Death of a Seaman Turned Artist

by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, February 24, 2015 No Comment(s)

Ronald Roth-Watts in the early 1970sSeventy-one years and two days after he almost died, Ron Roth-Watts did. His call came in the night last week, in a Fort Lauderdale retirement home. His mind and body gave out about the same time, and in his last months, he could not recall his war record.

It was impressive. Ronald Leslie Roth-Watts joined the British Navy at the beginning of World War II. He was still a teenager, with an interest in photography. His technical talents got him into sonar – the nautical equivalent of radar – at a time when very few knew what is was about. Fortunately, the British did, and it saved them in their finest hour.

Ron served on four British ships during the war. His ships took part in the invasions of North Africa, Italy and Normandy. It was off Anzio, in the Italian campaign, that he dodged the bullet, or more accurately a torpedo. He was aboard the cruiser H.M.S. Penelope on Feb. 18, 1944, when a German U-boat hit her with two torpedoes. The ship went down in 11 minutes. Ron’s normal sonar station was below decks, where he would likely have been a goner. But that day, he was delivering a message topside. He simply stepped off the deck into the water as the ship slipped under. He claimed the enemy sub surfaced, and Ron, now in the water, got off a curse.

“You bostids,” he shouted, “you sank my camera.” He was one of 206 of a crew of 623 to survive. He went on to sail and fight another day. Interestingly, when he spoke of his war experiences, he seemed proudest of being part of a group from his ship that, when berthed in North Africa, got the task of fixing a bunch of broken down Italian trucks that had been captured after the Axis surrender.

“We got them all running,” he liked to say.

The camera he lost when his ship went down was a Leica, which he had just acquired. It was one of the best cameras in the world – but it was not his last. After the war, he became a successful photographer. He was among the pool of photographers assigned to the Royal Family, and to his last days, he kept magazine shots he had taken of princesses and future queens.

He moved to Canada, then to the U.S. in the 1950s. He worked out of New York for numerous important companies. He specialized in interior design photography, and his work appeared in Architectural Digest and later, when he came to Florida, for our Gold Coast magazine. He also taught at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale.

That was in the 1970s, when the photo above was taken. At the time, he was one of the best photographers in his field. His work in our magazine attracted the attention of interior designers and developers, and he had a good run for the next decade or so. Technology began to pass him by, at least as a photographer, but he never lost his flair for things mechanical. He was very good with cars, and jobs that most of us wouldn’t touch – such as replacing a radiator, or fixing electrical stuff – he did routinely. Our company turned over a well-used Chevy to him in the late ’70s and he kept it running for years. He also built his own home computer.

He had been married, and kept a photo of a pretty girl he said was his daughter. She might have been a stepdaughter. He didn’t say much about his immediate family, although he had an interest in his British past. He said the Roth part of his name came from a Jewish background, but he also spoke of a relative who was a Catholic monk in Ireland. He had a brother who visited about 20 years ago. He was a bit of a bounder, as the Brits say, and outstayed his welcome. Ron did not seem sorry to see him depart. The brother died, and after that Ron could find no relatives.

He remained physically active until his last few years. With his photography years behind him, he did some part-time work for our company in the graphics department. Even at advanced age, he was quick to pick up new technology. His vision and hearing declined, but he was a walking fool. You would see him all over town. He once got bored (he couldn’t hear in the crowd) at a party at the Lauderdale Yacht Club and left unannounced, walking to his apartment near the Galleria. He was pushing 90 when he fell crossing Sunrise and couldn’t get up. Two good Samaritans stopped their cars and helped him to the sidewalk. He was disoriented and one of the drivers stayed with him for several hours until the police could identify him.

He made it another 18 months. His most interesting life ended at 91 ½. Not bad for a bloke who almost lost it in 1944.

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