“Sir Tasker Watkins, the former Deputy Chief Justice of England and Lord Justice of Appea… was awarded a Victoria Cross for his conduct during the North-West Europe Campaign of 1944-45.
On August 16 1944, when commanding a company of 1/5th Company of the Welch Regiment, Watkins attacked a German machine-gun post single-handed while leading a bayonet charge.
The battalion had been ordered to attack objectives near the railway at Bafour, about five miles west of Falaise, as part of the move to trap the Fifth and Seventh German Armies in the Falaise “pocket”.
Watkins’s company had to cross open cornfields containing a number of booby traps, and while doing so came under heavy machine-gun fire from posts in the corn, as well as being targeted by an 88mm gun.
When heavy casualties slowed the advance of the Welch, Lieutenant Watkins found himself the only officer left, and put himself at the head of his men. Although subjected to short-range German fire, he charged two enemy posts in turn, killing or wounding the occupants with his Sten gun.
On reaching his objective he found an anti-tank gun manned by a German soldier. At that vital moment his Sten gun jammed, so he threw it into the German’s face and shot him with his pistol before the man had a chance to recover. Immediately after this the company, now down to 30, was counter-attacked by 50 Germans. Once again Watkins led a bayonet charge that resulted in the destruction and dispersal of the enemy.
“One of the most influential Welshmen of the 20th century”: Tribute video by the Welsh Rugby Union for Remembrance Day 2018, the month that would have been Tasker Watkins’ 100th birthday (he was born a week after the World War One Armistice).
The battalion had now been given orders to withdraw, but this could not be passed on to Watkins’s company as its radio had been destroyed. He and his men thus found themselves alone and surrounded by enemy in fading light.
Watkins tried to lead his company back to rejoin the battalion by moving round the flanks of the enemy position through the corn. While going through the cornfield, however, he was challenged by an enemy post at close range. Ordering his men to scatter, he charged the post with a Bren gun and silenced it. Then he led the remnants of his company back to battalion headquarters.
Watkins’s citation recorded that “his superb gallantry and total disregard for his own safety during an extremely diffcult period were responsible for saving the lives of his men and had a decisive influence on the course of the battle” – which resulted in the capture of 50,000 German prisoners and 10,000 enemy killed.
He was promoted from lieutenant to major on the field. After recovering in hospital from a leg wound he went home on leave, taking a bus from Cardiff to his home village, near Mountain Ash, Glamorgan. He arrived unnoticed. Interviewed subsequently, all he would say about the action was that the men with him were Welsh, and “I am proud of that”.
Tasker Watkins was born at Nelson, Glamorgan, on November 18, 1918, and educated at Pontypridd Grammar School. After the outbreak of war he served in the ranks from October 1939 until May 1941, when he was granted an emergency commission as a second lieutenant, the Welch Regiment.
In 1943 he attended the Advanced Handling and Fieldcraft School at Llanberis, Caernarfonshire, then worked as an instructor in the rifle wing of the school. He was posted to 103 Reinforcement Group in Normandy in June 1944, joining the 1/5th Company of the Welch Regiment the next month.
Watkins was decorated with the Victoria Cross by King George VI at Buckingham Palace on March 8 1945, after which he worked as an instructor at 164 Officer Cadet Training Unit.
Demobbed in 1946, he read for the Bar. He was called by Middle Temple in 1948 and started practising in common law on the Wales and Chester Circuit. After taking Silk in 1965 he moved to chambers at No 1 Crown Office Row in the Temple, where to begin with he would often spend the night on a camp bed.
An economical and persuasive advocate, Watkins was deputy counsel to the Attorney-General, Sir Elwyn Jones, at the Aberfan Disaster Inquiry in 1966. In his closing address he observed with force and accuracy that the subject of tip stability had received less consideration than any other aspect of coal mining.
He also prosecuted in a number of cases involving Welsh extremists, including the Free Wales Army trial in 1969, which followed the discovery of a plot to attack Caernarfon Castle and assassinate Prince Charles.
As chairman of the Welsh branch of the Mental Review Tribunal from 1960 until 1971, Watkins headed the inquiry into the ill-treatment of mentally ill patients at Farleigh Hospital in Somerset. His report told a grim story of self-satisfaction and set attitudes at all levels of the staff, and recommended a code of conduct for nurses.
Watkins was deputy chairman of Radnor Quarter Sessions from 1962 to 1971. He was Recorder of Merthyr Tydfil from 1968 to 1970, and of Swansea in 1970-71, when he was also Leader of the Wales and Chester Circuit.
He was appointed a Judge of the High Court in the Family Division in 1971 – and that year released a fraudster from prison after hearing of the man’s gallantry in diving into a fast-flowing river to save a four-year-old girl.
He transferrred to the Queen’s Bench Division in 1974, and from 1975 to 1980 was Presiding Judge on the Wales and Chester Circuit. He was promoted to the Court of Appeal in 1980.
In 1982 Watkins headed a working party set up by Lord Lane, then the Lord Chief Justice, which proposed changes in Crown Court procedure designed to speed up and cut the costs of criminal trials. His appointment the next year as the first Senior Presiding Judge for England and Wales was designed to relieve Lane of some of his heavy administrative burden.
Watkins was viewed rather as a safe pair of hands with sound judgment than as a great intellectual or law maker. During his time as a Recorder and his early years on the bench, he spoke quietly and rarely appeared ruffled or bad-tempered. In common with many judges, though, he grew less patient as the years wore on.
He tended to say what he thought. In 1984 he described Britain’s first woman coroner, Dr Mary McHugh, as a “mistress of discourtesy” and a “very stubborn lady” when she appeared to delay the inquest into the death in Moscow of a British banker.
In the same year he declared the film Scum, a vivid portrayal of the violence and savagery of life in a British borstal, to be “gratuitously offensive and revolting” and strongly rebuked IBA executives for allowing it to be shown.
Watkins was appointed Deputy Chief Justice of England in 1988 and worked closely with Lord Lane on judicial postings and the administration of the criminal justice system. He asked High Court judges to fill in time sheets to show how they spent their working days, in an attempt to boost the case for more judicial manpower.
In 1991 he sat alongside Lord Lane in the historic appeal case that established that husbands living with their wives can be convicted of raping them. It was, said Lane, “the removal of a common law fiction that has become anachronistic and offensive”.
Two years later Watkins himself delivered another well-received judgment, recommending that Derek Bentley be given a posthumous conditional pardon. An epileptic with a mental capacity “just above the level of a feeble-minded person”, Bentley had been hanged in 1953 after allegedly encouraging Christopher Craig to shoot PC Sydney Miles with the words “Let him have it, Chris” during an attempted burglary.
Watkins retired from the bench, aged 75, in 1993; and that year he was voted in as the new president of the Welsh Rugby Union, after the first contest for the office in the Union’s history. Later in the year he chaired the sub-committee which ended up by sacking the Union’s secretary, Denis Evans, for “maladministration”.
On standing down from the presidency in 2004 Watkins was made honorary life vice-patron of the Welsh RU, of which the Queen is Patron.
Watkins was also variously a member of the TA Association, Glamorgan and Wales, from 1947; president of the British Legion of Wales from 1947 to 1968; a Deputy Lieutenant for Glamorgan from 1956; president of Glamorgan Wanderers Rugby Football Club – for whom he had played as a young man, captaining the club’s 2nd XV – from 1968; and president of the University of Wales College of Medicine from 1987 to 1998.
He was knighted in 1971 and was sworn of the Privy Council on his appointment to the Court of Appeal in 1980. He was appointed GBE in 1990.
In 2001, as Armistice Day approached once more, Watkins was invited to reflect on the award of his VC. “You must believe me when I say it was just another day in the life of a soldier,” he insisted. “I did what needed doing to help colleagues and friends, just as others looked out for me during the fighting that summer… I didn’t wake up the next day a better or braver person, just different. I’d seen more killing and death in 24 hours – indeed been part of that terrible process – than is right for anybody. From that point onwards I have tried to take a more caring view of my fellow human beings, and that, of course, always includes your opponent, whether it be in war, sport or just life generally.”
Tasker Watkins married, in 1941, Eirwen Evans, who survives him with their daughter; a son predeceased him.” (Obituary courtesy of The Daily Telegraph)
He may have been awarded the Victoria Cross in World War II, but Sir Tasker Watkins was always uncomfortable about a painting portraying his heroism.
Sir Tasker, who has died at 88, was given the honour for gallantry in France in 1944 for his assault on a German machine-gun post in Normandy.
The miner’s son, who was a top judge and WRU president, was always modest and reticent to talk about his heroism.
One historian said it was typical of the reaction of many VC holders.
When Sir Tasker’s feelings were made known to John Dart, curator of the Museum of the Welch Regiment of the Royal Regiment of Wales the picture was immediately removed from public view.
The oil painting, which depicts Sir Tasker in his battle uniform, running with his machine gun at the enemy, is now kept in the museum’s archives in Cardiff Castle.
Sir Tasker simply did his duty. He just got on with it and in doing that he won a VC.
John Dart, museum curator
Mr Dart said: “The picture basically shows him taking (someone’s) life. Although there’s no-one dead, it’s him in the act of killing someone who’s trying to kill him.
“As far as I’m aware, he didn’t want his grandchildren to know what their granddad did. I was told that he disliked it intensely.”
Mr Dart believes Sir Tasker’s reaction to the painting is typical of that of war heroes.
“Nobody likes to glorify war,” he said. “Sir Tasker simply did his duty. He just got on with it and in doing that he won a VC.”
Sir Tasker was known for his modesty by all who knew him.
Julie Morgan, MP for Cardiff North and wife of First Minister Rhodri Morgan, was a family friend of Sir Tasker’s.
Her late father, Jack Edwards, shared lodgings with him in London when they were both teachers and the pair played rugby for London Welsh.
She said she had been aware of the painting but said Sir Tasker had never talked about his war days with her.
“He was a very private person,” said Mrs Morgan, whose father came from Senghenydd, not far from Sir Tasker’s native Nelson.
“He didn’t regard what he did to get the VC as anything other than a day’s work.”
With Sir Tasker’s death, there are only 12 living holders of the VC worldwide.
Those who are left are just as modest as Sir Tasker, according to John Glanfield, a military historian and author of The Bravest of the Brave: The Story of the Victoria Cross.
Mr Glanfield said: “I had lunch with a dozen or so VC holders and the Queen Mother in about 1993 or ’94.
“I was amazed at the reticence of all of them to talk about what happened to them. Their attitude was ‘it’s just a job.'”
Although he never met Sir Tasker, Mr Glanfield believes his attitude to his painting reflects that of many VC holders.
“Many of them feel that their mates on other occasions were equally as gallant but were not honoured. The honour went to them,” he said.
“They feel that there’s a lack of justice in a way that others weren’t honoured in the same way.
“I can imagine that’s what was going through Sir Tasker’s mind as he was being recorded as a hero.”
Following the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, Watkins joined the British Army as a private in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry in October 1939. After serving for over a year as a private he was sent for officer training and was commissioned, with the rank of second lieutenant, into the Welch Regiment on 17 May 1941. He was given the service number 187088. He was posted to the regiment’s 1st/5th Battalion, a Territorial Army (TA) unit. The battalion was one of three (the others being the 4th Welch Regiment and the 2nd Monmouthshire Regiment) which formed part of the 160th Infantry Brigade, itself being one of three brigades (the others being the 158th and 159th) forming the 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division. The division, then commanded by Major General Gerard Bucknall, was serving in Northern Ireland until moving to Wales late in 1941, and then to Kent in April 1942, where it remained for over two years before it was to see any action, until then being engaged in numerous military exercises and training and learning the art of war.
By now a lieutenant, Watkins departed for France with the rest of the 53rd Division, now commanded by Major General Robert Ross, arriving there in late June 1944, a few weeks after the initial D-Day landings. The division participated in a number of engagements, such as the Second Battle of the Odon, and, in August, the Battle of the Falaise Pocket. By mid-August Watkins, commanding “B” Company in his battalion, which had by now been transferred from the 160th Brigade to the 158th Brigade, was one officer in a group leading an assault on a German machine gun post. After all the other officers were killed in the approach, Watkins continued to lead the group and won his VC for leading a bayonet charge against 50 armed enemy infantry and then single-handedly taking out a machine-gun post to ensure the safety of his unit.
He was the first Welsh member of the British Army to be awarded a VC during the Second World War. His citation read:
On 16 August 1944 at Barfour, Normandy, France, Lieutenant Watkins’ company came under murderous machine-gun fire while advancing through corn fields set with booby traps. The only officer left, Lieutenant Watkins led a bayonet charge with his 30 remaining men against 50 enemy infantry, practically wiping them out. Finally, at dusk, separated from the rest of the battalion, he ordered his men to scatter and after he had personally charged and silenced an enemy machine-gun post, he brought them back to safety. His superb leadership not only saved his men, but decisively influenced the course of the battle.
Watkins’ active service ended in October 1944 when he was badly wounded in the battle to liberate the Dutch city of ‘s‑Hertogenbosch, where a memorial service was held for him in St. John’s Cathedral in 2007. Along with many others, he rarely spoke about the war. Of the event which led to him being awarded the VC he simply stated, in a 1955 radio interview:
A good memory is a fine thing but for those who were there it should not be too good. It should be good enough, however, to recall the great comradeship we had and which we shall never experience again.
He stated in another interview with The Daily Telegraph in 2001:
You must believe me when I say it was just another day in the life of a soldier. I did what needed doing to help colleagues and friends, just as others looked out for me during the fighting that summer… I didn’t wake up the next day a better or braver person, just different. I’d seen more killing and death in 24 hours−indeed been part of that terrible process−than is right for anybody. From that point onwards I have tried to take a more caring view of my fellow human beings, and that, of course, always includes your opponent, whether it be in war, sport, or just life generally.
Watkins’ VC is on display in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery in the Imperial War Museum.
Major Rt Hon Sir Tasker WATKINS VC GBE PC of 1/5th Battalion the WELCH REGIMENT, whose gallantry also honours “his fallen commanders and comrades in the savage Battle of the FALAISE Gap. The difficult and costly infantry advance in his sector helped seal the bottleneck to achieve and sustain subsequent high German POWs and losses, much from the Royal Air Force’s 3” Rocket Projectile Typhoons against armour and tracked vehicles
(Starting at Reel 1, 8m46s, where he commences by saying “I deny that I’m a veteran…I’m just getting a little old.”
“Men of Harlech” or “The March of the Men of Harlech” (Welsh: Rhyfelgyrch Gwŷr Harlech) is a song and military march which is traditionally said to describe events during the seven-year siege of Harlech Castle between 1461 and 1468. Commanded by Constable Dafydd ap Ieuan, the garrison withstood the longest known siege in the history of the British Isles. (“Through Seven Years” is an alternative name for the song.) The song has also been associated with the earlier, briefer siege of Harlech Castle about 1408, which pitted the forces of Owain Glyndŵr against the future Henry V of England. “Men of Harlech” is important for Welsh national culture. The song gained international recognition when it was featured in the 1941 movie How Green Was My Valley and the 1964 film Zulu.” (Wikipedia).