|Extracts from diary of the pilot, Ron Pottinger
Ron Pottinger and Typhoon aircraft at Manston, 1943
Taking off from Bradwell Bay and subsequent ditching in the River Blackwater at Night!
Wednesday 22nd March 1944
Took 'X' up for an air test in the morning [a Tempest, probably JF-X]. Seemed to be flying well, except that there was a little vibration above 3000 revs.
Due for night flying, but were delayed from getting off due to an air raid. Finally got permission and took off at midnight. Was very dark with practically no horizon and I swung slightly. I was just beyond the perimeter track with my wheels up, and settling down to climb on instruments when there was a terrific thump from the front of the plane and the whole kite started to vibrate so much that I couldn't read any of the instruments, and I expected the engine to fall out any minute. I thought that I must have allowed the kite to sink slightly and hit something on the ground damaging the propeller. I was prepared to buy it on the spot and remember that I was surprised when the kite continued through air and not earth. I throttled back slightly and found that at about a third of the way back the vibration fell off quite a bit, however I still couldn't read any instruments they were so blurred.
Seemed I was in for a prang of some sort so I wound back the hood, tightened my straps and called on the R.T. to say that I was in trouble and was coming straight in. Like lightning various possibilities flashed through my brain. The kite was not climbing and felt near the stall, already it seemed doubtful that I would make the flarepath. I thought about force landing on the far bank of the river, but remembered that there were far too many houses spread around that I wouldn't be able to see. This made me think the same applied to the drome side of the bank. Even if I made the field it was going to be a mighty low approach and any houses or trees in the way were going to get their tops taken off with pretty certain results for yours truly. Almost better odds on the ditching.
I was about half way round the circuit by now and about midstream. I was calling up to tell them that I might have to ditch when the kite hit the water. I was thrown violently forward and a solid silver wall of water came back over the front of the kite, the windshield kept most of it from me. I managed to get my left arm across the front of the windshield and pushed with all my might, even so my head banged against my arm and it's lucky for me that I got it up there in time.
The kite slewed from side to side and came to rest with the tail out of the water and the level of the water about halfway up the wings. The port mainplane started burning about half way out, probably either the long range tank or ammo going up. That scared me for the first time, I didn't like the idea of getting burned.
I always have said that it is impossible to get unstrapped in the time a Tiffy stays afloat and for the second time in a few seconds I was dead in my own estimation. In a frenzy of despair however I got the oxygen tube undone with one twist, amazing how I managed to twist it the right way first time for it came apart. I had the new type of harness and was glad of it for the first time since I've been using it. It came undone with one simple little flick. I then felt myself floating out of the cockpit and realised that the kite must have sunk, though I had felt no cold shock of immersion. I kicked and struggled to make sure that I was free of everything and my struggling must have pulled out the R.T. lead which I hadn't already done and in about two or three strokes I broke the surface.
There my first instinct was to tear the oxygen mask off of my face, I couldn't breathe freely in it. I clawed it under my chin, and in doing so swallowed the only mouthful of the whole trip. Then I fumbled for the lever of my Mai West and found everything except it. I got my fingers tangled in the tapes, I ripped off my fluorescent pack (accidentally) and finally pulled the lever, nothing happened, pulled it several times more cursing the bloke who was supposed to have changed the bottle less than a week ago, and finally realised that it had either blown up in the crash or wasn't going to work.
By that time I was beginning to feel the cold and wasn't thinking all too clearly I'm afraid. It dawned on me that
I ought to get my dinghy out and that I still had my chute making it difficult for me to keep my head above water, so
I turned the release disc and banged it with one hand, while I held the side of the dinghy pack with the other. The chute came off and I shook the dinghy free from the chute. I tore the top cover off and the dinghy fell out into my arms in a floppy mass. This made things difficult for I had to work my way round the thing to find the bottle which inflated it. I swear I went round that thing a dozen times before I found it. I was ready to weep in desperation when I thought of the idea of gathering it in armfuls and feeling for the solid lump of the bottle. This I did and almost immediately felt the bottle, and working my way through the folds of rubber with one hand I held the bottle in the other. At last I managed to get my hands on the thing itself and by that time was having difficulty in keeping my head above water. I hadn't the patience to waste on the safety pin, and gave the knob a terrific wrench and safety pin or no the dinghy blew up, boy was I relieved.
Luckily I remembered my gen about turning the knob slowly and though there was force behind my wrench I didn't go wildly at it and only turned it part of the way on to begin with. Strangely the dinghy was the right way up, but there was some cord or other right across the centre of it dividing it into two parts, and I hung on to one side of the dinghy with one arm while I tried to disentangle this cord with the other. Working it out now it could only be my doglead, an attachment which joins your Mai West to your dinghy, for when I found I couldn't move the cord, I was getting so exhausted that I had to climb onto the dinghy for a rest. I don't remember ever getting that cord off so as I moved round the dinghy to climb in I expect that did the trick. I hoisted myself in by the rubber handles and lay on the thing as I'd arrived, face down, for a while, while I got my breath back.
I was beginning by now to feel really cold and was shaking a bit and at first started paddling, more to keep warm
than in any hope of reaching shore. The search light canopy was up over the drome so I could see which direction I had to go, I seemed an awful long way from the shore. A bright light was searching back and forth across the water from about two miles west of me and several times it played on me and I waved frantically. A Mosquito flew down the river with two landing lamps on but he missed me by quite a bit. I was shaking with the cold by now and started baling out with the cup on the end of a piece of string. I kept searching for the dinghy cover which I knew should be around somewhere but every piece of string I hauled in seemed to end at this blasted baling cup. I then remembered the torch on my Mai West and managed to get that out, but I couldn't remember how to get it to work, nor could I see in the dark. I banged and scraped the two halves together and finally it lit, I've still no idea how it is supposed to go.
Then I tried to get inside my Mai West after the signal cartridges I had there, but with the wet tapes and shaking hands I couldn't get it undone. In fiddling with the tapes though I came across my whistle tied to the end of one of them and sat there with my whistle clenched in my teeth, blowing for all I was worth at every breath and waving my torch around in one hand while baling out with the other.
Again the Mosquito came around and this time his lights went right over me. The light that had been playing across the water went out and I cursed thinking they had given up. By this time I was really feeling the cold and daren't stop moving I shivered so, and yet my arms felt like lumps of lead from my exertions.
Then the light started flashing across the water again and seemed to be nearer. Every time it shone on me I waved frantically and almost wept when it carried on without stopping. I was about dead beat and almost ready to lie back and give up when the light flashed on me wavered a bit near me then stopped on me. I could have cried with relief. Soon I heard the thumping of engines and soon the long black motor launch loomed up and some one steered me to the stern with a boat hook. It was all I could do to hang onto a hand from each and be lifted aboard, I hadn't the strength to lift my flying boots even.
They took me below and took my clothes off and gave me a rub down with rough towels. The dry clothes they found me were a queer rig, but at least were warm. Long seamans woollen pants and vest, a very tattered pair of dungarees, a pair of long grey socks, badly in need of darning, and a couple of duffel coats.
I sat in the galley in front of a fire, drinking hot cocoa, and it was fully an hour before I stopped shivering.
I was on the naval launch REDA, the skipper had been on deck and heard the plane crash, they were then about two miles away. They had stopped the engine and listening to my whistle and found me in that way. Their job was to tour up and down the Blackwater taking the temperature of the water. That night it was thirty seven degrees F .
They took me to Brightlingsea naval base where they rushed me off to sick bay and stuck me to bed with about fifteen blankets, half a dozen hot water bottles and an electric fire.
It was a long time before I could sleep, I kept thinking of what had happened, and the more I thought the more miraculous seemed my escape. Only a few fellows have ever ditched a Typhoon in daylight and got away with it, for me to have done it at night and got away without a scratch seemed impossible, yet I had. I prayed that night.
Thursday 23 March 1944
After walking through Brightlingsea, still in my strange attire, to the navy mess, I had breakfast and later they took me back to Bradwell in a launch. It was a very fine morning and I sat in the back drinking tea and thoroughly enjoying the trip. On the way Bob Cole and Bob Buckley shot the launch up in a Tiger Moth. They were looking for my plane and had spotted my ruddy complexion on the boat.
Mac, Doc and Jock Smith formed a reception committee on the bank and seemed over joyed to see me, especially without splints or bandages.
Till that afternoon I felt fit as a fiddle. Then I developed ear ache, and next morning was taken to sick bay suffering from cold and exposure and an inflamed ear drum. Spent ten days in sick bay where I was very soon like a caged tiger. Then I paid three visits to an ear, nose and throat specialist at Uxbridge and after twelve days sick leave was able to start flying again.
5th April 1944
With Stan Domanski I had taken my log book to see W/Cdr Aitken the station C.O. After wondering what it was all about I received a green endorsement reading
F/Sgt Pottinger is commended by AOC 85 group for showing coolness and resource during accident ton night of 22 March 1944 etc.
Didn't appreciate the wording very much. I don't think the old boy realised how cool I really was.
'A View From the Office' ISBN 0-9546189-0-4
In 2004 Ron wrote an account of his experiences during the six years of WW2, from conscription into the army during October 1939, to demobilisation as a commissioned air force fighter pilot in December 1945.
Army service with the Royal Fusiliers was spent in the Uckfield area of Sussex, and after Dunkirk, guarding the beaches of East Kent in anticipation of the invasion that never happened.
By January 1941 there was a shortage of pilots and Ron applied for a transfer to the RAF. After successfully completing the entrance exams he was shipped out to Florida for aircrew training flying Stearmans, Vultee and AT6A's
On his return to England he joined 3 Squadron who had recently converted to flying the Hawker Typhoon. Later 3 Sqdn were to be one of the first to convert to the Hawker Tempest and with the appearance of the V1 Doodlebug, were held back from the invasion to deal with this menace.
January 1st 1945 saw him shot down by flak and taken prisoner. After interrogation and several days spent in the back of a train he arrived at Stalag IIIA, Lukenwalde. With fighting all around, the Germans retreated and he now became a guest of the Russian army until his eventual release some time after the end of hostilities!
Peacetime brought air testing and ferrying planes around the country until he was de-mobbed. In civilian life he qualified as an Electrical Engineer at night school and reached the peak of his profession as a Chartered Engineer.
Mersea Museum has a copy of the book in the Resource Centre - see MPO_BK1_001
Still thinking about it - January 2021
Ron is still pondering what went wrong with the plane that night. 3 Sqdn were converting to the Tempest and the plan was to take off early before dawn to be out over the beach heads at first light. Of course that would mean returning and landing in daylight - not such a bad idea. So they were to 'practice' taking off at night in preparation for this. It's difficult to see the logic in what happened but he took off in the Typhoon at around midnight - no way was he going to be landing in daylight! The instruction was to do a series of touch and go arounds - for practice - in pitch dark!! He says that all he could see were the coloured runway lights they used to use to zig zag out to the end of the strip. Once lined up and rolling he said he couldn't see anything, pitch dark, no moon and just flying on instruments. He had got off the ground and had just put the landing gear up when things started to go wrong...
With thanks to Mark Pottinger.
This article was published as part of the BBC People's War project in 2004.
Ron Pottinger, 101. Christmas Day 2020
1. The REDA as a "harbour duty boat" from HMS Nemo (Brightlingsea Naval Base) [Julian Foynes]
2. Jan 2021 Ron wanted to clarify that the aircraft he took up on the morning of the crash was a Tempest, probably JF-X. The Typhoon he had to ditch that evening was one of the last Typhoons in the squadron, R8895, Sqn code QO-E.
Typhoon Salvage by Brian Jay
Typhoon aircraft salvaged from Blackwater Colchester Diving Club
Ron recorded his wartime experiences for the Imperial War Museum Oral History
You can listen online at Imperial War Museum - scroll down to find Reel 8 to hear of the Typhoon ditching in the Blackwater.