Sir Tasker Watkins

SIR TASKER WATKINS VC Lawyer, judge and war hero

Born: 18 November, 1918, in Nelson, south Wales. Died: 9 September, 2007, in Cardiff, aged 88.

BEFORE his death, Sir Tasker Watkins was described by many of his countrymen as "the greatest living Welshman". He was a Second World War hero for the Welch Regiment, later a senior judge in England and Wales and a leading and much-loved figure in Welsh rugby, his lifelong passion. To honour him, the Welsh rugby team wore black armbands during their World Cup match against Canada on the day he died.

It was near dusk on 16 August, 1944, when Lieutenant Tasker Watkins engaged in a hand-to-hand battle with German troops that would help the British Second Army to break south from their beachheads and force the enemy to retreat. It was the 25-year-old Watkins's first face-to-face encounter with the enemy and it came close to being his last. The battle, of only a few hours, was a turning point in the war, helping crack German resistance and winning Watkins the Victoria Cross for outstanding bravery and leadership.

The Germans were trying to contain the British advance through the so-called Falaise Gap when the young lieutenant led a company of Welsh infantrymen in an attack on German gun positions near the village of Fresney-le-Vieux, in the Basse-Normandie region of France. The guns were protecting a railway line through Bafour, near Falaise, that was a key to German reinforcements, armour and ammunition as they sought to destroy the British coastal positions.

A battalion of the Welch Regiment, sent to attack objectives along the railway, came under heavy fire from Spandau machine-guns in bunkers and a devastating 88mm anti-tank gun which was pinning down the Welsh infantrymen's armoured back-up. Finding himself the only officer left standing, Watkins took command and led his remaining men across a heavily-mined cornfield in an attempt to take out the gun positions.

Because, as he said years later, he was "just bloody angry at being shot at", he personally charged two bunkers, catching their occupants by surprise and killing or incapacitating all but one with his Sten gun.

His Sten gun jammed, and that remaining soldier was about to shoot him when Watkins threw the Sten at his face and shot him with his revolver. It was an experience that haunted him throughout his life but he rarely talked about it, even to his family. When 50 Germans counter-attacked, Watkins ordered his remaining 30 men to fix bayonets and led them in a running charge across the cornfield, again catching the Germans by surprise. Most of the enemy were killed; others fled or were taken prisoner.

According to his VC citation later the same year, Watkins, in failing light, led his men back to their battalion headquarters through German frontline posts, again personally taking out one of them with a Bren gun. "His superb gallantry and total disregard for his own safety during an extremely difficult period were responsible for saving the lives of his men, and had a decisive influence on the course of the battle," the citation said.

Tasker Watkins was born in the coalmining village of Nelson, Glamorgan, on 18 November, 1918. He wanted to become a lawyer but the war interrupted his plans. After he was demobbed in 1946, by then an army major, he read for the Bar, was called by the Middle Temple as a lawyer in 1948, practising in Cardiff, and moved to chambers in London after taking silk as a Queen's Counsel in 1965.

He became widely known when he was deputy counsel to the Attorney-General in the Aberfan coal tip disaster in 1966 and later headed an inquiry into ill-treatment of mentally-ill patients at a Somerset hospital.

In 1971, Watkins was knighted and appointed a High Court judge. He was promoted to lord justice of appeal in 1980, given the new post of senior presiding judge for England and Wales in 1983, and from 1988 was deputy chief justice of England and Wales. In that capacity, he sat on the historic case which ruled that husbands could be convicted of raping their wives, and recommended that Derek Bentley, a young man hanged in 1953 for allegedly encouraging the shooting of a London policeman, be posthumously pardoned.

After he retired, in 1993, Sir Tasker remained active on the after-dinner speaking circuit, in the Territorial Army Association, at the University of Wales, and as president of Glamorgan Wanderers Rugby Football Club, where he had played before the war.

But mostly he was involved as president of the Welsh Rugby Union, where he served from 1993 until he was named honorary life vice-patron in 2004. The Queen is patron.

Sir Tasker Watkins is survived by his wife of 63 years, Eirwen (ne Evans), and a daughter. A son predeceased him.