17.05.1940 82 Squadron Blenheim IV P4904 UX:B Sgt. Watkins
Operation: Gembloux Belgium
Date: 17th May 1940 (Friday)
Unit: No. 82 Squadron
Type: Blenheim IV
Base: RAF Watton, Norfolk
Location: between Merval and Lappion, south-east of Laon France
Pilot: Sgt. Thomas John Watkins 44735 Age? Evader (1)
Obs: Sgt. David John Lees 565583 RAF Age 25. Killed
Air Gnr: LAC. Kenneth Gordon Reed 552567 RAF Age 19. Killed
REASON FOR LOSS:
Leaving RAF Watton in Norfolk at 04:50 hrs along with 11 other Blenheims from the squadron to attack German armour units infiltrating the Gembloux gap. The crews were uneasy because in earlier operations the Blenheim squadrons had suffered enormous losses.
They were to have an escort of Hurricanes but they were attacked before they made the rendezvous.
Later their fears were justified in that some 36 crew members would not return home. The losses were:
Blenheim IV L8830 UX:T Flown by Fg Off. McConnell - 2 crew PoW, I evaded;
Blenheim IV L8856 UX:W Flown by Sgt. Morrison Crew escaped after heavy landing on return;
Blenheim IV L9210 Flown by Plt Off. Greirson killed with 2 other crew;
Blenheim IV L9213 Flown by Flt Lt. Watson killed with 2 other crew;
Blenheim IV P4838 Flown by Fg Off. Gofton killed with 2 other crew;
Blenheim IV P4851 Flown by Fg Off. Fordham safe, 2 other crew killed;
Blenheim IV P4852 Flown by Sqn Ldr. Delap DFC safe with 1 other crew member, one killed;
Blenheim IV P4853 Flown by Sgt. Newbatt killed with 2 other crew;
Blenheim IV P4854 Flown by Plt Off. Toft PoW 2 other crew killed;
Blenheim IV P4898 Flown by Plt Off. Christensen killed with 2 other crew;
Blenheim IV P4903 Flown by Sgt. Wrightson injured, 2 other crew safe.
The aircraft was set alight in attacks by Bf109s of 1./JG3 and exploded mid-air between Merval and Lappion, SE of Laon at 06:30 hrs. Sgt. Lees and LAC. Reed were killed but Sgt. Watkins was miraculously blown from aircraft and managed to deploy his parachute, evaded capture and returned to his squadron on the 11th June 1940.
(1) Sgt. Watkins was commissioned and promoted to Plt Off. (44735) with effect 5th October 1940 and then to Fg Off. with effect 5th October 1941. He remained with 82 squadron which was redeployed to Malta at the beginning of June 1941.
On a mission on the 21st June 1941 the squadron, now at full strength after their redeployment, detailed six Blenheims to attack a convoy off Lamoedusa which, unbeknown to them, was being escorted by Italian Fiat CR.42 fighters.
As acting Flt Lt. Watkins pressed home his attack on a merchant vessel his aircraft was hit by flak and he was badly wounded in both legs. Nonetheless, hits were observed on the ship before his aircraft was attacked by by one of the escorting fighters. Flt Lt. Watkins positioned his aircraft so that his Gunner, Sgt. Chandler, had as clear field of fire as possible and as the fighter closed in Sgt. Chandler claimed to have shot it down. Flt Lt. Watkins then lapsed in unconsciousness and his Observer, Sgt. Sargent, removed him from his seat and took over the controls. Arriving over Malta Flt Lt. Watkins insisted in taking over control again. Despite being in great pain and weaken by loss of blood he successfully landed his aircraft. For his actions Ft Lt. Watkins was awarded the DSO with Sgt. Sargent and Sgt. Chandler receiving the the DFM. (p.495 - A History of the Mediterranean Air War 1940-1945 - Christopher Shores and Giovanni Massimello with Russell Guest)
The award of the DSO to Flt Lt. Watkins was promulgated in the London Gazette on the 15th August 1941. The citation reads:
"In June, 1941, Flight Lieutenant Watkins and Sergeant Sargent were pilot and observer respectively of an aircraft which participated in an attack on an enemy convoy off Lampedusa. Attacking a 6,000 ton merchant ship in the face of heavy anti-aircraft fire, Flight Lieutenant Watkins was severely wounded in the legs during his ran over the target. Nevertheless, he pressed home his attack, mast high, scoring hits on the objective. Enemy fighters then engaged his aircraft but, by skilful manoeuvring, he enabled his rear gunner to resist the attackers. On the return journey, Flight Lieutenant Watkins fell into a stupor as a result of his wounds and Sergeant Sargent, who was unable to call the air gunner as the intercommunication gear was put of order, removed the wounded pilot from his seat, took over the controls and flew the aircraft back to base. During this period, Flight Lieutenant Watkins had momentary periods of consciousness and, when informed that the aircraft was over base, insisted on taking control. Although in intense pain and very weak from loss of blood, by a supreme effort he regained his seat and made a landing without damaging the aircraft. Throughout Flight Lieutenant Watkins displayed the highest courage and devotion to duty while Sergeant Sargent displayed courage and resource in difficult circumstances."
The award of the DFM to Sgt. James Samuel Sargent (550557) was promulgated in the London Gazette 15th August 1941 with the same citation as for Flt Lt. Watkins.
The award of the DFM to Flt Sgt. Eric Francis Chandler (755026) was promulgated in the London Gazette on the 13th March 1942.
Flt Lt. Watkins was recommended for the Victoria Cross (VC) which was endorsed by Air Vice Marshall (AVM) Stevenson. The AVM quotes.
"I am told by Air Vice Marshall Lloyd that Watkins' foot was hanging by shreds of muscle and raw flesh. To continue the attack in these circumstances with such success and to have thereafter engaged his aircraft with enemy fighters and to have recovered consciousness sufficiently to be placed in the pilots seat and to have landed his aircraft displays very clearly all facets of high courage and devotion to duty which merits the Victoria Cross. I am happy to recommend him for this decoration". (Blenheim Society Journal)
He was promoted to Flt Lt. with effect 3rd July 1942 and after the war he transferred to the Aircraft Control Branch prior to being promoted to Sqn Ldr. which was with effect 20th December 1948.
On the 28th April 1952 Sqn Ldr Watkins was transferred from the Aircraft Control Branch to the Equipment Branch, retaining his existing rank and seniority.
He retired from the RAF as Sqn Ldr. retaining the rank of Wg Cdr. with effect 4th August 1970
Sgt. David John Lees. Lappion Churchyard. Son of Harry and Sarah A. Lees, of Erith, Kent, England.
LAC. Kenneth Gordon Reed. Merval Churchyard. Son of Albert Henry and Elizabeth Ellen Reed, of Penygraig, Glamorgan, Wales.
Researched Michel Beckers for Aircrew Remembered April 2017, with thanks to Soilsister for grave photographs, the remainder the collection of Michel Beckers. Thanks to John Jones for the information regarding the DSO award and the recommendation for the award of the VC to then Flt Lt. Watkins (Oct 2021). Other research and information added by Aircrew Remembered (Oct 2021).