This is the moment John Watts first saw the bomber plane flown by his father’s squadron during the Second World War and grew closer to knowing the man he never met.
John Watts grew up without ever having the chance to meet his father – a hero pilot of the Second World War who died eight months before he was born.
But after years of research, John – now in his 80s – tracked down a bomber plane which flew in his father’s squadron, bringing him that bit closer to his father.
Wearing his father’s medals and describing why he wanted to see the plane, John said: ‘I think it connects to what my father means to me, what it’s like not to have a father.
‘It’s not quite closure but I’ve wanted to see it all my life.’
Wing Commander Joseph Watts was an experienced pilot in World War Two and was on his way back to base when his plane crashed when it’s wing struck a barrage balloon’s steel cable
A Hampden bomber like the aircraft flown by John’s father Wing Commander Joseph Watts
‘The Flying Suitcase’: Cramped Hampden bomber was fast and nimble – but short on leg room
The Hampden bomber was a twin-engine of the RAF and was often referred to as ‘the flying suitcase’ because of the cramped crew conditions.
The plane was designed as a fast and manoeuvrable ‘fighting bomber’ and so featured a fixed Browning machine gun in the upper part of the fuselage and a curved Perspex nose fitted with a Vickers machine gun.
The slim and compact fuselage of the aircraft was quite cramped, being wide enough only for a single person.
The navigator sat behind the pilot and access in the cockpit required folding down the seats.
Once in place, the crew of four men had almost no room to move and were typically uncomfortable during long missions.
By June 1940, RAF Wing Commander Joseph Watts was an experienced and decorated pilot who had already flown in several key campaigns and was exhausted, having seen many of his friends lose their lives.
Watts, who was in his element when flying, knew that commanding a Hampden Bomber was extremely dangerous and that he was unlikely to survive the war.
By 1940, the war had been raging across Europe for months and Hitler had made his way through Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium and France.
Recalling his mother’s stories, son John said: ‘Only once in her presence did he actually break down after a particularly dreadful night.
‘I think that was the raid on Kristiansand when half the squadron was lost and, of course, he was commander.
‘Twelve of them went out, six of them got back including friends of course and you know how close these crews were.’
Watts was not only mindful of his own crew but of the entire squadron, something which John says was exhausting for him.
His mother often described him coming back from missions and collapsing on the sofa before having to leave immediately when he woke.
Throughout 1940, the 144 squadron – to which Joseph Watts belonged – was deployed in night-time bombing missions over Germany.
John has been fortunate enough to hear his father’s voice in archive footage of a news interview.
Joseph Watt, pictured (left) at 19, was described by his son John (right) as a ‘rip-roaring person who roared into the room’. John said seeing the plane was the closest he had felt to his father
Joseph Watts was a Wing Commander in the 144 squadron
The RAF’s 144 squadron – Joseph Watts’ squadron – was a bomber unit first formed in 1918 during the First World War.
It formed part of the Royal Flying Corp and was established in Port Said, Egypt, where it played a key role in fighting Ottoman forces.
At the conclusion of the war, the squadron was disbanded at RAF Ford in December 1919.
Ahead of the outbreak of the Second World War, the squadron was reformed and equipped with the Hampdens in 1937.
The squadron flew its first mission in September 1939.
In the months that followed, the squadron was tasked with flying over the North Sea and looking for German warships.
From February 1940, the 144 squadron was then deployed in night-time bombing missions over Germany.
Three months before his death, Wing Commander Watts was asked about a mission over Sylt – an island in northern Germany which became a fortress during the Second World War.
The mission was described as a retaliation for a German attack on the Orkneys and was described by the reporter as ‘the biggest raid of the war causing considerable damage’.
It saw Joseph Watts’ crew ‘blast the lair of the mine-laying sea planes with some of their own explosive medicine’.
When asked if he had a good trip, Joseph Watts tells the reporter: ‘One of the best we ever had because we were allowed to do something this time.’
In his final mission, Watts set off from Hemswell, Lincs, to provide support for British forces who were targeting rail communications.
On his way back to base, his plane’s wing struck a barrage balloon’ steel cable near Felixstowe docks, causing devastating damage to the aircraft.
The Hampden bomber crashed into a flour mill in Felixstowe and all four men on board, including Joseph Watts, were killed.
His son John was born eight months later to his wife Norah who was instructed by Joseph not to attend his funeral because ‘there would be nothing there she would know to say goodbye to’.
Speaking to History Hit, John says: ‘For me, he’s always been a wonderful, bright, happy ghost because our mother evoked him all the time.
‘He lives for me through all these wonderful tales. He was this great, rip-roaring person who roared into the room and took over.’
Joseph’s son John Watts, 80, never met his father and has waited all his life to find some way of connecting with him. John managed to track down a Hampden bomber which flew in his father’s squadron and was overcome with emotion when he saw it being restored in a hangar
John described it as the closest thing to being able to say hello to his father after he was killed
‘June 1940’: a poem by Norah Watts
A memory of shoulders
Wearing lightly, bravely,
The tunic blue.
The roar of squadrons already roaring out
Over our last farewell.
For Essen? Sylt?
The marshalling yards at Ham?
The bantering voice,
The tender clasp
Altered not a whit.
His heart beat warmly against mine
For seconds longer.
The strong hand gathered, pressed me hard Against the dear familiar serge of blue,
Holding to him extra tightly
The atom in me on which
We pinned such hope and love,
A brother or a sister?
I watched the splendid back
Walking with grace and swiftness.
Never a backward look,
Into the summer scented June.
I watched him down the hill,
My life contained
Beneath that tunic.
The forage cap jauntily poised;
The four-lined cuff.
Before early summer dawn
Over the Belgian bridges
He fought with his crew Desperately
John says his mother never fully recovered losing ‘the love of her life’ and coped by turning her back on the RAF and his side of the family when Joseph was killed.
She also wrote a lot of poetry about the war and the grief that followed.
He added: ‘What I did was to turn all my schoolteachers, the male ones, into dads. I had very good relationships with my teachers, I was lucky.
‘And they understood because they were all the wartime generation and they were ready to be rather fatherly I think.’
John says the fact his mother turned her back on Joseph’s family is a large reason why he has gone in search for answers and that, despite 80 years having passed since his father’s death, the grief is ‘always there’.
After Joseph’s death, the family immediately moved from Lincolnshire to London.
John’s search for answers led him to the RAF Museum in Cosford where he had managed to track down one of the few remaining Hampden bombers only to discover it actually flew in his father’s squadron.
Describing why he wanted to see the plane, John said: ‘I think it connects to what my father means to me, what it’s like not to have a father.
‘It connects to this very peculiar situation of being very aware of someone, and very proud of them, but having no tangible connections to them beyond the little mementos and all my mother’s stories.
‘It’s not quite closure but I’ve wanted to see it all my life.’
When he stepped into the hangar and saw the plane for the first time, John was overwhelmed with emotion.
Placing his hand on the pilot’s seat, he said ‘this is the nearest I will ever be to my father’ and that it was comforting to know he had died doing something that he loved.
‘He loved it – he was in his element. He was a speed merchant really.
‘He was the opposite of his son sitting here, very technical, very good at maths and an all round athlete and he just loved speed,’ John said.
Describing the experience as ‘hugely moving’, he added: ‘It’s the nearest thing to being able to say hello to your own father.’