Interview with Peter Potter


Interview with Peter Potter


Peter Potter was born in Fobbing where his grandfather had three farms in Shell Haven. He ran away from home at age 15 and got a job before volunteering for aircrew after falsifying his date of birth. He talks about his time in London, visiting several clubs while completing his tests at St John’s Wood. After three weeks of training, Peter was posted to RAF Wickenby where he did his full tour with 626 Squadron, including an operation to Kiel. While on flying control duties, he took officers through and was also taken to meetings by the commanding officer because his memory was so good. Recollects commanding officer Adrian Boyd and his impression of what his time was like serving with him. Peter recollects a 1944 episode in which arrived home at 5 am on Christmas morning, waking his father up as he was unable to let him know he was coming. He recalls encounter with St Elmo’s fire, the difficulty it caused, and having to park his aircraft at the farthest point at the airfield because they still had bombs on board. Peter took part in dropping mines in the Kiel canal where the aircraft was hit about 54 times, but as he claims that was ‘nothing serious’. Peter had a serious injury on a return from Frankfurt when, smashed his jaw on the controls, but returned to flying before it had healed completely because his crew thought him a good luck charm. He also tells of how, as rear gunner, he saw the aurora borealis and of checking navigation to make sure figures were correct.




Temporal Coverage




00:45:25 audio recording


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GC: This is an interview being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre, my name is Gemma Clapton, I am interviewing Peter Potter of 626 Squadron this morning, and the interview is taking place on 14th September 2015, at Mr. Potter’s home in Colchester, Essex. Tell me a bit about before the war, how you joined up?
PP: Do you mean for my childhood or just before I joined up?
GC: Anything.
PP: Well, well my father actually, when I was born, he was working at Shell Haven and we lived at Fobbing. We, my grandfather had three farms at Fobbing running down to Shell Haven and he actually lived in [background noise] Oozdam Farm that’s [spells it out] which was also called Black House Farm, and he had two other, Red Brick Farm and Flaky House Farm [laughs], names were different in those days to what they are now. Anyway we, we had, I think most of this is in there, but we used to go, because it was also on, backed on to Fobbing Creek, we used to fish the creek, net the creek, let the fish go in then pull the net up so they couldn’t get out again [coughs], quite illegal, I think but, but that was quite often done in those days. They had salt pans which we used to let the water in and, and then have to stand there until it evaporated and, and drain, all that sort of thing was part of farming in those days. Grandfather was really a sheep farmer, stock farmer, he had cattle, horses, sheep, pigs whatever, and, and then we moved to a smallholding and then from there to a farm at Easthorpe, near Colchester, the other side of Colchester, and a massive place with a fireplace, that is now in Colchester Castle Museum. Anyway, there well we, we were there when the war started, but I think we had seventeen people working for us, but once the war started a lot of them joined the services and we couldn’t cope with the farm, that size of farm, so my father moved to Fingringhoe and we had a self-free farm at Fingringhoe. And it was there, that by that time I was fifteen, I think, and we, we, a farmer’s son was in a reserved occupation so I had to run away from home and get myself a job at Shell Haven, and, and then once I’d got a job I, as I say, I lived with a chap who volunteered, rather was called up on his eighteenth birthday, not called up, called in to sign on, and I gave his birth date anyway, I then volunteered for air crew. There were several reasons for that, one that I wanted to fly, one, that I didn’t want to go into trenches, and I didn’t want to go on a ship. So I volunteered, volunteered for air crew, and at that time, of course, if you volunteered for air crew you couldn’t be put on any other service, but you had to, of course, pass an educational test and a physical test, you had to be a hundred per cent fit, and also, you know, educated well enough to be able to take on the jobs that we had. And, eventually, I was called up to St. John’s Wood in London, and to a place called Grove Court, where it was a block of luxury flats, and still had some civilians there. The rooms that we had were opposite to those of a couple of girls, very well off girls, of course, two in the place, and they used to take us, when we were off, they used to take us to the Chevrons Club and all the different clubs in London, we couldn’t have afforded, but they, they were quite well off. There were two of us in there and the two girls just used to take us, mind you we had to travel, there was no such thing as a car to move around in, in those days because of the petrol shortage, but we were able to travel on the underground and go around, and they looked after us very well considering. I thought that was wonderful, you know, for a start in the RAF and we were there about, we were only there about three weeks and then we moved to other stations until I finished training, and eventually finished up at Wickenby, and did my full tour there. I also did three trips with other chaps, with other pilots, actually I did one to Kriel, which as a passenger when my pilot was taken, all pilots when you got onto an operational airfield were taken by another crew to see what they were getting into really, and because I got on very well with my pilot he arranged for me to go as a passenger as well, although I don’t think I was ever booked, because that wouldn’t have been. Also, I told you about the Orom, I flew when two of his chaps were killed, I flew with him to help him finish his tour. And I also flew three operations, and I think in there, I have got the names of the pilots, I no longer remember the trips because I get confused now, and I’m not gonna put down something that I’m confused about. But when their gunners were, they were probably called in or something, and didn’t get back to the airfield or were unofficially out of the, because you could walk out through the gaps in the barbed wire and that sort of thing, and they hadn’t got their gunner and I would, I took the place of three chaps like that whilst I was at Wickenby. So I did an extra three trips which, of course, had to coincide, when our crew weren’t flying anyway, but, yeah, but the names of the pilots, I remember the pilots, but the rest of it I’d rather, I put the pilots, the names of the pilots down at the time really, but of course I couldn’t really do. I wouldn’t mention the actual chaps that were booked as being there even though they weren’t, but um, and that was quite common, I think, but I never had to do that myself. But it was, in those days, oh, the CO on one of the occasions, he noticed that I was with the wrong crew and, actually that was when he called me to the office and I was offered commission and I had to refuse it because of my age, and at night I was with the wrong crew and he noticed it and he had a word with me and I, I obviously had to tell him what was happening and he said, ‘Don’t ever do it again, if you do it, I must know if you do it’. Even though, you know, he wouldn’t, he could have said, but he wouldn’t put the chaps on the charge but they wouldn’t anyway, because if they had, if you were put on the charge, you weren’t allowed to fly. So, you know, but he wanted to know so that if we were shot down, he would be sending a telegram to the parents of the chap who hadn’t flown, to say that he was shot down, and the RAF would have done anyway and er, and, of course, the chap would still be alive but I would have been shot down and I’d be missing and booked as absent without leave, you see, it had to be sorted out in some way [unclear interference on recording] and I finished my tour there and, after that I was put on, I was, I went to Hardon, after leave, I went to Hardon where they, I took a course on flying control duties and I then came, mainly my basic job was flying control but I had many. When I eventually met up with Group Captain Adrian Boyd, he gave me all sorts of jobs, at that time immobilisation was starting to take place and, and I was given jobs, like taking the officers through until a new company officer came in, somebody that was qualified. I had no qualifications but was given the job until somebody was able to take over and that sort of thing was quite common. And I was also, also was taken around by him, because I had a good memory at that time, a very good memory, I rarely forgot anything and he would take me with him to a meeting and after the meeting had finished he, he would put down what he thought [unclear] had to be you know [unclear], had to be dealt with, one way or another, and I would, he would then ask me if there was anything that he’d missed because he, he was a wonderful man, Adrian Boyd. Last week, not last week, the week before, a chap from South Benfleet came to Boxted Museum when I was there, and he remembered me [unclear] Boxted Airfield, ‘cos he was stationed there, and he, he made a statement about Adrian Boyd, he said, ‘He had never ever known a CO like that, who would go into the, into where they were working and sit and have a cup of tea with them and a chat, and find out where they came from, whether they were near their homes and that sort of thing, and if they were a long way from home, he would try to get them posted to their home’. And that sort of thing, you know, he was a really fine chap. And I, I used to fly around with him, he had a Gloster and we used to fly in that to different places like [unclear] or wherever he’d go to go to a meeting but he used me just like a memory stick, as you might say. Yeah, and oh, he was, I lived in a billet and by the A12 and across from my billet, across the road was the Ardleigh Crown and there was a gap in the hedge there, and I used to go through to the Ardleigh Crown. The CO, Adrian, lived just up the, a little bit further up the hill from me and he used to come down and we would walk through the gap and go to the Ardleigh Crown, and if anybody phoned up asking for him, his wife would say, ‘Oh, he’s walking around the airfield somewhere.’ And, and so that, that he’ll contact you later, you know and we would be having a pint in the Ardleigh Crown. He was an absolutely lovely person, and I met some marvellous people, and my crew we were so close. I had a Lagonda RGP, which I used to go round travelling, but if the crew were going anywhere or any number [unclear] we would take the RGP, Boyd [unclear] had an aerial Square Four, if only the two of us were going we used the bike. But whenever I used the Lagonda we would probably have anything up to twenty people piled onto the car, and I used to use hundred octane and TVO mixed to run her on, and you never got enough petrol with the coupons, so our ground crew used to push in, the [unclear] the air raid shelter which was on the edge of the dispersal, they would put some cans of 100 octane in there and also when the tractor came round they would bleed the TVO and I used to mix it, you see, to make it roughly about seventy octane which was what cars and that ran on in those days, and that way we, we were able to cart a lot of people backwards and forwards to Lincoln or Gainsborough, or somewhere, which we wouldn’t have normally been able to do, you know. We’d never have got to Gainsborough because it was little or no transport for any distance unless you went by train and that was, well you never knew when you were going to get anywhere on the train because they could be bombed at any time and that sort of thing. When I finished flying, which was I think about the eighteenth of, when I stopped, I think it was about the 18th December ’44 and then I was due leave, and I received, and I got on the train to London but the line had been bombed at Peterborough, and so they actually sent us through on the side, back line through Colchester where I got off, and, and, so I actually after finished flying, I actually got home on Christmas morning, five o’clock Christmas morning, which was a surprise for my family because they had no idea that I was coming home, I wasn’t able to let them know. I woke my father up about five o’clock, and he ‘Peter [unclear interference] [laughs] at this time in the morning’ [unclear interference on recording]. Is there anything else you need?
GC: [unclear interference on recording]
PP: Perhaps I, this is all in the memoirs, we took off on an op to Aire [spells it out] and, and we took off, got roughly to the coast and we were faced with a, a massive cumulus cloud, thunderstorm which we tried to fly over because if we’d tried to go round we would have been too late for the estimated time of arrival, and we got up to about twenty-four thousand feet and then the, we hit the down draft and we fell to, until we actually pulled out at about four thousand feet. On the way down we, we had no control when falling but there was a wonderful sight of St. Elmo’s Fire, running all over the plane everywhere was, and the Elmo’s Fire even though the cloud, we were, the cloud was black [unclear] say there was little light in it, but the St. Elmo’s Fire lit the plane up and my navigator, Jimmy Jackson, took photos from the astro hatch as we were falling [laughs], and, of the St. Elmo’s Fire, but we, on the photos, there was no St. Elmo’s Fire but you could see the plane as though it was daylight. You know the wing, and obviously you couldn’t see much of the plane. When we pulled out, the two air board motors pulled down in their mountings as though they were facing down about fifteen degrees, I think there was considered when the report came in, the rivets were torn out of the leading edge of the main plane and the main, the, um, one or two of the metal plates had rolled back, so we lost a lot of lift but we, when we pulled out we went straight back up to twelve thousand feet before we could level off again, and we realised that we were, all we were doing was about a hundred and forty miles an hour at that time after we got up to twelve thousand feet and we just couldn’t get any more speed out of it, and we also realised that we were also losing height at the same time, so we decided to turn back and we attempted to drop the bombs but we couldn’t because some of the bombs had torn out of the mountings and were laying on the bomb doors. Anyway we, we decided to go back to the station, we weren’t all that, you know, we didn’t have to go all that far, thank goodness, and we were gradually losing height and when we got back to Wickenby, we were only a few hundred feet and we had to land the first time which we managed to do, a very good landing, the photo flash which we’d got had dropped out of the flare shoot and ran along the runway behind us and sparks flying [laughs] which I had a good view of being the rear gunner. [laughs] Anyway I didn’t know what it was at the time, of course, so I wasn’t all that worried I thought perhaps something had fallen off the aircraft, but we were sent to the farthest point of the airfield because we’d got bombs still on the aircraft, well away from everybody else, and the plane was left and we got out in a hurry, you know, we probably took us about ten, about five to ten seconds at the most to get out and away. And Avro’s came to check the plane and they took, took, they all the photos and that and then took the plane away and we got a letter from Roy Chadwick, the designer, to say that, ‘To have incurred the damage that we had, we must have been exceeding five hundred and seventy miles an hour,’ and he put in the bottom a little postscript, ‘You probably have flown the fastest bomber in the Second World War’, which we’ve always considered was, you know, very special. He wrote that to my navigator, Jimmy Jackson, and Jimmy Jackson is the only one of my crew that I don’t know whether he is dead or not, all the rest are dead, and Jimmy Jackson, his last known address is the same as that in the Wickenby Register and it’s, oh dear, British Columbia, Canada. He was a teacher at Richmond, I think was, British Columbia, but all the rest, I know what happened to them, or roughly what happened to them, but Jimmy, I lost contact and so I think, I think he must be dead because he was quite a bit older than I was, yeah. That was one time. The other time was from the Kiel Canal, all this is in my memoirs if you don’t want it, but Kiel Canal we, we were given special orders to drop mines, six mines in Kiel Canal, and at, indeterminate spaces so that you know, instead of, say, six second drops or ten second drops, we dropped them as we felt like, so that the Germans wouldn’t, if they found the first two, we had six by the way, if they found the first two and they were so far apart they would say, well, they was the next one will be the same distance, because normally, on mine laying, you, they were at set distances more or less, but we didn’t do that on Kiel Canal and we flew along the canal and we had to drop from five hundred feet so that the mines didn’t break up. [laughs] We, we actually flew along and it was like daylight with the amount of flak from all, from all these, because we were at five hundred feet, every gun along the, the Kiel Canal could fire at us without fear of hitting one another, as you might say, if we’d have been lower it would have made, you know, but as I say we had to drop from five hundred feet so the, to make sure the mines didn’t break up, and the, the amount of firing it was just like daylight that we went along we could see people walking about, or running about, most of them were running, and we got through and really, I mean, I think we were hit forty-four, fifty-four times that they found, you know, but nothing serious. We were absolutely dead lucky, because you know, I mean, I wouldn’t ever want to go through that again that was really horrendous. And from Frankfurt we were attacked on several occasions and we managed to evade, but when we were pulling out from a dive, I wasn’t expecting to pull out and my head went down and smashed, and I smashed my jaw on the controls. When we got back to the station, I had to go to the dentist and he took pieces of jaw bone and teeth away and I was on fluids for about six weeks, you know, until my jaw knitted together again, but I had splinters of bone coming out of my, working way, their way out for many years afterwards, in actual fact the last one was after I met Janet, we’ve been married thirty –
JP: Thirty-one years.
PP: Thirty-one years, and, and the last splinter was when I’d just married, I think I’d just married you hadn’t I?
JP: Yeah a few years yeah.
PP: And this splinter came out –
JP: A long time.
PP: And so they kept working out you know, but yeah.
JP: So he’s only got half a tooth left. [laughs]
PP: Yeah, that’s in the top though, and they had to take nearly all my teeth away eventually in the lower jaw because a lot of them went black, but er, and, of course, I was, although I was on fluids for six weeks, after one week my crew had to have spare bods flying with them, and they hadn’t managed to complete an operation, they thought that I was their luck so they asked me if I would go back, and I’d got me jaw all strapped up obviously and I went out to the airfield and by that time, I was able to talk a bit again and I was able to make myself understood and then I went back flying with them with my jaw strapped up, and, and it wasn’t as I say, it took about six weeks for my jaw to knit strong enough so that I could eat again instead of just living on fluids. It was quite an experience because the pain is like cold, the pain in my jaw kept me awake quite well, I couldn’t go to sleep because it was so pain, painful, although you know, I mean, you got the oxygen mask, my previous one had been smashed to pieces. But, well, that’s what smashed my jaw, I would imagine as much as anything, but the [laughs] the, yeah, I just had to put up with it, it was one of those things and you know, and the crew thought they were jinxed if I wasn’t with them so I had to fly, I had no option really, and I didn’t want to be on the sidelines anyway, I wanted to be with them so, and from them on we finished the tour, that was it. Yeah, they had engines pack up, and all sorts of reasons, so I think they had news and that, and I don’t know if two or three ops and they just couldn’t complete them, you know, I had to come back, and they decided that was that they wanted me back, so yeah.
GC: As I say, as a rear gunner, you had a slightly different view
PP: Oh yes, yes.
GC: What was it like at the back of the plane seeing …
PP: Well when you took off, which was normally in the evening, in the last light probably, and you’d take off and it was some absolutely marvellous sunsets, it was, I, the mid upper gunner and myself, we were lucky that we could see those, it was, some of them were absolutely amazing, you never, and also, which all of us could see, was the Aurora Borealis, you could always, very often, particularly in the autumn, see the Aurora Borealis and it was, you know, in the distance, yeah. Also I mean, of course you, as you say you had a different aspect and I was often able to give information about something that maybe the bomb aimer or somebody had seen, but only fleetingly, but they would mention to me and I would be able to look for it. I could say, you know, ‘On the starboard side there’s something coming,’ I can’t make out what it might be and, with cloud about, if you were looking for a bend in the river or something like that they would probably think they saw it, let me know and then I could look for it myself and I had, of course, a lot longer to look for it than they had, so I could then tell them, ‘Yeah, that is a bend and you know we’re probably at so and so’ or they would work out, the navigator would work out where we were. Because navigation was very basic in those days, with all the aids, we had the number of times everything worked well was very limited and so we just had to stick to visual as much as possible although, I mean, sometimes you couldn’t do that at all because of low cloud, but sometimes, you know, if you got low cloud you could get above it and get an astro shot, but the, between us, we managed to work out different things, you know. I also used to sort out the drift for the navigator, ‘cos if we were drifting and to agree with his figures I would set my turret to dead central and then nav would say, ‘Take a sighting and follow that sighting’, and after we’d been flying for a given time, I would work out the, the actual degrees of drift that we got over that time, might only have been one or two degrees, but given that time we’d know that over a period we would be, say, five miles off track or ten miles off track, and if that agreed with what the navigator had got then, of course, we felt more satisfied. The navigator, of course, had different means of doing it but, and also the bomb aimer would sometimes give a hand, he’d go down into the bomb bay and, and try to get the drift measurement, we always tried to make sure, between us all, really, that we were within say ten, fifteen miles of our track, which in those days wasn’t too bad really, yeah. I think, mainly, they were the main ops that we went on, you know, I mean we had, I think it was Saarbrucken, we had an engine go which left us with no heating and everybody got frostbite and we eventually had to turn round and return and that, you know, I mean, we, was the sort of thing you got, every now and again. [laughs] My means of keeping warm. [laughs]
JP: Would you like a coffee or cup of tea now?
PP: Oh forgot what I was saying, oh dear.
GC: It’s all right.



Gemma Clapton, “Interview with Peter Potter,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed February 26, 2024,

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