In our Aug/Sept issue, Rob Erdos muses on float flying and we discuss night aerial firefighting. Plus: Air Canada in the pandemic, KF Aerospace at 50 and Canadians in the Battle of Britain.
Approximately 50,000 Canadians served with the Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Air Force in Bomber Command operations over occupied Europe during the Second World War.
One of those brave Canadians was a courageous and highly skilled navigator, Jack Vincent Watts.
BGen Watts was born in 1920, in Hamilton, Ont., and enlisted in the RCAF on July 2, 1940.
He met his wife, Cpl Norma Tilley, in England in the spring of 1944 while she was serving with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) with the Bomber Command. They married in the fall of the same year.
He flew over 100 sorties with Bomber Command, serving in several units.
During his outstanding war time service, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and Bar. He left the RCAF after the war with the rank of squadron leader, but later returned, retiring as a brigadier-general in 1975. He commanded the RCAF contingent to Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 and was decorated by the Queen with the coronation medal.
Although Watts didn’t serve during the Battle of Britain, he knew of a pilot with a great war record who did — and who found ordinary life a struggle after the war.
“He was another casualty [of the war], same as being shot up,” said Watts. “Nowadays, [it’s called] post-traumatic stress.
“There were people that didn’t feel normal unless they were in operational situations. It was like coming home . . . it was familiarity. It was what you had matured into from a child — a kid; you’d become a man.”
Watts had a front row seat to the famed raids on the German battleship Tirpitz, sister ship of the more famous Bismarck, while serving with the Royal Air Force’s 10 Squadron.
For most of her wartime career, the Tirpitz sat in Norwegian fjords at Trondheim. It was an ongoing threat to the Royal Navy and a constant target for British attacks, but the fjords made it difficult for airmen to attack the vessel.
On the night of April 27, 1942, Watts expertly and calmly guided the pilot of their Halifax bomber through an intense ambush of fighter attacks, bringing them down to an astonishing 250 feet (76 metres) to deliver their load on the ship.
“I think [the Tirpitz raid] was the most challenging one of all,” he said.
“It was night time and we were carrying mines instead of bombs. The mines were to drop down below the stern and explode to try and damage the rear of the Tirpitz. We attacked at 250 feet, which was just over mast height. It was as low as you could be and make it. We did it two nights running.”
On the first night, the ship was shrouded in protective smoke and remained undamaged. “You couldn’t see anything,” he said. The second night saw success and Watts was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions on the two nights.
His level-headedness and courage was again put to the test on Nov. 11, 1942, when his aircraft was shot down in the Mediterranean near Tobruk, Libya.
He survived, but was injured by his parachute. He was shot down close to midnight and the stars were his only reference in the dark. Even in this extreme situation, he had the courage and strength of character to keep his cool and ignore the fear, the pain caused by his injury and the grief for the apparent loss of his crew. He used his expert navigational skills to save his own life and swim toward shore — an ordeal that lasted more than five hours.
“I swam every stroke in the book. I would roll over to look up at the stars and get lined up,” he said. “I know at least three times I think I started to drown.”
At one point he thought he heard the surf but would not let himself believe it was the shore.
“Because of my experience in the North Sea, I didn’t want to have false hope, so I refused to accept it and I just kept on going. Then finally, my hands and knees touched bottom. I crawled up on the slope until I hit the shore, crawled between two big rocks and just passed out.”
When he came to, he realized he had landed on the shore of an occupied German army camp. He noticed activity as well as a watch tower nearby, and opted to stay still for two or three days, not moving an inch for fear of being spotted. After being exposed to the elements, without food, water or shelter, he decided to move once night had fallen.
“I made my way up to the hut and up the stairs,” he said. “Inside there was a big square room, big set of tables, sorted mail in boxes, and then I noticed that right there on the wall, looking at me was a big picture of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel — commander of the German Army in Africa.”
Watts found clothes, food and supplies, including a bayonet and an automatic pistol. He couldn’t find any water that he trusted, but he had a quick drink of Chianti and, due to extreme exhaustion, fell asleep.
He awoke to the sound of a vehicle engine and, as the door was kicked open, he recognized the outline of a British helmet.
He hit the floor and asked, “Are you British?”
The startled British military policeman reached for his side arm, which was secured in its holster. Watts then blurted out: “I’m Canadian! I was shot down! I’m an RCAF airman!”
After a brief scuffle and an intense exchange, the military police determined that this was in fact a stranded Canadian in German’s clothing. They sat him down and asked him if he was hungry. They brewed tea, wrapped him in a British Army coat and drove him to an RAF base.
On the way, they passed army personnel in pursuit of the Germans who had abandoned Tobruk the day before Watts broke into their camp.
He said that having good morale and a positive attitude were essential to survival.
“If a night fighter is attacking you and you’re in the middle of search lights and flack is all around you, you have to have high morale at that time. It’s a very personal challenge really. And to say you took so many youngsters off the street, trained them and put them in that kind of context with that attitude and capability is quite amazing,” explained Watts.
The sense of duty and loyalty was also key.
“A lot of people had been killed, I had not,” he said. “I had a job still to do, a responsibility I still had to face. I wasn’t in fear and trembling, I felt I was trained, equipped and capable, and that’s what I was there for. [There were] many people to who I owed that kind of loyalty.”
When asked what lingers in his mind the most all these years later, he mused: “Looking back, you can’t possibly recall in the sense of how you felt that long ago. What stays with you is that you must now recognize the incredible attitude with which the Bomber Command air crews operated when they went out night after night with the full knowledge that numbers of them would not make it.
Every time you came back you had a meal at the mess waiting for you and there would always be places unoccupied. I don’t think it was discussed. You didn’t know if they were prisoners… or dead. It was in a sense the way in which the game was played. You knew the chances were there and some would not make it, but most crews felt that they could handle it, could make the trip and come back.”