Who was Tasker Watkins?

Introduction

Sir Tasker Watkins VC GBE DL (18 November 1918 to 09 September 2007) was a Welsh Lord Justice of Appeal and deputy Lord Chief Justice.

He was President of the Welsh Rugby Union from 1993 to 2004. During the Second World War, he served in the British Army and was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest British award for gallantry in the face of the enemy. A war hero who was prominent in the law and in Rugby Union, Watkins was described as The Greatest Living Welshman.

Early Life

Watkins was born in the small town of Nelson, Glamorgan, the son of Bertram Watkins, an engine fitter, and his wife Jane Watkins, née Phillips. He won a scholarship to Pontypridd Boys’ Grammar School. In 1931 he moved with his parents to Dagenham in east London. He attended school in Romford where he captained the cricket and football teams and played rugby. After leaving school he worked for export agents and a halibut oil company and became a teacher in London.

Second World War

Sir Tasker Watkins VC.

Following the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, Watkins joined the British Army, initially as a private in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, in October. After serving for over a year as a private he was sent for officer training and was commissioned, with the rank of second lieutenant, into the Welch Regiment on 17 May 1941. He was given the service number 187088. He was posted to the regiment’s 1st/5th Battalion, a Territorial Army (TA) unit. The battalion was one of three (the others being the 4th Welch Regiment and the 2nd Monmouthshire Regiment) which formed part of the 160th Infantry Brigade, itself being one of three brigades (the others being the 158th and 159th) forming the 53rd (Welsh) Infantry Division. The division, then commanded by Major General Gerard Bucknall, was serving in Northern Ireland until moving to Wales late in 1941, and then to Kent in April 1942, where it remained for over two years before it was to see any action, until then being engaged in numerous military exercises and training and learning the art of war.

By now a lieutenant, Watkins departed for France with the rest of the 53rd Division, now commanded by Major General Robert Ross, arriving there in late June 1944, a few weeks after the initial D-Day landings. The division participated in a number of engagements, such as the Second Battle of the Odon, and, in August, the Battle of the Falaise Pocket. By mid-August Watkins, commanding “B” Company in his battalion, which had by now been transferred from the 160th Brigade to the 158th Brigade, was one officer in a group leading an assault on a German machine gun post. After all the other officers were killed in the approach, Watkins continued to lead the group and won his VC for leading a bayonet charge against 50 armed enemy infantry and then single-handedly taking out a machine-gun post to ensure the safety of his unit.

He was the first Welsh member of the British Army to be awarded a VC during the Second World War. His citation read:

On 16 August 1944 at Barfour, Normandy, France, Lieutenant Watkins’ company came under murderous machine-gun fire while advancing through corn fields set with booby traps. The only officer left, Lieutenant Watkins led a bayonet charge with his 30 remaining men against 50 enemy infantry, practically wiping them out. Finally, at dusk, separated from the rest of the battalion, he ordered his men to scatter and after he had personally charged and silenced an enemy machine-gun post, he brought them back to safety. His superb leadership not only saved his men, but decisively influenced the course of the battle.

Watkins’ active service ended in October 1944 when he was badly wounded in the battle to liberate the Dutch city of ‘s‑Hertogenbosch, where a memorial service was held for him in St. John’s Cathedral in 2007. Along with many others, he rarely spoke about the war. Of the event which led to him being awarded the VC he simply stated, in a 1955 radio interview:

A good memory is a fine thing but for those who were there it should not be too good. It should be good enough, however, to recall the great comradeship we had and which we shall never experience again.

He stated in another interview with The Daily Telegraph in 2001:

You must believe me when I say it was just another day in the life of a soldier. I did what needed doing to help colleagues and friends, just as others looked out for me during the fighting that summer… I didn’t wake up the next day a better or braver person, just different. I’d seen more killing and death in 24 hours−indeed been part of that terrible process−than is right for anybody. From that point onwards I have tried to take a more caring view of my fellow human beings, and that, of course, always includes your opponent, whether it be in war, sport, or just life generally.

Wales rugby coach Graham Henry had Watkins’ citation pinned up on the wall of the Welsh changing room before Six Nations encounters.

Watkins’ VC is on display in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery in the Imperial War Museum.

Career

Watkins later achieved the rank of major, and on leaving the Army, studied law. He was called to the bar (became a barrister) at the Middle Temple in 1948. He became a Queen’s Counsel in 1965, and in 1966 served as Counsel to the Tribunal on the inquiry into the Aberfan disaster, which happened a few miles from his birthplace.

Watkins served as deputy chairman of Radnorshire Quarter Sessions between 1962 and 1971, and of Carmarthenshire Quarter Sessions from 1966 until 1971. He was Recorder of Merthyr Tydfil between 1968 and 1970 and of Swansea during 1970 and 1971. He was Leader of the Wales and Chester Circuit from 1970-1971.

In 1971, he was appointed to the High Court bench, where he sat in the Family Division between 1971 and 1974, and thereafter in the Queen’s Bench Division. He was a Presiding Judge of the Wales and Chester Circuit from 1975 until he was promoted to the Court of Appeal (receiving the customary appointment to the Privy Council) in 1980. He became the first Senior Presiding Judge in 1983. Lord Lane appointed him Deputy Chief Justice in 1988, a post in which he continued to serve in under Lane’s successor as Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor of Gosforth, until retiring from the bench in 1993.

Watkins was a chairman of the Mental Health Review Tribunal, Wales Region, between 1960 and 1971 and was also chairman of the Judicial Studies Board during 1979 and 1980.

Welsh Rugby Union

Watkins played Rugby Union football as an outside-half for the Army, Cardiff RFC and Glamorgan Wanderers. He became president of the Welsh Rugby Union in 1993, overseeing the switch from the amateur era to professionalism and the move from club to regional rugby in Wales. He stepped down on 26 September 2004 as the first man since Sir David Rocyn Jones in 1953 to hold office for more than one season. His 11 years of service made him the second longest serving president in the WRU’s 123-year history.

Watkins was also chairman, President of Glamorgan Wanderers, and patron until his death. Watkins is now honoured by Glamorgan Wanderers as their First XV team shirt has the letters STW-VC (Sir Tasker Watkins VC) in a green box on the right shoulder. The Wanderers also have a working model statue of Watkins in their club house donated by Llantwit Major based sculptor Roger Andrews. It stands in a corner that has been called ‘Tasker’s Corner’ by members of the club. Watkins has been called “The most influential Welshman of the late 20th century.”

Watkins was appointed an honorary life vice patron of the WRU. On announcement of his death, the Welsh team wore black armbands for their 2007 Rugby World Cup game against Canada in Nantes, France, as a tribute to the former WRU president.

Other Interests

Watkins served as president of the University of Wales College of Medicine for 11 years from 1987, and was president of the British Legion in Wales from 1947 to 1968.

Watkins was once asked if he would like to become a member of parliament and was even told he could make it to be Prime Minister. Upon his acceptance a safe seat would be found for him. However Watkins turned this offer down.

Later Life

After falling at his home in Llandaff in August 2007, Watkins was hospitalised at the University Hospital of Wales, Cardiff. Watkins died at the hospital on 09 September 2007. His funeral was held at Llandaff Cathedral on 15 September, and he was later cremated at Thornhill Crematorium.

Personal Life

Watkins married Eirwen Evans in 1941. They had a son and a daughter.

Honours and Decorations

  • Victoria Cross (VC).
  • Order of the British Empire (GBE).
  • Knight Bachelor (Kt).
  • Order of St. John (K.StJ).
  • 1939-1945 Star/
  • France and Germany Star.
  • Defence Medal.
  • War Medal.
  • Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Medal.
  • Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal.
  • Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal.

Watkins was knighted in 1971. He was made a member of the Privy Council in 1980. Appointed Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE) in 1990 and Knight of Justice of the Order of St John (K.StJ) in 1998, on 12 April 2006 he was made a Freeman of the City of Cardiff, with Lord Mayor Freda Salway describing Watkins as “one of Wales’ most notable citizens.”

His VC and other honours are on display in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum, London.

Appointments

  • Deputy lieutenant of Glamorgan (1956).
  • Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England (1992).
  • President of the University of Wales College of Medicine (1987-1998).
  • President of the Royal British Legion in Wales (1947-1968).
  • President of the Welsh Rugby Union (1993-2004).
  • Vice President of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association (2002-2007).

Honorary Degrees

Watkins was awarded several honorary degrees, including

  • University of Wales, LL. D. (1976).
  • University of Glamorgan, LL. D. (1996).

Statue

A statue of Watkins was commissioned to stand outside Gate C of the Millennium Stadium. The statue, nine feet tall, was sculpted by Llantwit Major-based sculptor Roger Andrews. The Assembly Government contributed £25,000, among other contributions.

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