Interview with John David Pennington Cotter


Interview with John David Pennington Cotter


John was born in London, Hendon. His family fell on hard times in his early years. John and his brother, Paul, joined the RAF in 1941 as a pilot and wireless operator respectively. After initial training at RAF Brize Norton, John was trained in Canada, returning to Britain on the Queen Mary with the first detachments of American troops. In 1943 he did more training at RAF Wymeswold, then joined 158 Squadron at RAF Lissett. They carried out several operations to German cities. As part of a new 640 Squadron, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. John then trained the Free French Air Force at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland. He stayed in the RAF for 20 years, finishing as squadron leader. He later became a civil pilot at Dan Air. John’s brother was killed in a propeller incident in Vancouver.







01:16:47 audio recording


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JC: Yes, here we are.
PS: This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Patricia Selby and the interview is John Cotter and the interview is taking place at his home. Can you give me your address [tone] and the time is 2.25. Where, when were you born John?
JC: They came over to England.
PS: No, when were you born?
PS: Yes, when we came over to England. Apparently I was, my mother was pregnant with me on the voyage over and when we got here they put me in to St Mary’s Hospital Paddington, where I was born.
PS: So Paddington. So how did your childhood go on from there?
JC: They bought a house in Hendon, just by Hendon Central tube station, a brand new house, on a mortgage and they were surviving on my mother’s money really. My father decided he’d leave the sea, big mistake of his, and he had a little tobacconist by the station and things went downhill from there. And eventually the Halifax Building Society foreclosed on the mortgage in about 1928, by which time I was five, and they repossessed the house and so they moved to a, the family to a flat in Finchley Road, near Swiss Cottage, and I remember that clearly because we were there about a year and things hadn’t got any better and my father had had to take commercial jobs going round selling things and in 1930 we had to, my parents were Christian Scientists and they got help from the Christian Science Church. When they were completely broke, had no money at all, all my mother’s money had gone, we had to go down to a place called Roe Green in, near Colindale and people, Christian Scientists, in council houses for example, were putting us up and the family was split up a couple of times with my brother and my mother in one house and my father and myself in another house. Eventually my father must have got a loan and he purchased a car in 1932, a little Swift, 1923 Swift, and he paid five pounds for it, I remember that. And he started selling eggs from this car. He’d go round the villages, selling eggs. And from that he progressed to a dirty garage, in Baker Street, where he was fitting tyres. We had the car at home and he would be spending his days fitting tyres on car wheels, motor cars, and eventually he got his own business and he bought it at Neasden, in Blackbird Cross at Neasden, he had a shop called the Boat House Tyre Service I think. And he had about three employees there, including one of my uncles, who’d also fallen on hard times, and things were going very well and so we moved into a very large flat in Edgware, with four huge bedrooms and three living rooms and it was up on the third floor of a block and we were over a block of shops, and we were over a shop called Gilbert Reeves in Edgware, Station Road, Edgware and we were now living very well. I passed my scholarship to a grammar school and in 1935 I went to the Kingsbury County School, grammar school. I’d done very well at ordinary school, elementary school, I’d always been top of the class. I now, for some reason, became almost the bottom of the class in the grammar school. I found that the competition was very heavy and I wasn’t doing very well. However, I hung on and I started in, there in August ’35 and August ’39 came along and war was declared in September the 3rd, by which time I’d decided I was going to join the Junior League of Oswald Mosley’s Fascist movement. Outside Edgware Station, which was a big station, the end of the Northern Line, so a big station, and one side of the station would be the Communist Party, workers selling the Daily Worker, and the other side would be the Fascists, Oswald Mosley’s man and I always liked him better, Oswald Mosley’s men, always looked better, smarter. And civil war in Spain had been going on for some time and we, my parents had a great friend called Mr Auty, who was a Spaniard and an olive oil importer and he said that the Fascist Party were the only hope for Spain and so I supported General Franco and led to numerous fights with me at school as nobody else seemed to support General Franco, except me. By the time the war broke out I was coming up to sixteen and that year I was supposed to take my School Certificate and I knew I’d do badly at it, so the war was a sort of relief for me. But I decided I’d better not join the Fascist Party as they’d now declared war on Hitler and my parents might be upset about that, me joining Oswald Mosely. Anyway the schools were closed, no sign of opening, so I said to my mother I’m not doing very well at school, I’d better get a job, and she said yes you should get a job and then you support the household by giving some rent. So I didn’t get a job, cause I didn’t know how to get a job, so she got a job for me. Mummy got me my job in a paper firm in Upper Thames Street, just off Blackfriars in London, at twelve and six a week and I went up there and worked there. And then mummy was always saying to me, John, you must get a job with a pension, you must have a pension. So she decided that the job in Upper Thames Street wasn’t paying, going to pay a pension so she’d get me a job in the Civil Service, which she did! She produced this job for me in the Clothing Office, in Whitehall and she said you start there in I think it was June 1940, which I did. And it was quite nice job, with a pension [chuckle] and I had my own responsibilities there, I was doing something all day. I was dealing with, the war was on, so I was dealing with requests from all the colonies when we had a big Empire then, for permission to export goods to certain countries were banned from receiving any goods, anything from Germany, so they had to apply to London. They come down through me, a little sixteen year old in the clothing office, and I was then circulating them to the correct department. I was quite happy doing that and the bombing started. I used to walk down Whitehall in the evenings, six o’clock in the evening, when we finished work, and the bombing had started, mainly in the East End, but some in the centre of London, and I’d get on the tube at The Strand, to go home, and I’d come out at the end of the tunnel which was at Golders Green, and you’d immediately be into the bombing again, because you’d been safe while you were in the underground but now the bombing had started. You’d see the searchlights and it was all going on, and I got fed up of this and then they started rationing as well. Whereas rationing hadn’t been very severe and I’d had plenty of chocolate and things like that to carry on with, you could get them in all the shops, now things started disappearing and you couldn’t get them any longer. I used to attend parties where a lot of, this is in Edgware, where a lot of the people, the youngsters, were joining the services. I saw these advertisements which said: ‘You too can bomb Berlin” and advertising for pilots and I got interested in this and I noticed that the qualification to be a pilot, to be in training as a pilot, if you were selected, you had to have an education up to School Certificate standard. Didn’t say you had to have the School Certificate, you had to be educated to the standard. So, mind [indecipherable], look around and thought jolly good, I could join the Air Force and I decided I would join and take the invitation to go and bomb Berlin. ”You too can bomb Berlin” and it showed you a man in pilot’s uniform, officer’s uniform, standing and leaning on a post in a nice building in Berlin and the building was crumbling from the bombing, and so I said to my younger brother who was about eighteen months younger than me, I said to Paul I’m going off to bomb Berlin, join the Air Force and he said right, I’ll come as well. I said you can’t, because you’re too young, you’re fifteen and the minimum age is seventeen, which I was, and he said I know, but what about if I put on my age to seventeen and you put, I said I’d have to put my age up and he said yes. So eventually we decided yes, he could join with me and I said you haven’t got to school certificate standard and you won’t have it. He said doesn’t matter I’ll join as well, I’ll try and join. So in February 1941, the two of us went down to the Air Force Recruiting Office in Deansbrook Road, Edgware. And we went in and I went in first and the recruiting sergeant asked me what I wanted to be and I said I wanted to be a pilot, and he said where were you educated, and I said Kingsbury County School, just about to take the school certificate and of course the schools were closed and so I left. He said that’s good enough, he said yes, we’ll send you up to Uxbridge and you’ll be interviewed there and if you’re satisfactory, you’ll be a pilot, you’ll be training for a pilot, I was nineteen according to my reckoning, and out I went and my brother went in after me. He was accepted as well, but not as a pilot, they said he could be a rear gunner, or a gunner, or a wireless operator. So he said he’d be a wireless operator do they said you’re going to Uxbridge as well. Funnily enough, a friend of his who was the correct age completely, went in after him, was sent back to his mother to get his birth certificate. They hadn’t looked for my birth certificate, or Paul’s. So we both went to Uxbridge the following day and there we were assessed and I was accepted for training as a pilot and Paul was accepted for training as a wireless operator and we were told to go home, carry on with our jobs and they’d call us up when they had room for us. That was in February, and I waited, carried on at the Clothes Office and I waited and waited and couple of chaps at the Clothing Office had, friends of mine, who’d also joined the Air Force, they were called up and I was still waiting. Anyway, the time came: July 7th 1941. I was told to report to Lords Cricket Ground, St Johns Wood, and I did, and there I was taken into the Air Force and I’d been a great cricket fan. Am I going on too long?
PS: No, it’s fine. It’s really good.
JC: Great cricket fan and I’d been to Lords many times and in those days only the poshest amateurs, proper amateurs were allowed to use the main pavilion at Lords. The professionals, the really top class cricketers, the p[professionals, had to use the side gate and this pavilion at Lords was a place that only MCC members were allowed in and I met some cricketers. And we were all marched in on the second day there at Lords, into this temple, where only amateur players were allowed in. Told to drop our trousers round to our ankles and lift our shirts up to our necks while a Medical Officer walked down the line inspecting us. [Chuckle] Then we were passed fit, obviously, and we used to go down to, you got, billeted in flats, blocks of flats that had obviously been commandeered and the tenant told to leave, and we were billeted in these flats and we used to march down to the zoo for our meals and march back again. So you’d march down for breakfast, and back to wherever you were working, march down for lunch and dinner. And then we were sent on an Initial Training Wing course and I went across to a proper RAF station at Brize Norton, which is still going, for my initial training course and when I came back from that, I was sent down to Brighton here, into the Hotel Metropole to await further instructions And obviously the further instructions were going to be to train, start flying training. We were obviously going overseas for that because most of the flying training was in Canada or South Africa. And I was down here for about four weeks in the Metropole Hotel and then I was shipped off to Manchester for a while, and from Manchester I was taken up to the docks at Glasgow, and put on a little old ship that had been carrying cargo obviously and we now had about twelve hundred chaps on board, and we were setting sail for North America and we were in a convoy, and it took us twelve days to get across the Atlantic. And the first four days I was so sick, I used to lie upstairs on the deck, near the lifeboats, and hope that the submarines would come and torpedo us, so put me out of my misery. After four days I perked up and I’ve never been sick since. We were billeted down in the holds with a lot of rough men who swore most of the time. I’d never heard much swearing in my life, certainly not at school, and swearing and cursing, these rough chaps were. They weren’t aircrew, they were going out to do other jobs, whatever they were. Some in the Navy and a lot in the Air Force obviously to man RAF stations in Canada or North America and I finished up in Saskatchewan, Moosejaw, Saskatchewan, for my initial flying course on Tiger Moths. You had to be capable of going solo on the aircraft after six hours training and the maximum you could do was twelve hours, and if you hadn’t gone solo after twelve hours, you’d, you weren’t considered good enough to be pilot and you’d be sent off for training as a navigator possibly, or something else, and after twelve hours I hadn’t gone solo. All the other people, all my friends had failed, as pilots, and I had no friends left there, they had all failed and gone off, sent off somewhere, and so it was only me and the people who’d gone solo, going flying away on little Tiger Moths and me, not allowed to go solo cause I wasn’t good enough. My instructor must have had faith in me because he asked the CO if I could have another two hours and the CO said yes, but after two hours, if I hadn’t gone solo I would be off, off the course, and after fourteen hours I still hadn’t gone solo so he asked to CO again for a further extension, he must have had great faith in me, and the CO said I’ve got to go to Calgary, get a message through to Calgary ask permission from the C in C, and got that permission and I had one last flight and he sent me solo. And I went solo and on my third landing I landed on top of my friend, who was in another plane and smashed the planes up. But they’d had such a time getting me through so far, they let me carry on. None of us, neither of us were injured, but we’d done considerable damage to the planes. I landed on top of him, I hadn’t seen him, on the runway, he was beneath me and I was landing my Tiger Moth, I thought I was clear on the runway, there was a big crunch and I hit his plane. However they had spent so much time getting me there to this stage they thought I’d carry on, so I carried on and finished the course and passed out, quite well, and I was sent up to another base at Saskatoon and, North Battleford actually, and did an Oxford course where I had no trouble whatsoever. I went solo in about four hours and finished the course quite well and at the end of the course, because they needed pilots in Canada and North America because there was training in, over in the States as well though the war hadn’t started in, America wasn’t in the war yet, most of the pilots who passed out were, thought they were going to stay in Canada or North America as instructors or staff pilots, except for the bottom sixteen of us, who were to go home, and I was sixteenth from the bottom of course, so I was one of the ones that came home. And this time instead of going across the Atlantic on an old steamer, we were sent down to New York by train and we arrived in New York one evening at about six o’clock and we were marched from Pennsylvania Station to the other station in New York, erm, not to the other station, to the docks, and we marched down to the docks and on board, and marched on board the Queen Mary, which was empty except for us, which was about sixty of us and nobody on board. And twelve of us were sent to this cabin, one large cabin, and said we were in this cabin and we said well the place is empty why can’t we have some, a cabin each? They said no you’re twelve of you in here. There are only six bunks and so the arrangement is you will have a bunk every other night and the rest of the time you sleep on the floor. And this is the Air Force so you had to be, do as you were told. And then on the first night we were there, just started to sleep and we heard this marching and boots coming on, and the Queen Mary was filling up with American troops: war had broken out and they were one of the first detachments to come to England. They filled up the plane, the ship completely, so much so that we realised why we were all in this one cabin, cause everywhere else were American troops. The Queen Mary set sail, in four days and we were across the Atlantic. Didn’t come in a convoy, just set sail by itself, and it went so fast that it crossed the Atlantic in four days and discharged all its troops and then came whistling back. Did this all throughout the rest of the war and neither the Queen Mary nor the Queen Elizabeth were sunk. So they got all the troops across. So we were back in England now and after many tribulations I got up to [pause] Wymeswold to start my training and that’s where I start that, in February 1943.
PS: So you did more training again, when you got back to England.
JC: Oh yes. Yes. You’d only done enough training on small aircraft. So now they were deciding where you were going and it was pretty obvious that most of us would be going into Bomber Command because it was a big command now. They’d had the Battle of Britain. The fighter boys had defeated the Germans in the Battle of Britain, by air, and now Bomber Command was getting all the impetus, raids started on Germany and German cities. And I never had any trouble at all, after all that trouble with my first solo, I never had any trouble at all from then on, in training, and I eventually found myself on a squadron, after. I’d come back in August 1942 and I arrived on the squadron a year later, nearly a year later. So I’d done a lot of training, obviously.
PS: That was 158 Squadron.
JC: 158 Squadron, yes. And I joined a crew, and, a very good crew, there’s a photograph of them out there in the hall, very good crew. Seven of us and certainly myself, I never [emphasis] worried about not coming back from an operation or anything like that. There were people who were worried but I never had any trouble with, at all with my crew, they were all marvellous chaps. We used to go out on our operations and come back, and, as you’ll see in there, we were, we got ourselves, because the accommodation at Lissett was tin sheds, huts, we got ourselves accepted in to an Army Sergeant’s Mess in Bridlington where we lived in a nice house with proper fires and a brick built building on the sea front, at Bridlington which was an Army Sergeant’s Mess and we were adopted, our crew were adopted there and the Army provided, it was a Company Sergeant Major who arranged it, the Army Company Sergeant Major who arranged it, and he said anything you want, and if you’re called back to base, you’ve got to go back to base quickly, we’ll give you the transport back. So they fed us and beered us, gave us beer and we had a marvellous time, our crew. There were, I remember once, we used to go out, say seven thirty in the evening, and we’d all be taking off for a target and there’d be a queue waiting for take off on the runway, and once, just in front of us, something happened. We couldn’t get past this aircraft, it wasn’t moving. It was a great friend of mine, Doug Robinson who I knew was the captain of it, and eventually the Flight Commander came out from Operations and spoke to them on board and then a closed van came out as well, followed I think, and this closed van was there about five minutes and then off it went and the plane then turned round, oh, the plane then turned round and taxied off the tarmac, on to the grass, to allow us to pass. We just passed it and he was sitting there on the grass. And the reason that it had happened, one of his crew came up and said he couldn’t carry on, described he was too much.
PS: Too frightened.
JC: Too much, too frightening, yeah. I learned that the closed van that had come up, he was put in the van and whisked off and taken off basically, and that was what happened in the war, if you, it was known as Lack of Moral Fibre. Wouldn’t happen now of course, but, wouldn’t call it Lack of Moral Fibre, but in those days, LMF we called it. They were taken off the base immediately because they didn’t’ want him mixing with anybody else. Fortunately nobody in my crew were like that and you see there, we went through the war with no problems whatsoever. Whereas most of our friends were having trouble, you know, getting very damaged aircraft, [pause] horrific experiences and we had nothing like that.
JS: How did that make you feel?
JC: Hm?
JS: How did you feel about that?
JC: We were very callous, in the war. When you came back from a trip and you found that three or four aircraft were, hadn’t come back, and it’s friend of yours on one, friends on another aircraft and you would say they’d gone for a Burton, which meant they’d been shot down and killed possibly. Very callous, you’d say: “Well you shouldn’t have joined if you can’t stand a joke.” When shot down, things like that. Horrible really.
JS: I was going to say, how did you, now, looking back how did you?
JC: Horrible.
PS: It was your way of coping, presumably.
JC: Yeah. But you see, you see there every six weeks we got leave; a weeks’ leave. We lived like kings really. We got petrol, there was no petrol for other people, we had petrol, we had cars, or motorbikes. You had a petrol allowance. So you’d have enough petrol from Bridlington to go down to London for the weekend. I never did because none of my crew had cars, but other crews had somebody had a motor car and they’d do that, so. We had meals which were eggs and bacon and sausages and goodness knows what, but you couldn’t get in civilian life, you were rationed to all that. And after every trip we had this before we left and when we came back.
JS: But you were out for a long time, you must have been hungry when you got back.
JC: Oh, we were hungry, yes.
PS: You said every six weeks you had a break, in the weeks that you, those six weeks, how many raids would you do? Roughly.
JC: I depended, it depends I suppose. I would say when you, you’d go back and you’d do about five raids and then six weeks had gone by, or maybe, or sometimes, we started off our time at the squadron on the Battle of Hamburg. Hamburg, the main port, we did four raids on the city, in about four weeks. Gave them a very heavy raid every week and we reckoned we’d demolished the major part of the city by the end of that time and then we, Bomber Command switched, possibly I think Berlin, or Frankfurt, mainly Berlin after Hamburg, in my time. You’ll see there that I did raids on a lot of German cities, Kassel, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, all over the place. And you did, I did my way, it was all very exciting, all very exciting. And at the end of my tour I was, I remember the last trip I did was to Dusseldorf, and I got back from Dusseldorf and at the briefing, debriefing, you walk into this hut and the Station Commander, whose name was Group Captain Waterhouse, would be standing at the entrance to greet you as you came in, and that last trip he said to me, well young Cotter, that’s you finished. I said I’d like to carry on, sir. He said we’ll see about that. I hadn’t asked my crew, I was so exuberant, hadn’t asked my crew. I think my crew would have followed me on, I hadn’t asked them, I just assumed they would. Anyway we didn’t get it, I didn’t get my request, because within four days I was shipped up, sent on leave for a week then shopped up to the north of Scotland to a place called Lossiemouth, which I had never heard of before. I’d never been to Scotland apart from when I’d gone to Glasgow to board the ship. I was sent up to this place Lossiemouth, to train the, where they were training the French Air Force who, to be in Bomber Command. These were Frenchmen who were from Algeria, French officers and men from Algeria, which hadn’t been conquered of course by the Germans, and they’d had the Free French Air Force there, and now they wanted to operate in Bomber Command and that was my job to help train them, which I liked. Couldn’t speak a word of French cause I’d been a duffer at school where I learned French, but I got on well with them. And I was there till the end of the war. I kept saying to the Wing Commander Flying, I’d like to get back on operations and they used to tell me to get out of the office and not waste their time. And the last one was a nice Wing Commander O’Dwyer and he obviously thought well of me because he commanded a station later and when I wanted to stay in the Air Force when the war ended, he arranged that I got a good job, and I stayed in the Air Force. I’d been married, to my first wife, in July 1945 I got married, and I went for an interview with BOAC and I was accepted by BOAC, and I met my wife who was working in King’s Road, Chelsea. We met in a pub at, in Chelsea, and said, in her lunchtime, and I said I’ve got this job with BOAC and Margaret said how much are they paying you? And I said well initially they’re paying me, I think it was, three hundred and eighty pounds a year as a trainee. She said you’re getting more than that in the Air Force and I said well I am, yes and she said well it’s no contest is it, you stay in the Air Force. I took her advice, because she was older than me, and sensible I thought, so I stayed in the Air Force, and for another twenty years and did quite well there and finished as a Squadron leader and twenty years later, I got a chance to go into civil flying, to retire from the Air Force with a small pension and go into civil flying and that’s what I did. So I went to a firm called Dan Air and I was there for the, till I was sixty, when I, you had to retire as captain of aircraft in those days so that.
PS: So you really enjoyed your flying.
JC: I did enjoy my flying.
PS: You were awarded the DFC. Would you like to tell me how that came about?
JC: Yes. In 640 Squadron, oh, 158 Squadron at Lissett, we were C Flight. There were three, two, three flights in the squadron: A, B and C, and we were C Flight and in December 1943 they decided that we would convert onto a more efficient mark of Halifax with new engines, better engines, and C Flight would go across to Leconfield, permanent station, near Beverley, about twenty miles or so from the city, and form a new squadron. And we formed the new squadron called 640, the number 640 and the Squadron Commander was a chap called Ruby Ayres who was very nice, a very good fellow and he’d been sent to Australia in the war, at the beginning of the war, to get the training scheme over there sorted out. So he’d now come back and taken command of 640 Squadron. Brand new squadron and after about six months or so, no about four months, he decided that they’d been through all these operations and nobody had been, got a decoration. So unbeknown to me, I was suddenly called up into the Wing Commander’s office, Wing Commander Ayres, Squadron Commander, and he said now Cotter, you had a difficult time the other night, a difficult time this night, is that right, I said yes, but nothing serious sir, he said no, but it’s very difficult, you carried on, all of this. I didn’t know what he was talking about but anyway, what he was doing was deciding that I would have the DFC, first one in the squadron. And about three weeks later, or four weeks later, I was asleep in the mess after lunch which I normally did, cause they had chairs like this and used to go to sleep, and I was woken by Alan Smart one of the other, my colleagues, who’d had a terrible time in the war, he’d been shot up to pieces and managed to get back each time, and he came in and shook my shoulder and said you’ve got the DFC, John. I said what, he said you’ve got the DFC. I said oh, thanks and went back to sleep as far as I remember. [Laugh] And then, and then I was eventually called to Holyrood House. This is when I was at Lossiemouth, I’d gone to Lossiemouth and I was called to Holyrood House in Edinburgh and I was given the DFC by King George Sixth, think it was the sixth.
[Other]: What had you done to get it? What have they said that you’d done?
JC: Where’s the book, which I got out, big one there, you see, that one
PS: Because I don’t think they just give them out for, sweeties. I’ll, ‘John Cotter. This officer has proved himself to be a most capable and resolute captain of aircraft. He has participated on a large number of attacks on well defended targets, including several against Berlin and Hamburg. One night in February 1944, Pilot Officer Cotter took part in an attack on Schweinfurt?
JC: Schweinfurt.
PS: On the outward flight, engine trouble developed, but despite this Pilot Officer Cotter continued to target and bomb it and afterwards flew the aircraft back to this country where he made a safe landing at an airfield near the coast. His determination to complete this mission successfully was highly commendable.’ So you did it on three engines. Out and back. That must have made you very tired.
JC: Well it was, yes. I remember that, one you were talking about there. I landed at Tangmere, along the coast here. Used to be an airfield there.
PS: So what did, after the war when you stayed in the Air Force, what sort of things did you do then?
JC: [Laugh] Now, the, they’d just decided, after the war, to have exchange postings with the Americans. Some Americans would come over here and serve with us and some of us would go over there and the first stage postings took place in February 1940, [pause] 7, 1947, and I was on it. They selected me, to go out there and on to an American base. I was a married man of course by this time. The first year they said you can’t take your wife, cause you’re only going to go for a year, you don’t know where you’ll be in America, and they sent us down to, there were four Flight Lieutenants and five Wing Commanders going. Wing commander being about three steps higher than a Flight Lieutenant. Four junior offices and five senior officers. And I remember the four junior officers got together and went down to Air Ministry for a briefing. We got to this briefing at Air Ministry in Kingsway, London and it consisted of this Group Captain coming in and saying now, the best paper for football, English football results, is the New York Times so get that while you’re over there and you’ll get all the results, and that was about it: that was the briefing. So the next thing we knew we were on this liner about to go, going to America. We landed in New York, we landed in Halifax actually, Halifax, Nova Scotia and we were trained down to New York. We got there and they put us up in hotels there, called the Lexington. Lexington Hotel, on Lexington Avenue, known as the Sexy Lexy in the Air Force, the Air Force always used it, and we were there, and of course back home things were, as the war had finished things were even worse than they were during the war. The rationing was more severe and we were really, those post, immediate post war years were a bit thin for food and things and we’re now going to America, the land of plenty, and so we enjoyed ourselves in New York. We were there about four days and then we were bussed down then, down to Washington, Washington DC, and to the Pentagon Building, which is the big military, American Military Headquarters where we had an RAF delegation there. And the things we noticed, I noticed, straight away, was all WAAFs, the Women’s Air Force, were very, very smart, and chic. Where the WAAFs at home had woollen stockings because of rationing of course they couldn’t get silk stockings, all the WAAFs in Washington had silk stockings, or nylon stockings I suppose they were, certainly much smarter and looked a lot cleaner and more with it than our malnourished crowd back home. And so I was sent in to see this Air Marshal, and the first thing he said to me, he said when you come in to see me you are dressed correctly, you don’t have the hat on the back of your head. Go out and dress correctly and come, wait for [indecipherable] to back again. So out I went with my tail between my legs and looked at this very smart WAAF that I’d been admiring, I no longer admired her, cause I thought she should have warned me about that and I did have, my hat on the back of my head, as I had in there.
PS: Yeah.
JC: Yeah. And it’s not smart, that’s wartime stuff, and I was still on wartime stuff and I quite deserved what I got. Anyway, he decided I wasn’t, I wasn’t suitable material for Washington, for the American Air Force so I was sent home, in disgrace, basically, tail between my legs. Fortunately, I wasn’t the only one, there was one of the Wing Commanders as well sent back, some reason. [laughter] So I came back, quite miserable feeling, on the same boat, almost. But again, we were, like the Queen Mary during the war, we had to share cabins, everybody was cooped up. I mean in the cabin on the return journey I remember there was a chap from Preston and his wife. Preston in Lancashire they came from. They’d been in America twenty two years and he was coming home, he and his wife, they’d had enough, you know, of America, after twenty two years. They’d gone out there just after the First World War and he’d been working as a painter and decorator and now he was coming home, he and his wife. Don’t know what they did when they got home, but anyway. We got home and it was the making of me.
PS: Pardon?
JC: It was the making of me, because I got to Air Ministry and I said [pouring of tea] I’d like to have a good postings, overseas. And they said not a chance! I said why not, and they said, I haven’t been overseas yet on a posting and they said we need people like you. I said why, said you’re a good instructor and we need, and it was just when we were building up the Air Force again, thank you darling.
[Other]: Let me give you that.
JC: After the war Stalin, er, Churchill had said there’s an Iron Curtain coming down over Europe. Churchill had been out in Washington and he announced it quite, quite strongly there: there’s an Iron Curtain coming down, and so we had started to rearm against the Russian Menace. They needed instructors because they were recruiting people who had just been discharged from the Air Force, and had been working and hadn’t liked it and were coming back in the Air Force and so I obviously was thought of as a good instructor, which I think I was, because I never lost my temper with anybody; I explained things calmly. So I was given this instruction job up in, flying, flying, up in Yorkshire, back in Yorkshire again, in a place near Ripon, Yorkshire, and I progressed from there and I did very well in the Air Force. And when I asked for a permanent commission, a General List Commission as a permanent officer, I got what I wanted and I had no reason to want to leave the Air Force except that I’d been sent to Birmingham, University, to take charge of the University Air Squadron and I was flying light aircraft there, Chipmunks, and I realised that that was, I wouldn’t progress any further getting back on to heavy aircraft again in the Air Force. And so the chance came up for a, after 1962, when I could retire on a small pension and so I arranged with Dan Air to join them. I had friends in Dan Air and so I left the Air Force and retired and became a civil pilot and did that for the rest of, stayed with Dan Air.
PS: Do you think staying on in the Air Force made it easier to sort of drift back into normal life after the war?
JC: Yes, yeah. I had a very good, very good career. Never out of work, so, never at the Employment Exchange. [Laughter]
[Other]: But you lost your brother, didn’t you, sadly, in the war.
JC: Hmm?
[Other]: You lost your brother, sadly.
JC: I lost my brother.
PS: So wasn’t without, was some sadness. Was that at the beginning or had he done?
JC: No, he’d been sent out to Canada. He’d been, hadn’t been taken into the Air Force. We’d joined together if you remember, but I’d been called up July ’41, he wasn’t called up till ’42, early ’42 and he was a wireless operator, wireless operator/air gunner and he was sent to Canada to join a squadron there, nearing the end of the war and they realised that when Germany collapsed they’d still have Japan to fight. So they’d build up the squadrons in the facing, in the areas facing Japan Vancouver and places like that and my brother was at Vancouver. And one night the aircraft they were in taxied back in again cause it had a fault, and my brother and another chap got out, to have a fag, you weren’t allowed to smoke in RAF aircraft then, in those days, and as happened many times actually, it happened up at Lossiemouth this type of thing as well, the aircraft taxied into them, accidentally [gasp] and they were cut to pieces by the propeller, unfortunately.
PS: That must be even harder to cope with.
[Other]: He was very young. Where were you dad when this happened, dad? Were you in Scotland, at Lossie?
JC: I was in Scotland. I was flying actually, was about two in the morning and I was flying with a French crew and I was called into Control Tower, so I brought the aircraft in, shut it down and I got out, went into the Control Tower and it was my sister on the phone to me from London, saying they knew that Paul had been killed, in Canada, and would I come home, if possible, to support my mother? And I said I will do what I can and I went and saw the CO and he said, “I can’t let you go for very long,” he said, “you can go for the weekend.” So I had to come down for, just to London for the weekend from Scotland, so it was a case of coming down one day and going back the next day basically. But I came down and supported my mother because my father was in the Navy so, in the war, so.
PS: She needed someone.
JC: Yeah. And my sister was only about seven, no, she was about twelve, twelve.
PS: A lot for her to cope with.
[Other]: You also told us, do you remember, stories before you joined up when everyone was going down the air raid shelters, when London was being bombed, and you didn’t, did you, your family, you’d drive out to the countryside.
JC: No. Oh yes. My father insisted that when the air raids started, in earnest, September 1940, we must [emphasis] go out to St Albans, somewhere clear of London completely. And he used to drive the car out to St Albans and park in a field there and my mother and sister would go and I refused to go and my brother refused to go, and my mother had a Great Aunt, a sister, known as my Great Aunt Nellie, who was mentally deficient, and my mother had brought her back from Australia with her and she looked after all the, I suppose it was a condition of the, her parents’ will that she look after Nellie. So Nellie used to be there with us. She was a nurse maid for us as kids and she was still with us at Edgware and I remember nanny, when the bombs used to start Nellie used to go out on the veranda, look up at the sky and shout: “Bugger you Mr Hitler!” [Laughter] Then she’d come back in again. Well my father and mother used to go to the field at St Albans, and we were admittedly on the fourth and fifth floor of the buildings and nothing happened to us, and there used to be a saying in the war: the bomb won’t hit you unless your name’s put on it or your number’s on it. And I didn’t go into air raid shelters cause it was very smelly.
[Other]: What happened to the field where your dad used to drive?
JC: Oh. Bomb dropped in the next field!
PS: Oh no!
JC: Yes! Yes!
[Other]: So they all stopped going as well!
JC: So they stopped going, yes. [Laughter] So they all came back to the flat.
PS: So you’ve enjoyed your life, on the whole.
JC: Oh yes. Yes, had no employment problems. I was, I spent half my life in the Air Force. You see the Air Force was the making of me; it educated me really. I was sent on numerous courses in the Air Force: on how to write properly and how to do this, that and the other. I enjoyed my time in the Air Force and again I enjoyed my time in civil flying, flying all over the world.
PS: You have been such a pleasure to interview. I’ve really enjoyed interviewing, well I haven’t interviewed you, I have let you talk, [Laughter] it’s been really informative. Thank you very much indeed. Is there anything else you want to talk about, or need a break?
JC: Not really, you’ll see in there -
[Other]: Would you like to show Pat your medals?
PS: Yes.
JC: Oh. In there. Fijians, who were in the Army, and taking them up to Malaya to fight in the jungle with us. Because we were fighting communists, Chinese communists in the jungle.
PS: Was that after the war?
JC: This was after the war, this was 1950 ish. So when you would have been about five, this was going on.
PS: Yes. Do you mind if I do this? Now, I’ve got you and your medals. That’s lovely, thank you very much. It doesn’t hurt for me to have them as well.
[Other]: Exactly.
PS: They are lovely. Did they give you this think to put them?
JC: No, no.
[Other]: They were hanging off dad.
JC: Yeah. I often used to go to my reunions and they medals would be hanging half way down.
[Other]: With a nappy pin. [Laughter]
JC: This allows you to put, this goes in your pocket.
PS: Oh I see!
[Other]: Had it redone recently, haven’t you dad.
JC: This is a chap over in East Sussex somewhere, just past Eastbourne.
[Other]: Eastbourne.
PS: He’s very clever.
JC: Yes. He’s ex-Army.


Patricia Selby, “Interview with John David Pennington Cotter,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 21, 2024,

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