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Heart-breaking moment son, 80, finds WWII Hampden bomber flown by his RAF hero father’s squadron

This is the moment John Watts first saw the bomber plane flown by his father’s squadron during the Second World War and grew closer to knowing the man he never met.

John Watts grew up without ever having the chance to meet his father – a hero pilot of the Second World War who died eight months before he was born.

But after years of research, John – now in his 80s – tracked down a bomber plane which flew in his father’s squadron, bringing him that bit closer to his father.

By June 1940, RAF Wing Commander Joseph Watts was an experienced and decorated pilot who had already flown in several key campaigns and was exhausted, having seen many of his friends lose their lives.

Watts, who was in his element when flying, knew that commanding a Hampden Bomber was extremely dangerous and that he was unlikely to survive the war. 

By 1940, the war had been raging across Europe for months and Hitler had made his way through Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium and France.

Wing Commander Joseph Watts was an experienced pilot in World War Two and was on his way back to base when his plane crashed when it’s wing struck a barrage balloon’s steel cable

A Hampden bomber like the aircraft flown by John's father Wing Commander Joseph Watts

A Hampden bomber like the aircraft flown by John’s father Wing Commander Joseph Watts

‘The Flying Suitcase’: Cramped Hampden bomber was fast and nimble – but short on leg room 

The Hampden bomber was a twin-engine of the RAF and was often referred to as ‘the flying suitcase’ because of the cramped crew conditions.

The plane was designed as a fast and manoeuvrable ‘fighting bomber’ and so featured a fixed Browning machine gun in the upper part of the fuselage and a curved Perspex nose fitted with a Vickers machine gun.

The slim and compact fuselage of the aircraft was quite cramped, being wide enough only for a single person.

The navigator sat behind the pilot and access in the cockpit required folding down the seats.

Once in place, the crew of four men had almost no room to move and were typically uncomfortable during long missions. 

Recalling his mother’s stories, son John said: ‘Only once in her presence did he actually break down after a particularly dreadful night.

‘I think that was the raid on Kristiansand when half the squadron was lost and, of course, he was commander.

‘Twelve of them went out, six of them got back including friends of course and you know how close these crews were.’

Watts was not only mindful of his own crew but of the entire squadron, something which John says was exhausting for him.

His mother often described him coming back from missions and collapsing on the sofa before having to leave immediately when he woke.

Throughout 1940, the 144 squadron – of which Joseph Watts belonged – was deployed in night-time bombing missions over Germany.

John has been fortunate enough to hear his father’s voice in archive footage of a news interview.

Three months before his death, Wing Commander Watts was asked about a mission over Sylt –  an island in northern German which became a fortress during the Second World War.

The mission saw his crew ‘blast the lair of the mine-laying sea planes with some of their own explosive medicine’.

When asked if he had a good trip, Joseph Watts tells the reporter: ‘One of the best we ever had because we were allowed to do something this time.’ 

In his final mission, Watts set off from Hemswell, Lincs, to provide support for British forces who were targeting rail communications.

Joseph Watt, pictured age 19, was described as a 'rip-roaring person who roared into the room'

Joseph Watt, pictured age 19, was described as a ‘rip-roaring person who roared into the room’

Joseph's son John Watts, 80, never met his father and has waited all his life to find some way of connecting with him. John managed to track down a Hampden bomber which flew in his father's squadron and was overcome with emotion when he saw it being restored in a hangar

Joseph’s son John Watts, 80, never met his father and has waited all his life to find some way of connecting with him. John managed to track down a Hampden bomber which flew in his father’s squadron and was overcome with emotion when he saw it being restored in a hangar

John described it as the closest thing to being able to say hello to his father after he was killed

John described it as the closest thing to being able to say hello to his father after he was killed

John, pictured with the Hampden bomber from his father's squadron, says his father has lived for him through the tales of his mother and described him as 'a wonderful, bright, happy ghost'

John, pictured with the Hampden bomber from his father’s squadron, says his father has lived for him through the tales of his mother and described him as ‘a wonderful, bright, happy ghost’

On his way back to base, his plane’s wing struck a barrage balloon near Felixstowe docks and crashed into a flour mill and all four men on board were killed.

‘June 1940’: a poem by Norah Watts 

A memory of shoulders

Wearing lightly, bravely,

The tunic blue.

The roar of squadrons already roaring out

Over our last farewell.

For Essen? Sylt?

The marshalling yards at Ham?

Cologne?

Or death?

The bantering voice,

The tender clasp

Altered not a whit.

His heart beat warmly against mine

For seconds longer.

The strong hand gathered, pressed me hard Against the dear familiar serge of blue,

Holding to him extra tightly

The atom in me on which

We pinned such hope and love,

A brother or a sister?

I watched the splendid back

Walking with grace and swiftness.

Never a backward look,

Into the summer scented June.

I watched him down the hill,

My life contained

Beneath that tunic.

The forage cap jauntily poised;

The four-lined cuff.

Before early summer dawn

Over the Belgian bridges

He fought with his crew Desperately

For England.

And died.

His son John was born eight months later to his wife Norah who was instructed by Joseph not to attend his funeral because ‘there would be nothing there she would know to say goodbye to’. 

Speaking to History Hit, John says: ‘For me, he’s always been a wonderful, bright, happy ghost because our mother evoked him all the time.

‘He lives for me through all these wonderful tales. He was this great, rip-roaring person who roared into the room and took over.’ 

John says his mother never fully recovered losing ‘the love of her life’ and coped by turning her back on the RAF and his side of the family when Joseph was killed.

She also wrote a lot of poetry about the war and the grief that followed.

He added: ‘What I did was to turn all my schoolteachers, the male ones, into dads. I had very good relationships with my teachers, I was lucky.

‘And they understood because they were all the wartime generation and they were ready to be rather fatherly I think.’ 

John says the fact his mother turned her back on Joseph’s family is a large reason why he has gone in search for answers and that, despite 80 years having passed since his father’s death, the grief is ‘always there’.

After Joseph’s death, the family immediately moved from Lincolnshire to London. 

John’s search for answers led him to the RAF Museum in Cosford where he had managed to track down one of the few remaining Hampden bombers only to discover it actually flew in his father’s squadron.

Describing why he wanted to see the plane, John said: ‘I think it connects to what my father means to me, what it’s like not to have a father.

‘It connects to this very peculiar situation of being very aware of someone, and very proud of them, but having no tangible connections to them beyond the little mementos and all my mother’s stories.

‘It’s not quite closure but I’ve wanted to see it all my life.’

When he stepped into the hangar and saw the plane for the first time, John was overwhelmed with emotion.

Placing his hand on the pilot’s seat, he said ‘this is the nearest I will ever be to my father’ and that it was comforting to know he had died doing something that he loved.

‘He loved it – he was in his element. He was a speed merchant really.

‘He was the opposite of his son sitting here, very technical, very good at maths and an all round athlete and he just loved speed,’ John said.

Describing the experience as ‘hugely moving’, he added: ‘It’s the nearest thing to being able to say hello to your own father.’


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