Battle of Britain profile of courage: Otto John Peterson

Biography / September 14, 2016

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By Shari St. John

No.1 Squadron, RCAF

Born on March 14, 1916, in Eckville, Saskatchewan, Otto John Peterson would only see a short 24 years before making the ultimate sacrifice for his country during World War Two.

Shortly after earning a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Saskatchewan, Peterson enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) on November 7, 1938. In the fall of 1939, along with the other members of No. 1 Squadron, he was posted to Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where he met his future wife, Helen Murray. The two were married only two and a half months before Peterson left for the war overseas.

Arriving in England in June 1940, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s No. 1 Squadron was based at Middle Wallop, Hampshire. In August, after a period of intensive training, Peterson and his comrades shifted to the London area where they would have their first chance to engage the Luftwaffe. In a letter home on August 11, Peterson reassuringly told his family that “We will do our best & I’ll certainly do my best to look after myself – but there’s nothing to worry about because worry does no good. I’ve got a lot to look forward to in future years with Helen, so I intend to be one of those who comes back – my chances are very good – in fact a lot better than most, so here’s hoping.”

Six days later, No. 1 Squadron was declared “operational” and began its first combat sorties during the Battle of Britain.

Peterson missed the first two weeks of action due to illness, but was in the thick of things by the beginning of September – claiming a Dornier (Do) 215 damaged during a scrap on the first of the month. Three days later, No. 1 Squadron intercepted a gaggle of German aircraft, claiming two enemy aircraft destroyed, one probably destroyed and six damaged – with no losses to themselves. Peterson managed to close with a Messerschmitt (Me) 110 and fired several bursts of machine gun fire leaving it with engines smoking before breaking off the attack. He claimed one enemy aircraft damaged.

On September 9, No 1 Squadron was part of a massive Allied effort to thwart more than 300 German aircraft bent on attacking London. Flying Officer Peterson had the sole squadron victory that day when he shot down a Me 109 fighter. In a letter home on September 26, he described how the victory was nearly the end of him: “[The 109] I shot blew up in front of me & part of his cannon hit my bulletproof windscreen & shattered it. My eyes were filled with glass but I had enough sense not to touch them. I couldn’t see a thing, but straightened out level flight [sic] at 1500 feet – the flight started at 20,000. I then flew home about 40 miles with hardly any sight. I landed safely & the Doc picked ¼ teaspoon of glass from my eyes but there wasn’t a scratch on either eye. My face was plenty cut though. But I was back flying in two days. That’s all so far. Here’s [t]ouching wood.”

Peterson was shot down and killed the following day.

Despite stress from constant action and lack of adequate rest, No.1 Squadron had its most successful day on September 27.  With the German air force making multiple assaults, No.1 Squadron was forced into combat all day. Up against 70 enemy aircraft, but assisted by the Polish 303 Squadron and Royal Air Force’s 229 Squadrons, the Canadian squadron managed to inflict significant damage on the Germans. The coalition of Allied air forces claimed one Junkers (Ju) 88 destroyed as well as one probably destroyed. They also claimed four Me 110s and one Me 109 destroyed, with one other enemy aircraft damaged.

During the fighting Peterson was shot down over Kent; one minute he was with the squadron, the next he was gone. The following day his wife received a cable listing him as “missing”. Whatever brief hope she might have harboured was shattered on September 30 when another message arrived in Halifax, informing her that her husband had been “killed in action.”  

The third and final fatal casualty from No.1 Squadron during the Battle of Britain. Flying Officer Otto John Peterson is buried in the Brookwood Military Cemetery, Surrey, England.

Editor’s note: Soon after the Battle of Britain, No. 1 Squadron was renamed 401 Squadron. The squadron continues to serve Canada and Canadians to this day as a tactical fighter squadron, based at 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alberta.

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