In pride of place on the sideboard was a photo of a young man, in RAF uniform, proudly displaying his newly won ‘Wings.’ I asked who this was, and the silence that followed was sufficiently awkward for me to know, even at my tender age, that I should drop the subject.
My story starts during Christmas 1944, when my father took me up to Lewisham to see Uncle Ernie and Auntie Mabel. Home on leave were my two cousins, Guy and Bill, glamorous in their RAF uniforms and willing to show a totally captivated young lad photos of their service life. Guy, a Lancaster pilot, survived the war and last thing I heard, owned a small advertising agency in South London. Bill, a rear gunner in a similar aircraft but flying in a different squadron, was killed during one of the last raids by Bomber Command in April 1945.
Partly to cover the awkwardness caused by my question, Uncle Ernie started to tell all of us about the near miss he had experienced a few months previously.
One Friday morning, as was his custom, Uncle Ernie had taken a stroll down to Lewisham Market to see if there was anything to be had ‘off the ration’. He rounded the corner into the market place by the Co-op, and fifty yards ahead of him, he saw what looked like a small black aircraft about to land on the roof of an air raid shelter. In a flash, he realised what he was seeing and flung himself instinctively back round the corner, flat on the ground.
Anyone who lived in that part of the country in the Summer of ‘44 would have known that Hitler’s V1s often arrived without an air raid siren being sounded but the dreadful clatter made by the pulse-jet engine would often give sufficient warning to take cover. When the motor cut out, followed by what was described so graphically by a contemporary journalist as “that deafening silence”, the weapon would normally dive more or less vertically into the ground. This one however, was different. According to the report from the Observer Corps, the motor cut out somewhere in the Bromley area, and then the robot glided, not vertically, but in a shallow parabola until it arrived silently in Lewisham Market. There was a huge explosion as the V1 detonated, and all the air was sucked out of Uncle Ernie’s lungs by the blast. When the dust settled he realised that he was stone deaf. Only after a couple of months had elapsed would he know that he was left with just partial hearing in one ear.
This would prove to be one of London’s worst flying bomb incidents. Virtually all the market stalls disappeared and the shops on both sides of the road were devastated. Fifty-nine people lost their lives and over three hundred were injured. The casualties could not be taken to the nearby Lewisham Hospital because it too had been hit by a doodlebug a couple of days before.
On the Greenline Bus home, I asked my dad who the young man in the photograph had been. He explained that he was my other cousin in the RAF, Pat Gardner, who had been killed during the Battle of Britain. I don’t think that my dad knew any details. My aunt and uncle’s loss was probably too raw for discussion, and was to be compounded by the tragedy of their second son’s death later.
By the time I was old enough to have developed an interest in WW2 Dad was long gone, as was Uncle Ernie. The passing of Pat Gardner remained a mystery until the missing link finally fell into place about four years ago.
A friend, knowing my interest in WW2, lent me a book about the ordeal suffered by the good people of Dover during the war. Amongst the many photographs therein was one taken by a photographer for a local newspaper. It showed half-a-dozen young fighter pilots sprawled on the grass at Hawkinge Airfield, snatching a few minutes rest, whilst their Hurricanes were refuelled and rearmed. The picture had been snapped on July 4th, 1940, and there was something about one of the young men, perhaps the shy smile and the dark curly hair, that scratched the surface of a long distant memory for me. The reporter had taken the trouble to record the names of those young pilots, and sure enough, the familiar face belonged to Pilot Officer Pat Gardner. There, in the accompanying text, was the rest of his story. For the six weeks after the photo was taken, Pat Gardner lived from dawn to dusk in the cockpit of his Hurricane. On 21st August, his Squadron Leader notified him that he had been awarded the DFC.
It was to be presented to him three weeks later by His Majesty, King George VI at an investiture to be held at Buckingham Palace, but in less than a week he was dead. He was nineteen years old.
As the older ones amongst us remember, everyone made his or her contribution to the war effort. Some bought War Bonds, most donated to the “War Weapons Weeks”, some collected aluminium saucepans to make Spitfires, and everyone dug for Victory.
Uncle Ernie and Auntie Mabel’s contribution was a bit bigger than most.