If you were watching TV last night, you may have seen Britain at War’s Editor, Andy Saunders, on BBC South East Today. He was discussing the recent Christopher Nolan film ‘Dunkirk’, with its scene of a Spitfire ditching, which has some uncanny parallels to the escapades of Sgt Jack Potter of 19 Squadron RAF. In the 1970s Andy interviewed Jack who described what he called his ‘Day out at Dunkirk’.
Jack also provided his official report of the episode on 1 June 1940 when he was forced to ditch his Spitfire, K9836, in the sea. All told, Sgt Potter’s adventures show only too vividly that the RAF were there at Dunkirk, despite the oft-repeated claims of the Army – and sometimes individuals, like Jack Potter, were going above and beyond the call of duty!
This was Sgt Potter’s report:
‘On 1st June 1940 I was on patrol with Red section, No 19 Sqn, and shortly after reaching the patrol line we found twelve Me 110s over Dunkirk. We moved in to attack, whereupon they turned very quickly back over the town as if trying to escape. However, we soon engaged them and they broke up and most of them appeared to turn steeply to the left. This appeared to be the only means of escape they knew and they became quite easy to shoot at.
I fired at several without apparent effect and then engaged one which had just begun a steep diving turn to the left. I had a full plan view of the top of the aircraft and opened fire at about 400 yards, I held my fire for about 8 seconds and could see my bullets going into the front half of the fuselage. At about 150 yards my ammunition ran out and I had to avoid the fire of another enemy aircraft which was firing at me from my port side. This evasion caused me to lose sight of the Me 110 I had attacked and in spite of being able to state that my bullets had definitely registered I cannot say whether it was disabled or not. I then started for home, diving with 12lb of boost in operation.
As I reached the outskirts of the fight, a metallic ‘bang’ from my port side made me look at my port mainplane and I saw a hole about 8 inches long and two inches wide just above the position of the oil cooler. I did not realise that the oil cooler had been hit, and pursued a course of 310 degrees for home. About 10 miles out from the coast, the engine became very rough and oil and Glycol smoke started to appear. Finally, the engine seized at about 4,000ft and 15 miles out from land. Previously I had glanced at the oil pressure gauge and found no pressure registering.
Looking round at the sea, I saw a small boat and decided to land alongside it. I decided to stay with the aeroplane as the sea was very calm and I thought that my chances of being picked up were greater if I landed alongside the boat than if I took to my parachute. I circled the boat at about 50 ft and then, being very close to the sea, straightened out to land. I did not drop the flaps. On the way down I had inflated my life jacket with three full breaths and removed the R/T plug from its socket. My Sutton harness I removed also, in case the aircraft sank immediately. On first touching the water the machine skimmed off again, and after one more such landing it dugs its nose into the sea. I was flung forward, and my forehead and nose met the reflector sight. However, I stood up in the cockpit and found the aircraft still afloat, bit it sank almost immediately. I should think it floated for a maximum of about ten seconds.
I had retained my parachute as it was reputed to be useful as a lifebuoy. As the aircraft sank, I tried to get out but the parachute caught on the sliding hood and I was taken down with the aircraft. However, I was soon released and pushed off with my feet, only to be struck by the tailplane as it went past. I then started to swim upwards and eventually the colour of the water turned from black to green and I broke the surface. The parachute proved very valuable, since it allowed me to float on my back holding the lower portion of my body up while the life-jacket supported my head and chest. I had landed about 50 yards from the boat which turned out to be a French fishing boat called the Jolie Mascotte carrying a crew of four, none of whom could speak English. They were on their way to Dunkirk, but were lost and I was able to tell them approximately what course to steer and give them their approximate position on a chart. I was supplied by them with food and drink.
At last we approached Dunkirk and saw a British destroyer. A naval motor boat came out to us and a RNVR Lieutenant came aboard. He told me that the destroyer was the Basilisk and was out of action, having been previously bombed. The engines and wireless were both out of order. Alongside the destroyer it was decided to try to tow the ship out to sea in order to escape the enemy bombers. She was loaded with troops. We attached a rope and succeeded in turning the destroyer partly in the right direction when I saw a large number of aircraft approaching. There were about 30 Dornier 17s and Heinkel 111s. Above them were about 25 Me 109s. I informed the Lieutenant that his ship was about to be bombed and we decided to cast off. At about ¾ mile off from the destroyer we watched the bombing operations.
The enemy aircraft did not appear to adopt any particular formation, but at about 3,000 ft turned singly over the target and jettisoned their bombs. The bombs left the aircraft in a string of about 10. There appears to have been very little attempt at precision bombing, but rather as if they let all their bombs go hoping that one would hit. As they bombed, others opened fire with their machine guns on the destroyer. During the course of the whole action they did not score a single hit, despite the fact that the target was stationary and had only two pom-poms with no anti-aircraft shells. At the end of the action, when the bombers were returning to their base, three Spitfires arrived but I did not see them register any hits.
We returned to the Basilisk and once more started towing operations but had to cast off again when about 20 Ju 87s appeared. Again, from about ¾ mile we watched the destroyer bombed, this time with greater accuracy. The Ju 87s dived very steeply to about 400ft and then released about four bombs. There were several hits. When the attack had finished the Jolie Mascotte returned to the warship. She was found to be sinking and the order was given to abandon ship. We picked up about 200 survivors, most of them troops, but also a large number of the crew of the destroyer.
When we had taken as many as possible on board another destroyer appeared. We went alongside and told the Commander of the other survivors. Then we set course for England and were able to see the relief destroyer shell the Basilisk until it sank.
Outside Dover we boarded a coastal patrol boat which, after finishing his patrol, landed us at Dover. The other destroyer had arrived before us and had landed all of the other survivors we had been forced to leave.
Signed: J Potter (Sgt) 4 June 1940’
The destroyer which came to the aid of the stricken Basilisk was the HMS Whitehall. Between the Whitehall and the Jolie Mascotte, eight officers and 123 crew were rescued from a complement of 134. Whitehall landed 571 personnel at Dover that day, and by the end of Operation Dynamo she had evacuated 2,762 men.
Jack Potter continued to fly with 19 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, but on 15 September 1940 (Battle of Britain Day) he was again shot down over the English Channel. This time, he took to his parachute and watched as a rescue boat headed out from Dover and another from Calais. Sadly, the Calais boat won the race and Jack Potter endured the rest of the war as a POW.
Jack Potter died in Brighton on 14 May 1997.