Lieutenant William Janson POTTS
2/3rd Home Counties (Cinque Ports) Brigade Royal Field Artillery and A Flight, 56 Squadron Royal Flying Corps

Date of birth: 5th July 1896
Date of death: 21st September 1917

Killed in action aged 21
Buried at Pont Du Hem Military Cemetery La Gorgue Plot IV Row C Grave 15
He was born at "Holmdene", Southwood Road, New Eltham in Kent of the 5th of July 1896 the son of William Potts, mercantile assistant, and Sophia (nee Janson) of Selbourne Cottage, Sanderstead Hill, Sanderstead in Surrey.

He was educated at New Eltham School and at the King’s School Canterbury from January 1910 to April 1915 where he gained a Junior Scholarship in December 1911 and a Senior Scholarship in June 1913. He was a member of the Cricket XI in 1913, when he was awarded his Cricket Colours, and again in 1914. In 1913 the Cantuarian wrote the following on his cricket season:- "Fell off towards the end of the season, but made runs when wanted in the early part. A very fair field and catch. Ought to do well next season."

Of his 1914 season they wrote:- "A fair and painstaking bat; did not do so well as one hoped, but now and again played a most useful innings. His cutting is his strong point."

He played at left centre in the Rugby XV in 1914, receiving his sports colours in 1915. In 1915 the Cantuarian wrote of his rugby season:- "Goes hard but is too fond of doubling into the thick of the scrum instead of opening up for his wing. Improved however in this respect."

He was appointed as a School Monitor in September 1913 and as Captain of School in September 1914. He was elected to the Committee of the Debating Society on the 20th of September 1913 and became their President in September 1914. He became editor of the Cantuarian in September 1914. He was a member of the Officer Training Corps and was promoted to Sergeant in 1913 and to Cadet Officer in No. 1 Platoon in September 1914. He achieved Certificate A on the 25th of November 1913. On the 26th of September 1913 he was elected to the committee of the Harvey Society. In 1915 he won the Rose Exhibition for Mathematics to Pembroke College Cambridge which he did not take up.

Instead he applied for a commission in an application which was supported by Mr McDowall, Headmaster of the King's School Canterbury. At a medical examination it was recorded that he was five feet nine inches tall. He was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant in the 2/3rd Home Counties (Cinque Ports) Brigade, Royal Field Artillery on the 6th of May 1915. He served with the 2/1st Kent Battery of his Brigade based at Dover. He was promoted to Lieutenant on the 1st of June 1916.

He underwent pilot training and obtained his Aero Certificate (number 3743) at the Military Flying School at Brooklands on the 18th of October 1916 flying a Maurice Farman Shorthorn Biplane. He was seconded to the Royal Flying Corps as a Flying Officer on the 31st of October 1916 and was promoted to Temporary Lieutenant in the Corps on the 1st of March 1917. He was posted to 56 Squadron which had recently been formed at London Colney in Hertfordshire.

At around noon on the 14th of March 1917 he was flying a Bristol Scout in misty conditions at a height of 1,200 feet when he collided with a BE2c flown by 2nd Lieutenant Rayne, who was under instruction by Lieutenant MacKay. The training aircraft crashed on a hard tennis court nearby killing both men. Potts was seriously injured and was in hospital when the squadron flew to France the following month. While he was recovering from his injuries he wrote a letter to the school which was printed in the Canturian:-

"I think in the R.F.C. the miraculous is the rule rather than the exception--it certainly was in my case! A B.E.2c ran into me and smashed my tail at a height of 1,200 feet up. I was in a Bristol Scout and went down like a brick into a Mr Raphael's garden, going through an oak and a fir tree, and ending up in a rhododendron bush; the pilot's seat was the only part of the machine that was not smashed to atoms. The two poor fellows on the B.E. were both killed--the machine got into a spin, the wings collapsed, and they came down on a tennis court. I got concussion and several strains, cuts and bruises, but nothing serious except the shock. After a week in hospital 16 weeks sick leave, and am now back again flying around happily."

Fellow 56 Squadron pilot and close friend, Arthur Rhys-Davids wrote of the incident in a letter to his mother:-

"As regards Potts and his accident, lor lumme it wasn't me, and I'll take jolly good care that it won't be me this side of the water. I think Potts was a bit rash if not actually to blame. He had heaven's own luck in falling into trees. He was up and walking about this afternoon with a bandage round his head, and will probably be flying again in a fortnight.."

A Medical Board was convened at the Air Office on the 14th of May 1917 to consider his case: -

"The board find that while practising on a scout machine another machine ran into him and he fell 1,200 feet into a tree and sustained severe concussion; he was unconscious for about an hour. Since then he has suffered from lassitude and a feeling of weakness. These symptoms have now passed off, and he is now normal except that he is easily fatigued."

On the 15th of June 1917 they met once more at the same place and reported: -

"He has recovered. Has flown Spad up to 16,000 with no discomfort. Fit for general service after 1 month flying at home. Light duty."

He was married on the 14th of July 1917 at St Peter’s Church, Eltham Road, Lee, to Gladys Isabelle (nee Thorndike), after the war she was living at “Redcroft”, Dartmouth Row, Blackheath, London SE10. She died in March 1983 and never remarried, although she changed her surname name to Janson-Potts.

He re-joined 56 Squadron on the 7th of August 1917 at their base at Estree Blanch. By this time the squadron had won a fearsome reputation and their ranks contained some legendary pilots such as Ball, McCudden and Rhys-Davids who between them had already scored a considerable number of victories in aerial combat.

He was initially posted to C Flight and on the 12th of August 1917 he took off at 6.30pm in SE5a B513 with five other aircraft for an offensive patrol on the line Roulers-Menin-Courtrai-Iseghem. The patrol returned early, from what had been an uneventful mission, due to poor visibility. As William Potts touched down, at 7.50pm, the aircraft overturned and was very badly damaged, although he escaped injury.

On the 17th of August he took off at 6.30am with C Flight in SE5a B4857 for a patrol at 11,000 feet over Polygon Wood in the Ypres Salient. The flight of six aircraft was attacked almost immediately by 12 Albatross “V” Strutters of Jasta 28 led by an all red machine. They attacked the lower three aircraft in the formation and Potts and two others dived down to their aid. After a short action two of the SE5s were lost and one German aircraft was seen falling out of control.

The next morning, the 18th of August, Potts took off at 6am with A Flight in SE5a B4857 for an offensive patrol on the line Ingelmunster-Courtrai-Menin and crossed the lines at 12,000 feet where they turned towards Menin. Near Moorslede they attacked six enemy two seaters and after damaging one of the aircraft, found themselves engaged with eight Albatri and a general dogfight developed. Potts managed to engage an enemy two seater over the Houthulst Forest but his Aldis sight was covered with oil and he had to turn away and he landed at 8.05am.
On his return he filed the following report of the engagement: -

"Crossed the lines north of Ypres at about 13,000ft. and shortly afterwards saw three E.A. scouts just below. I dived upon one, who made no attempt to get away, and fired about 30 rounds into him at close range. I could see the tracers going straight into the machine. I zoomed away from him and in doing so, saw several E.A. just above me. As I turned after these I looked quickly round, but could see no sign of the scout I had just attacked. Some of the other SE5s attacked the E.A. above me, and I went a short way after one, who, however, dived away east. A strong wind had carried me a long way over the lines, so I turned back and was chased by three E.A. for several minutes. On reaching Polygon Wood I found another SE5 but lost him again while going after a SPAD, which I thought was an E.A. After this I met Lt. Turnbull and followed him down on to several E.A. two seaters east of the Houthulst Forest. I got about 20 rounds into one, but my Aldis sight was covered with oil and I could not aim accurately. The tracer was apparently going through his wings. The E.A. dived steeply away, and I did not follow, as Lt. Turnbull had turned away."

He flew a patrol on the 20th of August led by McCudden but although others shot down a number of enemy aircraft Potts was unsuccessful.

On the morning of the 21st of August he took off at 5.30am in SE5 B4857 A Flight again went out on an offensive patrol of five aircraft on the line Poelcappelle-Houthem-Gheluwe-Moopslede. They found a large number of enemy aircraft patrolling the front lines at various heights over the Houlthulst Forest. In a general engagement Potts attacked an Albatross from Jasta 18 with a black cross in a red circle painted on it. Two bursts from his machine guns sent the enemy aircraft “down in a vertical dive”, his first victory. He landed at 7.40am. On his return he dictated a report of the action: -

"Immediately after crossing the lines we dived upon a formation of about six E.A. As we did so I looked back and saw a large formation of about 15 E.A. coming along about 300 ft. above us. I therefore left the six E.A. and zoomed up to attack those. A general engagement ensued between our five machines and the two E.A. formations. The E.A. attacked me but I shook them off and became engaged with a machine with his black cross painted inside a red circle. We fought for about 5 mins. during which I got two bursts of about 30 rounds each into him, and after the 2nd burst he went down in a straight dive and I lost sight of him. During the first fight I noticed an enemy machine going down with a lot of smoke coming from it. I then dived upon two E.A. which were attacking an SE5 and drove them away east. Seeing a formation of E.A. - I counted 6 - above me at about 15,000 ft. I climbed up towards them, but could not get up to them, so as they showed no inclination to come down, I left them and went down to 10,000 ft. where I found the other SE5s. In diving upon some more E.A. I became separated from them. The E.A. were very numerous at first, but disappeared later. They came close up to the lines, and when dived at fled away east, so as to give other E.A. the chance of diving on one's tail. The only other of our scouts I saw were two Camels and one French SPAD. I eventually met Lieuts. Turnbull and Sloley, and returned with them."

On the 31st of August he took off at 6.15am in SE5a B4857 for an offensive patrol in the area of the Houlthulst Forest. During the mission he attacked a black and white Albatross at around 13,000 feet over Moorslede which spun away. He was then attacked from above by and all red machine but was rescued by the timely arrival of two of his comrades who drove it off. He landed at 7.30am when he filed the following report of the patrol: -

"Soon after reaching the lines SE5 formation dived on several E.A. I selected one painted black and white and fired about 100 rounds into him; he went spinning down, but flattened out lower down and cleared steeply east. I was then attacked by an all red E.A. from above, but two other SE5s forced E.A. to leave me and I lost sight of him whilst I was remedying a stoppage in my Lewis. Joined Lts. Sloley and Jeffs, and dived into a sharp engagement taking place between SE5s and E.A., firing many rounds at several E.A. but without definite result. After this saw about 12 more E.A. above and climbed towards them with two other SE5s, but E.A. persistently declined combat and we were unable to get within range of them."

Having taken off at 5.30pm on the evening of the 3rd of September, A Flight, consisting of six aircraft, engaged six enemy Albatri at 14,000 feet and to the east of Ypres. Potts, who was flying SE5 B4857, closed behind one enemy aircraft and fired some 30 rounds before his guns jammed and he turned away. Two of his comrades saw that the enemy’s propeller stop and it dived away out of control. He landed at 7.15pm. when he reported the following: -

"At 6.45pm we dived on six E.A. scouts at about 15,000 ft. They dived away east very fast and I could not get near the one I was following so as the other SE5s had zoomed away I followed suit. We then engaged several E.A. east of Ypres. I came up behind one E.A. scout, at about the same level as myself, and fired about thirty rounds at close range. After about 20 rounds my Vickers stopped (No. 3) and the Lewis had a double feed. Zoomed away, remedied the Vickers stoppage and then looked around, but saw no sign of the E.A. (Lieuts. Turnbull and Jeff, who were above, both state that the machine's propeller stopped and that it dived straight down out of control)."

The following account was given by James McCudden VC, also of 56 Squadron, in his book “Flying Fury” of the events of September 3rd 1917
"On the evening of September 3rd I had been out alone looking for stray Huns and not having seen any I went up to the Salient, when Potts and Jeffs, of "A" flight, quietly attached themselves to me, having lost Maxwell in the heat of a fight. We saw three V-strutters going north over Poelcappelle and so down we went and just before I got to the rear Hun, my engine choked and I got vertically below the last Hun, whom I saw looking over the side of his fuselage at me. The next thing I saw were tracers passing this Hun [these could have possibly been the fire of Potts or Jeffs] who immediately burst into flames and fell instantly . . . "

On the 4th of September William Potts took off on his own at 7pm in SE5 B4857. He saw two SE5s diving towards Houlthulst Forest; when he followed he saw three enemy aircraft below them. He attacked an Albatross which crashed in flames to the south of Houlthulst at 8.06pm. When he landed he claimed an enemy scout as destroyed: -

"At about 7pm two SE5s near me dived towards Houlthulst Forest. I followed them and saw three E.A. scouts. One cleared steeply east. I made for the eastern side of the other two; came up close to one of these, who was just turning away from me and fired a burst of thirty rounds into him. He fell over sideways, burst into flames, and crashed just south of the forest. I then turned on to the other E.A., who was quite close to me, and got off about ten rounds before I was obliged to zoom away to avoid running into him. I had a stoppage in my Vickers (No. 4) and I did not see what happened to this E.A."

His victim was Leutnant Gebhard Emberger of Jasta 29 who, sooner than burn to death in the stricken aircraft, jumped clear as it fell. When his body was recovered, not far from the remains of his aircraft at the southern edge of the forest, his watch had stopped and recorded the time of his death as 6 minutes 50 seconds past 8 o’clock.

On the 9th of September he was flying SE5a B4857 at 14,000 feet when he collided with SE5a A8946 flown by 2nd Lieutenant Eric Leslie Lowe Turnbull. Potts had failed to notice a change of direction by his leader and in taking action to avoid him Turnbull’s tailskid hit the top of Potts’ SE5 breaking the trailing spar. Both pilots managed to get their aircraft back safely.

On the 10th of September 1917 he took off at 5pm in SE5a B4857 and engaged eight red nosed enemy Albatri at 13,000 feet over Gheluvelt. Potts, who had been having pressure trouble with his engine, fired fifty rounds at one of the enemy aircraft when his engine stopped. He switched to his emergency tank but the engine failed to pickup and he lost a great deal of height. He saw three enemy aircraft 1,000 feet below him and he attacked these but his engine stopped again. Having restarted is engine and with only one gun working, he attacked another enemy this time a two seater. After fifty rounds from his remaining gun the enemy flew eastwards and, in view of the unreliability of his engine, he was forced to break off the engagement. When he landed he reported the following: -

"After diving on a formation of two seater E.A., at which I got off a few rounds without result, SE5 formation attacked a mixed formation of one and two seater E.A. over Gheluvelt. I fired about 50 rounds at one E.A. scout and then my pressure, which had been bad since the start, failed completely; the engine choked at first when out on the emergency tank and did not recover until I was at 7,000 ft. I was then a long way below the fight and as I saw three E.A. two seaters in the direction of the lines at 6,000 ft., I went after these. I fired about 100 rounds and then my engine failed again, so I was unable to look for results. I dived away towards the lines and got the engine going again at 2,000 ft. On approaching the lines I saw another E.A. two seater at which I fired 50 rounds which seemed to be very accurate but without result. E.A. went away east very fast and I did not follow him because of my engine. After crossing the lines I kept up pressure with the hand pump, climbed up to 10,000 ft. again remedied the No. 5 stoppage in the Vickers, put on a new Lewis drum and went to look for my patrol, as I did not see them, I joined a Camel formation for a short while but had no more fighting."

On the 20th of September he took off at 1.20pm in SE5a B4857 with five other aircraft for an offensive patrol on the line Gortemarck - Menin. During the flight he engaged an all purple Albatross at around 2pm but it spun away from him. When he landed he filed the following: -

"About 2.15pm SE5 formation became engaged with a group of E.A. scouts at 10,000 ft. over Moorslede. I fired about 70 rounds into an all-puple Albatross scout, which started spinning down. I saw Lt. Barlow get on to him, so I turned and attacked another E.A. on my own level. I fired about 20 rounds at him, but my engine refused to pick up for about 30 seconds and I lost him. I then dived on an E.A. scout at 6,000 ft. He evidently did not see me, as he let me get quite close, and I fired about 50 rounds straight into him. He did a flat turn to the left and went down in a steep spiral into the clouds. I had a No. 3 in my Vickers and my Lewis drum was empty, so I could not follow him. I put my guns right and chased two more E.A., but did not get near enough to fire. I then climbed up to 10,000 ft. and rejoined SE5 formation."

On the 21st of September 1917, at just after 8am, he took off with A Flight in SE5 B4857, as one of six aircraft for an offensive patrol on a line Lichtevelder - Ledeghem - Ingelmunster. At 8.30am the formation crossed the lines near Armentieres at 12,000 feet. At between 8.45 and 9am they became engaged in combat during which two enemy two seater aircraft were claimed as destroyed. During the engagement William Potts' aircraft was shot down over Verlinghem Woods, the wings of his aircraft being seen to fold during the descent.

His aircraft was claimed as a victory by Vizefeldwebel Gustav Schneidewind of Jasta 17, the third of his eventual seven victories who claimed to have shot down an aircraft in the area at 8.21. A claim was also made by one of the enemy two seaters with which the 56 Squadron formation was engaged with at the time. The crew of Leutnants Haack and Klosterman of FAA 227 were also credited with a victory. His death was confirmed when a German airman later dropped his identification disc, his purse and a list of missing British airmen who had fallen on the German side of the lines on which he was named.

His wife applied for his medals on the 13th of January 1922.

The William Janson Potts Scholarship for boys in needy circumstances at the King's School Canterbury was founded in 1919 by his Uncle, Percy Janson.

He is commemorated on the war memorial at the Church of the Ascension at Blackheath, on the memorial at St Peter’s Church, Lee in Kent and on the memorial at Pembroke College, Cambridge.