39249 Flight Lieutenant Arthur David Watson,
21 Squadron, Royal Air Force.
Killed 12 May 1940, near Tongeren, Belgium,
Commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial.
All he had hoped for, all he had, he gave.
The words above, from the notification of David’s death, would have been chosen by those closest to him and perfectly encapsulate the loss of a young man’s dreams as well as the energy behind his efforts.
Arthur David Watson was born on 12 April 1915 at 34 Scarsdale Villas, Kensington. Known always by his middle name, he was the younger son of a solicitor, Arthur Bingham Watson (1869–1927) and his wife, the New Zealand-born painter and sculptor, Agatha Brodribb Catley (1871–1968). Agatha moved with her sons to Petersham in about 1936, where they lived at Greystones in Sudbrook Lane.
It was perhaps this move further out of London that led to David meeting the young woman who would become his future wife, Katherine Anne Field. Given his mother’s love of tennis, perhaps they met on a tennis court?
Anne was the daughter of Lieut. Col. Kenneth Douglas Field (who had been born at Latchmere House in Ham) and the niece of Captain Archibald Francis Noble (of Selby House, Ham). Both men were killed in action during the First World War and are commemorated on the Ham War Memorial as well as by memorial plaques inside St Andrew’s Church. Her father was a career soldier, stationed in the Far East, in Burma, and so Anne was born there, four months after war was declared in 1914. By the time of her sister’s birth on 29 April 1916, she and her mother had returned to Ham. Their uncle, Archie was killed when Rosemary was just three weeks old. Anne may have had faint memories of her father—she was not quite three when he died—but Rosemary, then only 19 months’ old, cannot have retained any memories of him. Their mother, Mary, had lost her husband as well as her only sibling, so for her and for their grandmother, Sarah, who had been widowed in 1913, the loss of the three ‘men of the family’ over four years, had brought much grief to Selby House. When you pass Selby House on Ham Common, remember the losses suffered by the Field and Noble families, whose home it was for more than six decades.
David and Anne were married in the summer of 1938 when both were aged 23. A year after their marriage, David’s elder brother, Martin, was to marry Anne’s younger sister, Rosemary. David was already in the Royal Air Force by the time war was declared.
Four weeks later, on 29 September 1939, a National Register was taken. This shows Anne living at Broomhill, in Swaffham, Norfolk. David was by then serving in 21 Squadron, which was based at that point in the war at RAF Watton, near Dereham. The probate record for David has him living in May 1940 at Dunore House, on the Thetford Road, in Watton. As Watton and Dereham were about six and eight miles from Swaffham, respectively, Anne was near enough to see her husband when he was off duty, during the quieter months leading up to Germany’s invasion of the Low Countries and France.
On the evening of 9 May 1940, the Wehtmacht began to move and just before daybreak on 10 May, its assault on the Netherlands, Belgium—the latter both officially neutral countries— and Northern France began. The failure of the Allies in the Norwegian Campaign had been a blow to British morale. The public mood, Hastings notes, was for Churchill’s “rhetoric and bellicosity”. On 10 May, Chamberlain resigned and on the following day, Churchill would be invited to form a government.
The Appendix of Grayling’s Amongst the Dead Cities provides a schedule of the RAF’s bombing attacks on Germany in the course of the Second World War. The first raid to be listed by Grayling was on the night of 11/12 May 1940, when the target was Mönchengladbach, a town west of the Rhine and east of the Dutch border. However, RAF records show that, for the period 10 May to 12 May, there were heavy losses for the RAF, of aircraft and crew, over Northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands, especially over Zuid-Holland, in the period 10–12 May, in aerial attacks to support their Allies as well as about 435 000 British troops, as the German Wehrmacht approached.
The day after the attack on Mönchengladbach, at 1900 on the evening of 12 May, David took off from RAF Watton, an air base near Dereham in Norfolk, as part of Operation Tongeren, flying in a group of nine Blenheim fighters. With David, were two other crew members, Sergeant Alan Lawrence Fortescue Webb as Observer, and Leading Aircraftman Arthur Christopher Burgess as Wireless Operator and Air Gunner. That night the target was a road in Tongeren (Tongres), which the nine Blenheim aircraft duly reached and bombed from a height of about 7000 feet. Five hours before they took off, at 14.00, the first German troops had reached the river Meuse. Every effort had to be made to halt their advance westward.
The road which was David’s target was a route along which land forces of the Wehrmacht would make their way, protected by the Luftwaffe, which had a strong presence in the skies above. In the course of that night the RAF would lose 45 aircraft, with 69 fatalities.
Bowyer notes, “Flt Lt Watson was a section leader, and their aircraft, Blenheim L8739, was hit. Its rear fuselage was shattered and fell away” at 2040. Some reports say it crashed in the vicinity of Tongeren; others that it crashed into the river Meuse, south east of Maastricht. Fortunately for the other Watton Blenheims, there was some cloud about, and the aircraft were able to return to their base by 2300.
The crew of L8739 were reported as missing in action, though a report in the Richmond and Twickenham Times of 25 May 1940, makes clear that David’s family understood that the chances of his still being alive were “very small”. It would be 9 months before a letter from the Air Ministry, dated 10 February 1941, arrived for his widow, Anne, confirming her husband’s status would be changed from ‘missing’ to ‘death presumed’. She also received a personal note of sympathy from George VI. These she kept inside the photo frame which held the photograph of David reproduced above.
Four years later, early in 1944, David’s widow married Captain Hector Montgomery of the Parachute Regiment, who was dropped at Arnhem on 17 September 1944, as part of Operation Market Garden. He was captured after being gravely wounded while defending the railway crossing at Wolfheze. His left arm was amputated in a German hospital, and he was then sent on to a hospital in the Black Forest to recuperate. This must have been a time of great anxiety for Anne. While Hector was still a prisoner of war, Anne gave birth to their elder son in a London Hospital. Hector’s condition remained critical and eventually, in January 1945, he was repatriated to the UK by the Red Cross, travelling via Switzerland. Anne died in Alton in 2007, aged 93.
David is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial as well as on the Parish War Memorials in both Ham and Petersham.
My thanks to David’s nephew, Sandy Watson for his interest in, and helpful response to, my enquiry, and also for his feeding back to me additional information from his Montgomery cousins. The copyright to the photograph of David Watson belongs to the Watson and Montgomery families.
Aviation Safety Network, ‘ASN Wikibase Occurrence #226751’, https://aviation-safety.net/wikibase/226751, accessed 21/5/2020.
Bowyer, M.J.F., 2 Group RAF, Somerton, 1974, p.87.
Grayling, A.C., Among the Dead Cities, London, 2006, p. 283.
Hastings, M., All hell let loose: The World at War 1939–1945, London, 2011. p.51–2.
Paradata, ‘Hector Montgomery’, https://www.paradata.org.uk/people/hector-montgomery, accessed 25/5/2020.
The National Archives (TNA), AIM15, Clerks’ Letter Books http://www.aim25.ac.uk/cgibin/vcdf/detail?coll_id=8789&inst_id=111, accessed 16/2/2015.
TNA, AIR 81/313, Air Ministry P4 Casualty Files, ‘Sergeant A L F Webb, Leading Aircraftman A C B Burgess and Acting Flight Lieutenant A D Watson: missing presumed dead; Blenheim L8739 hit by anti-aircraft fire and crashed near Meuse, The Netherlands,’ 12 May 1940, accessed 12/5/2020.
Traces of WW2, ‘RAF—21 Squadron’, http://www.epibreren.com/ww2/raf/21_squadron.html , accessed 16/2/2015.