THOSE familiar with iconic war film A Bridge Too Far cannot help but be impressed with the courage of British troops who took flight to breach enemy lines.

The film recounts the scenes of ‘Operation Market Garden’, an operation during the Second World War which saw 35,000 Allied troops from America and Britain flown from air bases in England and dropped behind enemy lines in Arnhem, in the Netherlands.

Using stealth tactics, British troops used gliders instead of planes to land near the Dutch city as they would not make any noise.

The German army was caught off guard by the tactic, and the strategy was immortalised in the film of 1977 which featured the big film stars of the time. Dirk Bogarde, James Caan, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Gene Hackman, Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Olivier and Robert Redford were among the glittering cast.

Those who were involved in the operation were hailed heroes for their efforts, but more than 8,000 of the 10,000 troops lost their lives in the conflict.

A young man hailing from Tynedale was involved in the introduction of the strategy, Flight Sgt Ronnie Watson.

Already a member of the Royal Air Force, Ronnie had been interviewed in 1944 as a potential fighter pilot but, following the recent invasion of France, there was little demand for those skills.

Instead, the British Army sought volunteers for skilled personnel to teach and train glider pilots.

Ronnie trained what were known as ‘total soldiers’ who would be engaged in both ground and air combat when the Government introduced Horsa Gliders to ferry infantry and heavy equipment to the front line.

This was the strategy used at Arnhem, which was immortalised in A Bridge Too Far.

Ronnie’s involvement with gliding did not stop at training troops, though, and he saw further active service himself.

He was among the 16,000 paratroopers and thousands of aircraft which was used in the subsequent Operation Varsity.

As part of the operation, British troops in gliders spearheaded the crossing of the Rhine and the assault on Berlin in 1945.

Ronnie was tasked with the crucial job of flying in gliders to drop heavy guns and transport near the front line.

His courage towards the final stages of the year brought his intriguing war service to a conclusion.

Ronnie, now aged 96 and a familiar face around Hexham, was born in 1923, meaning that he was too young to either be called up or volunteer at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.

In 1942, though, at the age of 19, he applied for service saying he wanted to be a pilot. The war was then well into its third gruelling year.

After a selection interview, Ronnie was sent to London’s St John’s Wood, turning up at Lord’s cricket ground, which was a centre opened in response to a national call for more aircrew.

The Government had called for more volunteers in the aftermath of the Battle of Britain.

Ronnie recalled his training as rigorous, mitigated only by enjoying his meals in the restaurant at London Zoo and being billeted in a luxurious nearby apartment.

There, he was taught navigation, flight technology and the principles of flying.

He related that he was later moved to the less glamorous Scarborough before being posted to RAF Kingstown, just outside Carlisle, where he learned to fly a Tiger Moth, the legendary bi-plane RAF trainer aircraft.

It was there that Ronnie first flew solo and qualified for the much-coveted RAF Pilot’s ‘Wings’.

The next stage of his wartime service saw the young pilot Ronnie posted to Terrell, a suburb of Dallas, in Texas, USA, where British servicemen were taught to fly much faster aircraft, such as the Stearman and the Harvard.

Ronnie returned to England after a memorable three months of special training Stateside.

He recounted colourful accounts of his time there with an obvious twinkle in his eye.

He told elatedly of meeting famous move starlets of the day and some other unorthodox desert training sorties, flying low over exotic, remote homes with swimming pools.

Ronnie said he really earned his Wings there – not all of which were for conventional military operations.

He returned to England older and wiser, and with three sergeant’s stripes on his uniform.

Then came his time training and then flying the gliders, a time he can think back to in much detail.

As many as 60 per cent of the RAF regiment lost their lives in the culminating action of the war.

Flight Sgt Ronnie Watson considered himself lucky to have survived to tell the tale. Modestly, the self effacing Ronnie described his service as ‘just doing my job’.

On cessation of hostilities, Ronnie was posted to RAF Winterberg in Germany where he encountered unexpected attention from a German native.

That came when he was pursued around a local dance hall by an attractive female, a Luftwaffe radar technician by the name of Katerina Blum who had the pilot purposefully on her wavelength.

Fraulein Blum would become Ronnie’s ‘prisoner’ for the next 68 years. Eventually, after much delaying bureaucracy, they returned to England where, in 1947, they were married in Horsley before setting up home in Wylam where they raised their two daughters, Sue and Ann.

Until his retirement in 1984, Ronnie worked as a civilian officer at Hexham Police Station.

To this day, Ronnie remains a familiar face around town, although he was deeply saddened to lose his beloved wife four years ago

Ronnie’s story was retold to Kenneth Connelly, a newcomer to Hexham, who engaged the veteran in conversation. His tale was told to coincide with Remembrance Sunday.

Each year, as people across the world fall silent to remember those who lost their lives in conflict during remembrance services, Ronnie has his own personal tributes to pay for comrades who didn’t come back.

Mr Connelly said: “While remembering the fallen, he also continues to give thanks to the few whom, even at a great age, live to bear witness to the horrors and futility of wars.

“May God bless him and all living veteran servicemen and women. In particular, we proudly and humbly salute you Ronnie Watson and invoke Rudyard Kipling’s immortal words, ‘Lest we forget’.”