Sir Tasker Watkins VC

Victoria Cross holder who became a distinguished judge and Welsh Rugby Union president
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Tasker Watkins, soldier and judge: born Nelson, Glamorgan 18 November 1918; VC 1944; called to the Bar, Middle Temple 1948, Bencher 1970; Deputy Chairman, Radnor Quarter Sessions 1962-71; QC 1965; Deputy Chairman, Carmarthenshire Quarter Sessions 1966-71; Recorder, Merthyr Tydfil 1968-70; Recorder, Swansea 1970-71; Leader, Wales and Chester Circuit 1970-71, Presiding Judge 1975-80; Kt 1971; Judge of the High Court of Justice 1971-80; PC 1980; a Lord Justice of Appeal 1980-93; Senior Presiding Judge for England and Wales 1983-91; Deputy Chief Justice of England and Wales 1988-93; GBE 1990; President, Welsh Rugby Union 1993-2004; married 1941 Eirwen Evans (one daughter, and one son deceased); died Cardiff 9 September 2007.

General Thomas Picton, Wellington's second-in-command at Waterloo, was of the view that the ideal infantryman was the Silurian type of Welshman, still to be found in his indomitable thousands in the valleys of South Wales to this day – dark, stocky, thick-necked and about five feet two inches in his socks – or, in other words, the sort that usually plays behind the scrum for Wales. Tasker Watkins was the perfect embodiment of the short, tough, bright-eyed, mercurial, gallant Silures who were the aborigines of these islands before the coming of the fair-haired Celts, and what he lacked in inches he made up for in courage under fire.

Watkins won the Victoria Cross in action against the retreating Germans near the Normandy village of La Fresnaye on 16 August 1944. It was an incident about which he was famously reticent in public, choosing not to talk about it for reasons of natural modesty, delicacy and tact. But the official citation makes it clear with what extraordinary bravery he behaved on that occasion.

In command of a company of the Welch Regiment, Lt Watkins was ordered to attack enemy positions near the railway at Balfour which lay across open cornfields where booby-traps had been set. As dusk fell, his company came under fire and many lives were lost in the first few minutes of the engagement. The only officer left, Watkins placed himself at the head of his men and, under short-range bombardment, charged two German posts, killing and wounding the occupants with his Sten gun. As he pushed on towards an anti-tank gun emplacement, his weapon jammed, so he hurled it in a German's face and, before his opponent had time to recover, shot him with his revolver.

The company, now with only 30 men left, was counter-attacked by about 50 Germans, against whom Watkins led a bayonet charge which wiped most of them out. Orders for the battalion to withdraw were not received and the Welshmen now found themselves surrounded, cut off from their comrades, short of ammunition and in failing light. The lieutenant decided to rejoin his battalion by passing around the enemy's flank through which he had advanced an hour before. As they made their way back across the same cornfields they were challenged by a German position. Ordering his men to scatter, Watkins charged the post with a Bren gun, silenced it and then led the remnants of his company back to battalion headquarters. He had managed to save the lives of half his men.

Tasker Watkins, the son of a miner at the Ocean Colliery, Treharris, was born in Nelson, Glamorgan, in 1918. His father and grandfather had both fought in Kitchener's Army and two of his uncles had been killed while fighting with the Welsh Guards. Tasker won a scholarship to Pontypridd County School and I remember in what awe this diminutive man with the huge reputation was held by boys and teachers alike when he spoke as guest of honour at our Speech Day there in the early 1950s.

After the war, which he finished in the rank of Major, Tasker Watkins took up the legal studies which had always been his ambition and soon became a distinguished member of his profession. Called to the Bar by the Middle Temple in 1948, he took silk in 1965, and served as Deputy Chairman of Radnor Quarter Sessions from 1962 to 1971, of Carmarthenshire Quarter Sessions from 1966 to 1971, and then as Recorder of Merthyr Tydfil and Swansea. From 1971 he was a Judge of the High Court of Justice and from 1974 to 1980 Presiding Judge of the Wales and Chester Circuit. He was a Lord Justice of Appeal, 1983-93, and Deputy Chief Justice of England and Wales from 1988 until his retirement in 1993.

Among the other bodies on which he served were the inquiry into the Aberfan disaster of 1966, the Mental Health Review Tribunal for Wales, the Judicial Studies Board, the University of Wales College of Medicine and the Territorial Army Association. Many honours came his way: he was knighted in 1971, appointed GBE in 1990, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1992 and a Knight of St John in 2000; he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Wales in 1979 and from the University of Glamorgan in 1996.

But perhaps the appointment that gave him most pleasure was his presidency of the Welsh Rugby Union from 1993 to 2004, after which he was made Honorary Life Vice-Patron. In 2006 he was made a Freeman of the City and County of Cardiff, to general acclaim, thus joining a select band that includes David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Pope Paul John II and Nelson Mandela. His VC is displayed in the Welch Regiment Museum housed in the city's castle. On that occasion, too, he showed himself to be a man of dignified manner and unfailing courtesy, with an outstanding intellect and an impeccable command of spoken English.

Meic Stephens