"Well, Son, Where do I begin?"


When I look back on it all, I've been a very lucky guy to have survived to tell. It was a cloudy day on the 3rd of September 1939, about 10 a.m. in the morning, and I was all set to go to work. It was Sunday; the music on the wireless radio was interrupted to tell us that Prime Minister Chamberlain was to speak to the Nation. He said that we were now in a state of war with Germany. A few minutes later the sirens all over London were blaring. The old man, my dad that is, said, "Good Lord, the bastards are here already," as he went out the front door looking up in the sky. I followed, and I saw people all up the street looking up all over the place, wondering the same thing. Anyway, they were still blaring when I left. I think they were on for about an hour. When I arrived at work, everything was normal at the hotel, The Grosvenor House.

John P. Potterat

Round about December, I got my Call Up papers, and I was to report to the Mill Hill Barracks, Middlesex Regiment, on January 15th of 1940. And, I was to take my Certificate of Birth with me. So, I asked Mum for it, and after a search through the drawers, she gave it to me. That was the first time I saw it and read it and found out John Peter was written in French and spelt Jean Pierre.

Anyway, the 15th came around soon enough. I arrived nice and early, and there was quite a queue going in the gates. They all ended in the gym. We passed medical, Q.M., were issued bedspace, clothing, and blankets, etc. For the next three months it was square bashing drill, small arms, and then training on the Vickers gun (See Photo). That was hard heavy work throwing that thing around, on and off trucks. Anyway, after we all qualified and passed, we were then posted to different units of the Middlesex Regiment.

My unit was the 2/7th Battalion, and we were posted in the Colchester area, Clackton-on-Sea, Jaywick Sands. We were laying barbed wire along the beach area, you know, the round coils and stretching it along our perimeter. Of course, at that time, the Battle Of Britain was on, and invasion was imminent. So we all had to be on guard. I was strolling along the beach one morning with a mate, the tide was out, and you could see the edge of the surf. In the early morning light you could see what looked like something washed up on the beach. On closer inspection it was a body, my first of the war. It was a RAF fighter pilot who never made it back, sad to say. It was pretty bloated, fully uniformed, boots and all. We sent the message back. After a while a RAF van came up and took him away.

Nothing more really eventful happened. I was number one on the gun. My personal weapon was a Smith & Wesson 38 and six rounds. There was no 38 ammo, so they gave me 9 mm Automatic ammo. They're rimless, and you put 3 in a clip. We did a lot of training, like stripping the gun down, cleaning, target firing, and driver training. It was all pretty interesting. I was with that unit till October 1941.

Round about September '41, Battalion Routing orders came around, and one section was asking for volunteers for Parachute Troops at 2 shillings, 2 bob a day, extra on your pay, as our present pay was about 14 shillings a week. I'd say here was a chance to double my weekly income. So I volunteered and was accepted. You had to be "A1 plus" medical wise, and I passed. So I would say money was the motive at the time, but I think the excitement of joining something new was pretty good.

However, I marched out and traveled north to Chesterfield, Derbyshire. There was quite a few of us. The RTO at the station was rounding us all up and directing us to the waiting trucks, and we moved off to a place called Hardwick Hall. It was an army camp on this estate in the hills. After all the formalities had been done and we had been allotted quarters, we met our new Platoon Commander, Lt. Randell, and he filled us in on what was happening. We were now members of the 1st Parachute Brigade consisting of 3 Battalions 1, 2, and 3. We were members of the 2nd Battalion: A. Coy, B. Coy, C. Coy. We were members of A. Coy 1st Platoon. He was Platoon Commander. We all went down to the orderly room where more paperwork was done, and we were issued a permanent pass which I still have today. "I hope you can decipher my scribble". Next day we spent going to the Q.M. to get a new type of clothes such as, a helmet, camouflage smock, jump boots high lace up with thick rubber soles and heels, special trousers with large pockets, and a secret pocket down the leg where you put your knife killing mark 1, and a few knicks and knacks like a string vest, a camouflage net which we used like a scarf around your neck.

Weapons at the time were a new one they called a Sten, which had a 30 round magazine, 9 mm. I got a new type of rifle with a bolt action, also a 45 colt automatic pistol. The first few months were spent on the training battle course, house to house fighting, etc., plenty of P.T., and then jump training. (Note: I just rang Dad, and he stated that the house to house fighting was done in the ruins of Sheffield, which had been recently bombed out...David Potterat)

British Sten Gun

The Sten was the simplest mass-production submachine gun used during World War 2.


They had a big shed with an aircraft fuselage set up high, 10 or 12 ft high, with gym mats under them. One fuselage was part of a Whitworth Whitley bomber. The other was a more rounded Lockheed Hudson. Ten of us used to sit on the floor: five each side of the round hole in the floor and practise jumping. When the red light came on, you would go keeping your knees and feet together, land on the mat doing a forward roll. You had to roll off the mat to get out the way of the ones behind you and so practise went on.

They were building a jump tower, but we never used it, since it wasn't ready. So we went to Ringway airdrome outside Manchester to do our first jumps from the balloon. The balloon, similar to a barrage balloon, only it had a basket with a hole in the floor. It was specially built for the job. It had a frame to hook up your static line. An Airforce Corporal went up with you, and four of us went up at a time. At 500ft we were given the signal from the Corporal, and we went through the hole one by one. Meanwhile, the RAF corporal would pull on the static line. We landed on the grass safe and sound, released our harness, gathered up our chutes, waited to be picked up and driven to the packing shed, where we were shown how to pack a chute. There is a right way and a wrong way to packing. After all, "Roman Candles" can be dangerous. It seemed a bit scary at first, but I think I was more concerned about landing safely and not breaking an ankle than anything else.

Anyway, we got through two jumps okay so now we were looking forward to aircraft jumps in the future. And, it looked like the Whitley Bomber would be the first one. It had twin engines, black in colour, and was cramped. It took off with ten of us aboard. For the next three months we were doing practice jumps. After seven jumps, we were qualified and got our wings and were doing exercises at different drop zones around the country. Jumping from the Dakotas was the best, with big and roomy windows and big doorways. You would stand up, hook up, green light on, and away you went.


Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Bomber


I can't remember when we left the U.K. as we were on the move all the time. I can remember going to Glasgow, Scotland, then on to Greenoch and boarding a troop ship at night and settling in. It wasn't till we were out at sea and all gathered in the mess hall, were we told what was happening, and where we were going. We were going to North Africa as part of the 1st Army under General Anderson, I think. Anyway, the ship was the SS Strathmore. It was a two funnel job, quite modern for its day and was all green and black and blackout. There were other ships in the convoy, and we were going to land at Algiers, which at that time, I understand, was a French colony. Algeriennes stretched from the Atlas mountains to Tunisian border in the East. Tunis was a port in the hands of the Germans. It was Rommel's supply route to Libya. Too bad I didn't keep a record of the dates, etc. Apparently the Americans or Yanks had already taken it over.

When we finally arrived, after about two or three weeks, we landed at Algiers and were taken on trucks to the Blida aerodrome or air strip if you like. We stayed there a couple of days 'till all our equipment arrived and got sorted out. Then we were briefed on the upcoming operation to Tunisia. Our Drop Zone was a place called Depienne, I think that's how it's spelt. Anyway we loaded on the DC-3s and away we went. It was early morning, and the sun was coming up. After a couple of hours flight, we got the order to hook up. The green light came on, and out we went. Everything went okay. As I turned, I could see the others coming out the door. I saw the fellow after me going straight down "Roman Candle." I watched all the way. I didn't know who he was. I landed well on my feet, a good landing. I punched the release and got out of my harness. We had landed in a wheat field. I ran to find the containers and get the weapons out. Most of the platoon regrouped. We then found we had lost a couple of the platoon, and the Platoon commander was injured. Lt. Randell had broken his ankle, so he was left behind. The platoon sergeant, Sergeant Forsyth, took over. We then took off and joined the rest of the A Coy group. Major Ashford, Coy commander, then led the way up into the hills to Souk-el-Arba and Souk-El-Khemis, then Beja. (See photo.) It was no different to being in the bush here (Australia). We were climbing most of the time; of course, there was always that tension of bumping into an enemy patrol.

There was one stage I got a bit of a fright. We were pretty high up in bare patches of rocky out crop which left you pretty well exposed. I turned and looked down when I saw these two fighter planes cruising along the valley at eye level. Then I realized they were banking round to strafe us. There I was caught right out in the open, no cover, face down, flat on the rock. I just froze as the lead zinged in the rock around me. It made one hell of a noise. They were Focke Wulf's with big black crosses on them. Anyway, the second time around they didn't fire.

We finally reached our destination and dug in. Apparently there had been troops there before. There were two bodies sitting in the bush. I think they were British Sherwood Forresters that had been there quite a while. My mate Ted Berryman was always around Major Ashford, more like his bodyguard, because they were both regular soldiers. Anyway, they both got killed later.(Note: I just rang Dad. He said after they left the area they were being re-equipped with ammo and supplies at a farm house near Beja when he got the news that his mate Ted Berryman and Major Ashford had been blown up in a jeep--David Potterat)

After about a couple of weeks there the enemy must have got wind of us and where we were because they started shelling us with 88 mm, and they were spot on. They shelled mostly around the perimeter. Anyway they packed up after a couple of hours. Then it started again after lunch. That's when I copped it. The blast nearly blew my head off. All I could hear was the sound of rushing water over a water fall. Otherwise, I had no other bodily harm. I checked with a medic, he couldn't do anything. He said have to wait till I got back to H.Q. and see the doctor then.

Anyway, a week or so went by, and we pulled out. I reported sick when we got back to rest area Battalion H.Q. I finally saw the doctor and told him what had happened. Right away he took the instrument for looking in ears and said, "Your ear's perforated. The sounds will last a while and die off eventually." Then about three days later, I was told to get ready to move out to go home. I couldn't believe it. I said my farewells, went to Q.M., handed in my weapons, and a truck took us to the Bizerte (Tunisia) docks R.T.O, who put us aboard the OTRANTO which was putting to sea in a couple of days. It was loaded with wounded and walking wounded like myself. Little did I realize this incident would keep me out of action for the rest of the war. I was a bit annoyed at the time. You kind of get a bond since we had all started together from the beginning. You sort of get attached, since we were all looking forward to the invasion, and now you feel you're missing out.

John P. Potterat, PNR: 6211227


Post Script:

To put you in the picture, my dad was a waiter like his father before him, who got him a job at the Grosvenor Hotel in London. He had been doing his Hotel Management apprenticeship training, which meant experience in all the different Kitchen work of Grill Chef, Wine Waiter, etc., for the four years leading up to 1939. He was now about to begin travelling to France and other European Hotels to round off his Hotel Management Skills when war was declared.

He presently lives in Tahmoor, New South Wales, Australia, which is a small country town about 80 km south west of Sydney. His birthday is 29 Sep 1919. After he was demobbed in 1946, he went back to the Hotel trade. Then he went up to Edinburgh for a couple of years after he met my mother. He joined the Australian Army from Edinburgh and was transported out here in late 1952.

The whole family went to Malaya in 1958 through 1961, where dad was in the Ordnance group running supplies to the combatants on the Malay/Thai border. He left the Australian Army in 1968 and has been moving around Australia a bit since.

I received this twelve page letter from my father last night, and it outlines his WWII experience. It's crazy, but I don't think my father has ever written to me before. In my twenty years of Navy time, it was always my mother that did the writing.

I nearly forgot to answer your question about my father's name. He was born Jean Pierre Potterat in London, England. His father, Alfred Potterat, was born in Cronay, Switzerland, which is a French Speaking area of Switzerland. Alfred's father was also a Jean Pierre Potterat. The name is pronounced 'Potterah'.

The letter is important to me in that he only came out of hospital this week after having had major surgery. His health is failing, but he keeps hanging in there.

David Potterat
July 1999

E-mail: dali@senet.com.au 
PH: 61 8 8332 9419 (Home)

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