Potton is a small town in Bedfordshire that I used to live in. It is mentioned in the Domesday Book and it is said that Hereward the Wake did pass through there. It's a nice place, and a mile or so east of town is Potton Wood; in truth, the trees are closer to the hamlet of Cockayne Hatley than than they are Potton. It's an ancient woodland and a beautiful place. In the spring and summertime it is full of wildflowers, butterflies and birds, thick old trees like oak, maple, ash, and with the forever promise of spotting deer fox or badger.
It’s a quiet and peaceful place.
And Finty, my daughter, and I went there history seeking.
You see on the 18th September 1945 a B-24 Liberator bomber crashed into the woods. It was flown by members of the RAF (UK) and RAAF (Australia) on a training mission having recently received the aeroplanes from the USA. In all seven men were on board, along with the puppy, ‘Bitsa’, who did belong to Flt. Lt. Pat McNulty DFC (RAAF); one of the Australian pilots. For some reason, having flown the plane all morning, refuelled and taken off for the afternoon, the B-24 stalled testing flight on just two engines and ploughed into Potton Wood.
It burst into flame on impact and of the seven men, four lost their lives. The dog Bitsa also survived and saved the life of Noel Gilmore by refusing to leave the side of the unconscious man. The small dog barked until rescuers found him some two hours after the crash when they realised someone from the crew was still missing. Finty and I searched for the crash site and found it in among thick trees.
Only small bits of wreckage remain, unearthed by rabbits digging, but it was quite amazing. It was then the strange things started to happen. The damp and thick earthy air of the wood became heavy with the smell of smoke, incredibly pungent and full of fuel. Both of us could smell it. We really did think there was a fire. Then there were footsteps and someone coughed behind us. Not a racking cough, but a polite, ‘excuse me’ cough.
Needless to say, each time we looked there was no one there.
It was an eerie feeling.
So much so we moved on;
Walked the wood and played with cameras.
Twenty minutes later we returned to the site, for Finty to lay some wildflowers that she picked on our walk. The scent of smoke that had been so strong was completely gone. It was very strange and so we decided to look into it a little further; discovered that the Luton Paranormal Society investigated the woods and recorded a very similar experience. You can view these in their reports. Needless to say I have no answers, but I do find it sad that four airmen who survived the horrors of WWII died on a training exercise in Potton Wood.
The crew that day were:
Flight Sergeant Ray Carling: Flight Engineer, RAF – Survived
Flight Officer Frank Doak: 2nd Pilot, RAAF - Survived
Flight Officer Noel Gilmour DFC Navigator, RAAF - Survived
Flight Lieutenant Pat McNulty DFC Pilot, RAAF - Deceased
Flight Lieutenant Edward Spiller DFC Pilot, RAF - Deceased
Flight Sergeant Roy Turner Flight Engineer, RAF - Deceased
Flight Sergeant Jim Potter Wireless Operator, RAAF - Deceased
Bitsa the Dog Scotty Terrier, RAAF - Survived
Again, it’s a beautiful example of England’s hidden history.
If you ever do get to visit Potton, visit the wood try and search for the crash site, do also go and see the simple memorial to the crew in Cockayne Hatley Church. You’ll certainly feel the history all about you, maybe even have a Fortean experience to boot.