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Welcome to Dan Snow's History Hit to listen to all of our episodes ad-free, get bonus content, and watch hundreds of history documentaries. Download the History Hit app or go to historyhit. Com/subscribe. And if you're an Apple listener, you can subscribe for new ad-free episodes within the Apple app. Hi, everybody. Welcome to Dan Snow's History Hit. John Watts never knew his father. He was conceived days before his dad, wing commander Joseph Watts, was killed on a bombing mission over occupied Europe. It was the summer of 1940, and whilst people remember fighter commands, epic struggle against German Lufthansa during the Battle of Britain, few of us pay as much attention to the brutal struggle that bomber command was engaged in, striking German targets on the continent, doing what it could to disrupt invasion plans. John Watts grew up in very different circumstances to those he would have enjoyed if his father had been alive. As any son would be, he's been fascinated by his father his entire life. Recently, he had a great surprise, a shock. He never knew that a bomber from his father's squadron had been recovered and is being restored by the RF Museum in Cosford.


It's a bomber that his father could actually have flown. In this episode, which I first recorded in 2020 during lockdown, I accompanied John Watts to Cosford for a really emotional visit, as you'll hear, which he hoped would bring him some closure after 80 years of pain and questioning. This was one of my favorite ever episodes of Dan's Nosed History here, and we thought we'd repeat it given its Remembrance Week here in the UK. So many of us like John are remembering the fallen. Enjoy.


T minus 10. The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. God saved the game. No black, white, unity until there is first some black unity. Never to go to war with one another again. And lift off. And the shuttle has cleared the tower.


John and I met in the Second World War hangar at the RAF Museum in Cosford. Around us were planes that had seen service during World War Two. I asked him where his father started out in the war.


Well, day one of the wars, and I wouldn't quite know exactly, but I think he went fairly soon to Waddington and my mother and father lived in Lincoln, on the outskirts of Lincoln. First of all, he was at Waddington, but I think at the beginning of the war, he went up to Wick in Scotland, and indeed some of his reports from there. I think he talked to Guy Gibson about it, what it was like up there. Then they flew down for Christmas, 1940, and the weather was atrocious. My mother and all the other wives thought that the squadrons wouldn't come. But of course, they buzzed the gardens. They flew very low indeed. You know what the sound of a bomber is like. Even a Hamden bomber, huge. Rejoicing for Christmas.


They spent Christmas 1939, near as 1940, as it were. How old was he?


He was very old. He was, at that point, 32, a veteran. A veteran.




Veteran. But of course, he was a regular and he joined the RAF in 1932, I think, learned to fly out in Abu Suaw in Egypt. And then he was in the Northwest Frontier Campaign, which figures on the medals, of course. That's the one, Northwest Frontier, in the campaign against the fake ear of Ippie.


John gave the impression that his father was passionate about his job.


He loved it. 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 and very good at maths, and an all-round athlete, and he just loved speed. My mother said that he drove the MG as fast as the airplane, and they used to quarrel mightily. They had a very Petruccio-Katerin relationship, but they adored each other. One time he put her out of the car. She wouldn't go because he was driving too fast. Another time, I think, she got out anyway. So yes, flying, he was in his element.


It became obvious quite early in the war, in fact, from the earliest days of the war, that being in bomber command was very, very dangerous. Is that something that he and your mother would have been aware of, talked about over that lovely Christmas of.


1939 to 40- Absolutely. They never bought it. At the same time, as I'm sure you've heard many times, they made light of it. I mean, the men, and my father was always joking, but they talked about the nitty gritty. He said that he wouldn't be able to carry on if he didn't know that she was going to get a pension. He knew that he was likely to die, I think, but I mean, they were very lighthearted. He did say to my mother, If there's a funeral, don't bother to go because they'll jumble a few bones together and they'll put in what they can. He made light of it. He made a joke out of it. He said, There'll be nothing there that you'll be saying goodbye to that you know. And of course, it came to pass. But, oh, yes, they discussed everything. And, of course, it was very clear and obvious to my mother when his friends began to just disappear night after night. Robson was one who had been leaning on the mantle piece, drinking, laughing, and then a couple of nights later was gone. And then my mother realized that it was his war, personally, in a way.


And he wasn't just flying aircraft. He had a leadership role. People were looking to him.


Yes, yes. Well, because he was a regular and he was bumped up in rank. And a month before he died, he was sent to command Henswell from Waddington, where he was. So he was COO of Henswell. And indeed, and I think that must have weighed heavy. My mother said that only once in her presence, only once did he actually break down after a particularly dreadful night. I think that was the raid on Christian sand when half the squadron was lost. And of course, he was commander and squadron leader. Twelve of them went out, six of them got back.


What did he think of the raw materials that he had, the hand and bomber? Do you know if he thought that was a bit slow for.


Modern war? That I don't know. I think he thought it was good to fly. As far as I understand it, at that early stage of the war, because my father died in June 1940, but the Hamden was still considered pretty fast. As you know, it was... You could see partly as a fighter bomber. Although that's another story that was fatally not able to fight back. The guns weren't automatic. They couldn't get around quick enough. And so the planes on the outside were picked off. And indeed, my father said to my mother, Don't worry, darling. I've got people each side of me. They'll be picked off first.


And so as we get towards the spring and summer of 1940, was he busier and busier? What raid was he being sent on? Initially, raid against German naval targets.


And mines. I don't know whether they did any leaflets or things like that, but basically, naval targets. They were hunting the Sianhorst, and then they had to bomb shipping. But of course, at that early stage of the war, as you know, there were a lot of mistakes made and they were learning all the time. It was very, very difficult.


Must have been exhausting.


Indeed. My mother describes, she's written about all these matters, by the way, and she describes him coming in and just falling on the sofa, dead asleep and sleeping for hours and then having to go off immediately. And at one time, the doctor came and said, You must let him sleep as much as he can. We need him, and he's totally exhausted.


You mentioned the one time he broke down. What was that in relation to? You said his number of friends and pilots that were being killed on him, and he felt it on his watch.


I can't be certain, but I would imagine that was after the Christian sand raid where he, as it were, lost half his men, including friends, of course. You know how close these crews were.


What I'm struggling to realize is that he, as well as managing his own aircraft and doing his own job, he was also mindful of everybody else on the squadron. He's taking so much on.


Yes, the strain of doing that must have been immense, I would imagine.


But there was time for one bit of a brief moment of life, entertainment.


Absolutely. He got home and my dear mother, she wrote about it, and I think she described it as a last hot hasty Rendezvous with love, and the result is sitting in front of you today. I was born eight months after he died, so I was conceived in the last days of his life. And indeed, my mother said to him, she had wanted a second child. My sister is nearly six years older. She's five and a half years older. And my mother had said, Jack, I'm sure I'm pregnant. I've got that feeling, and I'm late and I know it, and they're very last words to each other. He rang up from the aerodrome and said, Well, darling, we're off. And then he said, If you haven't heard from me by eleven o'clock tomorrow, you'll know I've had it. And that his last words were, Are you still all right or wrong? I mean, and he is joking about what she thought. And indeed, the next day she went with her sister to have coffee in Lincoln and forgot 11 o'clock coming and going. It was a beautiful day in June. She went back to the house and the staff car was standing outside and she knew immediately.


Wing commander, Joseph John Watts, was killed on the 13th of June 1940. In the aircraft alongside him were Ronald Jolly, John Andrews, and Alexander Winstany. There were no survivors. Does it make you happy to think that as he took off on that final mission, he was thinking about that little baby growing inside his wife?


Tremendously. I'm hugely encouraged by that. And obviously, somebody like me, and there are thousands of us, as you well know, I mean, I sit here today, I feel with hundreds, if not thousands behind me of similar ones. Every day is a plus for us, obviously. We were so lucky to be made as we were. Tell me.


About what do you know about your father's last mission?


Nothing. Beyond the fact that it was going to some canals. But I don't know. And not only do I not know, but I've heard different versions of his death. My mother, I do not know whether she ever knew the real truth. She certainly didn't at the time. The report was, Missing in a flying battle, presumed killed. Well, flying battle, as you know, was a favorite phrase of bomber, Harris. And it wasn't a battle, not for those bomber boys. They were coming back through long, difficult hours, just trying not to be picked off by the Messengers. So my mother's version was, first of all, that missing. And of course, we as little children, we always used to think, He might come home. He might be out there in Germany fighting away like Biggles or, or, called it in disguise. And that's what my sister and I would talk about. She, as a little thing, she wasn't quite five. She was told that Daddy had gone on a long journey, which is what they told them in those days. And there are these varying versions about it. First of all, killed in a flying battle, or missing, believed, killed in a flight.


That's the first thing. Well, it wasn't that. Then when my mother eventually told me what she thought had happened, I had to give her a stiff drink beforehand and sit her down. It was towards the end of her life. She maintained that the story was that his plane had come in over Harwich and hadn't given any signals and was in the wrong place and that the outline of a Hamden was similar to that of a dawnnear, and it was shot down, friendly fire. That didn't happen. I then asked Uncle Halley, Halley, Wots, DSO, DFC, and all that. When I went to Australia and met him eventually. What happened? And he told me the truth, that the plane had gone into the barrage balloons over Harwich and the port wing had been sliced off and was uncontrolled, went down. And Guy Gibson describes this happening and said the poor old Watts, his funeral pire burned for two days and two nights. It went into a granery at Felixstowe and burned for two days. I think my mother knew, I think she shielded us from all of that.


John's mother never forgot what her husband had told her about funerals.


Indeed, my mother didn't go to his funeral. She wouldn't go to Buckingham Palace to collect his DSO, which he knew about. He knew it was on the way, I'm happy to say. But she coked by turning her back on it all. And within a week, she had sold his car, got lodges in upstairs, got a job. That's the way they carried on, as you know.


And for your mom, you mentioned she immediately tried to crack on. But did she ever recover in some sense from what.


She suffered? No, I don't think people do. It was the love of her life, quite clearly. I've read my father's love letters to her when they were... They met on Hastings Pier when they were 19, both of them, and wow, Coup de food, it really was. And she didn't recover. But she had such spirit, everybody thought she was this wonderful, eccentric, woman full of fun, again, rather like my father, who swept everybody along. But all the time, I know she grieved very deeply. She made a huge effort and succeeded in keeping her grief from us children. Now, in the long perspective, one can understand it. And she wrote a lot of poetry and other things, and I've been sorting her poems out and the grief is so clear, as well as the radiant love.


You listen to Dan Snow's history. It's the story of a boy who lost his father and a downed aircraft being brought back to life. More coming up. You're someone who is wearing your father's tie, you're wearing his medals. You've gone into extraordinary detail about... Why have you wanted to do that? Does that bring you closer? Does it help you to know every little forensic detail of his life?


Dan, all my life, he's been there, but I've had no occasion to talk about him, especially at length, or to make anything of it, or indeed, properly to celebrate him. And this is 80 years on. This is 80 years ago he died. I feel hugely pleased and relieved to be here with somebody who cares to listen.


Well, I've mentioned the tire. It's such a... Tell me about it briefly because you can see how worn it is. It's a beautiful memento to have.


Well, the few mementos I have had of his somehow remind me of the 1930s and the range. It's obviously got some silk in it, so it's nearly worn away. And he was quite a dandy, my father. He loves Gives and Hawks and the outfitters, they were the RAF outfitters. He had no money, little pilot officer, but he loved the best. And so when I was polishing these medals, the DSO fell apart last week. So I went straight to Gives and Hawks and they mended it straight away for free. I was very moved by that. They said we wouldn't dream of charging.


My dad has played such a huge part of my life. I can't really imagine not having him. Do you think what might have been if your dad had survived and played the part of a dad as you were.


Growing up? Oh, yes. What I did was to turn all my school teachers, the male ones, into dads. I had some very good relationships with my teachers. I was lucky. A bit of a goodie-goodie, I suppose. They, I think, understood because they were all the war-time generation, most of them had been through the war, and they were ready to be rather fatherly, I think. If he'd survived for a start, I wonder, you must have heard many times, would that man, after those horrific experiences, would he have been the man he was in the late 1930s? Would he have been bright and energetic and full of fun and nonsense and games and roaring about? Who's to know? I do wonder about that. Also, I'm a very different person. I may evoke him at times, but I can't imagine what that relationship would have been like. But for me, he's always been a wonderful, bright, happy ghost because our mother evoked him all the time, which is why I call him Daddy, although I never said Daddy to anybody in front of me. But he lives for me through all these wonderful tales. He was a great, rip-roaring person who roared into the room and rather took over, a bit like your father, if I may say.


You mentioned briefly that your sister. Do you think it was harder for your sister?


It was more than hard for my sister and has continued to be so. That's why she isn't here today. She is now 85, so she has some excuse from that as well. But she said to me, No, darling, you go and do it. She didn't feel she could actually get through it. She adored her father idolatrously, and he was very naughty. He loved her and made huge fuss, took her into the mess. She would dance on the counter in the mess. She was the most beautiful, engaging little creature. He absolutely adored her. Sothen suddenly he was snatched away. Suddenly this horrid brute arrived. Suddenly she was six years old and in boarding school. I think people don't really recover from that totally. No, it was very hard for her. Easy for me, Dan, because I just had this wonderful, bright, lively father in the background, cheering me on. I met his sister only once. You see, what my mother did, her way, was to turn her back on the whole family, on all the ritual, on the RAF, on all of this panoply that we have about us today, which is why today is important to me.


She turned her back. But his sister came to meet me at school just once, and along a long corridor, she looked across and burst into tears because she could see her beloved brother. So yes, what if? The what ifs.


It's so interesting as we think about the 18th anniversary of your father's death in the Battle of Britain, and then we talk about the numbers and the pilot. It's amazing that those ripples of grief are still being felt by you and your sister, by today, even after 80 years. The trauma is still affecting all of us.


It's crazy in a way, but it's a tribute to the human spirit, isn't it? That we are able to be so loyal. You've seen this before, Dan, I know you must have done. Any of the others like me would be the same. It doesn't take much to trigger that grief. It's always there.


Tell me about the journey that led us here today. How did you discover that there was an aircraft here connected with your father?


I heard one morning that a Hamden had been reconstructed. Now, there are other Hamdons. I didn't know that, and I just thought that there were none. That very morning, the minute I heard that there was a Hamden, I thought, I must see it. How wonderful. I got in touch with various friends asking what I should do. One of the friends I talked to put me onto you. And this all happened within the day. And by the end of the day upon which I discovered that my father's plane existed and there was one of his squadrons... One, four, four, squadron here. By the end of that day, Dan, you were in touch saying, Can I come and be with you when you see the plane?


I remember.


And as you know, I responded immediately and said, Nothing would please me more.


Why do you want to see the plane? Just an anonymous object?


I think it connects with the questions you were asking earlier about what my father means to me, what grief is, what it's like not to have a father, what it is to be in this peculiar situation of being very aware of someone and very proud of them, but having no tangible connections beyond the little mementos and all my mother's stories and my sister's stories. So I think I'm trotting around that overworked word closure. It's not quite that, but I've wanted to see it all my life. I've been aware of these plays. I remember the sound of the bombs during the war. I remember we lived in Mayfair. My mother moved to London. We were right in the midst of it. I remember waking up and hearing this deep, huge drone of a noise filling the whole world for a little boy. I'm aware of these. And, of course, I have some British movie-tone news, a tiny excerpt of my father in that for you, and so I've seen it. It's always there. So to actually also, of course, to be quite honest, one wonders what his death was like, and we will never know. Also, eternal questions.


Only now am I really thinking about it in more detail. I've realized that my father's crew, when he died, was not the crew that he spent most of the war with. Partly, I assume, because he'd been sent to command Henswell. I don't know what the other reasons might be, but what I think happened was that wing commander, Luxemort, I think, was killed. But one of his crew called Jolly, bailed out or was rescued and came back. Would you believe it was in my father's new crew, when they were killed a month later? You know, such are the chance is. So my father changed crews. And indeed, the Movertone news clip, which I have, shows my father with, I think, probably a different crew from the one with who he died with, but close, I mean, unbelievably close, unbelievably close. And my mother always said that. Not only was it an intense fraternity, but also all about them. There was this sense of glamor from the outside. The schoolgirls would jump on the bonnet of his car and they would shout out, Squoddy, squoddy. They were like heroes, although they were bomber command who weren't heroes later on, but then they were these glamorous, the most glamorous people in the world.


I think that glamor clung to them.


Let me ask one more question. So sitting here now, your journey is 99.9 % complete towards this aircraft that connected you to the father. How are you feeling this morning approaching being reunited with it?


Dan, I've prefigured it so many times that I have no, absolutely no idea how it will hit me. I know it will hit me. I know how even small things hit me to do with this subject and thank you for letting me air it today.


Great pleasure. After that, we went to see The Hamden bomber in one of the workshops of the museum. It's the first time he'd ever seen one, touched one, or explored the aircraft. This particular Hamden had even flown in his father's squadron. The audio alone doesn't do justice to what was an extraordinary moment that will stay with me for a long time. For that, you're going to have to go and watch the film on history hit TV. After emotionally exhausting visit to the plane, John read me one of his mother's beautiful poems about her sense of loss.


This poem is called June 1940. A memory of shoulders wearing lightly, bravely the tunic blue. The roar of squadrons already roaring out over our last farewell. For Eson, Sylt, the marshaling yards at Ham, Cologne, or Death. In the early evening air, the atmosphere hung heavy. Life ended or prolonged itself on a few lines written each day in station DROs, indicated faintly. The bantering voice, the tender clasp, altered not a wit. His heart beat warmly against mine for seconds longer. The strong hand gathered pressed me hard against the dear familiar surge 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 jointly poised, the four-lined cuff, and then the revving gratings of the Hemswell overworked hired Trojan van. On its protestings went my world.




Early summer dawn over the Belgian bridges, he fought with his crew desperately for England and died. That's for you.


Thank you very much. I meant that. Thank you, John, so much for letting us share this story. I'm certain that John's father, Joseph, would have been so proud of the son he never met. Thank you for listening to this episode of Dan Snow's History Hit. Please follow this show wherever you get your podcasts. It really helps us. You're doing us a big favor. You can listen to all our episodes ad-free and watch hundreds of history documentaries when you subscribe. Download the app on AppStores and Smart TV or go to historyhit. Com/subscribe as a special gift for listening this far, proper tenacity there. If you use the code Dan Snow at checkout, you get 50% off your first three months. And if you're an Apple listener, you can subscribe for new ad-free podcast episodes within the Apple app.