b. 18/11/1918 Nelson, Wales. d. 09/09/2007 Cardiff, Wales.
Sir Tasker Watkins (1918-2007) was born in the small town of Nelson, Caerphilly, Glamorgan, Wales on 18th November 1918, the son of Bertram Watkins and his wife Jane (nee Phillips). He was educated at Pontypridd Grammar School. Like so many Welsh families of his generation, his parents went to England to look for work, moving to Dagenham, Essex, in 1931. Watkins completed his education in Romford and, always a keen sportsman, captained the local cricket and football teams, and also played rugby. He then worked for export agents and a halibut oil company. He met Margaret Evans, a comptometer operator at Briggs Motor Bodies, Dagenham, and they married in May 1941.
After the outbreak of war he served in the ranks from October 1939 until May 1941, when he was granted an emergency commission as a Second Lieutenant, the Welch Regiment. In 1943 he attended the Advanced Handling and Fieldcraft School at Llanberis, Caernarfonshire, then worked as an instructor in the rifle wing of the school. He was posted to 103 Reinforcement Group in Normandy in June 1944, joining the 1/5th Company of the Welch Regiment the next month.
On August 16th 1944, when commanding a company of 1/5th Company of the Welch Regiment, Watkins attacked a German machine-gun post single-handed while leading a bayonet charge. The battalion had been ordered to attack objectives near the railway at Bafour, about five miles west of Falaise, as part of the move to trap the Fifth and Seventh German Armies in the Falaise “pocket”.
Watkins’s company had to cross open cornfields containing a number of booby traps, and while doing so came under heavy machine-gun fire from posts in the corn, as well as being targeted by an 88mm gun. When heavy casualties slowed the advance of the Welch, Lieutenant Watkins found himself the only officer left, and put himself at the head of his men. Although subjected to short-range German fire, he charged two enemy posts in turn, killing or wounding the occupants with his Sten gun.
On reaching his objective he found an anti-tank gun manned by a German soldier. At that vital moment his Sten gun jammed, so he threw it into the German’s face and shot him with his pistol before the man had a chance to recover. Immediately after this the company, now down to 30, was counter-attacked by 50 Germans. Once again Watkins led a bayonet charge that resulted in the destruction and dispersal of the enemy.
The battalion had now been given orders to withdraw, but this could not be passed on to Watkins’s company as its radio had been destroyed. He and his men thus found themselves alone and surrounded by enemy in fading light. Watkins tried to lead his company back to rejoin the battalion by moving round the flanks of the enemy position through the corn. While going through the cornfield, however, he was challenged by an enemy post at close range. Ordering his men to scatter, he charged the post with a Bren gun and silenced it. Then he led the remnants of his company back to battalion headquarters.
Watkins’s citation recorded that “his superb gallantry and total disregard for his own safety during an extremely diffcult period were responsible for saving the lives of his men and had a decisive influence on the course of the battle” – which resulted in the capture of 50,000 German prisoners and 10,000 enemy killed. He was promoted from lieutenant to major on the field. After recovering in hospital from a leg wound he went home on leave, taking a bus from Cardiff to his home village, near Mountain Ash, Glamorgan. He arrived unnoticed. Interviewed subsequently, all he would say about the action was that the men with him were Welsh, and “I am proud of that”.
Watkins was decorated with the Victoria Cross by King George VI at Buckingham Palace on March 8th 1945, after which he worked as an instructor at 164 Officer Cadet Training Unit. On leaving the Welch Regiment after the war, Watkins was called to the bar as a member of Middle Temple in 1948. As was usual in those days, he had a mixed civil and criminal practice. In 1954 one of his earlier prosecutions was of a married man with seven children who, advertising himself as widower “Sir Louis DuBarry” looking for a wife, had successfully seduced a number of Welsh widows and relieved them of sums of money. In 1956 Watkins was appointed standing counsel for the Post Office on the south-western section of the Wales and Chester circuit. In 1961 he defended Malcolm Williams in the so-called “pillbox murder” of Andrew Bonnioz.
He took silk in 1965, and the following year was one of the counsels for the tribunal investigating the Aberfan coal-slip disaster. He also headed the inquiry into the Farleigh mental hospital, Somerset, and made recommendations over the handling of violent patients by nurses. In 1970 he was made a bencher. While he was leader of the Wales and Chester circuit (1970-71), the Beeching commission suggested it should be split in two and annexed to Bristol and Manchester. “Thank God for Tasker,” said the present lord chief justice, Lord Phillips in 2007. Speaking at the Welsh national assembly, Phillips credited him with saving the Welsh circuit from the predations of that commission.
Watkins’ early judicial career followed the tried and tested pre-Beeching pattern. He was deputy chairman of Radnor quarter sessions (1962-71). He occupied the same position with Carmarthenshire quarter sessions from 1966 until he was appointed recorder of Merthyr Tydfil (1968-70). He was appointed to the high court and knighted in March 1971, joining what was then the probate, divorce and admiralty division. He sat as presiding judge of the Wales and Chester circuit (1975-80) before taking up the appointment as senior presiding judge for England and Wales.
It was in 1970 while at Merthyr Tydfil that the talented if raffish defence barrister Billy Rees-Davies walked up to the bench, seized Watkins’ carafe of water, said “Yer Lordship won’t be needing this,” and made off with it. Sometimes seen as pugnacious, Watkins took the loss with remarkable equanimity. More seriously, in 1990 Watkins was a member of the divisional court that rejected the claim by Pat Pottle and Michael Randle, who had assisted the escape of the spy George Blake, that the delay in prosecuting them was an abuse of legal process. “Some people might sympathise with Mr Randle and Mr Pottle. Whether that sympathy is misplaced is not for us to say,” he remarked wryly. In June 1991, a jury cleared the pair.
Lord Justice Lane asked him to become the deputy chief justice in 1998, and he also served under Lord Taylor until he retired in 1993. “He was much loved by bar and bench, but not perhaps by the criminals whose sentences he reviewed,” said Lord Phillips when addressing the Welsh assembly. Nor necessarily Labour-controlled councils. In 1979, Watkins had ruled that the National Front was entitled to specific performance after they had hired a hall in Great Yarmouth for their annual conference. A new Labour council had refused to allow the conference, but after taking into account questions of freedom of speech and the sanctity of contracts, Watkins held that damages were not sufficient compensation for the breach. His decision was upheld by Lord Denning (obituary, March 6 1999) in the court of appeal.
Appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Glamorgan in 1956, Watkins became an honorary Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Wales in 1979 and of Glamorgan in 1996. He became an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1992 and was made a freeman of the city of Cardiff in 2004. He was made a privy counsellor in 1980 and awarded the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire in 1990. He became the 46th president of the Welsh Rugby Union in 1993 – and the first man in 40 years to serve more than one year in office. By the time he decided not to seek reelection in 2004, he had served 11 years, making him the second longest serving president in the 123-year history of the WRU.
Watkins also chaired the mental health review tribunal, Wales region, (1960-71) and was chairman of the Judicial Studies Board (1979-1980). He was president of the University of Wales College of Medicine (1987-98) and president of the British Legion, Wales (1947-68). Sir Tasker Watkins passed away on 9th September 2007, aged 88, and left behind his wife and a daughter, Mair. His son pre-deceased him. He was cremated at Llandaff Crematorium, Cardiff. In September 2008, a year after his death, his medal group was acquired privately by Michael Ashcroft, and now form part of the Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: CREMATED AT LLANDAFF CREMATORIUM, CARDIFF, WALES.
Thomas Stewart – Image of the Watkins VC Building in Brecon, Wales.