an eight points to six win. With little time to rue the loss of his final varsity match Marshall was soon again in action for England , taking on the Welsh at Twickenham on January 21st 1939. Played in a sea of mud the Welsh made a battle of the game but were comprehensively outscrummaged as England won by three points to nil. Although, as has often been the case, the Welsh backs looked sharp, they suffered from a lack of ball as England maintained a stranglehold on possession.

Although Marshall at times turned out for Scarborough in his native Yorkshire , joining the club as a sixteen year old and becoming their first international, he was generally better known as a member of the Harlequins who rapidly began to regard him as one of the best forwards to ever turn out for the club. His stature was confirmed by the Times, who likened him to another great Harlequin in the wake of the victory over Wales , Marshall , again, stood out for two breaksaway, the likes of which have not been seen since Wakefield retired.”

England again played at Twickenham for the next match, their fiftieth international at the ground, against Ireland on February 11th. Although England played as well as they were allowed to, the pace of the Irish undid them along with a further poor showing by the backs which allowed the Irish to take the match by five points to nil in a surprise victory. Shortly afterwards on March 2nd Marshall again joined the Barbarians for a fourth and final time as they played in the Mobbs memorial Match against East Midlands winning by twenty three points to eleven. He was never to loose whilst playing in the clubs famous black and white hoops,

For the final match of the 1939 international campaign England travelled to Murrayfield on March 18th. In a complete turnaround from the previous year at Twickenham the English pack was in the ascendant and the Scottish backs hardly saw the ball. Despite a large amount of possession the English were unable to cross the Scottish line instead relying on kicks to gain their points. The Scottish tackled fiercely throughout, and one of the few positives that they could salvage from their eventual nine points to six defeat, one that gave England a share of the International championship, was that they managed to “prevent a man like RM Marshall from battering his way through them.”

This, only Marshall ’s fifth cap, was to be his last. Throughout the Second World War he served with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on motor gun boats, rising swiftly to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. His exploits in the service of his country in battle were as exemplary as they had been on the rugby pitch as he was often involved in high risk special missions. By 1943 Marshal was in command of MGB 607, often taking part in raids on the Dutch coast that involved protracted battles with the Germans as a diversion for his brother motor torpedo boats. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1944 after ramming and sinking a German E boat attacking a convoy, also transferring to the newer and bigger MGB 503 at about this time.

Whilst in command of this boat he took part in the first Bonaparte mission, where he silently conned his ship to France to pick up nineteen souls who had evaded the Germans and were escaping the continent. These were usually downed airmen and these missions prevented the necessity and danger of a far longer escape via Spain . Later he was awarded a bar to his Distinguished Service Cross for his exploits. With the end of the war in Europe MGB 2002 was tasked with a special mission to transport Merchant Navy Officers to Gothenburg to arrange the return of three British merchant vessels. The 2002’s normal captain, Jan Mason, was away in London being awarded his own Distinguished Service Cross, so Marshall volunteered to assume temporary command for the mission in his stead. On 11th May 1945 MGB 2002 left Aberdeen and was never seen again. Several days later two survivors were picked up in critical condition. Robert ‘Mike’ Marshall was not one of them, a post VE Day victim of a rogue mine cut free by a British minesweeper a few days earlier.


"Harlequin Story", HBT Wakelam, Phoenix House Ltd 1954

"The Complete Who's Who of England Rugby Union Internationals", R Maule,  Breedon 1992

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© D A Hunter, 2008
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