Major John Bernard Robert Watson
Unit : "A" Company, 13th Parachute Battalion
Army No. : 237916
Awards : Military Cross
John Bernard Robert Watson was born in Scarborough, Yorkshire on the 14th January 1917. He joined the Army in 1939, serving with the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry until 1941, when he transferred to The South Lancashire Regiment, and he was with the 2nd/4th Battalion when it was chosen for conversion to a Parachute Battalion. He was on parachute course 72 at R.A.F. Ringway, running from the 12th to 23rd July 1943, along with another 13 officers and 211 men of the Battalion who had survived the selection process. His instructors comments were simply; "A good type officer. Jumped well". Jack, as he was known, along with the rest of the hardcore of original officers and senior sergeants, would be instrumental in the formation of the 13th (Lancashire) Parachute Battalion.
On 6th June 1944, the then Lieutenant Watson took off for Normandy, commanding No.3 Platoon, "A" Company, this is his account of that night:
"I took off with my 'stick' in a Dakota from R.A.F. Broadwell, near Brize Norton at 23.30 hours. In the Channel, I could see below me ships signalling 'V' for Victory. Our battalion's task was to secure Ranville and to protect the DZ and LZ during the landing of the gliders. As I landed my parachute got caught up in the trees so had a fairly soft landing. I was lucky, but I was alone! I collected my equipment together and saw Ranville church tower and made for it meeting my men on the way."
"The DZ was a real buggers muddle, with all three battalions of our Brigade and some sticks of the 8th Battalion, who had been dropped on the wrong DZ all mixed up. But, the hunting horns sounded clearly, and when I reached the rendezvous the Company was about 40 strong - half an hour later, we were up to 60. I was missing one section and my Platoon Sergeant. Major Cramphorn decided to wait no longer, and we set off to clear D.Z 'N' of poles for the first wave of gliders. While we were doing this we could hear the fighting going on at Ranville, which our battalion captured by 02.30 hours, the first village to be captured in France."
"Despite heavy mortaring and machine-gun fire, the poles were removed and the ditches filled in by 03.00 hours. The poles were, fortunately, not as large as expected. We had trained to remove telegraph poles, and the so called "Rommels Asparagus" proved much easier. With some 'funk' holes dug to avoid being knocked down by a glider, we waited for them to arrive, bringing in Major General Richard Gale, his staff, and some much needed anti-tank guns. At 03.15 hours they started to come in, but not from the north as expected. They appeared from all directions. It was a nightmare, and extremely frightening. I would rather be shelled any day! Some landed well, others crashed into each other. The sparks from the skids, the sounds of splintering wood, and the yells from the occupants, was like a scene from hell. Some of our men were hit; and it seemed like a miracle seeing the occupants get out, and even drive away with jeeps and anti-tank guns."
Whilst they were still on the L.Z., Jack was approached by his "missing" Platoon Sergeant, George Butler, and he greeted him with the words "What kept you, and where are the rest?". George had been injured just before the jump and actually arrived in one of the gliders. He was the only one to make it from his stick, the others were all dropped wide and rounded up by the Germans spent the rest of the war as POW's.
"At daylight we rejoined the battalion in Ranville. My next job, as a platoon commander, was to lay a minefield across the road that led from Le Mesnil. This was to deny any attacks that would come down the road to burst through Ranville and then onto the bridges. In fact, that day we knocked out three tanks from our 'A' Company position with six-pounders, which had come along with their crews from the gliders."
"The battalion also had three Alsatian dogs who dropped with us. One was killed and one went missing, but Bing survived. We used him with the sniper section and also on patrols to sniff out the enemy. Our Padre, Whitfield Foy, was also missing - he dropped on the other side of the river Dives, but he led a whole 'stick' of about ten men back across water and rejoined us. When he arrived the whole battalion cheered - he had been missing for two days. The call was, "Hello Bishop, you're bloody late." The Company Sergeant Major, McParlan, who was also missing on the drop turned up two days later in civilian clothes riding a bike."
The Second in Command of "A" Company, Captain Harry Ainsworth, broke his leg when they parachuted onto D.Z. 'N', and Jack was promoted to Captain in his place.
"On the early morning of D + 4 patrols from our battalion reported to Battalion Headquarters they had seen signs of movement as if the enemy were preparing for an attack from the direction East of Breville. The Commanding Officer, Peter Luard, immediately issued orders to company commanders to prepare for a possible attack by the enemy. At about nine o'clock our forward positions reported the enemy were moving across the DZ/LZ using the mass of wrecked gliders as cover and were heading towards the direction of the battalion position and the Le Mariquet area - we were all ready for them. The enemy were allowed to come within 50 yards of the battalion line when the order was given to fire. The result was devastating - the enemy were falling like a house of cards - the terrific force of rifle and machine-gun fire took them by surprise and in no time they were a disorganised mass. They suffered 400 dead or wounded and we took some 150 prisoners and passed them back to the brigade cage. They were in fact a German Grenadier Battalion of 346 Division."
"For the rest of that period we were well dug-in around Ranville. We lost quite a few men through shelling and mortaring, but we held our ground and eventually we were moved to le Mesnil to take over the 3rd Parachute Brigade position. We remained in the brickworks there in a defensive position and at Ranville until the break-out in August."
"Above the village of Putot-en-Auge there was an enormous hill called Hill 13, very strongly held by the Germans. This was a thorn in the flesh as far as the brigade was concerned, because it dominated the main road to the Seine. We had to fight really hard to take the village on 18th August 1944. We were then ordered to attack the hill. We passed through 7th and 12th Battalion lines and formed up just below the hill. After a hard fight we captured it. We were then forced off it by the Germans who were much stronger and we also got caught by a lot of cross-fire from either side."
"Eventually the 4th Special Service Brigade passed through and captured the hill; we just did not have the number of men to complete the task. We stayed a couple of nights at Putot on the other side of the village itself, sleeping in a field. Then we passed through 3rd Para Brigade and the next objective was Pont L'Eveque. When we arrived we found both the bridges were blown across the river and there was stiff opposition. In spite of this we actually got across the bridge by the remaining iron girder. Once we got into Pont L'Eveque the Germans withdrew - again the fighting was very hard with 12 killed and 33 wounded."
"After Pont L'Eveque it was a running battle, but we got to Pont Audemer and that was where our fighting finished, actually on the Seine. We rested there and a signal came out saying that everybody had to hand back their £10 of French money to the Quartermaster. Nobody gave theirs back, apart from the Commanding Officer! The money came in useful, because before coming back we had a day out in Honfleur and fed ourselves well and had a good party - on his Majesty! We then came back to England on an American Liberty Ship."
When the battalion returned to the U.K. in September 1945, Jack Watson was promoted to Major and given command of "A" Company. They were granted some leave and then it was back to rebuilding and reorganising the battalion. They, like all the other units of the 6th Airborne Division, were in the middle of getting ready for Christmas when the German Army intervened.
"The 13th Battalion moved out on 23rd December 1944 from Larkhill Barracks, Salisbury Plain, for the Ardennes. The Germans were breaking through and 'Monty' needed some very quick reinforcements. We had to get down there very quickly to help stop the gap, hold up the German advance and assist the Americans."
"We got our kit ready very quickly, entrained at Salisbury on Christmas Eve, then went straight down to Dover and across by boat to Calais where we were picked up by RASC [Royal Army Service Corps] transport. We travelled by open trucks, old coal lorries, and it was bloody cold. We were taken down into the Ardennes to Namur. We hadn't been able to tell our families that we were going. The Padre's wife had come all the way from Newcastle and as she got in at Salisbury we were on the other platform moving off. A young officer who'd been left behind had to tell her that her husband had gone to the Ardennes!"
"We had our Christmas dinner in the 'Chateau Ardennes', and it was a very pleasant way of enjoying Christmas, especially as there was a lot of snow around us - one got the festive feeling. On 1st January 1945 our battalion received an order to move to Pondrome, to attack a village called Bure, and then secure another village, Grupont. I was sent for by my C.O, Peter Luard, and briefed - I was commander of 'A' Company. The plan was to spend one night in Pondrome and then go by transport to Resteigne. There we would de-bus and march to Tellin. There were six inches of snow and it was cold, below freezing, with ice on the roads, but the men were in good heart. We marched to a wood which overlooked Bure, our first objective. This was the furthest point in the German offensive to which the German tanks had advanced. Our task was to evict them from Bure."
"The forming-up was 'A' Company on the left, 'B' Company on the right, and 'C' Company in reserve. My task was to attack Bure with 'B' Company to secure the high ground. We were formed up ready to go in at 13.00 hours on 3rd January. It was a bloody cold day, still snowing heavily, and even going through the wood to the start line was very difficult, because the snow was as much as three or four feet deep in places. We were wearing normal battle equipment, parachute smocks and helmets."
"We formed up on the start line and looked down on this silent and peaceful village. The Germans knew we were there; they were waiting for us and as soon as we started to break cover, I looked up and I could see about a foot above my head the branches of trees being shattered by intense machine-gun fire and mortaring. They obviously had the guns on fixed lines and they pinned us down before we even got off the start line. This was the first time I'd led a company attack and within minutes I'd lost about one-third of them. I could hear the men of my left-hand platoon shouting for our medics. We were held up for about fifteen minutes, because of the dead and wounded around us but we had to keep moving. We were about 400 yards from Bure and so as quickly as I could, I got a grip of my company and gave the order to advance. We had to get under the firing and get in the village as soon as possible. On the way down I lost more men including my batman. One man took a bullet in his body which ignited the phosphorous bombs he was carrying. He was screaming at me to shoot him. He died later."
"We secured the first few houses and I got into one with my Company Headquarters. What I did not know was that 'B' Company had also suffered badly in the attack. Their company commander, Major 'Bill' Grantham, was killed on the start line together with one of his platoon commanders, Lieutenant Tim Winser. His Company Sergeant Major, Moss, was mortally wounded. His Company Second in Command and one of the other two platoon commanders had been wounded. The only surviving platoon commander, Lieutenant Alf Largeren, although wounded, led the much depleted company to their objective, but was later killed during the fist day, trying, with hand grenades, to clear a house held by a German machine-gun post."
"Once I had got into the village it was difficult finding out just what was going on. I pulled in my platoon commanders to establish that they were secure and to start movement forward. It was eerie. We would be in one house, myself on the ground floor and my signalman telling me that there were Germans upstairs, and at other times they would be downstairs and we upstairs. It was a most unusual battle."
"Our numbers were getting very depleted as we moved forward from house to house. I eventually got to the village crossroads by the old church. In the meantime I had informed my C.O. exactly what was going on, and he decided to send in 'C' Company, who were in reserve, to support me. By that time their 60 ton Tiger tanks started to come in on us. It was the first time I had seen Tigers, and now here they were taking pot-shots, demolishing the houses. I moved from one side of the road to the other deliberately drawing fire. A tank fired at me and the next thing I knew the wall behind me was collapsing. But, a PIAT team came running out, got within 50 yards of the tank, opened fire and smashed the tank's tracks. They were very brave. It went on like this all day - they counter attacked, but we managed to hold them. They pushed us back - we pushed forward again."
"It became difficult to keep the men awake - after all they were tired, we had no hot food. All through our first night they were shelling and firing at us and we fired back. When we told H.Q. we had German tanks in the area they decided to bring in our own tanks in support, but they were no match for the Tigers. We had Shermans, and by the end of the battle 16 of them had been 'brewed' up. We were reinforced by a company from the Ox and Bucks, commanded by Major Granville - by that time I was down to about one platoon in strength. The Ox and Bucks went forward, but they were not out there very long before they were forced back into our positions."
"I will always take off my hat to Colour Sergeant 'Harry' Watkins. How the hell he found us I do not know, but he did. We were still scattered in the houses along the main road in the centre of the village. He brought us a stew which was good and hot, and we were able to get men into small groups to have food and then get to their positions in the houses."
"At one point in the battle, Sergeant Scott R.A.M.C. [Royal Army Medical Corps], went forward in an ambulance to pick up casualties. A German Tiger, which had been fighting us all day, rolled forward alongside him, and the commander seeing him unafraid said, "Take the casualties away this time, but don't come forward again, it is not safe". Even Sergeant Scott knew when to take a good hint!"
"Over the following day we suffered five more counter-attacks supported by Tiger tanks. By that time we also had artillery support, and we could finally make the Germans life difficult too. Once we started shelling they countered with their own artillery and tried to blast us out of the village. Fortunately most of my company had experienced heavy shelling at Ranville, in Normandy, so they knew what to expect. I told Major Granville to move forward beyond my own position to find out what was going on. As he did so the enemy attacked again with two Tigers. We held that attack and then it all went very quiet, though the Germans left one Tiger behind as an irritant. It was time at last to secure the other half of the village, together with 'C' Company and the Ox and Bucks going from house to house ferreting them out. It was very much hand-to-hand fighting."
"By about nine o'clock on the evening of the 5th we had the whole village in our hands with my company eliminating the last enemy post. We took up defensive positions, but that same night we were told to withdraw. We found out afterwards that the 7th Battalion had come in from a different direction, met with little resistance and taken Grupont. It meant that we did not have to go any farther. So very early on the morning of the 6th, just after midnight, I got all my company together and we withdrew to Tellin - very wet, very tired and unshaven. The battalion lost about 68 men killed and about half of them were from my company. They were buried in a field in Bure by our Padre, Whitfield Foy, a few days later."
Major Watson was awarded the Military Cross on the 12th April 1945 for his actions in the Battle of Bure during the Ardennes Campaign. His citation reads:
On the 3rd of January 1945, Major J.B.R. Watson was commanding 'A' Company 13th Parachute Battalion, which was leading the assault into Bure.
When the Company formed up on the start line, very heavy and accurate fire from enemy mortars, artillery and machine guns came down on it. Some twenty-eight casualties were incurred immediately, but Major Watson, completely disregarding the enemy fire, ran up and down the line, reorganising the forming up, and by his personal leadership and example enabled the attack to be launched.
He led the Company several hundred yards down a slope and stormed into the village, in spite of fire from enemy machine guns from the nearest houses.
Once in the village he kept the Company moving forward clearing the houses, constantly moving himself from place to place, with complete disregard for enemy fire, and continually encouraging his men. Almost at once the enemy counter-attacked with Tiger tanks and infantry, but Major Jack Watson immediately organised his PIAT teams and beat off the tanks.
At one time in order to make a Tiger tank move its position and give a better shot to a PIAT, he deliberately drew attention to himself, though only 50 yards from the tank.
Although the enemy counter-attacked time and again, Major Watson coolly organised the defence, and having repelled the attacks, again advanced and eventually completed the clearing of that part of the village allotted to him.
His conduct, energy, and gallantry throughout were beyond praise and without him the attack might well have failed.
In March 1945, Major Jack Watson was still in command of "A" Company and they had been thoroughly prepared and briefed for Operation Varsity, the jump across the Rhine. They were to take off on the 24th March 1945 and drop on D.Z. "B" to the north-west of Hamminkeln on the East bank of the great river barrier in Germany. He describes the scene as his plane approached the drop zone, standing in the open doorway of the Dakota carrying him and the members of his stick:
"I was standing at the door over the Rhine and christened it by throwing an orange down. The next thing I noticed was the American dispatcher putting on his flak suit, which was slightly worrying! Then I didn't see any more of him. As we got to the drop zone I could see where we were going. The thing that struck me most at the time was the amount of flak that was hitting the aircraft - the Germans really were pumping a lot of it into the Dakota's, but that did not deter me."
""Red on! Green on! Go!" My batman, Private Henry Gospel, was right behind me shouting, "I am right behind you, Sir!" and out we went! It did not seem very long before I was on the ground and out of my harness. I threw away my helmet, put on my red beret and grabbed my Sten gun. The Commanding Officer had told us to put on our red berets as soon as we had landed in order to "put the fear of God" into the Germans. As I moved off, I found myself with a platoon of Americans who had dropped on the wrong D.Z. and they now joined my company as we started to move off the drop zone towards the farm, which was our objective. The most amazing thing was watching the whole battalion in the air in one go - in fact, the whole brigade. The entire division, including the gliders, was on the ground within forty-five minutes in what we would call a saturation drop."
"Once we were on the ground we were immediately faced with the enemy. One of my platoons to my left captured a machine-gun position and we started taking prisoners - the Germans were giving themselves up all over the place. Although there was a lot of firing going on, even 88mm guns being used in the ground target role. One seemed to be oblivious to what was happening because once one had landed, one was in action straight away. There was the objective and that is what we went for - wearing our red berets and shouting our heads off."
"Like the Commanding Officer and all the company commanders in the battalion, I had a hunting horn. We each had our different calls to muster our men. I blew mine, calling my company as we went for the objective. My batman was still with me, saying, "Right behind you, Sir!" as we took the farm with no problems. We then secured all our objectives and it was all over. Whilst we were at the farm the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Luard, and the divisional commander joined us. We invited them for breakfast and my batman cooked us all bacon and eggs."
"The ground was all covered in mist and haze, which had been created by the bombardment from our guns, and it was very difficult to see. This caused a lot of problems for our gliders. I think that the saddest thing I saw was when we were moving towards our battalion objective, in the direction of Hamminkeln. There were glider pilots still sitting in their cockpits, having been roasted alive after their gliders had caught fire. One pilot and co-pilot were still sitting there with their hands on their control columns. A lot of people were lost like that. Although we lost quite a lot of casualties in the air, it was nowhere near those of the glider-borne troops."
"One of the major problems, as far as we were concerned, was that the 3rd Parachute Brigade were the first to go in and they had been dropped about ten minutes too early. Consequently, the artillery bombardment had to be lifted so that, by the time that 5th Parachute Brigade and the remainder of the division arrived, the enemy were able to recover and organise themselves. That is why there was such an awful lot of flak on my aircraft. However, it was all over and it was then a question of rooting the enemy out of all the buildings. They put up a resistance for the first few hours, but once they could see it was the "Red Devils", as they called us, they started to give up."
Major Watson continued to lead "A" Company throughout the remainder of the campaign, on the long road to Wismar. There were casualties along the way, and on the 1st April 1945, Jack's batman, Private Henry Gospel was wounded.
In 1946, Jack Watson gained a Regular Commission from the Army Air Corps to The West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales Own). From 1950 until 1953 he served as Adjutant of the 1st Battalion The West Yorkshire Regiment, first in Austria and then in the Canal Zone, where later, from 1953-54, he became a Company Commander in the 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment. From 1954 to 1957, he was a Staff Officer of Infantry and Officer Commanding Airportability Wing, A.A.T.D.C, R.A.F., Old Sarum, Wiltshire. His last army appointment, 1957-58, was as a Company Commander, returning to the 1st Battalion The West Yorkshire Regiment in the U.K, before retiring from the military in 1958.
Major Jack Watson died on the 12th April 2011.
1. Men of the Red Beret. Airborne Forces 1940-1990. Max Arthur.
2. "Go To It!" The Illustrated History of The 6th Airborne Division. Peter Harclerode.
3. Records in the Air Assault Museum, Duxford.
4. Newsletters of the 13th (Lancs) Parachute Battalion Association.
Thanks to Bob Hilton for this account.
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