Obituary: Arthur Watson, MBE - wartime RAF mechanic, businessman, councillor and Liberal Democrat supporter

Arthur Watson was a wartime RAF mechanic, businessman, councillor and Liberal Democrat supporter
Arthur Watson was a wartime RAF mechanic, businessman, councillor and Liberal Democrat supporter
Share this article
Have your say

Born: 16 April, 1921, in Ythanbank, Ellon. Died: 14 January, 2012 in Ellon, aged 90

Few could illustrate the concept of a life of service more aptly than Arthur Watson.

From his own rural parish to his contribution to the war in the skies above Europe and the Western Desert in Bomber Command, and back again, his sense of duty was ever-present.

It earned him a mention in dispatches and an MBE, along with the admiration of his community, where he did everything from maintaining the war memorial to erecting the Christmas tree, chairing the Royal British Legion, representing his village as a councillor, creating a museum and becoming honorary president of the area’s Liberal Democrats.

“Arthur was fond of the saying ‘There is no happiness in life without some form of service’”, said Gordon Liberal Democrat MP Malcolm Bruce, “He certainly served his local area with dedication.”

That area was the rural heartland of Aberdeenshire which remained his home for all of his life – bar his service in the RAF.

The son of a farmer, he was born at South Burnside, Ythanbank, near Ellon, and, after attending the local Drumwhindle and Methlick Schools, began work on the family farm.

He joined the RAF as a 16-year-old apprentice aero engine mechanic just as the Second World War was brewing in Europe. It would later claim the life of his elder brother, a navigator. Another brother served in the army.

After his training, from January 1938 to March 1940,Watson’s war took him to the Gold Coast, now Ghana, where he served for 18 months from 1941-42. On his return to the UK he was posted to Bomber Command in Yorkshire, where he was a mechanic on the four-engined Halifax bombers.

It was during this period, from 1942-44, that Bomber Command launched some of its most successful missions. Early in 1943 it intensified its operations with a round-the-clock strategic bombing campaign in Europe beginning in February that year and, in May, the famed Dambusters raids on the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe dams in Germany’s indus-trial core.

In January 1944 Watson was mentioned in dispatches for his services to Bomber Command and the following September his unit was detailed to take part in the European Campaign, but it transpired they were not required until the end of the war. After the German surrender in Denmark – where Hitler had had his Gestapo HQ – he was posted, in May 1945, to the Danish base of Kastrup.

The contribution – and sacrifice – he and his colleagues in Bomber Command made to the war effort can never be overestimated. Their average age was 22 and in total they lost more than 55,000 members.

Churchill had predicted in 1940: “The fighters are our salvation but the bombers alone provide the means of victory.”

And after the defeat of the Nazis he wrote to Bomber Command’s commander-in-chief, Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, congratulating him on his operations.

He said they demonstrated the “fiery gallant spirit” of his aircrews and the high sense of duty of all ranks under his command, adding: “I believe that the massive achievements of Bomber Command will long be remembered as an example of duty nobly done.”

Watson remained in Denmark until January 1946, when he came back to the UK and was stationed at RAF Kinloss. By 1948, however, he had decided there was no future for him in the RAF and he dreamed instead of becoming his own boss.

A couple of years later, he opened his own garage in a former army Nissen hut in Tarves.

He met his future wife, Chris, at a dance in nearby Pitmedden and they were married in 1953.

After the end of petrol rationing the business began to flourish, especially as cars became more affordable, but he decided to change tack in 1959. He bought two Dormobiles and hired them out to holidaymakers, even kitting them out with equipment for customers who came down by ferry from Orkney and Shetland.

The camper vans – the first in the north-east of Scotland – attracted curious glances at night from passing motorists who thought the jutting roof resembled a UFO.

But they were a success, and he moved the enterprise into Aberdeen’s Clifton Road, where he ran a vehicle hire business until 1983.

Meanwhile, still living in Tarves, he had become a local councillor, representing the village on Ellon and District Council from 1964 until local government reorganisation in 1974. During the 1970s he also designed the family home in Tarves and helped to found the local community council.

He was also a church elder, a member of the village’s Friendship Group, which he chaired for 15 years, and chair of the Tarves Royal British Legion.

He joined Ellon Rotary Club in 1976 and served as president between 1986 and 1987. Two years later, he was awarded a Paul Harris Fellowship and became an honorary member in 2002.

In addition, he looked after the floral features in the village square for man years, maintained the war memorial and was caretaker and treasurer of the local Melvin Hall. He and the local builder cleared out a disused room in the hall and turned it into a local museum, which opened in 1995.

The following year he collaborated on a book on the history of the parish, Tarves Lang Syne. It sold all over the world and raised £10,000, which has funded local causes, including improvements to the graveyard path, a boys’ club and the Christmas lights.

Watson, who also took on responsibility for the upkeep of Leask House, a property gifted to the parish by a Tarves man who emigrated to America in the 1880s, was made an MBE in 1997 for his services to his community.

Decades earlier he had been inspired to join the Liberal Party after hearing the Liberal candidate, the late Sir Maitland Mackie, speak following the resignation of Lord Boothby, the Conservative MP for East Aberdeenshire, in 1958.

As a result he remained a Liberal for the next half a century and more, latterly becoming honorary president of the Gordon Liberal Democrats and proposing Malcolm Bruce as the Gordon candidate in 2010.

He is survived by his wife Chris, daughter June and granddaughters Laura and Clare.