Commando who won an MC for his part in the raid of St Nazaire

Born: May 24th 1921

Died: December 21st 2018

Bill “Tiger” Watson, who has died aged 97, was involved in what has been described as the ‘most daring raid of the Second World War’.

He was the last surviving commando of the raid on St Nazaire in 1942 – officially known as Operation Chariot. It was a courageous mission to destroy the German dry docks at the mouth of the River Loire in Normandy. The port’s huge dry docks allowed German battle ships to refit without going north to Hamburg.

The plan was that the obsolete destroyer HMS Campbeltown (heavily disguised as an enemy ship and packed with high explosives) would be rammed into the St Nazaire docks.

Watson with his face heavily blackened had been well briefed. His task was to lead a group of commandos ashore to clear the harbour and destroy a bridge to prevent German reinforcements.

While making his way to the shore in a motor launch the enemy searchlights blazed out over the entire area. They were a sitting target. Watson fired shots to kill the lights, but his heroic efforts to take the bridge resulted in him being badly wounded.

Watson, and his men, were immediately taken prisoner but the raid achieved its aim. Others on the raiding party had blown up the pumping station and Campbeltown’s delayed explosion worked to order and destroyed the dock putting it out of commission for the rest of the war. Watson was awarded the Military Cross for his part in the raid.

Under interrogation by the SS following the raid Watson was determined to keep his identity secret. He looked considerably younger than his 20 years and claimed to be a boy scout out on a weekend sailing exercise. The SS officer drily replied. “A very long weekend.”

William Humphreys Watson was born in Hampshire, where his father was a dentist. He was educated at Fettes (1934-38) and volunteered for the London Scottish as soon as he was 18. He was commissioned into the Black Watch in 1941 as a 2nd Lieutenant but Watson wanted to get involved in the action: he volunteered for special service with the commandos, leading to his service in the St Nazaire raid.

After the raid Watson was sent to a hospital in Rennes and then moved to a POW camp at Kassel. He was involved in many attempts to dig a tunnel under the camp wires but after some unsuccessful attempts Watson decided to study medicine - from books sent out by the Red Cross. Such was the need for medics in the German army Watson was co-opted on to the staff of a nearby hospital. He informed the authorities of his own inexperience but they gave him the title of ‘junior doctor’.

For the rest of the war Watson served as a medical assistant and on being demobbed he qualified in medicine and surgery at the University of London.

Watson and his wife, also a doctor, then operated as GPs in Shrewsbury. They were popular members of the community and retired in 1970.

Retirement for Watson was active. Firstly he volunteered to serve in Biafra during the Nigerian civil war where he had to administer to starving and ill-nourished communities. He then served with Oxfam in Ethiopia during the famine of 1973-74. His hospital was visited by Emperor Haile Selassie, accompanied by a heavily armed bodyguard. The following year Watson joined a small group of dermatologists in Iran but was sent immediately to Ethiopia where the nomads in the Ogaden Desert were stricken by famine as a result of a drought.

In 1980 Watson rejoined Oxfam, to administer to the thousands of refugees in northern Somalia. There, with his wife, they continued their humanitarian work and medical care in Malawi and Sierra Leone.

Watson was a keen supporter of the charity WaterAid. In 1999 he attended the inauguration of two wells in Ghana, which were funded by donations to WaterAid in memory of the Raid on Saint-Nazaire.

Watson, a man dignified of much humanity and modesty, was made an MBE in 2002 for his services to Shrewsbury’s Severn Hospice, of which he was a founding member. He was present, in 2002, when a tree and seat at the National Memorial Arboretum were dedicated to the St Nazaire raid.

His nickname of ‘Tiger’ was not related to his military adventures. Watson had a friendly smile and a fellow officer said his grin was like a cartoon character called Tiger Tim; “And you’d better live up to it” his CO told him.

Watson married Wyn Moncrieff while both were students at Guy’s Hospital. She died seven weeks ago and he is survived by their son and three daughters.

Alasdair Steven