After the success of the film Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan may be looking for a sequel – and he could not find a better plot than the life of a West Sussex grandfather who recently passed away.
As a teenager, John Potter was setting up resistance groups in Nazi-controlled France and became a trusted adviser to Winston Churchill.
And after the Germans surrendered, he witnessed first-hand the horrors of the concentration camps and was involved in the Nuremberg trials.
After this eventful start, John went on to have a long and happy life and passed away on July 17.
His widow Mildred, from Ringmer Road, Worthing, paid tribute to her ‘courageous’ husband: “What he did at 18 was so brave. I couldn’t have done it. He lived to be 93, and he did a lot in those 93 years.”
Born with a club foot, John could not fight in the Second World War when he turned 18. He asked for deferment from military service so he could study – but was headhunted to be an agent in Winston Churchill’s ‘secret army’, known as the Special Operations Executive.
A French teenager called Henri Dufour died during an air raid in Lille, and his parents offered to host an Allied agent to assume their son’s identity. And with his fluent command of French and German thanks to his private education, John fitted the bill – even down to them both having a corrected club foot on their right leg.
Mildred said: “John thought it would be an adventure and that he would be serving his country so he agreed.”
After rigorous training, John travelled to Henri’s home town of Saint-Flour in Vichy France, where he was greeted by his parents, friends and other townsfolk.
Mildred said that was ‘the moment his stomach flipped over for the first time’ as he had to put his newly-acquired knowledge of Henri’s life to the test or his cover would be blown.
Despite a close shave with a female friend of Henri’s that he had not been told about, John passed. He began working with French resistance groups to set up similar operations in six nearby towns under the noses of the Nazis, who moved into Saint-Flour in November 1942.
He was flown back to England several times to tell Winston Churchill what was happening on the ground.
In John’s eyes, the iconic Briton lived up to his reputation.
His widow Mildred said: “Every time he went to see him, Winston always gave him a brandy before he went off again and wished him luck. The last time he visited Winston it was before D-Day and he said: ‘You have done so well for all this time. You have survived under the Germans and I do hope you make it and are not caught.’”
And John did make it, witnessing the German surrender in August 1945.
But his adventure was not over yet. A series of events led him to the French city of Orléans and the General of the United States Army, Omar Bradley, who wanted to use the ground knowledge John had gained as the Americans liberated Germany.
He was at the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp in Germany and saw the horrors first-hand. In his final years, John suffered from dementia. Months before he died, Mildred recalled walking into the living room and seeing ‘tears streaming down his face’ and him saying: “It is terrible. It is awful.” It soon became clear he was reliving the experience. She said: “He told me he would never ever forget that place until the day he died, and he did not forget. All those poor people were like skeletons walking around.”
Because he spoke German, John was then sent to Nuremberg for the trials, and was a liaison for a chemistry professor acquitted of helping to design the gas used in the Nazi’s chambers.
When he returned home, he was only in his early twenties.
After getting a first class degree at London University, a jet-setting career in chemistry took him all over the world – and led to him meeting his second wife Mildred in Vienna in 1970. John is survived by his five children, 10 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.
John published a book, called Within the Shadows, about his war experiences. He had to wait 50 years to write it after signing the Official Secrets Act. Click here to buy it.