SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: The Minster archives are full of accounts of those who gave their lives in the world wars. DAVID MORGAN recounts the story of one, a fighter pilot who just might have been memorialised in a famous movie
While I was searching for information about the 80th anniversary of the Croydon Operatic and Dramatic Association earlier this year, I came across a World War II story that deserves an airing when the poppies fall to mark the Remembrance ceremonies for 2023.
Harry Carter was one of the important people behind the founding of CODA in 1942. He stated that one of the aims of the group was to help people take their minds away from the war. He and his wife Edith knew from bitter personal experience how important those words were.
Harry and Edith’s son, Peter Carter, was born in May 1919. He went to John Fisher School in Purley – within sight of the busy Croydon aerodrome – and after leaving school, he joined the RAF on a short service commission.
He began his flying lessons in October 1938. He was initially posted to 605 Squadron at RAF Wick, up in the far north east of Scotland, but on May 21 1940, nine months into the war, he was transferred to 73 Squadron. This was just days before the dramatic retreat of around 300,000 men of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk.
Carter’s squadron was operating out of Rouvres, in north-eastern France. Hawker Hurricane fighters were the aeroplanes being flown in sorties against the Luftwaffe, mostly to try to provide some air cover to the troops heading for the French coast and escape from potential oblivion from the Blitzkrieg.
An RAF pilot’s career at that time was often short and tragic.
Flying Officer Peter Carter was only into his third day of operations at Rouvres when he found himself in a dogfight with some Messerschmitt 110s southwest of Amiens.
Two German bullets pierced his engine’s radiator.
The cockpit filled with steam, together with glycol leaking into it.
Carter half rolled the plane into a dive and was pleased to see he hadn’t been followed by any of the enemy fighters. He managed to open the hood and decided to fly south, trying to navigate using the sun as a fixed point. He did this for about five minutes before deciding to try and land at Elincourt, in the Nord Department.
On coming in to land, Carter got the plane down but it tipped over onto its back after just 50 yards. Carter was propelled into the ground and was in serious danger of suffocation from the soil in his nose and mouth. As the highly volatile glycol was soaking into his clothing, he managed to free himself from the earth and shouted, in French, for help.
Some labourers working in nearby fields ran over and got him clear of the wreckage. Overnight, he was taken to the headquarters of the French VII Army and from there travelled to Paris in an army car. He reported to the British Air Attaché and was subsequently transported to the airfield at Gaye in north-east France, where he reported for duty at 16.40 hours on May 26.
As British troops continued to pour towards Dunkirk and the famous evacuation in the small boats, RAF units were scrambled to try to offer protection, but eventually they, too, were withdrawn. In mid-June, F/O Carter’s squadron was brought back to Church Fenton, near Tadcaster in North Yorkshire. While based here, Carter claimed two Junkers 88, which he shot down on August 15.
In the words of one of the most famous speeches made by Churchill, Dunkirk marked the end of the battle for France. “I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin,” Prime Minister Churchill told the House of Commons on June 18.
France had sought to surrender two days earlier. Churchill had taken over in Downing Street just a month earlier.
Expressing “our inflexible resolve to continue the war”, Churchill said, “Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war.”
This, Churchill said, might come to be regarded as the nation’s “finest hour”.
And thrust into the midst of that new battle was fighter pilot Peter Carter.
On August 24, Carter was transferred to the 302 (Polish) Squadron based at RAF Leconfield, just north of Hull.
Churchill’s “finest hour” was about to last weeks, and months.
October 18 1940 was Day 101 of the Battle of Britain.
The weather was poor, but there were still more than 40 Luftwaffe attacks on London and the south-east that day. There was fog in the Straits of Dover and the Thames Estuary. Low cloud everywhere else meant that visibility was poor.
By now, 302 Squadron had been transferred to Northolt, and at 3pm a patrol took off for the Maidstone area.
After an attempt to engage enemy aircraft, a section of the flight became lost in the clouds. Descending so that they could reorientate themselves, the Hurricanes flew low over the Surrey Hills. According to one report, the patrol leader spotted Kempton Park racecourse through a gap in the fog and ordered his pilots to make a forced landing there. This was to prove a fatal manoeuvre.
A young girl who was running an errand for her mother witnessed two crashes. She described how the first plane came down very fast and blew up on impact, setting trees and a fence on fire. Just after this, a second aircraft came down, with pieces breaking off. After the impact of the second plane, the girl saw a body crash to the ground, to be covered by a falling parachute which was attached to the victim. That pilot was F/O Peter Carter.
An Air Raid Warden arrived on the scene as the ammunition from the planes started to explode. They removed the girl to safety.
In the report into the incident, it was stated that Carter had indeed bailed out of aircraft but at too low an altitude for the parachute to save him. The other aircraft that crashed at high speed was flown by Pilot Officer Jan Barowski. In descending to make a forced landing, his Hurricane had hit a barrage balloon cable and he lost control.
This was not the end of the tragic day for 302 Squadron. Two more aircraft and pilots were lost in the bad weather: P/O Wapniarek was killed in trying to land his Hurricane at Nutwood Farm, Thames Ditton, as was P/O Zukowski in attempting to land at Harp Farm near Boxley, Dorking.
The grief of losing four pilots on non-combat accidents, after all that they must have endured over the previous three months of the Battle of Britain, would have been hard to stomach even for hardened service personnel experiencing loss on a daily basis.
In a time of such grief, perhaps it was a small comfort that Harry and Edith Carter were able to lay their son to rest in Queen’s Road Cemetery in Edith’s family plot (her maiden name being Lawes).
The citation on the grave read “Flying Officer Peter Carter who gave his life for his country October 18th 1940 aged 21. Requiescat in pace.”
Another memorial plaque for Carter and his fellow pilot Jan Barowski was placed in the grandstand at Kempton Park.
As an interesting postscript to this tale, the name “Peter Carter” was used in the acclaimed 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death. David Niven starred as RAF Squadron Leader Peter Carter who miraculously survived jumping out of his burning Lancaster bomber.
Was it just a coincidence that Carter’s name was chosen? Perhaps a reader knows the answer.
- David Morgan is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups
If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 8688 8104 or go to the website on www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page
Other recent articles by David Morgan:
- Family keepsakes providing last link to another of war’s victims
- Lady Mary’s Restoration tunes and her ghostly legacies
- Goodwyn’s list that takes us back through to Tudor times
- The church fire that consumed a thousand years of history
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