Group Captain John Gard'ner: New Zealand fighter pilot who fought in the Battle of Britain

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The Independent Online

John Gard'ner was one of the last surviving New Zealand fighter pilots who helped win the Battle of Britain. A volunteer for the RAF, he was also one of the few survivors of an early disaster of that battle, when his sluggish, single-engine Defiant aircraft was shot down by vastly superior Luftwaffe Messerschmitts over the Channel.

It was shortly after noon on 19 July 1940, days after the Battle of Britain had begun, when nine two-seater Defiants of the RAF's depleted 141 Squadron, most of them with New Zealand pilots and gunners, took off from Hawkinge, near Folkestone, on a routine patrol. They were flying at around 5,000 feet when a greater number of Messerschmitt Bf 109Es came at them out of the sun. In their single-engine Defiants, the Kiwis never stood a chance. The media were hushed up for the sake of national security and morale but secret reports described it as "a massacre." The Defiants were removed from day to night-flying duty, where they had more success. Hence, perhaps, 141 Squadron's Latin motto Caedimus noctu ("We slay by night").

Of the nine Defiants four crashed into the sea, killing their eight crew, a fifth crashed into the White Cliffs of Dover and a sixth crashed trying to get back to base. Gard'ner struggled to get out of his cockpit as his plane sank into the choppy waters of the Channel. "I kicked my way out and got myself to the surface just about bursting," he recalled. When a Royal Navy torpedo boat approached, his first concern was that they thought he might be a Luftwaffe pilot. He didn't wear NZ flashes on his uniform ( something to with RAF pay). "Maybe they thought I was a Kraut but, God bless them, they shouted 'we gotcha, we gotcha. Are you all right?' I don't remember much more after that, for a while.'"

He woke up in hospital in Canterbury, his head swathed in bandages, and spent three months there before rejoining 141 Squadron. His sole "kill" – and, in later years, he felt more pride than shame over that statistic after he got to know surviving German veteran pilots – came when he shot down a Luftwaffe Focke-Wulf 190 A-9 fighter over France in November 1944. On New Year's Eve that same year, he survived a crash landing in Brussels after being hit by anti-aircraft fire.

With Gard'ner's death, there are now only three Kiwis left who, having volunteered for the RAF and helped defend Britain in the summer of 1940. One of them, Squadron Leader Keith Lawrence, now 91, lives near Exeter. British fliers, and belatedly our heroic Polish allies, notably of 303 Squadron, got their deserved glory but Kiwi pilots such as Gard'ner, Lawrence and their comrades deserve equal credit. They helped tip the balance over the skies of southern England.

Gard'ner said one of his English ancestors replaced the "i" in the family surname with an apostrophe during the Battle of Toulon against the Franco-Spanish fleet in the mid-18th century – apparently to make a rhyme for a limerick. He was an amateur pilot, only 19, when he volunteered for the RAF in 1938. "I wanted to see the world and it just seemed a marvellous thing to do," he said. "To be honest, I had no idea there was going to be a war."

John Rushton Gard'ner was born in Dunedin on New Zealand's South Island on 14 June, 1918. He went to school at the historic Nelson College in Nelson City on Tasman Bay, one of the first boarders at the school's newly-built Rutherford House. While still at school, he paid 10 shillings of his savings to take a joy ride on a biplane over Nelson. He was hooked and learned to fly while in his teens. He was one of the first 17 Kiwis to sail to England in December 1938 to join the RAF. Among those on the ship with him was Colin Gray (later Group Captain) , who became New Zealand's "Top Gun" of WW2 with at least 27 enemy "kills" at the controls of his Spitfire.

Based first in Scotland, at Turnhouse, Prestwick and Grangemouth, Gard'ner started training in Gloster Gladiator aircraft, then Bristol Blenheims before moving on to the ill-fated Defiants. New Zealand was the Commonwealth nation which provided most pilots for the RAF during the Battle of Britain. After the Brits, only the Poles provided more. And like the Poles, the Kiwis had trouble getting accepted by the old-school "tally-ho" English flyers. But at least the New Zealanders had more than a smattering of English. One English pilot, having heard Gard'ner talking about the "Beast Leagues," assumed he was referring to some Kiwi sport involving animals. In fact, Gard'ner was talking about the legs of a lady who had ventured into the airmen's canteen.

Gard'ner was seconded to the US Marine Corps after the war, where he trained pilots in Gloster Meteors, early jet fighters. He also flew Skynight jet fighters during the Korean war of the 1950s but he avoided telling even his family how, when and where. He served as British air attaché in Brussels before retiring in 1965.

Gard'ner last flew a plane himself when he was 90. At the age of 92, he flew (in a commercial airliner) to London to witness the unveiling of a statue of his compatriot Air Vice-Marshal Sir Keith Park, a hero of both World Wars who was and remains a hero, not only to Kiwis but to freedom-loving people around the world.

Gard'ner ended up doing what he had day-dreamed about during the rare, quieter days in the blues skies over southern England in that summer of 1940. He bought an orchard on New Zealand's aptly-named Bay of Plenty. Few of his neighbours knew he had played a crucial role in an air battle that probably changed the face of the world.

John Gard'ner, fighter pilot: born Dunedin, New Zealand 14 June 1918; married Suzanne (two sons and two daughters); died Tauranga, New Zealand 6 May 2001.