Tasker Watkins – First Welsh VC of the war

Men of the 1/5th Welch Regiment engaged on sniper-clearing duties, 10 August 1944. Left to right: Pte G Wyatt; Pte R J Wilkes; Pte J C Kershaw.

Men of the 1/5th Welch Regiment engaged on sniper-clearing duties, 10 August 1944. Left to right: Pte G Wyatt; Pte R J Wilkes; Pte J C Kershaw.

Canadian armoured forces move forward raising a cloud of dust as they take up battle positions in the drive to Falaise. The Allies had been held up in Normandy for a month after D-Day by heavy resistance from the Germans until the tanks broke through at Caen in the middle of July.

Canadian armoured forces move forward raising a cloud of dust as they take up battle positions in the drive to Falaise. The Allies had been held up in Normandy for a month after D-Day by heavy resistance from the Germans until the tanks broke through at Caen in the middle of July.

The battle to close the “Falaise Gap” was now fully engaged. The bulk of German troops in France were caught in a pocket with a narrow route of escape to the east. As Patton’s 3rd Army halted at Argentan on the southern side of the encirclement British, Canadian and Polish troops were pushing down from the north.

The 53rd (Welsh) Division had spent the war on defensive duties in the United Kingdom and were untested in combat before they landed in Normandy on 28th June, amongst the follow up ‘green’ divisions that were called into the line. They now faced some very experienced German troops who were fighting for their very existence.

Although some have described the attack made on 16th August as ‘bungled’ there was no shortage of courage amongst those taking part. Casualties had already hit the 1/5th Battalion and Lieutenant Watkins was already Acting Captain. He was soon the only officer left. In later years his citation for the Victoria Cross was often posted in the changing room of the Welsh national Rugby team:

In North-West Europe on the evening, of 16th August 1944, Lieutenant Watkins was commanding a company of the Welch Regiment. The battalion was ordered to attack objectives near the railway at Bafour. Lieutenant Watkin’s company had to cross open cornfields in which booby-traps had been set. It was not yet dusk and the company soon came under heavy machine-gun fire from posts in the corn and farther back, and also fire from an 88 mm. gun: many casualties were caused and the advance was slowed up.

Lieutenant Watkins, the only officer left, placed himself at the head of his men and under short range fire charged two posts in succession, personally killing or wounding the occupants with his Sten gun. On reaching his objective he found an anti-tank gun manned by a German soldier: his Sten gun jammed, so he threw it in the German’s face and shot him with his pistol before he had time to recover.

Lieutenant Watkin’s company now had only some 30 men left and was counterattacked by 50 enemy infantry. Lieutenant Watkins directed the fire of his men and then led a bayonet charge, which resulted in the almost complete destruction of the enemy. It was now dusk and orders were given for the battalion to withdraw. These orders were not received by Lieutenant Watkin’s company as the wireless set had been destroyed.

They now found themselves alone and surrounded in depleted numbers and in failing light. Lieutenant Watkins decided to rejoin his battalion by passing round the flank of the enemy position through which he had advanced but while passing through the cornfields once more, he was challenged by an enemy post at close range. He ordered his men to scatter and himself charged the post with a Bren gun and silenced it. He then led the remnants of his company back to battalion headquarters.

His superb gallantry and total disregard for his own safety during an extremely difficult period were responsible for saving the lives of his men, and had a decisive influence on the course of the battle.

Major Tasker Watkins VC

Major Tasker Watkins VC

A miner’s son who went through Grammar School to become a teacher, after the war Watkins became a barrister and then Judge, rising to become Sir Tasker Watkins, a Lord Justice of Appeal and deputy Lord Chief Justice. In Wales he was equally well known as the President of the Welsh Rugby Union from 1993 to 2004.

Youtube has a brief tribute to Sir Tasker Watkins from the BBC report on his death in 2007.

A recovery crew works on a disabled Churchill tank, 14 August 1944.

A recovery crew works on a disabled Churchill tank, 14 August 1944.

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