6 July 2004
Pair: Captain R. H. Potter, Mercantile Marine, who survived the loss of his command, the S.S. Scottish Monarch, when she was torpedoed in 1915 and who was commended for “running over” an enemy submarine in the Irish Sea in 1918
British War and Mercantile Marine Medals (Robert H. Potter), the first with obverse surface scratch, otherwise extremely fine
Four: Midshipman P. B. Potter, Royal Naval Reserve, late Liverpool Scottish and Mercantile Marine, who was lost in the armed merchant cruiser India when she was torpedoed off Norway in August 1915
1914-15 Star (Mid., R.N.R.); British War Medal 1914-20 (Mid., R.N.R.); Mercantile Marine War Medal (Percival B. Potter); Victory Medal 1914-19 (Mid., R.N.R.), this last with officially re-impressed naming, extremely fine (6) £400-500
Robert Harley Potter was born in Liverpool in 1859 and served his five year apprenticeship in the Liverpool sailing barque John Gambles, a vessel associated with the famous White Star Line, before becoming - in turn - Third, Second and Chief Officer, and remaining in her until he obtained his Master’s certificate at a very early age. His first command - the sailing ship Vallejo - lasted from 1887 to 1895, her worn condition and sickness among the crew nearly ending in disaster in the latter year, when her journey from the Gulf of Nicoya, Punta Arenas to England took 248 days - the ship was so long in passage that she had been given up as lost with all hands.
In 1910, Potter joined the Monarch Steamship Company of Glasgow, and was appointed Master of the Irish Monarch, which steamer he still commanded on the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914. Then in April 1915 he became skipper of the Scottish Monarch, and it was on his first homeward bound voyage in her from New York to Manchester, carrying a cargo of sugar, that she was attacked and sunk by an enemy submarine:
‘The Scottish Monarch was steaming homewards on 29 June 1915, and was forty miles south of the Ballycotton Light, County Cork, when the Third Officer spotted two submarines on the starboard beam at a distance of about two miles. There was no mistaking their nationality - the German ensign could clearly be seen. Captain Potter was immediately called to the bridge. Unfortunately, they were unarmed and there was nothing to do but run!
He ordered a turn to port to bring the enemy submarines astern of him, then ordered a zig-zag course to be steered at a speed of 11.25 knots. Only one of the enemy submarines gave chase, the other disappeared. The pursuing submarine quickly closed the gap and opened fire from about a mile distant. The first shell did little damage but the next three, fired from closer range, holed the port side of the vessel forcing the Captain to order the engines stopped and the boats lowered.
Characteristically, Captain Potter remained on board, although the submarine kept up a desultory barrage. With the decks awash, the Captain finally got into his own boat and three-quarters of an hour later, the Scottish Monarch sank.’
Potter’s boat, with 19 of the crew, was picked up by the S.S. Miami of Glasgow about 30 miles south of Hook Point early on the morning of 30 June, and landed the same day. It was while recuperating at his Liverpool home that news reached him of the death of his son Percival, a Midshipman in the R.N.R.: this was a terrible blow, for Percival was the last of his three sons, the other two also having been lost at sea.
Returning to sea as Master of the English Monarch, Potter received the thanks of the U.S. Government for his part in rescuing nine of the crew of the City of Memphis in March 1917, after she had been torpedoed. His final wartime command was the War Queen, a vessel of Furness, Withy and Co., which firm he had joined in early 1918, and it was in her that his greatest adventure occurred, when she “ran over” a German submarine causing that vessel to surface. As a result, Potter was able to bring the War Queen’s 12-pounder into action at about 600 yards range and gained several hits before the enemy submarine sank from view. He duly received a monetary award from the Merchant Ships Gratuities Committee and the King’s Commendation, the announcement for the latter being published in the London Gazette of 17 March 1919. He died at Liverpool in April 1935.
Percival Barber Potter, the third son of Robert Harley Potter, was a pre-war volunteer in the Liverpool Scottish, largely because his parents were against him pursuing a career at sea following the loss of his two brothers in maritime incidents. But on the eve of the Great War it seems that young Percival managed to persuade them otherwise, for he joined the Moss Line and was in Toulon when hostilities commenced in August 1914. In early 1915, no doubt to his parents dismay, Potter was appointed a Midshipman in the Royal Naval Reserve and joined the armed merchant cruiser India. Tragically, on 8 August that year, he was among those lost when she was torpedoed off the island of Helleover, near Bodo, Norway. Her Captain, Commander Kennedy, later reported that ‘all efforts which were made to save life by means of the boats actually caused the greatest loss of life’, and the majority of those who survived had dived directly into the sea as the ship sank, a process that took less than five minutes. Percival was two months short of his nineteenth birthday.
See Hal Giblin’s article, The Potter Saga, for full details (O.M.R.S. Journal, Spring 1980).