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WATSON, John Herbert Geoffrey (1921-2018)

WATSON, John Herbert Geoffrey OAM (1921-2018)

Wartime Catalina aircraft pilot, John Geoffrey Watson, known as Geoff, played a key role in what became one of the pivotal battles that eroded Japanese naval superiority in the South-Western Pacific Area during World War II. His Catalina aircraft located a Japanes convoy in the Bismarck Sea carrying troops to Lae, New Guinea, north of Australia. Aircraft of the US Fifth Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) subsequently attacked and destroyed the convoy.

Geoff was enrolled as a day student at Geelong College from 14 February 1934 to December 1939. His address at the time of enrolment was 13 Connor St East Geelong and he had previously been a pupil at Swanston St State School. At College, he was a member of the 1st Football XVIII in 1939 and the Athletics team in 1935, 1937 and 1939. He was Captain of the 1939 Athletics Team.

J H Geoffrey Watson (Football, 1939).

J H Geoffrey Watson (Football, 1939).

Born on 8 November 1921 at Geelong, the son of Norman Lewis Watson and Susan Elizabeth (nee Wood), he enlisted (No. 409190) during World War II in the RAAF on 19 July 1941, and served as a Flying Officer in 11 Squadron. After training at Somers (1 ITS), Ballarat (1 Wireless and Air Gunnery School), Evans Head (1 Bombing & Gunnery School), and Brisbane (2 Advanced Operational Base), he was posted to 11 Squadron at Cairns. At his death he was probably the last remaining Catalina participant of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, and flew the vast majority of his operations with fellow Geelong Collegian skipper, Terry Duigan.

He recorded his flying time from Cairns in his excellent privately published work, 'To War in a Black Cat':
'I had officially taken part in forty-six operations (forty with Terry, three with (Bill) Clark, and one each with (Eric) Townshend, (Gordon) Stilling and (Gordon) Priest), totalling 767 operational hours. At that time in 11 and 20 Squadrons, anyone completing 800 operational hours automatically rated a 'Mention in Despatches', and after 1,000 hours a DFC (for officers) or DFM (for other ranks). Terry Duigan had a DFC, Vic Knowles and Max Schulz each a DFM, and Bob Burne an MID.

Looking back over the last period of my time at Cairns, I still marvel at how fortunate I was to have flown with a pilot as skilful as Terry. In a three-month period from 28 February to 24 May 1943, six Catalinas with practically all their crews (fifty men) were lost. The skippers were Jack Daniells, Frank Chapman, Clem Haydon, Bill Clark, 'Tubby' Higgins (at Nelson Bay), and Arnold Hinchcliffe. At the time the average number of operational crews would have been about fifteen, so in that short time 40% of crews were lost. This extrapolates to an annual wastage rate of 160%-an appalling figure. I had actually flown with Frank, Clem and Bill, and could have been on Arnold's aircraft on his fateful day but for the toss of a coin at Rathrnines the previous May.'

He wrote to The Pegasus:
'My most vivid recollections in a long association with Terry Duigan are: pulling out at 800 feet from dive-bombing a ship in Lae harbour and the bombs hung up; a troubled night (sea-sickness more than morale) after a forced landing in 'No Man's Land' (or water), nearer the Japanese forward bases than our own; almost falling out of a blister admiring the fires from our bombs at Ballale Island; and the general consternation after taking off on a twenty-hour patrol to find that we had no cutlery aboard, not even a tin-opener.'

On 1 July 1944 he married Joan Margaret Dobbie, the daughter of Mr and Mrs R K Dobbie, of Brisbane.

J H Geoff Watson

J H Geoff Watson

Geoff was discharged on 5 October 1945, having spent further time instructing at Nhill and Port Pirie, then being posted to 43 Squadron (Darwin), where from May until September 1945 he flew a further twelve operations, mainly with F/L Jack Gallager, totalling 259 hours. He wrote in 'To War in a Black Cat' of his reflections of a 'Survivor':
'The RAAF took delivery of 168 Catalinas during the war. More than one third of these were lost before the end of the war, and something like 320 airmen perished. They were the unlucky ones. Many others faced the same hazards and survived - the lucky ones. I was one of those and recognise it (to be) so.

Virtually every flight we made consisted of a series of dangerous situations, varying in intensity. It started at take-off and finished with alighting. Not for the Cats were the mostly smooth runways of land planes-in fact if we did get a smooth glassy surface, it had intrinsic problems of its own. Otherwise on take-off or landing it was a matter of dealing with choppy seas, currents from any angle, underwater reefs or snags, cross winds, large sea birds, weight overload, faulty trim, a coastline rushing towards us, or a hundred and one potential equipment failures on a tired and abused aircraft.

Once we were airborne there were different perils. To and from the target there were the weather gods to contend with-the tropical storms, the monsoon weather, the thunderheads, typhoons, bucketing rain that prevented any vision of stars or sun or sea for navigation, and weather fronts with huge wind shifts. Out of all this chaos there was the very real spectre of getting lost, especially over large expanses of water with no islands or reefs to pick up on radar. Over the target there was the more predictable hazard of anti-aircraft fire, and the occasional night-fighter opposition. If it was a mining operation, there was the worry of flying at two or three hundred feet in close proximity to defended positions and with the water uncomfortably close below.

Also over the target there was a different catalogue of equipment worries, such as premature detonation of the missiles dropped from the blisters or tail tunnel-small bombs and flame floats-or of the parachute flares. If the aircraft was holed that was an additional problem on landing. If the plane caught fire in the air it would burn like a torch and there was little hope of putting down.'

After World War II he studied accounting (ASA) at the Gordon Institute, Geelong in 1959. He later joined the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) becoming Secretary of the CSIRO Division of Textile Industry. With other CSIRO staff, he founded the Sirovilla Elderly Peoples Homes and had served as Honorary Secretary 1972-1984, Vice-President and Management Committee member in various roles between 1982 and 1998. David Evans described Geoff Watson as the 'undisputed founder of, and the driving force behind Sirovilla. ... an excellent organiser and a man of drive and enthusiasm. It has been said 'he could twist almost anyone's arm, and press them into service in such a way they thought it was their own idea.'

Geoff was a supporter of many other community organisations including as a Trustee of Geelong Cancer Aftercare Group 1978-90, and as a Board Member of Lifeline (Geelong) 1982-87, as well as acting as an honorary auditor for several other community agencies. He was awarded the Queen's Jubilee Medal in 1977 for his extensive voluntary work in community service.

In the Australia Day Honours in January 2015 he was further recognised 'for service to aged welfare in the Geelong region' with his induction as a member of the Order of Australia.

Geoff's first wife died due to illness in 1959 and he subsequently remarried to Janet Mary Georgia nee Burchnall on 2 September 1961. He was survived by two children from each of those marriages.

Geoff died at Geelong Private Hospital on 8 February 2018.

The Australian War Memorial (AWM) website described Catalina operations:
'The Catalina was the most widely used flying boat of the war. It flew in all of the major theatres and was employed as a maritime patrol and attack aircraft, a long-range transport, a mine-layer, and for air-sea rescue missions. Originally designated 'PBY' by the US Navy, the Catalina entered service with it in 1936. Production of the PBY was meant to cease in 1939, but when hostilities broke out in Europe, orders were received from Britain, Australia, Canada, and Dutch East Indies for the aircraft. The British gave it the name 'Catalina', which was recognised by the US Navy in 1941.

A total of 3,290 PBY aircraft were built during the war. Several individual examples of the Catalina were flown by the RAAF squadrons in RAF Coastal Command, but the majority of Australian 'Cats' were flown in the Pacific. The first aircraft arrived in February 1941 and were heavily employed thereafter. They suffered heavily in the initial months of the war against Japan, and by April 1942 eight of the original batch of ten had been destroyed. A steady flow of Catalinas to the RAAF was maintained throughout the war and 168 were ultimately delivered.

In the early years of the war, RAAF Catalinas in the South-West Pacific were pre­dominantly used to bomb Japanese shipping and port facilities. Later in the war, the Catalina's main role was as a mine-layer. Generally flying by night, and painted all­black, the mine-laying Catalinas operated around most Japanese ports in the South­West Pacific, including (those) along the Chinese coast. For obvious reasons, they were nicknamed the 'Black Cats'. Australian Catalinas were also operated in the transport and air-sea rescue roles. By the end of the war they equipped four operational squadrons (11, 20, 42, and 43), two communications units (6 and 8), and three air-sea rescue flights (111, 112, and 113).

The last Catalina was withdrawn from RAAF service in April 1950.

Sources: Correspondence - R Watson; 'To War in a Black Cat : the story of Flight Lieutenant J H Geoffrey Watson in the RAAF 1941 - 1945 by J. H. Geoffrey Watson (Warrnambool, Vic n.d.); 'Geelong Collegians at the Second World War' and Other Conflicts' by James Affleck pp533-535 (citing The Pegasus; Australian War Memorial; National Archives; 'To War in a Black Cat' by Geoff Watson; The Sirovilla Story by David J Evans. Patsey Pacific Publishing, Belmont, 1999 p35; Geelong Advertiser 5 March 2013 p9; Geelong Advertiser 14 December 2013 pp30-31; The Age (Melb) 8 February 2018.'' OGC 1936.
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