Biography of Laurence Roy Watts (Wireless Operator/Air Gunner)
Laurence Roy Watts was born on the 8th August 1921 to signwriter Herbert Watts & his wife, Florence of Poplar, East London. He was the youngest of five siblings (2 sisters Denise & Gwen / 2 brothers Ken & Cyril). Laurie went to school and grew up in and around the Poplar, Isle of Dogs area of the East London Docklands, after leaving school he worked for a while as a bell-boy in a Kensington Hotel. War came and the Watts family remained in the East End until the height of the blitz, when after being bombed out by the Luftwaffe no less than four times in quick succession they were evacuated to the Oxfordshire countryside, settling at Coldshore Cottage between the villages of Fawler and Stonesfield near Witney Oxfordshire. Whilst living here Laurie worked at Smiths Stores in Woodstock along with his sisters Denise and Gwen, who later in the war worked at the Morris car plant in Cowley making aircraft radiators. Ken joined the Royal Tank Corps and Cyril became a Navy diver.
In 1941 Laurie volunteered for the RAF and was accepted for aircrew training as an NCO observer, though an East End boy at heart his address on enlistment was Fawler, Oxon so that is the address that was to be on his service record. After basic training at RAF Cranwell, Lincolnshire and further assessment of aptitude he was streamed towards training as a wireless operator / air gunner and was posted to No 2 Radio School at RAF Yatebury near Bristol where he qualified as a wireless operator with a Morse code speed rating of 18 words per minute on 21/03/42. From there he moved on to RAF Manby near Louth, Lincolnshire and during April and May of 1943 he completed his gunnery course. Next he moved on to No 2 (Observer) Advanced Flying Unit at RAF Millom in Cumberland (now Cumbria) where he flew in twin engined Avro Ansons completing the course in June 1943.
The Summer of 1943 and Laurie was posted to 28 Operational Training Unit at RAF Wymeswold near Loughborough, here he was to meet Harold Paston-Williams (then still a Flying Officer) and fly with him for the first time in a Vickers Wellington on a “circuits and landings” training flight. In May Laurie passed his ground gunnery course and just in time, as at the end of August 1943 there was a surprise in store for Watts and Paston-Williams when they were detailed on a live operation to a daylight target in France, at this point of the war it was not uncommon for partially trained crews from the OTU’s to be used to make up the numbers on a raid. They took off for the target in Wellington X9644, on return they were caught by flak and suffered an engine fire and had to make a forced landing at RAF Bradwell in Essex, returning to Wymeswold the following day! Laurie was now Paston-Williams’ regular wireless operator.
The next stage was a posting in November 1943 to1667 Heavy Conversion Unit at RAF Faldingworth, Lincolnshire where Laurie was to meet and team up with the others to be formed into a four engined bomber crew, flying Handley Page Halifax’s, finishing the course in February 1944. Final specialised conversion onto the Avro Lancaster was undertaken at 1 Lancaster Finishing School at RAF Hemswell also in Lincolnshire,
In early May 1944 Laurie and crew were posted to 100 Squadron at RAF Waltham near Grimsby where they became fully operational, commencing their first tour flying together as a trained crew. However, on the 24th of July in the absence of their skipper, Laurie and crew flew with the squadron commanding officer Wing Commander Pattison, who took the controls of their “own” regular Lancaster LM 585 HW-S for a daylight raid to Coqueraux in France. Flt/Sgt Watts was now an “old hand,” an experienced flier, well into his first tour, doing his job, beating the odds and staying alive for the next op. One can only imagine how they must have all felt when it became known that a tour was shortly to be increased from 30 to 35 ops!
Laurie was always very close to his family and regularly corresponded by letter with his eldest sister Denise. For her beloved brother’s 23rd Birthday on the 8th Aug 1944 Denise sent him a birthday card and two books to read when and if he got the chance. On the 11th of August, just hours from when he would take off from Waltham for the last time Laurie wrote his last letter to his sister. My sincere thanks to Mr Laurence Pilfold, the son of Mrs Denise Pilfold (nee Watts), who has allowed me to publish this treasured and personal family document. Although he never knew the uncle whose name he bears, Laurie Pilfold does much to keep his uncle Lol’s memory alive and has been a great supporter of our work from the beginning. Laurie’s last letter is a moving insight into the thoughts of a bright young man, a regular guy, full of life and hope for the future, all put on hold as he did his duty to King and country, all the more touching as he writes within hours of the end of that short but full life.
[click image for full size] [Transcript]
On the morning of the 12th August 1944 the battle orders would have been posted and Flt/ Lt Paston-Williams and crew were detailed as “on ops.” However, a bad omen hung over them knowing that their old faithful Lanc, LM585 (HW-S) had been lost with another crew earlier in the week. That afternoon as they sat together in the briefing room, the C/O would have revealed the target for tonight, a target deep into the heart of the Reich: Braunschweig (Brunswick). Laurie had closed his last letter to his sister saying that he would write some more the following day, but he would not have had time in the circumstances as he prepared for his 25th op and the day after that, the 13th of August 1944, Laurie Watts along with two of his friends and a young officer he had only just met, would not see the sunrise.
On the night of the 12th the crew took off from Waltham in the nearly new Lancaster LM 658 (HW-W) at 2145, not knowing that five of them would never return. More details about the events of that night can be found elsewhere on this website. In the chaotic and terrifying final seconds of LM658 it is believed that Laurie Watts was the last to attempt to bale out as his body was discovered with his chute attached, half out of the escape hatch as the wreckage of the fuselage was removed by the German recovery crews. The body of Laurence Roy Watts rests alongside Flt /Lt Holland. P/O Ramsden and Flt Sgt Williams plus a couple of dozen other allied airmen in the well tended cemetery at Hardenberg to the North of the crash location. The inscription beneath the name on his headstone gives some insight:
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”
….but let his last epitaph be from Flt Sgt John Downie the surviving flight engineer of LM 658, his words taken from the letter he wrote to Laurie’s mother after he had been repatriated from Holland; “Laurie was a gentleman and a true comrade, I am glad that I was called his friend, I shall never forget him.”
Laurie Watt’s family have been regular visitors to the cemetery at Hardenberg over the years, they even managed to locate the actual crash site, close to the road that runs south from Hardenberg towards Bergentheim. The location is on private farmland owned by a different family than as was in 1944, but the new owners, aware of the exact location of the crash were more than happy to assist in the visit. Few clues now exist to the events of August 1944, but the family is in possession of a single shard of molten alloy from LM 658…..which is a treasured item, serving as a link to someone never to be forgotten.
Alan Barrow, August 2011