Flight Engineer William Alexander Watson (567222) joined the RAF straight from school in 1934 as an apprentice at RAF Halton, near Wendover in Buckinghamshire. Watson preferred to be known as Sandy. He trained as a fitter and by 1935 he was awarded the coveted Barrington-Kennett medal for his sporting achievements.
By 1938, Watson had been promoted to Aircraftman First Class. By 1941, he had been trained in air gunnery and he was posted to RAF 15 Squadron in June 1941 (RAF 15 Squadron is also known as RAF XV Squadron). On 10 August 1941, he was promoted to sergeant on his return to the squadron following flight engineering training at Short Brothers.
Watson commenced operational flying on 7 September 1941. During take-off on a mission to bomb Berlin, one wheel of the undercarriage of his Short Stirling heavy bomber would not retract. The pilot jettisoned the bomb load at a safe location and on the final attempt, the faulty undercarriage operated correctly. The aircraft and crew landed safely.
Up until that time, Watson was a spare crew member. Flying Officer Peter Boggis, the pilot, was impressed by Watson’s ability and secured him as his regular flight engineer. He was now destined to fly in the most prestigious and historically important Short Stirling bomber.
Lady Rachel Workman MacRobert of Douneside in the County of Aberdeen in memory of her three sons killed in RAF service, donated £25,000 to buy a Short Stirling bomber. It was given the serial number N6086 and had the MacRobert coat of arms painted on the nose. It was named, ‘Reply’ and presented to her crew at RAF Wyton on 10 October 1941. It was assigned to RAF 15 Squadron and given the code ‘LS-F’.
The first operation flown by N6086 was on 12 October 1941, to bomb Nuremberg, Germany. On 28 October 1941, the ‘MacRobert’s Reply’ sustained its first damage from anti-aircraft fire over Nieuport (Nieuwpoort), Belgium. On 18 December 1941, they took part in the attack on the German Pocket Battleship Scharnhost and Heavy Cruiser Gneisenau in the French harbour of Brest. This was their second visit, in four days, this time they hit with their bombs the dry dock where the Gneisenau was berthed and saw black smoke rising from the warship. They were attacked by Luftwaffe fighters and managed to damage one of them with their guns.
The ‘MacRoberts Reply’, captained by Flying Officer Peter Boggis flew on 12 operations from October 1941 to January 1942. On 7 February 1942, the aircraft veered during take-off at RAF Peterhead and collided with a damaged Supermarine Spitfire (Watson was not on board). It was repaired and flew again with conversion units before being written off in 1943.
On 26 January 1942, Watson had by now completed two tours of operations and was posted to RAF 15 Squadron Conversion Flight as an instructor. In August 1942, he was now an acting flight sergeant and returned to RAF 15 Squadron where he took part in another eleven operations. He was then posted to RAF 90 Squadron where he took part in a further fourteen operations.
Watson teamed up with another former RAF 15 Squadron pilot, Hugh ‘Wendle’ Wilkie from New Zealand. On 11 June 1943, they lost a propeller due to friendly fire from another Short Stirling whilst over the target area – nonetheless, they returned safely.
On the night of 18 April 1944, Short Stirling EJ108 with Watson and Wilkie took off at 22.35 hours from RAF Grafton Underwood, east of Kettering, Northamptonshire, with a crew of nine onboard, most of whom were undergoing training. Watson was now a warrant officer and were now part of RAF 1657 HCU (Heavy Conversion Unit) which was based at RAF Stradishall, between Cambridge and Bury St Edmonds. They were on a training exercise, practising night take-offs and landings (circuits and bumps). RAF Polebrook which was being used by the USAAC (United States Army Air Corp) was clear that day of any operational flying.
During a practice landing and take-off at RAF Polebrook, they hit and killed three USAAC personnel who were cycling on a runway. With damage to an engine and the possibility of damage to the undercarriage of the aircraft, they were committed to continue the take-off. As they became airborne, they were advised to land at the emergency landing strip at RAF Woodbridge, Suffolk.
Shortly before reaching RAF Woodbridge, there was an internal explosion and control of the aircraft was lost, the aircraft went into a steep nose up attitude. Six of the crew bailed out successfully, the two others were killed at 22.30pm in the crash at Moat Farm near Little Glemham 7 miles NE of Woodbrige. Sergeant Atkins died as he had failed to attach his parachute harness correctly and slipped through the webbing, subsequently plunging to his death. Two civilians, a brother and sister, Mr. W Carter and Miss Carter, whose thatched cottage was hit by part of the aircraft emerged unscathed.
Crash Location: Little Glemham, Suffolk. The crew onboard EJ108:
Flight Lieutenant Hugh Charles Wilkie RNZAF (415397) DFC, pilot, age 21
Flight Sergeant Colin George Nairne RNZAF (42117) 2nd pilot, age 22, Survived
Warrant Officer William (Sandy) Alexander Watson RAF (567222) DFM, fight engineer, age 25
Sergeant Frederick Thomas George Atkins RAFVR (1603538) flight engineer, age 20
Pilot Officer Lyndon Clifford Perry RNZAF (428925) air bomber, age 21, Survived
Pilot Officer Frederick Gerald Rickard (429366) RNZAF wireless operator/air gunner, age 22, Survived
Sergeant Alfred Richard Stannard RAFVR (1338510) wireless operator/air gunner, age 22. Survived
Sergeant Stanley Alfred George Woodford RAFVR (922095) air gunner, age 29, Survived
Flight Sergeant Philip Falkiner RNZAF (425140) air gunner, age 21, Survived
On the ground, the personnel from 545 Bomber Squadron, 384th Bomber Group, 8th Air Force. USAAC who were killed:
Staff Sergeant David K Ollre (6288183), age 23.
Corporal James A Moore, age 23
Corporal Teddy R Potocki (32141939), age 23
Watson was gazetted on 15 June 1943 with the Distinguished Flying Medal (DFM) for accruing 240 hours operational flying time whilst with RAF 90 Squadron. The recommendation for the medal read: ‘The safe return of his aircraft on many occasions must be credited to his skill and knowledge’.
Five of the crew members who survived the crash at Little Glemham – Flight Sergeant Colin George Nairne, Pilot Officer Lyndon Clifford Perry, Sergeant Alfred Richard Stannard, Sergeant Stanley Alfred George Woodford – were tragically killed just three months later (30 July 1944). They were flying northwards over the English Channel in heavy low cloud on Lancaster Mk.I, HK558, AA-D (RAF 75 Squadron) when they collided with RAF 514 squadron Avro Lancaster, LL733. All the crews from both aircraft were lost. Pilot Officer Frederick Gerald Rickard was the only one to live through the war – he died in 1998.
Watson was the eldest son of William and Christina Watson, Isaville, Bankfoot, Perthshire. He is buried in Auchtergaven Parish Churchyard, Perthshire. He is also commemorated on the Auchtergaven War Memorial.
A military funeral was accorded to Warrant Officer William (Sandy) Alexander Watson. In attendance were contingents of the RAF, Home Guard, and the Observer Corps along with many of the public. The coffin was draped in the Union Flag and was carried from the house to the churchyard by each of the services representatives. A salute of guns was fired at the graveside and a bugler sounded ‘The Last Post’.
Lady MacRobert also sponsored four Hawker Hurricanes, three named after her sons and the fourth honouring the fighting spirit of the Russian allies carried the inscription, ‘MacRobert’s Salute to Russia’. Through the years many RAF aircraft have been given the names ‘MacRobert’s Reply’: a Hawker Siddeley Buccaneer and four Panavia Tornados. Her sons, Sir Iain, Sir Roderic and Sir Alasdair have had nine RAF aircraft named after them.
A second Short Stirling, ‘MacRobert’s Reply’ (W7531) entered service in March 1942 and was lost on 18 May 1942, only one member of the crew survived. W7531 was carrying out a ‘Gardening Daffodil’ operation off the Danish coast, laying mines to sink enemy shipping. Take off was from RAF Wyton at 21.40 hours. On approaching the south entrance to Øresund via the Norwegian coast and Malmo, the Short Stirling dropped down to 200 feet as they closed in on their target area. The aircraft was sudenly lit up by the searchlights of their old adversary, the Hipper Class cruiser, Prinz Eugen. The Prinz Eugen had just survived the Channel Dash and was now heading towards the Kiel Canal. The cruiser opened up with anti-aircraft, scoring numerous hits, while her escorts and shore batteries also struck the Stirling with machine gun and anti-aircraft fire.
W7531 was badly damaged, and fires broke out, the pilot Squadron Leader John Hall DFC turned west and tried to guide the Stirling to open water, but anti-aircraft posts (3.lei Flak Abt. 844 II and IV Zugdealt) on the nearby Lille Bælt Bridge hit the aircraft several times with flak. The Short Stirling crashed at 02.10 hours into the Gals Klint Forest, approximately 2 km to the west of Middelfart. When the Short Stirling hit the ground, one of the remaining mines onboard exploded and the plane was totally wrecked. Among that blazing wreckage something stirred, it was Sergeant Donald Jeffs, although severly wounded, he would the only one to survive. Jeffs was taken by the Wehrmacht to the lazarett (hospital) in Fredericia, and later to the lazarett in Rendsburg. When he had recovered from his wounds, he was sent on to Stalag VIIIB / 344 Lamsdorf. After the war, a memorial stone was raised on the spot where W7531 crashed and every year on 5 May, the day of the liberation of Denmark, a ceremony is held at the site.
Grafton Underwood was the fictional childhood home of Bridget Jones in the novels by Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones Diary. During the Second World War, RAF Grafton Underwood was assigned to the USAF Eighth Air Force in 1942 as USAAF Station 106.
RAF Polebrook was the airfield from which the USAF’s Eighth Air Force carried out its first heavy bomb group combat mission on 17 August 1942. Major Clark Gable the film star flew combat missions from here in 1943.
RAF Stradishall: see also John Archibald Campbell and John Reginald James Laidlay.
Research: Ken Bruce
MACROBERT’S REPLY (CH 3945) Original wartime caption: ‘MACROBERT’S REPLY’ the bomber aircraft purchased by Lady MacRobert and presented to the R.A.F. in memory of her sons – is now in operation with Bomber Command and has already taken part in raids on enemy territory. The Wing Commander [W/Cdr.Ogilvie] commanding the squadron with which ‘MacRobert’s Reply’ is operating, handing to the crew a letter from Lady MacRobert, wishi… Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205444707
‘MacROBERT’S REPLY? (CH 3231) Original wartime caption: A recent portrait of Lady MacRobert. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205444123
‘MacROBERT’S REPLY’ (CH 3234) Original wartime caption: Lady MacRobert with a young pedigree British Fresian bull. She has been President of the British Friesian Cattle Society, and the Douneside strain of Friesian cattle is renowned throughout the world. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205444126
MacROBERT’S REPLY (CH 3953) Original wartime caption: For story see CH.3945 Picture shows -The Engineer of ‘MacRobert’s Reply’ Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205444715
MacROBERT’S REPLY (CH 3949) Original wartime caption: For story see CH.3945 Picture shows -‘MacRobert’s Reply’ in flight. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205444711
MacROBERT’S REPLY (CH 3952) Original wartime caption: For story see CH.3945 Picture shows -The navigator of ‘MacRobert’s Reply’. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205444714
MacROBERT’S REPLY (CH 3951) Original wartime caption: For story see CH.3945 Picture shows -The first and second pilots of MacRobert Reply. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205444713
MacROBERT’S REPLY (CH 3950) Original wartime caption: For story see CH.3945 Picture shows -‘MacRobert’s Reply’ in flight. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205444712
MacROBERT’S REPLY (CH 3954) Original wartime caption: For story see CH.3945 Picture shows -The rear gunner of MacRobert’s Reply Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205444716
MacROBERT’S REPLY (CH 3946) Original wartime caption: For story see CH.3945 The crew reading Lady MacRobert’s message. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205444708
We’ll Do Our Job – If You’ll Do Yours (Art.IWM PST 14973) whole: the image occupies the majority, with the title integrated and placed in the upper right, in black. The text is
separate and positioned across the bottom edge, also in black, set against a white background.
image: a photograph of the six crew members of the British Short Stirling bomber aircraft ‘MacRobert’s Reply’. As they line up to board
their aircraft, they laugh and joke with each othe… Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/32405
KING AND QUEEN VISIT AIRMEN WHO TOOK PART IN 1000-BOMBER RAID ON RUHR. (CH 5809) Original wartime caption: The King and Queen inspecting aircrews drawn from every part of the British Empire who took part in the ‘heaviest ever’ raid on the Ruhr. The King shaking hands with the Captain of ‘MacRobert’s Reply’ [Flight Lieutenant Boggis, DFC] the heavy bomber presented to the R.A.F. by Lady MacRoberts in member of her airmen sons. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205446104
In memory of William Prune of RAF 15 Squadron, he had his own logbook and undertook at least 14 flights, no one though would ever claim to have taken him aloft. His favourite pastime was chasing motorcycles, attempting to bite the front tyre. His career ended when he attempted to do this with a lorry.
BILL PRUNE : MASCOT OF AN R.A.F. BOMBER SQUADRON : R.I.P. (CH 12815) Original wartime caption: Flight Lieutenant William Prune, bulldog mascot of a bomber squadron stationed in East Anglia, is dead. Born on 23rd May 1938 and named Bill of Bafford, he first served with an Army Unit. Bill granted a commission in the R.A.F.V.R. and, on 11th March 1942 posted to a bomber squadron for operational duties as a Pilot Officer. He immediately established himself as a firm fa… Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205452372
BILL PRUNE : MASCOT OF AN R.A.F. BOMBER SQUADRON : R.I.P. (CH 12816) Original wartime caption: For story see CH.12815 Picture (issued 1944) shows – Head study of Flight Lieutenant William Prune. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205452373