Interview with John 'Snogger' Watkins


Interview with John 'Snogger' Watkins


John Watkins was working in retail in Rotherham and in 1939 he joined 218 Squadron ATC. He joined the RAF in February 1942 at RAF Cardington, and did his initial training at Blackpool. In December 1942 he did his wireless training at RAF Yatesbury. His first role was as a ground personnel wireless operator at RAF Scampton in 1943. He next went to RAF Madeley to complete his aircrew training and then to 10 Gunnery School in Barrow in Furness. In early 1944 he went to the USA, via Canada. He was posted to 111 OTU in Nassau in the Bahamas to train on Liberator and Mitchell aircraft. On his return to the UK he converted to the Catalina and later the Sunderland flying boats. His original crew set off from Northern Ireland to fly to India, but due to a medical issue he didn’t fly with them and his crew were killed enroute. He finished his career flying on operations for Coastal Command in India and the Far East. He was personally upset by the condition of the ex-prisoners of war of the Japanese he and his crew ferried from bases.







01:02:00 audio recording


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SP: So, this is Susanne Pescott, and I’m interviewing Warrant Officer John Watkins who was a wireless op and air gunner for Bomber Command and Coastal Command. I’m interviewing today for the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archive. We’re at John’s home, who was referred to as Jack during the war and it’s today, the 2nd of August 2018. So, first of all, thank you John for agreeing to be interviewed today.
JW: Quite happy to do so.
SP: So, John do you want to tell me about what you did before you joined up? Before the war.
JW: Yes. Well, before I was in retail. Men’s retail in Rotherham. In 1938 or ’9, the Air Training Corps was formed in Rotherham, 218 Squadron with librarian, Chief Librarian Broadhead I think they called him who was made CO. And there was about eighteen of us with a little Air Training Corps badge and so that’s when the 218 Air Training Corps Squadron was formed. Just after that we all got uniforms. Now, that was a very proud moment because we had the Church Parade and I’ve still got a photograph of that where there’s the commanding officer is first and I, being tall was just behind him. We were really proud to be the beginning of 218 Cadet force, RAF Cadet force in Rotherham. From, at that particular time it was 19’, 19’, oh ‘39, ’38, ’38, ’39. It was when the Rotherham and Sheffield Blitz was on. That means when the Germans were really flattening big buildings and well, all that went through in the Blitz and I at that time was only seventeen or eighteen but I was a fire watcher. So, if any of the, any of the fire bombs dropped we had a bucket of sand. We had to put it on it and shovel them away. It was scary to do that. Very, very scary. But I joined this Air Training Corps and that’s where I, because before this I used to be making model aeroplanes and I was very interested in flying right from the beginning. And so, when they said, ‘Do you want to join?’ I thought, ‘Right. I’ll go for interview.’ And that would be 1940, I would think I joined in I had to wait a while after they consider everything but I wanted to be in aircrew and very pleased to learn Morse and arms drill, marching and all the rest of it. So I was quite experienced by the time I did get, joined in in the RAF in 1942. Do you want any more now? So, I’ll cut it from there.
[recording paused]
I suppose I’d better, just a minute I’d better start off with, they called all the aircrew up to Blackpool to do their initial training. Blackpool saw all the, all the boarding houses were filled with trainee aircrew. So that’s where I first did the marching and the learning of, well, I’d already started learning Morse because I knew I wanted to be a wireless operator air gunner. Anyhow, so I first went to Recruitment Centre at Cardington, February 26th 1942. And then from there I went to Padgate at Blackpool. That would be August. We had to wait. They didn’t call me straight away. My father, I used to say, ‘Has my papers come yet? Has my papers?’ But I went to Padgate in August the 14th 1942. Then I went to the Signals School at Yatesbury in Wiltshire. That was in December 1942. That’s where I first started. It was quite easy there because as I say I could read Morse before I went there but then from there this is when I first went to Number 5 Group, Grantham, Lincolnshire which was Bomber Command, and it was the Headquarters of 617. Number 5 Group. This was in June the 24th 1943. That’s when the, that’s when the raid was on and that’s when I first met 617 Squadron and I said, ‘Well, what is, what’s the first job?’ And the first, as near as I can remember the first job was with two senior wireless operators that had been in the Force some time and regarding the raid, the Dambuster raid. And that was April, in May 1943. Now then, I asked what my first job was at number 5 Group, Grantham and they said, well when, on this raid they will be flying with, you know the Dambusters raid. But number 5 Group they don’t want the aircraft to contact 5 Group at Grantham, because if they did, if they were attacked while they were on this raid and they contacted 5 Group they’d send some bomber and just flatten the Headquarters of 5 Group. So, they said we want you to, three of us all together. Two senior ones and me as a junior, and you had to take radio receivers. The crews had been instructed to contact us which was in the middle of a field between, between Scampton and Grantham, and we had this, we had these receivers and if they got into trouble, any of these bombers, they had to contact us. We’d got special, special sign, call sign. Then we would contact Grantham, 5 Group by telephone. So that was one way of preventing them stopping the raid by clearing the head Group at Grantham. That was, as I say I was in Scampton 617, April 26th ’43. Funny thing, I was in, I was actually at Scampton about four or five months and it was the exact time when the raid was on. I’ve got that on my official papers which said I was there but I was a very minor, a very minor helper but I was very proud to be there. Now then, after that we had to go to Number 4 Radio School at Madley near Hereford to complete the flying. The flying part of the signal, of the radio and that was in July and August 1943. So, from, from 617 Squadron I went over to Madley near Hereford and so then after that I’d done all the wireless and flying part. I went to Number 10 Gunnery School at Barrow in Furness in September 25, ‘43 to do the gunnery course. And on January ’44, that’s when I’d done all the gunnery and got my, got my [pause] I think I’d got the gunnery course finished. I went to the Personnel Disposal Centre in January the 16th 1944. And then to Dispersal Unit because we were sent there from, from there to Canada. Now, we went and I’ve got the draught number, draught 867, Royal Mail Ship Andes. And we were sent over to Canada and the USA. Now, this ship was built for the Mediterranean. A flat-bottomed thing which was built for, I think it was six hundred chaps and there was four thousand of us in it going across the Atlantic in January 1944. I think it should be ’43 that. No, it isn’t. It says —
SP: Yeah.
JW: But anyhow, I can’t quite read that. So —
SP: That’s January ‘44 that. Yeah.
JW: Yes. Right. So, from there, when we get over to Canada we went up to, went up to Montreal, just as a transit camp. And then from there they sent us down to New York. From New York by train. New York, Boston, Baltimore, right the way down Maryland. Right to the bottom, to Miami. Miami in Florida. And that was quite an experience because they took ten days to get down and we were dressed in Royal Air Force blue, and we used to, we were stopping at every other station and meeting all the Americans. Anyhow, from there, from, from Miami they sent us over to Number 111 Operational Training Unit at Nassau in the Bahamas. Now, that’s where I went training on Liberator bombers and Mitchell bombers. We did our training there but this was with Coastal Command. I was four months all together training with the depth charges and gunnery and all that in Nassau. That was quite an experience because in those days nobody had been to Nassau. Only the very wealthy people. Now then, that was in? What date have I got down here? I think ’44. Somewhere, near. Anyhow, I was there for four months. Then I came back and went to reception at Harrogate on June, June ’44. So I was four months, I think in, in training in the Bahamas. And from there I went to the Heavy Conversion Unit at Killadeas. That’s, that’s Northern Ireland. This was August the 8th ’44. So, it was on 131 Operational Training Unit. You see VE Day was the 8th of May ’45. Anyhow, this was ’44. August 9th ’44 and when, this was in Ireland on Lough Erne where we were trained on Catalina Flying Boats, and later on to Sunderlands but I had a very lucky experience there. On this Lough Erne the course to convert on to flying boats from, from ground Liberators and Mitchells. It was about eight weeks the course. Now, I went on this course, enjoying it too and then halfway through whether or not it was the good food in America I don’t know but I got boils on my bottom and I couldn’t sit still to send my Morse on the keys. So, I had to come off and go into dock to have these boils treated. Nurses chasing me around with kaolin poultices, red hot to put on your bottom. Didn’t like that bit. Anyhow, I went in to, in to this dock and I was in there for two or three weeks and they cleared them. Came out and looked for my crew, and this was lucky part on my part, very sad on the other part. They set of from Enniskillen, North Ireland, Lough Erne. They set off to India across the Bay of [pause] Is it Gibraltar? Bay of Biscay. Bay of Biscay. Set off from there. Got across the Bay of Biscay. Went to Gibraltar. From Gibraltar they went to Sicily and that’s as far as they got because they crashed in to Mount Etna in Sicily and they all got killed. All my mates got it. So, boils in some respects saved my life. But it was a very sad occasion because I’d just got used to them. Anyhow, I found a new crew. Got a new crew and did what they did by training fully and getting, leaving Northern Ireland across the Bay of Biscay, Gibraltar, and then to Sicily, only we didn’t hit Mount Etna. We went straight on and down. Down to Habbaniya, I think. I can’t remember the names but we ended up at Karachi in Northern India, and that’s where we did a bit of supply business flying from, from there. I was with 240 Squadron this. Well, it would be one of two squadrons 240 and 205, and then 230 Squadron. They’re all, they were all Coastal Command [pause] Have a little finish and then I’ll probably —
[recording paused]
JW: 205 Squadron at Redhills Lake, Madras. From Karachi we went down. This was 1945. We went down. That was from, from Karachi, 205 Squadron at Redhills Lake, Madras comes next. That’s the south of India, and we were stationed there in March ’46, I think it is. Anyhow, then we were doing supply from Koggola. We got sent from Madras which is, that’s interesting too because Madras, there was Redhills Lake there. I had an operation, and I said to a chap, he was an Indian surgeon. I said, ‘I’ve been to Madras. Redhills Lake.’ He said, ‘Oh, they’ve built a big either hospital or something similar at that place near Madras. Oh, I could go in to, I could go in to details about being there in Redhills Lake. We went on leave to the only gold field in India. They called it Kolar Gold Fields, and I even got a chance to handle some of the nuggets. The big chunks of gold. They wouldn’t give me one but I went down there and they said, ‘Do you want to go down here.’ I said, ‘Oh, I’ll risk anything.’ So we, two of three of us said, so but they said, ‘Before you go down, and if you want to get out for a big cave down there you can get out and go around if you want. But we’ve got to warn you as soon as you go out and go into this cave if you don’t get into the middle where the water is coming up in the spring where the oxygen comes you’ll pass out.’ So, we did it anyway. We went and rushed to, rushed to this spring and sped over it just to say we’d been in. That’s why. Little daredevils. So that was, that was from Redhills Lake. Now then, they sent us from Redhills Lake at Madras over to, to Ceylon as it was. That’s Sri Lanka now. Koggola. Now, Koggola was stuck on to, stuck on to, [pause] What’s the capital of Ceylon? Galle. The capital of Ceylon used to be Galle. Well, Koggola Airfield [pause] Lake or whatever it was at Koggala was next to Galle in Ceylon. That was June in 1946. We slipped, we’ve missed a lot out, but anyhow and then that, that is what upset me most of all partly because from Koggala we did a lot of supply taking nurses and supplies over to Singapore. Seletar was the airfield on the station. Seletar. And we used to take these supplies but the thing that upset me terrifically was to see some of the lads that had been prisoners. Terrible to look at and to see them suffering. Some of them didn’t make it. They died before. But we, we took them back to Ceylon. That’s right. And that was the run that I did quite a lot. Between, between [pause] Seletar, which is Singapore back to Koggala in Ceylon. I’m just trying to think when we changed over to Sunderland Flying Boats. I think we did. I can’t remember the exact date but we did because I remember taking, they were a much bigger plane, the Sunderland than the Catalina because we were in a Sunderland Flying Boat when they said, ‘Right. You’ve got to take these supplies to Hong Kong.’ And so, we’d never been to Hong Kong before so we set off with these. I don’t know if we’d got nurses with us or just supplies, but we set off to go to Hong Kong and it was quite, I’ve got all the distances and times that it took us. I’ve got them in another book. But this time was the first time we went to Hong Kong. I shall never forget it because we’d not been there, well we hadn’t been on Sunderlands very long, but we gets going to Hong Kong and I remember the, it was in between mountains. There’s mountains on either side, and the wireless reception was terrible but we managed to get. I didn’t think we’d get there because Bob said, ‘Well, we’ve very little fuel so it looks like I’m going to have to put it down.’ And the thing that I can remember I was in the wireless operator’s unit just next to him, and I looked out of the window at the front and there was a big pier. A big pier stretching out right, as it got near the water. A big pier. I thought well, this is it. We’re going to crash into that. But somehow, he twisted it and missed the pier but we ended up on the beach. All the floats went through the wing, and the propeller got bent and all the rest of it but we were, we didn’t get killed. And I remember that, and thinking, well why did it happen? And I found out why it happened. Firstly, we hadn’t got enough fuel to turn round and land going out to sea because that’s where you were going. You’d got plenty of water to land. But we hadn’t, and that’s why we ended up in the beach. But I had to leave him. I had to leave Bob. We, we went with another aircraft back to Ceylon and Bob stayed there to give an account of why and that’s the last time I saw him. In 1946. And so I was very sorry. But two or three years ago I’m reading the Indian Ocean Flying Boat Association newspaper and it says, “Bob Cole is now living in Clacton on Sea.” So, I thought, marvellous. I’ll ring up. So, I rang him up, I said, ‘Bob, what are you doing?’ He says, ‘Who’s that?’ I said, ‘It’s Jack Watkins, your wireless op.’ He said, ‘Never. After all these years.’ As I say, it was only four or five years ago from now. He said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m coming down to see you.’ So, I went out to see him and we were nice slim young chaps when I left him and now he’s got a big fat paunch and I’ve got a little belly. But anyhow, we had a lovely chat together and oh it was great that and now, even now when I told him that, I rang him up, I said, ‘Bob, guess what I’ve been flying in a little Tiger Moth that you used to train in before you got — ’ ‘Oh, no.’ He says, ‘I’ve not been in one of them for years.’ I said, ‘Well, I met a person that’s got one and he’s took me around, and I went right around with him right, very, very near to Scampton where the Red Arrows were,’ I said. ‘And the chap, the pilot said, ‘I’d better not get too near or the Red Arrows are there and they’ll chase us off. But it was a really good experience, and so I just had that but I thought you’d like to know about that. Anyhow, I’ll be seeing you before long, if I can get my mates to bring me down. I’ll come down and see you again.’ That’s it. So, it was lovely that. So that’s as near as I can go for a minute. Yeah.
[recording paused]
So, it was in August 1946 when I went for home enlistment. A Transit Centre was August. August 1946, and then I went to 10 Personnel Dispersal Centre on September the 12th ’46 and that was where I first started off from. From Blackpool on the, I’ve forgotten the name of the place now. Blackpool. Padgate. Started off at Padgate, ended up at Padgate and glad to get home then. Of course, I was BBC Sheffield, Rony Robinson, he goes on from there, said, ‘Oh, what did you do then?’ Well, I’d, this Rony Robinson started the, I said, ‘Well, when I got home,’ I said, ‘I remember coming to Rotherham Station and I’d got two kit bags. One with my flying kit in and one with my ordinary kit in, and —' I said, ‘I felt a bit miserable because the other pal that I’d been, met in Ceylon came, and he’d got, all his family met him. Well, I’d finished with my girlfriend so there were nobody to meet me but I carried these up to Wortley Road where I used to be living, and so I thought thank goodness I’m home.’ But, one of the first things that I thought of straight away, I’m finishing with marching and I’m going to buy myself a motorbike. So, I thought. So, I bought this little motorbike and I thought I’d never had one before, and I thought let’s see how this darned thing works. So, I sit on it, and it was slightly uphill. Kicks it up, and twist the, and twist the throttle and it started moving. Now, I was on it and it was going and I thought this is marvellous. I’m not pedalling and I’m going uphill. And I’m going on like this and I kept on going, and the chap was walking alongside me and said, ‘Why don’t you change gear?’ I’d never thought about that. But it was good to, to have something different. But then of course Rony went on, ‘So what happened then about your marriage business?’ I said, ‘Oh, that. That fell through. I was married for ten years and then I had to throw in the sponge, and I was ten years on my own then.
SP: So John, that was great to run through your sequence of events.
JW: Yeah.
SP: All the time within the RAF.
JW: Yeah.
SP: So, after you joined up and you’d done all your training —
JW: Yeah.
SP: You talked about sometimes, you were, the time you were at Scampton and it was the time when the Dambusters raid was on.
JW: That’s right.
SP: Did you know something special was happening there? Was it —
JW: Well, I knew it was. I didn’t know exactly what was happening but I was used to bombers having been on Liberator bombers which are very similar to the Lancaster and I knew there was something going off and I knew, but we didn’t know. They kept it very hush hush. I remember seeing Guy Gibson and N***** nearby but, because we were right in the middle of it when they were, before they put the big bombs for the Dambusters they used to be, they used to be loading these big bombs up with chains, and we were in a billet only a few hundred yards from it. And I thought crikey if that’s breaks. But no. As for the raid itself, apart from when they told us they didn’t give a lot of detail. They just gave us the call signs and if you heard from this one pass it on straight to 5 Group at Grantham. And, oh no, it was exciting really but scary for a young man. As I say if anybody said they weren’t scared they must have been tougher than me because you never know what’s going to happen. You’re on edge most of the time. But no. I enjoyed, I can’t say I enjoyed it but I remember little things that’s nothing to do with this. My mother came to see me while I was on there. No. I’m, I’m skipping a bit. This was in Blackpool. She came to see me in Blackpool there and of course there was, it was full of aircrew training and she was a very delicate little woman, my [laughs] So, she said, ‘Right. Are we going for lunch?’ Well, the only place you could go to lunch was Old Mother Riley’s Tuck Shop, and they’d even got the knives and forks chained to the table because the lads used to [waltz ] them. But no. To get back to Scampton. We did it. It was very hush hush. We didn’t know a lot. I knew that I had to do a certain job, and that was listen for messages and pass them on to, they was all in different call signs, but you’d pass them on to 5 Group. And as I say after that I seemed to be taken up with being posted as I say to different places.
[recording paused]
Yes. The hut that they told us to go to was to, was in the middle of a field out in nowhere really between Lincoln and 5 Group, or Scampton and 5 Group. I can’t remember. It’s in a similar, similar area. But instead of, the reason they sent us out there was because they’d been told to contact us in this little hut. They give us different call signs, and then we’d pass the message by telephone to 5 Group in Grantham. What the main thing was, they didn’t want any of the bombers to contact 5 Group because that was headquarters, and if they’d have gone straight away, they’d have sent a bomber and just cleared the lot. So, as I say it was exciting for, for a young chap and baffling and all this, but we got, we got through it all right.
SP: An important part to play during that time.
JW: It really was. It seems, it seems trivial now but at that time it must have been important for them to tell us to go there and send us in between Scampton and, and Grantham. Between them two. We were there so they would be contacting us there. And then if they wanted to bomb where, where they could hear where our call sign, one we, we’d have got it then. Yeah. But no. No, it’s, it’s a long, long time ago.
SP: And what was life like at Scampton air base at that time? So obviously we know —
JW: Well —
SP: The Dambusters. What was life like on the base?
JW: The base was, well, it’s hard to say because everything was in short supply. I mean food and things like that. We got served, I remember queuing up a meal once. K rations they called it. K rations. They were just like these Ryvita biscuits. Two or three of those and that was it. But even in Blackpool before we went to Scampton the food was poor and we used to send it home. We all had a biscuit tin with bits of cake and things like that. There were more mice in them boarding houses. They used to be running on the top of the bed. We used to knock them off. In your greatcoat there would be mice because we used to keep food in the bedroom. But things were a bit tight there. But there are certain things that that I remember that I wish we’d got. Dried egg. It was powdered egg. I loved it. I don’t know if you can get it or not now. We’ve gone off the subject now so you’d better get back to —
SP: That’s fine. It’s the really interesting stuff. It’s all those bits of information.
JW: Well, you see things that, that are, different altogether and especially when I’ve just skipped over the Blitzes of Rotherham and Sheffield there. That was really frightening because I remember being in the Tivoli, Tivoli was a little cinema in Rotherham and this was the night when the Blitz was on too, and I’m sat there with a young lady of course, one of the neighbours, and we were watching this film. All of a sudden boom, boom, and the seats were shaking like mad so I said, ‘Well, we’d better get out of here.’ I said, ‘Because it looks as though it’s getting nearer and nearer.’ So, we gets out, and there was a little passage down the side of the Tivoli cinema so, I said, ‘Come on, let’s get in this passage.’ We just stood in this passage and whoof it shot us right to the other end of the passage. And I said, ‘We’d better get home now.’ And there again when you get home, some had these Anderson shelters which were like corrugated steel in the garden. But otherwise, you could have what they called, I forget what they called them but it was a great big steel plate the size of the dining table, a big dining table with all wire meshes. Meshing underneath and that was your air raid shelter indoors, and you could put blankets and things on and creep in there every time the siren went. You know, you can’t realise that. Kids wouldn’t realise that if the sirens were whoo whoo whoo. You’d know that that’s the time that they were coming. The German bombers were coming. And when they had done with their business and they’d gone you could hear them hmmmm, then the all clear would come. It would be one solitary note [humming] That means you could come out and put the fires out, or see to what wanted doing outside. You don’t realise that. People don’t, don’t realise that can’t remember the Blitz. But there was some, I’ve forgotten most of it but I remember in the middle of Sheffield was a massive big pub come hotel called the Marples and it was filled, the bottom was filled with all spirits, whisky, wine and you mention it and that went up, and that. Oh, it was, it was terrible. All broken down and on fire. I remember my wife worked in, in the Co -op’s stitching sewing business in West Street and she said, ‘Well, we just got ready and went to work from Tinsley,’ where she was living. And when they got to work the policeman said, ‘What are you doing? Get back home.’ You know. So, they sent them back home then. But you forget. It’s a good job you do forget really. But not altogether. Same as this that I’m coming back to when they’re going to close Scampton down. I don’t like it because I think they should, they should leave it open for British heritage because it’s such a, well it was such an important thing. It was just from the Dam raid to, it saved England anyhow, I think. And I mean they asked me before what, what do you think about it? I said, well I don’t know that much about it because, but I do know that if, If I said to the government, to whoever in charge, ‘We’re going to shift Nelson’s Column. We’re going to move it.’ There would be an uproar. Or if we said we’re not going to bother with Flanders Field with all the poppies. It’s only a field with poppies in so why should we worry? So, enough said.
SP: Ok.
JW: Right. Rest now.
SP: Ok John, so we’ve covered about Scampton and, and the air raids.
JW: Yeah.
SP: At Sheffield and Rotherham.
JW: Yeah.
SP: Do you want to tell me a little time about you time when you’d done your training in Canada and you were travelling through America? You said you were in your RAF uniform.
JW: Blue yes. Yeah.
SP: How were you treated by the Americans? What was that journey like?
JW: Well, really from, from New York that was an experience and all because remember we were only eighteen, or, nineteen, year old. You’ve heard about New York but then you come and you have a short period, just a short period in New York. I remember going around Broadway. Well, everybody’s heard of Broadway, and you look up and the buildings are so high that they seemed to join at the top. Of course, you’d nothing like that in England. So, it’s all busy busy. I can’t remember much about it but it wasn’t, there was no black out. No blackout in America. And when I left England there was rationing. You daren’t strike a match in the dark because, ‘Put that light out there.’ Because it was the ruling there. The bread was brown and it was dark. You don’t get white bread, and you couldn’t get sugar and I remember the rationing was butter, sugar, lard, marg, bacon, eggs, cheese. All those were rationed to nearly nothing. But then to get from that to America. I told Rony, I said I’m going to start a book about. “From Hell to Paradise and Back.” And I said, I said, he said, ‘Well, why don’t you write it?’ I said, ‘Because it’s all the past and nobody’s interested.’ And I keep thinking now about Scampton. It’ll be all in the past and will be forgotten like the poppy fields. We don’t want it to be forgotten. Not for the kid’s sake. And anyhow, coming back to America I looked at New York and Broadway. I’d seen that, and quickly just going past and then we set off down and I should have to look at the map to find out which places we stopped at because it was a ten day journey from New York down to Miami in Florida because we kept stopping and he used to say, ‘Right. You’ve got a half day here.’ So, we would go out and we’d meet the people of America and they were marvellous. Lovely. Because they knew what we were suffering in England and oh all the food, The stuff like that. Everything was really like paradise at the time of England. That was why I thought I’ll write a book, “From Hell to Paradise,” and come back. But anyhow, when it gets to the bottom the thing is that you remember about the train there in, in America and you go to the back compartment the first thing I said, ‘I’ll have a tea please.’ So, what did they bring me? An iced tea. I’d never had iced tea in my life. So, I had that but go back to the compartment and look down the line from where you’re coming, and you can’t see the end. It goes, goes on and on and on. Miles and miles. But every time you stopped and went to see, you learned something about the people. In young men. I mean, I got on a bike there once and I said, ‘Where’s are the, there’s no brakes, where are —’ ‘Oh, you just back pedal for the brakes.’ And things like that stick in your mind and they were lovely people, and they really looked after us. And of course, when I got to Miami, I must tell you this, being a shy and bashful RAF aircrew chap, I met a girl down there and she was a WAVE. What’s a WAVE? A WAVE is an American Wren. They call them WAVES there. So, I met this girl called Peggy and I were very gentlemanly, no messing about and she took us all around to nightclubs where all the names like Bing Crosby. I don’t know who they were but they were right up there. Took us round there, took us round a race, a dog racing track. Never been to one of those. Everything was bigger and, and elaborate. Anyhow, she was a nice lass and I’d, I’d split with my girl, because I’d heard that she’d been playing away and confirmed that that was true. So I said, ‘Right. Well, that’s it now. We’re finished.’ I said, ‘You can be my girlfriend.’ ‘Oh, that would be lovely.’ So that’s what I met when I’m was going down to Miami. Then I had to leave them. Had to leave them behind. You get on a little boat to go to Nassau in the Bahamas, and that was a lovely trip because the waters there were pure and clean, and you could see all the little fishes like humbugs, all different colours. I remember I dropped a pair of sunglasses down there. Right down to the bottom. Down and down and down. Oh, ever so far. Oh, that’s that then. That’ll cost me a fiver for some new ones. Anyhow, this young lad says, ‘I’ll get them boss. I’ll get them.’ And he starts swimming down and I looked at him. Well, I could swim a lot having been on Catalinas and, and he got them back for me. ‘Right. Thank you.’ So, I gave him a penny and he was quite happy. Anyhow, we go from there with these flying fish at the side of the boat going from, from Miami to Nassau in the Bahamas. Now, Nassau at that time was when the Duke of Windsor, he’d finished with, he didn’t want to be king and he threw in his hand and went with Mrs Simpson and they went to Windsor House in the Bahamas. In Nassau. We didn’t see much of him but he was there at the same time. And anyhow, we got there after seeing, oh I’d better tell you this but it’s, it’s a bit frightening, and it’s a bit rude and it’s a bit all sorts. But I’ll tell it you and I hope you’re, nobody’s offended but it’s true. We gets there and just before we pulls up in to Nassau the MO came out and he said, ‘Now, look here lads, just sit down there and look at this — ’ video. Not a video. A film. And he says, ‘It’s a bit horrible but you’re going, going to watch it because I’m going to force you in to it.’ He says, ‘Now, there’s some beautiful young ladies on this island here. Well, I’m going to tell you now, after you’ve seen this film, if you carry on with what you think you’re going to be doing good luck to you, but don’t come to me complaining later.’ And he showed me this film of VD, and I’m not kidding I thought right that’s me finished with females forever. It was disgusting. They got a little umbrella and stuffed it up your willy and brought, ooh I thought. Well, it put me off, and it put quite a, most of the chaps off but one or two did. They did succumb to these wishes of the, but partly the females because they were asking you, well I’ll not go in to more detail because it’s rude that. But anyhow, that was one other thing but everything was lovely there. That’s why I think when I came home, and I got these boils on my bottom I had such wonderful food there. And that, I think it upset completely but anyhow the other thing I’ll tell you, one little instance because really it would be uninteresting to anybody else but in these big Lanc [pause] in the American —
SP: Liberator.
JW: Liberator bombers, we were. There was all sorts of different, everything different on the radio and the guns. The guns were .5 cannon, and there was blister, blister turrets underneath so when you landed you were in between the two wheels, big wheels and it nearly set on fire. But I remember one instance during training. We used to be, we used to be armed with depth charges and all the rest, because there was some sort of submarines and things in the, in the area. I didn’t know about but we used to go on to training trips and if we didn’t see anything on the way back there was a wreck, and the idea was to, for practice reasons the navigator used to have to drop one depth charge near this wreck and the air gunner, wireless op/air gunner used to have to lift up the Perspex on the back turret, lean over with a big camera and take a film of exactly how near we were to this wreck. And the one that I remember was I had got this turn. ‘It’s your turn to go take the photo.’ So, I gets this dirty great big camera, leans out on the back and says, ‘Right. Ok. I’m ready at the back.’ He goes, ‘Right. We’re taking the run. Right. Bombs gone,’ and I expected to take a film of the, how near to the wreck it was, and all of a sudden the water splashed up. We were only about a hundred foot up but the water came right up and I never got a film because the navigator had pressed the wrong button and instead of pressing it for one, he pressed the whole lot. So there were about six or eight depth charges went and we got splashed. But we just said that it must have been an electrical fault. It couldn’t have been our fault because — but that’s just an instance that sticks in your mind. You see when I’m talking like this, one thing leads to another. We talk about sea planes, Liberators, Catalinas and Sunderlands. Now, you think when you land a Lancaster or you land a Liberator you come down gently and it’s either a good landed, a bumpy one, or straight but you’re down and that’s it. You open up and you get out and go for a coffee or something. When you land a seaplane you land on water which little, few people know that water is as hard as concrete when you land and you can feel it under your foot, because it’s only like the thickness of the hull. But you land there and you look for a buoy floating. It might be rough, but you look for it and there’s always got to be two of you in the front turret to get that buoy because you have to have a big boat hook. And then you see this buoy with a loop on top and you’ve to grab the loop and pull it. The engines are still going. Pull this towards you, and then get a big thick rope and stuff it through this loop on the buoy, bring it back and wrap it around a bollard and hold it tight and then give the thumbs up to the pilot to cut the engines. And it’s quite an ordeal that to do that especially when it’s wobbling about. I nearly lost one of my best mates. We were both in the front doing that, and he was doing the boat hook and I was getting the rope to wrap around this bollard, and all of a sudden he slipped and he went down there. So, he’s hanging on, he’s gone under the water hanging on to this arm and I’m hanging onto the bollard with the rope there and he nearly, he nearly got killed really. But anyhow he gradually pulled himself up there. Anyway, we never spoke. We never spoke either of us just put my thumb up to the pilot to cut the engines. And that was that and we never mentioned it again but in two minutes he could have gone. That’s it.
[recording paused]
SP: So, we talked about the different planes that you flew in, in Coastal Command. The Catalinas and the Sunderlands.
JW: Yeah.
SP: Do you want to tell me a little bit about the role of Coastal Command? What, what you did on a day to day basis?
JW: Well, it depends which squadron you were with and where but generally speaking the, the role of Coastal Command was to escort the convoys that in my opinion from America to England because we depended on America for food and for lots of things, early days. And it was a known fact that the Germans had got terrific patrols and submarines that were just up and down, and just pinching all the trade and sinking all the troops. We were losing a terrific lot of ships and things, but we also saved a lot because we, we managed to depth charge a lot of the submarines. I don’t know how many. I can’t tell. I did know but I’ve forgotten now. And apart from that Coastal Command was on, what’s the name [pause] for any Bomber Command or anybody got brought down in the sea they would land and pick them up which was, we did quite a lot of that. And it was important to know that, that they were there. But my main job was on the South East Asia Command. That’s from Madras at first. Redhills Lake, Madras to Singapore. Seletar at Singapore. And it was supplying, in fact they called the squadron 240 SPUI Supply at first, to supply nurses and equipment, food etcetera to, to Seletar at Singapore. And then we did that for quite a while and then they transferred us to Galle or Koggala which was in Ceylon. We were doing the same, same trips from, from there, from Ceylon over to Seletar, Singapore. Down the Malacca Straits, and searching for Japanese submarines.

I don’t know if we escorted any ships across there but mainly it was supply. And as I say it’s hard to remember now, but from there how it finished up was we got, we went on to Sunderlands from, from Catalinas. They were carrying more things, but there’s also different things to learn about them. We were still, though we were experienced we were still training. Every time you changed from a Catalina to a Sunderland you’ve all the different radios, different guns, and different procedures. Mind you the Sunderland’s a lot bigger because there was a galley there where we could cook. There was a big, big difference altogether. In fact, the Japanese and Germans used to call it a flying porcupine there were that many guns in it. But as I say when you think about different planes you’d to learn about different, the Catalina has got a blister on the side with guns. We’d to learn the different guns and the different radios. Apart from knowing the, there was one, one thing that I do remember. We were coming back from, from Singapore to [pause] I think it might have been Redhills or it might have been Koggala, in there, and the navigator, the navigator had given Bob the course, and somehow, mind you the navigator was mostly always drunk. He liked brandy. And Bob says, ‘Jack, will, will you just check your directional finding aerial.’ It’s like a round aerial that you twist around to find out where the beacons were sending messages from and it’s tells you where to go. Well, the navigator had given us a course to go so far, and if we’d have kept to that, if we’d kept to that course, we should have missed Ceylon and we should have been in the middle of the Indian Ocean. But we used this, this direction finding aerial, put it right and landed. But just a little thing like that could have, we could have ended up in the middle of the Indian Ocean and wondered why. But these are things that’s apart from searching your eyes, it’s no wonder my eyes are bad because you go from, from Ceylon to Singapore you don’t just sit down and listen to the radio you’re searching all the time for submarines and anything that is abnormal that’s going to attack our shipping and —
SP: Would that all be by sight or was there any equipment that would highlight if there were submarines as well?
JW: Well, it was really, it depended on when. I think there was certain, certain equipment there but I can’t remember much about it. Mainly by sight. That’s what I say, my eyes used to, we used to have to had to scan, scan the horizon. Scan the sea. I’ve spent hours and hours looking at that for periscopes and things like that, but that’s a long time ago. I forget about it. But I was pleased when it was all over and they said, ‘Right, you’re going. You’re going to, you’re going back to England.’ You couldn’t believe it at first. Little things come to mind then. The actual week when I was demobbed there was a lot of snakes and things out there, you know and we used to [pause] I remember this time when it was near going home time. We went, we’d been to the mess, we’d been drinking a lot, and we always carried a revolver and always live ammunition, and we get back to the mess and they were all like palm trees, you know. They weren’t wooden things. Palm they used to, the huts and billets were. And I remember going in and seeing this snake on the top and it was only about, it might have been a couple of yards long. Maybe a yard and a half, and it was a silver one and we’d been drinking and we were just happily shooting at it to knock it off like. So, you know, as we shot it down when we did shoot it down I always thought snakes went slow like that but this one was brmmm and it was out of the door. So, the following day I’m going around getting all my things stamped for going home and I came to this office of the hut where they had to stamp my forms and just as I get there, I was on a bike at the time and a dirty great snake, a whacking big thick thing going across the road just as I can see today. I thought crumbs. I nearly fell of the bike. I might have done. I jumped off anyhow. Gets into the hut where I’d gone to have this thing stamped. I said, ‘Crikey, I’ve just had an experience. There was a snake. I think it must have been twenty foot long as that thing.’ ‘Oh, you don’t want to worry about that,’ he says. ‘That’s, that, that were only a rat snake. They only eat rats.’ I said, ‘I don’t care what it was,’ I said, ‘Because just a few days ago we found a little snake on the top and it were all silver coloured. Silver coloured and we were shooting at it. We knocked it down. It shot off like.’ He said, ‘It’s a good job it didn’t come to you. They call them silver krait, and It’s the most poisonous snake in the country, so just these little things that stick in a small mind.
SP: Yeah.
JW: Now then —
SP: Did you have the same crew while you were out there?
JW: I did.
SP: Did you? Yeah.
JW: Until that last time when we crashed the Sunderland in Hong Kong and then we split up. But on odd occasions we used to fly with different, if they were short of a chap we’d —
SP: Yeah.
JW: If there was a wireless op.
SP: Who was your crew then? Who was your main crew?
JW: My main crew was Bob Cole. I’ve got pictures of us here. And —
SP: So —
JW: With the crew who they were.
SP: Yeah.
JW: Well, these were wireless operators.
SP: Just tell me who your crew were.
JW: This is all my crew.
SP: Yeah. What were their names?
JW: Bob [Vinton] there. Frankie [Burke]. Jock, I forget his name. I’ve got it written down somewhere. And he was the skipper. Hawkey, Flight Lieutenant Hawkey. Pete [Dakus] and I forget him now. He was, he was from down south. I’ve got them written down. It might be on the back of these. And I think he was an Aussie and that’s me. I don’t know where —
SP: So that’s your pilot.
JW: That’s Flight Lieutenant Hawkey and, well, I’ve got them written down somewhere. It might be on the back.
SP: So, John, obviously the crew called you Jack but everyone else had nicknames on crews. What was your nickname?
JW: Oh, yes. Well, as I say, well when I was on the crew it was still Jack but when I came home here and joined the RAF Association well that’s when at one of the meetings we’d been on parade and marching for some Armed Forces Day I think it was. But when we came back, we get to outside the Town Hall and the mayor came out and about she said, ‘Now, chaps if you’d like to pop upstairs for a coffee or a brandy.’ Well, you know who was first upstairs. I was up there like a shot and the girl serving the coffee she was really lovely and I looked at her. I said, ‘You are really lovely you are, aren’t you?’ She said, well, she didn’t mind, and I gave her a little kiss on the cheek. Now then, the mayor was just at my side. I didn’t know she was there so I thought I’m on a charge here. I’m going to get in trouble. So, I turned to her and I said, ‘I wonder, is it appropriate that I kiss the mayor?’ And she said, ‘I don’t see why not.’ So, I thought how lovely. So, I got out of that, and I thought that was the end of it but it wasn’t really because the lads, some got on to that and I admitted I might have kissed one or two other ladies that were expecting to be kissed, or well I was liking to be kissing t them but anyhow that was that side. And then we come to a, a service in the local Minster and it was where the armed, there were the Military Wives Choir and brass band, and some other thing., some other group all in church. Full congregation. Also, before the service starts the mayor stands up and said, ‘Jack will you please stand. John will you please stand up and I want to present you with something.’ So, she presented me with this Scotch plaid carrier bag and I thought what’s all this about? So, I opened it and there was a, a lovely tie with a Sunderland Flying Boat printed on it and there was a gold watch that fits in your top pocket with a Sunderland Flying Boat on it, and then there was this mug. A lovely coloured mug with a Sunderland printed on it and they’d put, “To Snogger John Watkins,” just because I’d happened to kiss the mayor. But I thanked them very much for it and since that of course they all put my name on that as Snogger. And at first, I thought well I don’t know if I like this or not. It makes you feel a bit common and the rest of it. But then they printed a “Snogger” number plate for the back of my scooter. I said, ‘I’m not putting that on. You can just go and put my, do another one and put RAF 240 squadron and I’ll put that on.’ So, I filed the “Snogger” one away but since all this talk about different places and where you’ve been and what you’ve done, I’m afraid Snogger’s come to the front again so we’d better keep Snogger in, but I suppose I shall be getting somebody’s fist in my, in my face one of these days and saying, ‘Well, that’s my young lady so keep off.’ I’ll take it anyhow. Will that do?
SP: That is brilliant. So, John, I just want to thank you on behalf of the International Bomber Command Centre’s Digital Archives for sharing your stories with us today.
JW: Good. Thank you very much. I have enjoyed it.
SP: It really has been a real honour to meet you. Thank you.
JW: Yes. It’s nice to see you darling and you’ll get a kiss before we go so come here. Yes. Thank you. Lovely. Thank you darling.
SP: Ok. Thanks.



Susanne Pescott, “Interview with John 'Snogger' Watkins,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed July 23, 2024,

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