Interview with Don Watson


Interview with Don Watson


Donald Watson was working in the print industry before he joined the Royal Air Force in 1941. After training he served as an armourer with 61 Squadron at RAF Skellingthorpe.




Temporal Coverage




00:31:43 audio recording


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GC: Ok. It’s 11th of August. I’m here, my name is Gemma Clapton, I’m here with Don Watson who served in 61 Squadron and we’re going to do a recording for the oral histories for the International Bomber Command. So if we start at the beginning just tell me how you got in to the RAF and your position within it please.
DW: I was called up in 1941 at the age of nineteen and went to Cardington to be fitted out. And from there to Yarmouth for square bashing. Square bashing took part up and down the promenade. From then on I was posted to Melksham in Wiltshire for my armourer’s course. A seven week course. And from there, after passing out as AC1 was posted to Wheaton in Lincolnshire. Just near Blackpool for the fitter armourer’s course which was a nice station to be on. Close to Blackpool for the gay lights of nights out etcetera. Blackpool Tower and Winter Gardens etcetera. But that finished when I was posted to 61 Squadron. We were then at North Luffenham and on to Woolfox Lodge where the squadron was being kitted out then with Lancasters and transferring from Manchesters. We weren’t there long. And went, were then we were posted to Syerston. A complete contrast to the satellite ‘drome that we’d had at Woolfox Lodge. This was a built barrack block buildings, hangars, workshops. Complete. Everything there for everybody’s convenience and help. And there we were for several months from ‘42 into ’43 during the time of the first thousand bomber raids where everything was put up. Training crews were used and all sorts. And during that period we had one or two incidents. The station commander at that time was very keen on his physical training and unfortunately during that period he passed away. The funeral took place in the funeral procession was passed down from the station to the main road and the crews — the aircrew and the ground crew were lined up on the side of the road to let this cortege passed. And there we were. The ground crew, aircrew, ground crew, air crew. On a humorous note the aircrew lad at the side of me, he said, ‘He’ll have the angels on PT in the morning,’ to much laughter. Here we are. It was his way of saying goodbye. He had the aircrew on PT in the mornings and all that stopped when he finished. And by this time Group Captain Gus Walker took over the station command. And he was a different type of man. Took a great interest in what the armourers and the fitters and everything were doing. Particularly on these big occasions when there was big ops on. He’d be around and looking see that everything was fine. And then on one particular occasion planes were taking off and there was a panic, bombing up again. And Group Captain Walker was in the control tower. At this time 106 Squadron was the other squadron with us at that time. Guy Gibson was the CO of that particular squadron at that time. During this operation on that particular afternoon there was a terrific bang. Group Captain Walker saw it and saw what was going on. Flames. Got in his car and crossed the ‘drome and they realised then that the bomb load had dropped. Four thousand pounder. Twelve cans of incendiaries burning under it and the thing, the whole thing dropped. Group Captain Walker was very concerned and ordered the ground crew to hitch up and pull the plane away. It was all too late. In the meantime the armourers whoever — ground crew, air crew, whoever had gone and ran for the Trent Valley. The plane blew up. Group Captain Walker lost his arm. And the ground crew chap lost his foot. And nobody could tell us then for some time why and how it had all happened and there was all sorts of stories of why it could have happened. Other planes passing by and this and that and the other. But of course the fact was that the controls at the front of the plane where the bomb aimer would control his plane. The bombs that he would drop have got little switches down and he would select each at the back of each of those switches were what we called jettison bars and obviously these jettison, they used these jettison bars if they wanted to chuck everything out quick. The bombs, bars went across so you didn’t have to do it manually. On this occasion, when we’d bombed up, the flight switch which was the main electrical switch would be put on. They’d call out, ‘Stand by. Flight switch going on.’ A chap put it on. Bang. Down it went. It was obvious that jettison bars had been left across. When the switch went down everything went. And so that went on for a time and nobody seemed to know quite what was happening but then we were instructed then, fitters, to make a bracket. A spring loaded bracket that was fitted to the bomb aimers panel so that those bars were always kept in a safe position. The way to push it then would be over a manual spring loaded situation. So it was obvious then that it was the jettison bars that had created the problem. Fortunately there was no loss of life. And for that everybody was very thankful. We, the armourers and everybody else were fitted out with a cycle each in those days. And of course a lot of us had left his bikes by the plane. The bikes went up with the plane and were never replaced. That was another incident that happened during my time at Syerston. Another little incident that happened when we was bombing up again. Flight switches that were bombed up, the corporal in charge said, ‘Stand clear. I’m going to put the flight switch down.’ I was standing just in front of the bomb and I said, ‘Hang on Bob I’ll check the nose fusing.’ So, I was standing on a position where there was no bomb. I heard a click in the circuit. The bomb dropped at my feet. A four thousand pounder. Obviously a short in the circuit and a narrow squeak. Another two inches in and I’d have been under it. Here we go. So, there were several incidents that happened during the time we were at Syerston. We went on then to move to Skellingthorpe. And by that time we joined up with 50 Squadron. Again, another satellite ‘drome. Fitted with accommodation in Nissen huts etcetera. But we got used to the situation very quickly and during the mornings we would be, the fitters would be maintaining the bomb gear. Carriers etcetera and the trolleys etcetera. Ready for operations. As soon as operations came on everybody put their hands to the deck. Fitters, armourers, all the lot got together to, in little groups to do the bombing up of two or three of these particular planes which was quite an experience. And hard work I might add. It was a hard winter. Sometimes it would be night and day. Bomb up. The planes would be then off and back again. Sometimes we would have to do duty to see the planes in. Watch for hang ups etcetera. Guns left unloaded and so on. On one particular occasion the planes came back and apparently the operation had been scrubbed because of high flying, cloud over the target. They came back early and had the delay bombs left on. And unfortunately one of the planes that the aircrew had left. The electricians were in the plane taking out the connections and at that time. Delay. Blew up and caused a load of damage. Again, apart from these particular three or four that were in the plane at the time there was no other life lost. So these are things that happened. To all intents and purposes my war was an easy war. When I compare what other people had to do. My brother went to Burma. Fought with the Japanese. People think VE. Back in to Europe hundreds of people killed, maimed and so on. Aircrew lost every few days. But we, hard work as it was we had an easy war. So I have so much to be thankful for. I was never posted overseas. I was posted overseas on one occasion. It turned out to be a reserve draught. Sent back to the unit and was then screened from overseas posting because the Bomber Command was then the only force that was taking the war to the enemy. And so I stayed with 61 Squadron for the whole of the war. There were different times when we had to move. Skellingthorpe. Had to leave for a few months and we were sent to Coningsby while there was being refittment done at the Skellingthorpe Station. I was there quite a few months and then back again. And on another occasion where I was posted to Waddington for base maintenance again at another few months. So some of these incidents I didn’t view personally. One particular occasion though that I remember bombing up one afternoon. The tractor was bringing three trollies of thousand pound bombs. Unfortunately, they hadn’t been put in their normal cradles but spread out across the bars of the carrier and unfortunately one of them slipped down. The tractor driver wasn’t aware of it and trundled along until the heat from the friction set the bombs off. And fortunately it was a time which was just towards the end of the runway so dispersals were quite far away. Otherwise it could have been an awful lot worse. And so all those bombs went off. The tractor driver and several people passing on the perimeter obviously lost their lives. These incidents were far and few between so most of our time was just hard work. And keeping our eye making sure everything was in place for the bombs to be loaded in a proper manner so that they could do whatever they’d got to do with that. With the bombs. I had a very interesting time in the airforce and then when 1946 came I was quite happy to be released. And five years of service. I don’t think I can tell you anything more detailed about all that.
GC: Well I was just going to ask did you have an engineering background? Is that why you became an armourer? Did you then carry it over?
DW: No.
GC: After the war as well? Or —
DW: No. I was a printer. An apprentice printer. And I went back to printing after the war.
GC: So there was no engineering.
DW: No.
GC: Nothing at all.
DW: No. No. It was a very intensive course. You had to make all sorts of bits and pieces that had to fit one another. You just got through. I got AC1 on the armourer’s course and fortunately it turned out I was top of the entry there but I only finished up AC2 on the fitter’s course. Fortunately, after I got on the squadron one of the armourer, one of the armourer sergeants suggested that I should go for a trade examination with the station armour officer which he did. And although I was being asked to go to AC1 he gave me LAC. And a few months after that my corporal tapes came through from records. Much to the dismay of several of my colleagues. In fact one of the fitters on the plane said one day when I was out doing a fitting job, ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I see you’ve got your corporal’s stripes. Do you come out, do the come out on clothing parade no then.’ No. A little bit of humour. So that was my luck really. So [unclear]
GC: What was it like? Would you mind, sort of, just describing what the camaraderie, for want of a better description, was like.
DW: Marvellous. You couldn’t wish for better. No. Everybody was more than happy to work together. And I don’t remember of any incidents of real fall out. I could tell a story of one of the lads that came back after his, after he’d had his night out and he’d been away for some time. He came back and he was a little bit worse for wear. And he was causing a lot of trouble in the billet and he had a broken bottle and he had that in front of me and I was trying to settle it down because I was in charge, NCO in charge. With great difficulty but managed to settle it all down. But apart from incidents like that nothing. Nothing. Other than just got on with the job and everybody’s company was important.
GC: Were you although you was based in this country were you aware of the bigger picture? Were you aware of — what kind of information — what stories were you getting about the war going on elsewhere?
DW: Not an awful lot to be honest. It only come through in drips and drabs about when we, when the invasion was starting. We didn’t know until that particular night that the operations had started. And I was on duty that particular night and the planes came back and the aircrews came back with their stories. And the actual invasion had started then but until then we wouldn’t have known.
GC: So although that’s obviously relating to D-day — on a normal ops how much information were you given relating to an op? I mean besides obviously what you were arming the planes up for. Did you know where the planes were going? Did you know?
DW: No.
GC: You didn’t.
DW: No. We never knew. We didn’t know where they were going. We knew when they came back where they’d been. But we didn’t know where they were going.
GC: What about after the war. Did you just —
DW: After the war Skellingthorpe was sort of disbanded to a large degree. We was posted off to different places. I went, I didn’t go far. I went to Bardney in Lincolnshire which was just up the road really. And I was posted there to a care and maintenance situation. They was just getting rid of all the bomb gear and what have you and so on. Put away really. Carted away. So I was there for some time and during that period the Japanese war was still on and I was then posted to what they called the Tiger Force. Ready for moving out to Japan. And I had the inoculations and leave and all that ready for it. And then the Hiroshima bomb. Hiroshima bomb arrived and that was the finish and it was all cancelled so I never got out the country.
GC: So you served your entire –
DW: My entire time was spent in England. Yeah.
GC: I know this is probably going to be a delicate subject, but the planes are held with affection. Were they your planes? How did you relate to the planes rather than the aircrew?
DW: Well. Being a fitter armourer I wasn’t part of each flight if you know what I mean. B flight, A flight all had their own armourers to deal with each flight. Did their DIs — daily inspections. Etcetera. So they’d been more intimate with their particular planes than we were as fitter armourers who moved about. All around the squadron to all the different planes for different reasons. To deal with our bomb equipment etcetera. So I didn’t have a close relationship to any one plane, but we were pretty close to each one as we got used to bombing each one of these planes up. And terribly sad when they went missing but then we just got on with the job and bombed the next one up.
GC: You say you was a bomb armourer.
DW: Yeah.
GC: Did you not get a little bit nervous?
DW: No. No. There was — no, because you realised the potential of the things. They’d all got their safety pins and what have you in place as it were until the last minute as it were and then you took the pins out and that was it and that was fine. On that particular — when that bomb dropped at my feet I was a bit worried then I suppose. A chap came out. He thought I was squashed under it. I wasn’t and he said hang on a minute I’ll put the pins back in because by that time I’d pulled the safety pins out and he said I’ll get the pins back in. And of course I was all of a shake. The flight sergeant came along, he said, ‘Oh well. Let’s get on with the next plane then.’ And you think, ‘Thank you very much.’ So lucky again.
GC: Well luck was obviously on your side.
DW: It was.
GC: See, that’s the thing. The attitude seems to be that’s what we did.
DW: That’s right.
GC: That’s what we were trained to do.
DW: That’s all. Yeah.
GC: We did our job.
DW: That’s all it was. Yeah.
GC: Yeah.
DW: I mean I think if it had been otherwise you wouldn’t have done it would you?
GC: So what was, I mean obviously you were based in Lincolnshire. What was life like in 1940s Lincolnshire? Was it rural?
DW: Oh absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, course it was. And Lincoln was a [pause] we were fortunate Skellingthorpe was just two miles from Lincoln. We could, we could walk to Lincoln. We used to get the buses of course but we’d go there when ever chance and it was an overall NAAFI that catered for everybody. So there was a big meeting place for people to run into and chat to and people that you met on other squadrons and different associations. Different courses and what have you. Yes. Yes, we enjoyed it.
GC: Was it how we imagine it? Was it a big social?
DW: Oh absolutely. Yeah. Yes. Absolutely.
GC: Is that how you met?
DW: No. Not in — ten years after. I think. 1951 before I met Margaret before we were married. Yes, it was a long while after. The war, the war had gone a long while by the time I met Mel. 1941. I came out in ’46. I was twenty four then. I thought right I’ve been in the air force five years. I’ll have five years without now. And so I got married in 1951. Yeah.
GC: Still married.
DW: Yeah. I went back to print. Didn’t enjoy print a lot but I was very involved in the music industry. Playing with the Salvation Army Band. And got to know enough about it to go and do some instruction and worked in Essex County and Southend Music Services for twenty five years. Teaching the kids. And when that finished the kids came to me. For the last four or five years I’ve been having pupils come to me on a Saturday morning and we progressed from there. But I’ve just had to give it up this term because my eyesight’s not good enough to do it anymore. But I’ve had a good go.
GC: Good.
DW: Ninety three now so it’s time to give up.
GC: Oh we never give up.
DW: Well I’m not going to give up.
GC: No.
DW: But I had to give that bit up because it just wasn’t possible anymore.
GC: I mean is there anything [pause] I mean I wouldn’t say would you do it again because it was service but —
DW: To be honest I wish I’d stayed in the service. And I would have liked to have been re-mustered to musician. But then the war ended. Everybody was going home. I’d got a band that my dad was bandmaster of. He wanted me back, so I came back. But I really should have stayed and done my time as a musician. That’s something I’ve regretted doing but other things take their place don’t they?
GC: Would you — well you say you would have liked to have stayed. What was it like coming back? Coming back from a regimented existence to normal life.
DW: I didn’t think too much about it because squadron life wasn’t quite the same as it would be in barrack life somehow or other. We were quite dispersed. We weren’t quite so regimented in those times as the army would be etcetera. We did our parades and all that sort of thing but it was a freer atmosphere than it would have been in a closed barrack situation.
GC: How do you feel now that the memorials are being made? Because the Bomber Command were technically the forgotten boys.
DW: Well its more than time isn’t it? And it’s sad that with all the effort that went in to those years of continual bombing on Mr Churchill’s instructions. Mr Harris, Bomber Harris never got the recognition that he deserved. Bomber Command never got the recognition it deserved. It’s taken all this time for people to come to terms with it and got it together. And thankfully now we’ve got two memorials now which will be there forever won’t they?
GC: Yeah.
DW: Because there was no, there was no Bomber Command medal or anything like that. There was an aircrew medal and the the medals for different campaigns. The European one was — the aircrew boys would get that, but we wouldn’t get any of that. We only just got the defence medal. The defence medal was green with two black lines on it and one of the wags who obviously hadn’t been away so much as me, he said, ‘You know what those two black lines represent?’ ‘No’. He said, ‘That’s are the railway lines you go home on every weekend you get the chance.’ So that, yeah. I was home pretty often. We used to have twenty four hour pass. We could be there one night and stay overnight and back the next day. And we could write our own pass out and sign it ourselves. All very useful.
GC: Ok. I think we’ll take a break. Let’s take a breather.
DW: A cup of tea
GC: A cup of tea.
DW: I don’t know whether –



Gemma Clapton, “Interview with Don Watson,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed March 5, 2024,

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