As the country comes together over the extended VE Day Bank Holiday weekend to toast the heroes of the Second World War, Major General Stuart Watson CBE will be remembering his own time on the battlefields of Northern Europe.
Born in York in 1922, General Watson was at Winchester College in Hampshire when he was called up at the age of 19.
“I knew call-up was inevitable, but I would never have thought of joining the Army had it not been for the war,” he says.
“I would have gone to university and then made up my mind what to do. In 1945 I decided to stay in the Army and altogether served for a total of 35 years – and never regretted it.”
General Watson, 97, has lived in independent retired accommodation at Amesbury Abbey in Wiltshire for the last seven years.
After initial training in Catterick and Tidworth, followed by a course at the Officer Cadet Training
Unit at Sandhurst, he was commissioned in December 1942 into the 13th/18th Royal Hussars, who were stationed at Skipton in Yorkshire.
Training at Catterick and Tidworth was followed by four months at the Officer Cadet Training Unit at Sandhurst, and the young Watson was commissioned in December 1942.
In 1943, the Regiment became part of the 79th Armoured Division, a specialist armoured division created as part of the preparations for the Normandy invasion and led by Major General Hobart. The strange-looking vehicles it developed were known as Hobart’s Funnies, and included tanks that could float, flame throwers, and tanks that could clear mines, destroy defences and carry and lay bridges.
“For training purposes, the Regiment were equipped with Valentine tanks known as DD – or Duplex Drive – tanks, which could be modified to swim,” says General Watson.
“In Suffolk, we learnt how to operate our DDs on Fritton Lake near Lowestoft. At that stage the plan was that the whole Regiment would be in DDs, but later Monty modified the plan so that only two squadrons (40 tanks) were to have them. Training with other arms concluded on the Moray Firth in Scotland and in April the DDs moved to Gosport and the rest of the Regiment to Petworth in Sussex.
“We stayed there until June 4, when we embarked in our landing craft. Of course at that stage we didn't know where we were going and that was only revealed when we actually sailed and were allowed to see the real maps and air photographs, which had been put aboard the landing craft (LCT) in sealed hessian sacks.
“Because of bad weather, D-Day had been postponed for 24 hours and we actually left Gosport on the afternoon of June 5.”
The LCTs containing the DDs arrived off Sword Beach in Normandy early on the morning of June 6 after a rough crossing during which many of those on board were seasick. The DDs were supposed to launch from their LCTs 6,000 yards from the beach, but because of the rough seas this was reduced to an almost incredible 5,000 yards – nearly three miles!
Of the 40 tanks, 33 got into the sea and – remarkably – 31 reached the beach, with only two casualties. Seven tanks did not launch because on one LCT the leading tank got stuck on the ramp. On more exposed beaches further west, where the weather was worse, no DDs swam more than 1,000 yards.
“When the DDs reached the beach, the front of the screen – which enabled the tank to float – was lowered so that the guns could be fired. The back of the tank remained in the water,” says Maj Gen Watson.
“The crews had been told to switch off the main engine to save fuel and to use the auxiliary generator. This turned out to be bad advice because the tanks were in the water for some time due to congestion on the beach and sea water seeped into the engine compartment. When they tried to re-start the main engine, water was sprayed around, and it failed to start. Due to the incoming tide, 19 tanks were swamped.
“It was generally thought that it was worthwhile using swimming tanks – you would have to ask the Germans! At the very least they must have been surprised to see them swimming out of the sea!
“Meanwhile, the rest of the Regiment landed on to the beach directly from their landing craft. Again, there was delay from congestion and problems getting though the minefields. The tank that I was in set off a mine which broke the track, but it was quickly mended.
“We all got out to look at the damage and our second in command, who had been in action before, said, ‘for God’s sake, get back into the tank! Don’t just stand there – you’re being shelled!’. I don’t think any of us appreciated quite what the danger was.
“Sabre squadrons spent the day supporting the infantry in capturing their objectives. After dark the whole Regiment came together to refuel and fill up with ammunition.”
After D-Day, the regiment continued to fight its way steadily through France and Belgium to Germany, taking part in battles including Operation Goodwood, Operation Bluecoat, and Operation Market Garden. The battle to capture Caen, which took place on July 9, General Watson’s 22nd birthday, failed and Caen was eventually captured in early August.
“I was one of four officers who manned the Regimental Head Quarters’ communications. As Signals Officer, my job was to make sure the communications worked within the regiment and back to brigade at all times.
“The radio didn’t work well at night; there was a great deal of interference. We sometimes had to use Morse Code – I can still tell you the Morse alphabet – it’s not something you forget easily. You had to learn how to listen through all the interference, which was much worse at night.
“People sometimes ask how you reacted to your first time in action and whether it was frightening - the answer, of course, is yes, although, because many of us had not been in action before, it was also interesting.
“I often thought you were more likely to be frightened as the war went on and you became more aware of what could happen.
“The infantry and tank crews and others in the front line had much more cause to be frightened than the rest of us, for whom the main threats were from shelling and air attack. We sometimes had to dig trenches under our tanks and sleep there.
“A lot of the time – especially on D-Day – the noise was deafening.
“And I remember the horses at the battle of the Falaise Gap. The Germans took 2.5 million horses to war, and the ground was piled with dead animals.
“By the end you had got used to the constant state of tension. The Germans fought hard right up to the very end, and the winter was tough. It was intensely cold.
“By the time we got to Bremen, we knew the end was coming. The Germans still resisted but you could feel it was different. We were just north of Bremen when the end of the war was announced on May 8.”
After the war, General Watson – who was married to Susan for 46 years and has three children and eight grandchildren – went on to have a long and distinguished career, rising up through the ranks to command his regiment in the 60s and retiring in 1977.
He was Colonel of the 13/18th Royal Hussars from 1979-90, and met Diana, Princess of Wales, several times in her role as Colonel-in-Chief of the regiment. His son, Angus, will become Colonel of the successor regiment, the Light Dragoons, in May 2020.
“I was in the Army for 34 years, and it’s been 42 years since I retired,” he says.
“Seventy-five years on from the end of the war, it is still important to remember those who died or were wounded. It may be that this kind of war will not happen again, but later generations must understand what happened and why.”