b. 25/06/1887 Gardenstown, Banffshire. d. 13/02/1955 Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire.
Joseph Watt (1887-1955) was born at 64 Denside, Gardenstown, a small fishing community on the banks of the Moray Firth, on 25th June 1887., the third child of a family of two boys and three girls to Joseph and Helen Watt (nee Mair). Joseph’s father was a fisherman, as were most of the people of Gardenstown, and his mother was one of six sisters who came to the village to work during the herring season.
Joseph’s childhood was not a happy one, as when he was 10, his father drowned, while line fishing for haddock some 23 miles off Troup Head, in January 1898. Not long after, his mother married George “Sottie” Noble and moved to Broadsea, now part of Fraserburgh. His education, which began at Bracoden, now continued at the local village school, but his future occupation was never in question. As a youngster straight from school, he served his apprenticeship aboard the “White Daisy”. He soon proved himself a capable seaman, diligent, and hard-working. In about 1907 he left home and moved to Fraserburgh, where a couple of years later he invested in the part-ownership of the Dundee-built steam drifter “Annie”. For the next five years, he plied his trade, earning a reputation among his fellow driftmen for being “a daring seaman, who never shrank from facing the wild North Sea in its most stormy moods”.
The war signalled a change of routine. Volunteering for the Patrol Service, he was appointed skipper in the Royal Naval Reserve on 11th January 1915. Before leaving, later that same year, for the Adriatic with “Gowanlea”, he married Jessie Ann Noble in Broadsea. In January 1916, his patrol work was broken up by the need to help the men of the Serbian Army. They were evacuated from the Albanian coast by a fleet of transports, including British drifters sent across from Italy to help guard against enemy submarines. For his service in the evacuation, he was awarded the Serbian Gold Medal gazetted on 1st March 1917.
On 15th May 1917 Skipper Watt and his crew of eight men and a dog were patrolling peacefully in the Otranto Strait on the lookout for any suspicious activity following an increase in submarine sightings. Unbeknownst to the allied line, the Austrians had planned a major operation against the barrage, utilising the Rapidkreuzers SMS Saida, Helgoland and SMS Novara under Admiral Miklós Horthy with two destroyers and three submarines. These ships fell upon the drifter line during the night and sank 14 trawlers and drifters which were helpless to reply. Gowanlea was confronted by the Helgoland, which demanded the surrender of the tiny ship and ordered the crew to abandon ship prior to sinking. Instead, Watt ordered his crew to open fire on their large opponent with the drifter’s tiny 6-pounder guns. Gowanlea was quickly hit by four heavy shells, seriously damaging the boat and wounding several crewmen.
The other drifters around Gowanlea followed her example but were also subject to heavy fire, three sinking and the last lurching away seriously damaged. The Austrian cruisers headed for home but were engaged on their return by British, Italian and French units and became involved in the inconclusive battle of the Otranto Barrage.
His bravery saw him awarded not just the Victoria Cross, but also the Croix de Guerre from France, and the Al Valore Militaire Silver from the Italians. He received the VC from King George V at Buckingham Palace on 6th April 1918, Such honours meant little to him, as he was a very modest man. All attempts to get him to talk about his exploits were doomed to failure.
After the war, he went back to fishing for herring. His drifter “Annie” having been sunk whilst clearing mines a few weeks after the Armistice, he bought another vessel, the 86ft steam drifter “Benachie”, named after the highest peak in Aberdeenshire. It was on her, between the wars, that Joe Watt forgot to remove his cap during a visit by the Duke of Kent. Later, he took a share in the “Linet” and for a while was skipper of the “Girl Alice”, before eventually becoming a shareholder in the “Flora Fraser.” During the Second World War he commanded a drifter serving in the Home Fleet, with a crew that included his son, invalided home in 1940 after being wounded while serving in the Gordon Highlanders.
“VC Joe”, or “Gamrie Joe”, as he was known by fisherman all along the East Coast, died of cancer of the gullet at his home, 7 Finlayson Street, Fraserburgh, on 13th February 1955 and was buried in Kirktown Cemetery, in the same plot as his wife and her parents. The VC that was reportedly kept in a small drawer on his fishing boat now features in the Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum. Auctioned at Spink of London in April 2012, it was sold for £170,000, together with the Serbian Gold Medal, French Croix de Guerre, 1937 George VI Coronation Medal and the gold pocket watch that was presented to him in December 1917 by George Walker, the owner of the “Gowanlea”.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, LONDON.
BURIAL PLACE: KIRKTOWN CEMETERY, FRASERBURGH, SCOTLAND.
Joseph Watt's medals including VC on display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London
Meeting the Duke of Kent
War Illustrated, 22nd September 1917
War Illustrated, 6th October 1917
Gardenstown (Thomas Stewart)