In the mid-1990s, John Potter told his second wife that – because his Official Secrets Act pledge had expired after 50 years – he was able to tell her about his exploits in the war
A man who claimed to have been an elite British spy that helped liberate Dachau concentration camp and regularly supped brandy with Winston Churchill invented the entire story, research has shown.
In the mid-1990s, John Potter told his second wife that – because his Official Secrets Act pledge had expired after 50 years – he was able to tell her about his exploits in the war.
They included being transported to Nazi-occupied France by submarine in 1942 to assume the identity of a dead local teenager, Henri Dufour.
But according to his son, Potter was a fantasist who lied about many things in his life. The Times newspaper has also looked into his past and found that little of what he claimed was true – even down to his date of birth.
Born in Camberwell, London in 1927 – not 1924 in West Sussex, as he said – Potter is accused of fabricating a series of heroic adventures during the Second World War.
Assigned to SOE – the Special Operations Executive – he claimed to have worked with a group of agents in Saint-Flour, Auvergne.
His wife, Mildred (pictured), explained that John had told her the prime minister was a man who could ‘get things done’ – and who respected John’s work
He even said that he was frequently invited back to London by Winston Churchill, where he would enjoy a brandy by the fire and discuss the war.
His wife, Mildred, explained that John had told her the prime minister was a man who could ‘get things done’ – and who respected John’s work.
She said: ‘The last time he visited Winston it was before D-Day and he said: “You have done so well for all this time”.’
He also claimed to have never lost an agent under his supervision – until one was shot by an American in 1945.
Potter, according to his wife, then demanded the soldier face a court martial.
But instead of that, American general Omar Bradley supposedly asked him to join the US forces helping to liberate Europe to ensure that no more mistakes were made.
Mildred explained: ‘He joined the Americans as they swept through France and Germany to help them identify SS soldiers – the Americans couldn’t tell the uniforms apart.
Potter was survived by his five children, 10 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren
‘The SS soldiers were obviously trying to hide and John knew how to tell them apart from others.
‘He was there when they liberated Dachau concentration camp and he said the smell and sights were just horrific.’
He also claimed to have been an expert witness as the Nuremberg Trials.
Potter died in July aged 93, but not before writing an autobiography called ‘Withing the Shadows’ under the pseudonym Ernest Tarrant.
He was recognised as genuine by much of the media and groups dedicated to remembering Britain’s valiant spies.
Potter died in July aged 93, but not before writing an autobiography called ‘Withing the Shadows’ under the pseudonym Ernest Tarrant
But his story, though apparently plausible at first, fell apart after analysis.
For starters, the lie about his age – which was discovered by a genealogist – meant that he was not 18 when he ostensibly began his spying career in 1942.
Another shrewd observer pointed out that his story appeared quite similar to a novel from 1941, Assignment in Brittany, written by Helen MacInnes.
It was then found that there was no record of his involvement with the SOE.
Then there was the claim he regularly met with one of the most important men in the world.
Historian Steven Kippax said: ‘Only about four agents met with Churchill during the war and they were all very senior. The meeting he described would simply not have happened. His story is a total fantasy.’
Potter also claimed to have never lost an agent under his supervision – until one was shot by an American in 1945. Pictured: Potter and his second wife
The final nail in the coffin of Potter’s tale was delivered by his son, the Rev Neil Potter, who said his father was a fantasist.
He explained: ‘To the best of my brothers’ and my sisters’ knowledge none of this ever happened.
‘He was too young to serve in the war. This was a claim he made up to impress his second wife and we cringed when we heard it. It is not the only thing he lied about.’
But there is one person who still believes him – his 79-year-old widow, Mildred.
She said she knows it is true, adding: ‘You cannot make up all those details.’
Potter was survived by his five children, 10 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren.