MUCH THE SAME SHAPE

John Potter
118, 234 Squadrons

Contrary to the propaganda fed to the public at the time, the last months of World War II in the air in Europe were pretty fierce. The German Air Force fought hard and bravely and losses were high on both sides. One of our Spitfire Squadrons, particularly hard hit, was withdrawn to the UK, under strength and desperate for additional pilots.

Three of us, serving with a nearby squadron, were quick to make an application. There was something magic about a Spitfire, even to experienced pilots, and the chance to switch to a Spit Squadron was not to be missed. We were accepted and, within days, moved the short distance from Norfolk to Suffolk.

We didn’t realise that we’d be exchanging the comparative luxury of a well established, peace time station, surrounded by some elegance and comfort – even the bonus of batmen – for a couple of temporary runways, ringed by a collection of rusting, leaking Nissen huts, heated only within the immediate range of the occasional glowing brazier. But, more than compensating for all the discomforts, were the Spitfires, standing each in its own dispersal bay, just waiting for new hands to fly them.

Two days of awful weather gave time to settle into the social life of the new unit, and colleagues were warmly welcoming. But I knew well the custom in the squadrons which drew all the pilots out to watch the first landing of a new member, hoping he’d make a nonsense. Not me, I thought, with some conceit. I’m no ‘sprog’ pilot straight from training school. I’d show them a landing like brushing silk.

Eventually the morning arrived, and I walked out to a Spitfire, flanked by the Flight Commander and the ground crew Sergeant.

‘Remind me now, what types have you flown?’

I reminded him.

‘You’ll have no trouble with the old Spit then. They’re all much the same shape. Just sit for a while, then take her up and stooge around for half an hour or so to get the feel of her. Then bring her in. We’ll have a bit of a thrash in the Mess tonight to mark your coming of age.’

The sergeant added ‘Sign here, sir’.

More than a little uneasy at this brief and casual introduction to a new aircraft, I poked around the cockpit for a few minutes before signalling for start-up. Quickly the engine settled to a smooth roar, and I taxied out to the runway, weaving this way and that, the long nose blocking the forward view.

Control gave clearance. I turned on to the runway and pushed the throttle forward. The Merlin responded eagerly and within seconds I was airborne and reaching forward to lift the undercarriage gear.

A magic half hour followed as I tried out my new mistress. Slim, elegant and responsive to the touch. I quickly realised that this beauty was a very special machine.

Now for the landing. I joined the circuit and looked down on the field. As expected, my new colleagues waited below, standing or sprawling outside the flight dispersal, hoping for the newcomer to blow it just a little.

I selected wheels down, turned cross-wind, and then very gently coaxed the aircraft into its final approach, 95 m.p.h. and just a caress to line it up. The response was immediate and the rate of descent brought me over the perimeter fence at the ideal height to make full use of the runway. This is going to be a real creamer, I thought, smiling. Rounding out at about twenty feet, I let the speed fall away as the aircraft hovered, then sank gently, ready to touch down.

Perfect.

The Spitfire kissed the runway. Immediately it lurched over to the right and screeched in protest as the wing tip grounded on the asphalt. Within seconds, the locking pin holding the left leg snapped. Unable to carry the whole weight of the aircraft what remained of the undercarriage then collapsed. Further screaming protests now from the air intake, and from the propeller grinding into the tarmac. Slewing wildly, the aircraft finally came to a clamorous and undignified halt.

All was silence, the only sounds the ticking from the hot, dead engine and the faraway sirens of the approaching ambulance and fire truck. I sat, dazed, not conscious of a small trickle of blood tracing down the side of my nose. A fireman jumped on the wing root.

‘I wouldn’t hang around in there if I were you, sir. Petrol.’

Muzzy and shaken, somehow I scrambled out. The ambulance pulled up. Without a word the Medical Officer scooped me away to the Station sick bay.

Any excuse is the right excuse. The Squadron duly had their party that evening but the principal guest was absent. Protected for the time from the CO’s harping on about his monthly accident figures, I was in the sick bay drugged into restoring sleep and dreaming, no doubt, of the feminine perversity of my new love – and of the landing I might have made.




Planting a tree at the National Memorial
Arboretum, September 2002

Links & Notes

John wrote: I was born in 1922. Normal State Primary and Secondary School Education: 1936/1941 Theological College: 1942 Joined RAF as cadet pilot entry: Square bashing at Torquay: Grading School at Shellingford: September 1942 shipped to North America: Basic and Advanced training in Florida: Wings graduation 9/4/43.
Returned to UK and assigned to training as Flying Instructor at Cambridge. Taught at Anstey, Sealand and Wolverhampton. Autumn 1944 switched to squadron training at Calveley, (Masters and Hurricanes). Then OTU at Keevil, (Mustangs).
118 Squadron at Horsham St Faith, (Mustangs): 234 Squadron at Bentwaters (Spitfires): admin and test flying at Colerne (Spitfires).
Back to civvy street Feb 1947. First five post-war business years very rough. Then joined Unilever at Port Sunlight 1951. Very satisfying series of appointments through the remaining years. Retired from Unilever 1985.
Very happily married since 1946. Four children and seven grandchildren. Widowed July 2004.

John Potter died in 2011.

Spitfire Take-Off and Landing Guide http://forum.keypublishing.co.uk/showthread.php?t=72714
234 Squadron http://www.raf.mod.uk/history_old/h234.html
234 Squadron http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No._234_Squadron_RAF

page last updated 7 Dec 2011: ACA Surrey Branch 2011