Interview with Ernest Frederick Gardiner


Interview with Ernest Frederick Gardiner


Fred Gardiner grew up in Oxfordshire and worked in a furniture factory before volunteering for the Royal Air Force. He flew five operations as a wireless operator / air gunner from RAF Syerston before his aircraft was shot down. He gives a detailed account of having to bale out of his Lancaster at night, of meeting civilians who sheltered him in various locations whilst he and others avoided German soldiers prior to their rescue. After the war, he and his wife returned to thank those who had helped him escape and remained in touch with many of those who he came across.




Temporal Coverage




01:25:04 audio recording


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AGardinerEF170809, PGardinerEF1701


PL: My name is Pam Locker and I am here in the home of Mr Ernest Frederick Gardiner [address redacted] and Mr Gardiner’s daughter, Lynn Moult, is also with us. So I would just like to thank you again, Fred, very much indeed, on behalf of the Bomber Command Digital Archive for agreeing to talk to us.
FG: My pleasure.
PL: Thank you. So Fred, I guess where would, a good place for us to start is perhaps your childhood and a little bit about your parents perhaps, and how you eventually became part of Bomber Command, so.
FG: I was born in Banbury, 1923, and I went to a local Church of England school, called St Leonards, when I was five, until I was fourteen. And my father worked for Morris Motors at Cowley, Oxford, and my mother didn’t work, out, but she died when I was just coming up to ten years old and I was then looked after, supposedly, by my father’s spinster sister, but I think we looked after her rather than she looking after us; she was a bit useless! [Chuckle] Anyway by the time I was fourteen I went to work in a furniture factory and I was trained mainly as a french polisher. Then the war started when I was sixteen, and I thought, the job I had wasn’t reserved because it was furniture making, although they were changing over to making gliders, but I wouldn’t have escaped being called up, so I jumped the gun as it were, and joined the RAF rather than finish up in the trenches, haha. So I was called up after that, after I registered. I was called up in November 1941 and went through usual training processes. I went to initial training place at Padgate, near Warrington, where I was kitted up and then went on to Blackpool. I was in Blackpool in digs, civilian digs, for four months doing the usual military training plus initial learning of Morse code and signals. After that, I, after a spell of leave, I was posted to Number 10 Signals School at Madley near Hereford and that was to complete the course as a wireless operator which meant training on radio equipment, continuing Morse code training, we had to reach a speed of twenty words a minute. After that, another little spell of leave and then I spent four months in Leconfield, near Beverley, Yorkshire, and my job there was to fly as a wireless operator with trainee pilots. So we had a trainee pilot and an instructor pilot and myself, the wireless operator, and my job there was to collect bearings from different stations, so that they could be used by the trainee pilot, and that was quite a nice job, I liked that job, for four months and I had to go back to Madley for another three months to take what they called the Aircraft Facility, the aircraft level of training which, until then I was supposed not to have been flying, but that was very nicely ignored I think. And after training there and I was sent to do an air gunnery course, that was at Walney Island, Barrow in Furness, and we flew on Boulton Paul Defiants, sing, two seater fighters, to do our training and we had to fire Browning machine gun from the turret at targets being towed by other aircraft. That was quite exciting, and from there I went back to Madley, did a further course and from there I went to an Operational Training Unit, an OTU, where I was crewed up, and that was an interesting experience. We, there were I think twenty pilots, twenty navigators, twenty of all the categories, and forty air gunners, because there were two air gunners in a crew. And we were mixed up in a hangar and told to sort ourselves out into crews. It was a bit strange, but I think it was a very effective, very worthwhile because you couldn’t really complain after that you see, it was your choice. From there, after we finished OTU, which was a three month course, and flying Wellingtons and doing practice, all sorts of practice flights, short distances, doing short take offs and landings and longer trips up to about eight hours, flying from A to B to C all round the UK, at night as well, to gain experience, did all the job, each one of us doing our job. So, after that we went to train on Manchesters and Lancasters and we were then given a flight engineer join the crew, so there were seven of us. A short course and we went on to Bomber Command which was then at Syerston, near Newark, and we were there and did, well we did, we were shot down on our fifth operation. We did, the first one we did was to Essen and then we did three in a row to Hamburg and then we were on our way to Mannheim, Mannheim Ludwigshafen, its full title, and that’s where we were shot down, by Oberleutnant Petrich, I’ve got a photograph of him, so [pause] from being, being shot down, I was picked up in Belgium by the Belgian Resistance. I’d come down right in the far south east corner of Belgium, very nearly into Luxembourg, and I landed in the dark. It was, to be shot down was about the most horrifying experience I ever had, or likely to have and that’s quite terrifying, sitting there minding your own business and suddenly you’re surrounded by tracer bullets and things coming whizzing past you. In fact that attack killed three of the crew, they missed me and fortunately they missed the pilot and the bomb aimer escaped and the navigator escaped, and we all managed to bale out. Then, as I say, I was picked up by the Belgian Resistance and after five, five weeks of being taken from house to house, village to village, town to town, into France and finished up in a place called Fismes, F I S M E S, Fismes, near Reims, Reims, Reims. And I’d then met another Air Force chap, a New Zealand pilot, he’d been shot down, well he crashed, he crash landed and so the two of us finished up the last week or two in France and then the RAF sent a Lysander aircraft which landed just outside this town of Fismes and picked up myself and this sergeant pilot, New Zealand pilot, and a Belgian agent. This was a night time job, we were escorted up to a lonely field, torches were placed out to make up a flare path. The Lysander came in and landed over a haystack, which was rather unfortunate, because the field that it was coming in had been ploughed up, but where the haystack was, they’d left that strip. Fortunately the pilot managed to do a reasonable landing, and the pilot was Group Captain Verity and he’s written a book on this, these adventures, called “We Landed By Moonlight”. His name: Hugh Verity. I’ve got a copy. So we were picked up there and made a decent take off, came back to England in broad moonlight. Fortunately I don’t think the Germans were interested in one little plane, so we weren’t molested all the way back and we landed at Tangmere, which is near Chichester, and went into an RAF house, on the airfield, and the next day we were taken up to Air Ministry to explain where we’d been [chuckle] and kitted out again, rekitted out. So, back to normal again. But I went back, had some leave - month’s leave. I was a bit annoyed that my New Zealand colleague, he got six weeks and I only got four weeks, and he couldn’t even go home, to New Zealand. And after that I was posted as an instructor in radio, Morse code and also the Browning gun ‘cause I was an air gunner as well. And I served, I was sent down here to Southampton, to the University Air Squadron and I was there until I was demobbed which was a couple of years. Nice job that, very nice job that was. So back home and I didn’t want to go back into factory work – it was hard work, not very well paid, no pensions or anything like that - so I studied and got a commercial wireless operator’s qualifications and with that I got a job with a local firm here in the Channel Islands, Channel Islands Airways, and as a wireless operator, radio officers we were called now, and I did that job for a couple of years to and fro the Channel Islands and then eventually I was posted up to first Northolt, and then Heathrow and transferring from de Havilland Rapides, which were old fashioned two, bi-planes, bi-plane, and went on to um, Vikings, Vickers Vikings, and then - Viscounts - and I did, I think it was thirteen years, and did most of that on the Vikings, er Viscounts, but then they made the radio officers redundant, technology advanced [interference] and they didn’t need a wireless operator and so I was made redundant when I was forty, but that took me up to finding another job, which I managed to do as a technician with IBM at Hursley, and I stayed there till I was retired at sixty, and from there went, with my wife, to live in Chandlers Ford, how many years, er, well, until I was, until I was -
[Other]: Ninety.
FG: Yes, until I was ninety and then we both, my wife and I, both came to Sunrise Care Home and my wife was only here for a few months and she passed away so left me here on my own ever since. That’s nearly four years ago. I think that brings up right up to today.
PL: Well Fred, [Clear throat] that’s a wonderful story. Can I take you back to when you were in Bomber Command and ask you to describe your escape? You’ve talked a little bit about being shot down, which was very interesting, but can you tell us about, you know, once you’d landed and this extraordinary escape that you had, in a little more detail?
FG: Yes. Okay. I remember the horrifying moment when these bullets and shells came through the Lancaster, absolutely terrifying. And you think, I thought to myself it’s our turn, because you knew all the time all the raids were going on, quite a lot of aircraft shot down. Lancasters, quite a lot of those went and this feeling suddenly, when it happens to you, you think my turn, it’s our turn. Anyway, the Lancaster caught fire. It was my job to go back to a position in the fuselage on the floor of the aeroplane, where there was a handle which you could pull which released a big bomb, we had a four thousand pound bomb, that released it, in case the bomb aimer either wasn’t able to, or his equipment was damaged, so he couldn’t drop it from his position so it was my job to dash back and pull this handle and the bomb went down. By then the Lancaster was so well alight I thought well I’m not going back to my seat, I’m getting out. In fact the mid upper gunner was getting down from his turret so I thought oh well, the captain’s probably told us to abandon ship, so I went back to the rear door, which was my escape hatch, escape exit, and I, we’d never done a parachute drops as practice, but we’d been told just what to do, especially in a Lancaster where the tailplane is right up alongside the door and if you didn’t do it properly, it would hit you as you went out. So all these, this training, these lessons, came, came sharply to mind and I managed to get the door open, kneel on the, kneel on the door sill, head down, I’d already clucked my parachute on to the harness, put my arm across the parachute, not my hand on the rip cord. Now some people lost their lives by pulling the ripcord too soon and sometimes in [emphasis] the aircraft, that dead loss, so I thought no, you’ve got to be careful, put my arm across the parachute to cover the handle so that I wouldn’t pull it too soon, so I put my head down to miss the tailplane. When I think about it, I think I did quite well there, I was with it all the time, sharp, sharply thinking what I’d gotta do, so I went out head first, did a couple of somersaults, let the Lancaster get clear, pulled the ripcord, big jolt [emphasis], then it was all peaceful. Lovely, a lovely calm night, and a little bit of moonlight I seem to remember. Anyway, the starlit sky above, but looking down, trying to see the ground, was absolutely black. You can’t see a thing on the ground at night. And I was trying to see where I was gonna land, looking down, focussing several thousand feet, couldn’t see a thing, absolutely black and wallop, hit the ground! Parachute came gently down over me and got myself sorted out and I was just a few feet away from an electric pylon. [Laugh] So nothing to do then, but I rolled myself up in the parachute until it got light. And we had an escape pack, so I opened that. I had some Horlicks tablets and some tubes of cream and few other useful things: a compass and some maps, which were printed onto silk, like handkerchiefs. I sorted all that out and I was just going to make my mind up to move, there was a little track alongside where I‘d dropped and along this track came a chap leading a horse and cart, and I thought oh, well, I didn’t know whether I was in Belgium, Luxembourg France or Germany, they all come down there and very close together, so I stood up and I took a handkerchief out to wave, as a surrender [laugh] and I think this chap leading the donk, leading the horse. thought I was going for a gun and he dived under his cart! [Laugh] Anyway, when he saw I was harmless, he came out and shook my hand, ‘Comarade’. I thought is that French, German, comarade, sounds could be either, play safe. So he pointed back to where he come from and said ‘Comarades, Comarades’. I gave him a handshake and I set off in the direction he pointed. I had bare feet. When the parachute opened, the jolt takes your flying boots off and the socks come with them ‘cause it was fur lined so I was in bare feet [chuckle] so I managed to stagger down in bare feet, in the direction this chap had pointed, and I went down, I remember I had to go under a railway bridge and I came, quite quickly, came to a road with a signpost on it which said Rulles, R U double L E S, so I thought well, I don’t know where Rulles is, never heard of it, but this is probably where I’ll go so I got onto this little roadway and I saw some cottages about a hundred, two hundred yards away, so I set out, I thought well I’ve got to get some footwear before I do anything else, whether I can steal some or be given some, I don’t know, I didn’t know what really was going to happen at that moment, and then I heard a lorry engine coming down the road and I thought there’s only Germans got motor vehicles here: they’re Germans. And I’d just got to the first cottage and I thought I’d better get out of sight so I opened the door, fortunately it wasn’t locked, I just opened the door, stepped inside and closed the door behind me and looked out the window at the side of the door, and the truck went past, open truck with a covered, canvas covered top, but the back was open: German soldiers sitting in there, with their rifles! I though ah, they’ve missed me – only just! So I turned to see where I was and there was an elderly lady in the room, all in black I remember, and she burst into tears and I never knew, then or now, whether it was due to fright or sympathy, bit of both perhaps, very startled, must have startled her for that to happen. Anyway a chap came in from a room at the back, he shook hands with me, he realised who I was, and gave me a black raincoat and some boots, socks and boots! Thought doing very well here and told me to follow him, and I went with him and across the road and I remember, over a little bridge I think it was, to another house, and took me in there and several people gathered – I was an object of curiosity - and I said where am I in English, but nobody could understand me, and I couldn’t understand them very well, but eventually one chap said, ‘Ici Belgique’ – I was able to translate that, Belgium, that’s good. [cough] Am I going on too long?
PL: No, not at all, it’s fascinating. Keep going.
FG: So. Can we switch off a moment?
PL: Just pausing for a moment. Recommencing.
FG: I was now taken to another house where several people had gathered, and one chap could speak a little English, and eventually they found some civilian clothes. [Coughing] So I changed into these civilian clothes and I was then taken by bicycle and escorted by a young, another young cyclist to the next village, which was about two miles away, and when we got there I was taken to a priest’s house [background music] and he took me in and er, I was given a room, and I was pretty tired, this was, I’d had no sleep all night, and he took me up to a room, little room, with a very soft bed, and I went out like a light. I don’t know how long I was asleep, some time I think, and when, later on, when I was awakened, taken down to his study, he and his housekeeper were there and they had a radio which they had to, they could listen to English radio but they mustn’t let Germans hear them, so very quietly put the radio on and put the English news on, BBC, from where I learned that seven RAF bombers were missing that night. That was six plus me. So they gave me some food and so called coffee which I was told afterwards it’s made partly of acorns, it was, I found it was drinkable, and black bread. That sounded nasty but I’m not fussy, food has never been a problem, I don’t turn anything down, so I was very pleased to get some food and I was taken to another house where the lady was in the kitchen, and I was taken into the kitchen and she had a huge [emphasis] plum pie and she cut me a big slice of plum pie and that was rather nice! From there I did this bicycle trip to the next village and I was taken into a room and shown to a bedroom. And I, although it was daylight it must have been then about ten o’clock in the morning, I was absolutely whacked, tired, and they showed me into this bedroom, so I got undressed and I got into bed, and I remember nice, soft bed, and just about to, within seconds to go to sleep and a chap burst in and he said, ‘you are in the house of a collaborator, you’ll have to get out, come with me!’ So having just trying to go to sleep I had to get out of bed quickly, dress quickly and follow him out the back of the house and across into some pretty wild countryside in fact we walked across what must have been a First World War battlefield, it was all hillocks and undulating ground and my ankles I remember playing me up a bit. Anyway we plodded on until we came to this next village, that’s [emphasis] where I was taken in by the priest and I stayed there till the next evening and he said ‘oh, you’ve got to go on now.’ By the way, while I was in the priest’s house, I was sitting there with him, in his study, looking out the window, and two gendarmes came up the path, oh, what do we do now? Anyway, they came in shook my hand and Comarade, Comarade! They didn’t speak English, but very pleasant. I remember their names, and er [pause]. So later on, I was given this room and went to bed because I was needing sleep. And then when I got up later on, more food, and then the priest said oh, ‘you’ll have to carry on, go on from here, you come with me’ and off, we left his house and it was raining and I’d got, I was still in, I’d got these civilian clothes, but no, nothing to keep the rain out, I think somebody had taken this raincoat away from me, wanted it themselves I expect, so he put his cassock round me, and somebody had given me a little black beret, so I had this black beret and this cassock right down to my ankles, absolutely invisible in the night, good thing perhaps. So we set off from his house, getting dark, in fact it was quite dark when we came to the edge of some woods and the priest gave a whistle, which was answered by another whistle and a chap came forward and he was going to be my guide, and he had a pistol, he gave me one, showed me how to take the safety catch off, ‘put that in your pocket’ he said. So the priest left me with him and we set off through these woods, and we got a little way in, in darkness, and he said we must be a bit quiet, there’s a German encampment here nearby and we were just going past like a Nissen hut, a military hut, when the door burst open and a couple of German soldiers came out with their rifles and my colleague pushed me into the ditch and came in with me, and we lay still in the ditch and these two Germans came out and got on bicycles, and rode past us about as far as my daughter is to you, and of course they’d come out from a lighted room so they were a bit, not very, couldn’t see very well in the dark, but we could see very well, we’d been out in the dark for some time, but it was a little bit scary because my companion pulls his pistol out and trains it on the Germans, as they went past. [Motor noise]
PL: [Sharp intake of breath]
FG: I thought oh, don’t want a gun battle here, we’re not going to win against rifles. Anyway the Germans went away and we stayed put for a little while and went on with our journey to the next village where he introduced me to another family and things went more or less satisfactorily from there and I was there for a couple of nights, in fact I stayed there with this chap who’d rescued me, and then he disappeared and I had another guide, a lady this time and [motor noise] she took me, escorted, by bicycle, we both had bicycles, and we went through woodland on our bikes, a little track through the woods, and we came to another village where I was taken into the house of the Burgomaster, and I was sheltered in there and when it became evening I was taken down the road a little way to another house which was, I think a relative’s house, [motor noise] where I was given a bed for the night. The next day the Burgomaster’s sister, turned out to be, nice lady, and she again escorted me on the bike, quite a long way through woods, and we came out at a little town in Belgium called Bouillon. B O U I double L O N, Bouillon. I think it’s the place where the soup comes from. I went up a little track down, between the woods, to a little detached house situated nicely, quiet position, alongside a river, and it was a tobacco farm and my lady companion took me into this house, introduced me to the people there, they took me over and found me a room on the top floor, I remember it, and because it was a tobacco farm, this room I was given was lined with little cupboards and I was quite curious to know what was in these cupboards and they were packed full of cigars, hand made cigars, from the tobacco farm, but I didn’t try one because I’d tried the cigarettes and they were ghastly enough; I smoked then. And I was there for a fortnight and it was quite pleasant, out of the way, no traffic, no roads nearby, and alongside the river, and I went for a walk alongside the river, people across the river walking about on the path, but quite a wide river, River Semois, and so I stayed there for a fortnight and then one day a taxi turned up, and he just managed to get down this little track, to the house, and beckoned me, come with me, so I said goodbye to these people, got in the car and he took me into the village, into the town, at Bouillon, took me in to a hotel, dropped me off at a hotel, in fact once he’d dropped me off he shot off like mad, get rid of me, got rid of me quickly. I went into the hotel, into a room, there were several people, they were all Resistance people and one of them there was Flight Sergeant Herbert Pond of the Royal New Zealand airline, Air Force, so that was rather nice, I was able to speak fluently to somebody and have a little chat, and he said ‘they’re suspicious of me, they think I’m a German plant, can you help sort this out?’ So at least one of these Belgians or Frenchmen, I think one was a French Canadian, and he said ‘can you vouch for him?’ So I said ‘got any experiences you can remember?’ And he said ‘I remember I was on one station and there were some Australian crews’ - and they were always getting up to trouble -and they’d hijacked some chickens, live chickens, taken them up to their room in the barracks and thrown them out across onto the parade ground at night, you know, evening time, night time, and they had bets on which chicken could get furthest along, that’s Australians for you, so he said ‘I remember that!’ He said ‘I saw that!’ So I said to these Belgians, or French people, he’s, ‘no German knows what he saw that night so he’s a genuine.’ And he said ‘I think you may have saved my life there’ he said, ‘they held a gun against my head!’ [Laugh] I still get Christmas cards from him. New Zealand. So from there the taxi driver turned up again and took us across the border into France. In fact, we [emphasis] walked across the border and he took his taxi round through the official entrance and picked us up the other side, at a pub I remember, haha, and from there we were taken to a little town. Oh, we were taken first of all to, to this little local town, and we did a train, we were given a train ticket, some train tickets, yeah, this helper was a French Canadian, that’s right, he took us over there, and of course he could speak English and French, and bought us some rail tickets and we sat on the station, outside the station, while he went and got these rail tickets and Herbert Pond, the New Zealander, myself sat on opposite sides of a table, long table, and he brought us, he went to buy us some beer and while he was gone to get this beer from a kiosk, some bloomin’ German soldiers came down, propped their guns up against the table and sat down next to us, [chuckle] so we weren’t able to speak after that. But then he came back with the tickets and just indicated us, come with me, didn’t say anything, off we went, followed him onto the platform, he said ‘they’re your tickets, when you get to Reims’, is it Reims? Yes, Reims, he said ‘you’ll be met outside the station, at the station exit, by a lady dressed all in black and she’ll be wearing a red flower.’ So the train came in and we separated, myself and Herbert Pond, he said separate on the train, so Herbert went off on his own and I watched where the door was, went across the platform, and in most of the carriages there was a notice up: ‘Reserve Pour Les Troops d’Occupation’. I could read that, even though I didn’t know French, I could read that. Anyway, I could see that somebody was, a civilian, was standing in the corridor and I thought well if he can stand there, so can I, so I went to get on the train but a porter shouted at me and pointed at this notice. I ignored him, I got on the train and went and stood in the corridor and then, from nowhere, goodness knows where, a load of German officers came in and came aboard the train and came past me, the reserved coaches for them, so they took their places in the carriages and one even said excuse me in French, ‘excusez moi’, as he squeezed past me. I thought you don’t know I’m wearing an RAF vest! [Chuckle] Anyway, I stood in the corridor, quite a long journey from this place to Reims, yes, from Bouillon to Reims, and when we got there, got off the train and Bert Pond was, he got off as well, and there was the lady waiting for us, oh skulduggery, I thought this is, this is kids’ comic stuff that we’re doing, this, and followed her at a distance and she led us to a flat where we were given some refreshments and then, after a little while, we were taken to another place, where we stayed I think it was two nights, and that was actually in Reims. By now, we’d got to know this French Canadian and him telling us what was going to happen, he hoped. He said we’ve got to do another train trip so when the time came, two days later I think it was, and we went and got on this particular train and it was a suburban train, wooden seats, bit backward, you know, bit elementary. Anyway we got on the train and I remember we sat together, with our guide, and on the opposite row of seats, facing, were several French women and it looked as though they’d been shopping, they’d all got shopping bags and stuff. So again we couldn’t talk, but it wasn’t too far to go and when we got off we were taken to, er, now where were we taken to, another house in this village called Thiem, welcomed there by the family, I was trying to remember their names, I can remember their names given time. We were looked after well there and I remember lots of white wine was provided for us, bottles of white wine, all the time. So Herbert and myself, we settled in there for a couple of days and I remember being taken from the house into the yard at the side, there was a yard, with doors opening into big open spaces, I think they’d been stables or something, and in one was a Flying Flea. Did you ever come across or heard of Flying Fleas? [Cough] Excuse me. [Pause] Well the Flying Flea was a little home made aeroplane, that could, a real miniature aeroplane, very tiny, stubby little stubby wings and little stubby tail and it would only carry the pilot and I’d seen these flying at Portsmouth when I was a lad and they were highly dangerous of course! And I remember that these people had got one of these strung up on a wall, and the guide said ‘I think these people like to think they’re gonna fly to England in that but they’ll be lucky!’ But I do remember that Flying Flea. So we were looked after there for a couple of days and then we were told that the RAF was hoping to send a plane in to pick us up. Oh gosh, possible, and they said it may be any evening, any night, depending on the weather and other circumstances, so we just had to sit around and wait but after two or three days this French Canadian, he’s still looking after us, he said ‘the plane’s probably coming in tonight’ he said, we’ll set off at a certain time, in good time. So a party of us set off, there were about four or five Belgians, and I remember one of them was carrying a rope, in case the aircraft got bogged down, which had happened, in the past. So off we went following in a single line, no talking, had to keep quiet, until we came up to this field, level field, bit of consternation because it had been ploughed! But there was a strip left, strip of grass, with a haystack at the end, which was a bit tricky, and I being the signaller, I was told to give the signal, think it was the letter R I had to flash. And we had to, well we didn’t have to wait. The aircraft had already arrived and was circling round, and we had to run the last few hundred yards, I remember through mud, and we got there, put the torches out quickly, gave him the signal to land, signal came back. How he found that field, in the middle of France, in the dark, well he wrote a book about all this, as I say, I’ve got a copy. So we set up torches as flare path, gave him the okay signal, came in and landed, over this little haystack – marvellous pilot. Came to the end, turned round, came back to where we were waiting and I’d been instructed to take some parcels off the back seat. There was a little ladder fixed to the aircraft on the outside, I had to climb up two or three steps of the ladder, take these parcels out, hand down to the party below, and he kept his engine running of course and I thought oh, you know, Germans are going to come rushing out from all angles! But of course it was a very lonely spot, and I think he made a record afterwards, he was only on the ground for two minutes and myself and the New Zealander and the Belgian agent all piled in to a single seat at the back. It had one seat, I never got the use of it, I think I sat on the floor, no parachutes of course, or anything like that, and off we went, fingers crossed, and we came across in lovely, lovely clear weather, few searchlights about, but of course it was over France, not over Germany and I don’t think anybody was interested, Germans weren’t bothered about one little aeroplane. So we ploughed a nice trip back and landed at Tangmere near Chichester and went and thanked the pilot for coming to pick us up, Hugh Verity, yes, got his book up there. And we were taken into a, this RAF house and given a bed, the night, and the next day we were taken up to London, to Air Ministry Headquarters, go in there to be interviewed, and rekitted, new uniform, and sent home for a month, month’s holiday, so that was that.
PL: Can you remember what happened during the interview? Can you remember what happened during the interview? Did they, what did they want to know from you?
FG: Well, they wanted to know which towns and villages I’d been to and the names of the people, so I said ‘well I’m not too happy about giving names’, but as it was I think a Wing Commander or somebody senior, RAF man interviewing me, in fact I think there were two or three officers there, and so I had to cough up, should be all right, unless the Germans win the war! [chuckle] And so I was able to tell them, gave them all the details, seemed to be interested and then said ‘off you go for a month’s leave.’
PL: What an extraordinary story! How old were you when this happened, Fred?
FG: Twenty.
PL: And can you remember, I’m just curious, I mean how did you feel about all of this. I mean were you frightened, were you excited, were you? How did you feel?
FG: I was, when the bullets came through the Lancaster I was terrified! I wasn’t too bothered about baling out, and the funny thing was, I was looking down to see where I was gonna land, couldn’t see anything on the, it was all black, but I wasn’t, I wasn’t particularly scared, I can honestly say I wasn’t particularly scared, I was just getting on with it, as you can say.
PL: And during your escape, this extraordinary escape where, you know, every so often you would come in close contact with the Germans, what about then, did you sort of?
FG: No I just held me breath a bit.
PL: Held your breath a bit.
EG: Kept me fingers crossed. No, I wasn’t scared, no. Because at the back of my mind I thought well, if I’m exposed enough to give myself up, they’re not going to stand there and shoot me in cold blood, surely. I don’t think they would have done, and I’d have finished up as a POW, prisoner of war. But these people who were helping myself and Bert Pond, they were risking their lives, in a concentration camp, whereas we would have just been put in a prisoner of war camp. So they were the ones, they were the heroes, they really were.
PL: And did you find out what happened to them?
FG: Yes, um, [sniff] with my wife, we went back to Belgium, and France, and went round to see these all these people and they were absolutely delighted to see us, and see me.
PL: How old were you then? When did you go back?
FG: After the war, when was it, 1947? ‘46 ’47, yes, in fact, we were invited to go back any time and we actually had two or three holidays over there and I took the car over a couple of times. There was one, there was one family who sheltered me for a fortnight, well there were two families who sheltered me for a fortnight each. one family were the tobacco growers and the other family was a chap who spoke perfect English, he’d lived in England previously for several years, and he was an insurance man and a very nice, a very nice character [engine noise], I admired him very much and he was very pleasant, really nice man, and his wife was a very nice, very nice looking woman, and they had a daughter, same age as me, and they sheltered me for two weeks and they’d got some English books, which was very nice, Dickens books, which I was able to sit and read, and they put me up in a little room in the top of the house, in the attic, and I could go down and have breakfast with them and then they said right, ‘the housekeeper’s coming in to clean and you’ll have to go back and hide and keep quiet’, which I did, and she came in several times while I was there, apparently, and she never heard a thing. And she was ever so surprised after the war, when they told her that they’d got a British, a British airman had been hiding up in the loft. They never told her of course, daren’t trust anybody.
[Other]: About your hat.
FG: Oh, yes.
[Other]: Just tell the story of the hat. Tell the story of the hat.
FG: Oh yes, my wife and I were out in Belgium one day, visiting the people in this town, very nice little town called Floranville, where I was looked after for a fortnight in this very nice house and there was an article printed in the local paper giving my name and details, and it was read by a Belgian policeman, and he rang up our host, hostess, and said I know, I’ve got the cap belonging to this airman, could you pop over and get it? And he said er, [pause], ‘I’ve got your cap’, he said ‘I picked it up near where the bomber crashed’, he said, ‘and your name and number and rank is inside’ he said ‘and when I saw your name in the local paper’, he said ‘I realised that was you’, so he rang my hostess and told her, would we go and see him and if we did he would present me with my cap. Which he did.
PL: How wonderful! That must have been an emotional moment for you.
FG: Yeah. It was all quite an adventure. Yes, we went back to Belgium, my wife and I, several times, [cough] looked after us, ever so happy to see us and we had one of the couples back to stay with us for I think a week or ten days, and we were living up in Greenford at the time, but they came over and stayed with us. I thought it’s the least I could do, but I’m afraid most, if not all [emphasis], of the people I knew out there have all died ‘cause I had contacts with several of them for many years, several years, Christmas cards to several people, France as well. I didn’t feel I wanted to give people up like that, give them up casually, when they’d done what they’d done for me. So I kept in touch.
PL: Did they all survive the war? Did everybody that helped you, did they all survive the war?
FG: Um, a chap I met at one house, who’d taken my photograph for my passport, identity card, he was very careless the way he talked, spoke, and he’s partly, I was told, it was his own fault, he was picked up by the Gestapo and he was sent to a camp somewhere, but he died of typhoid and I was told afterwards it wasn’t due to what he did for you, it was because he had so much to say [emphasis] to everybody, let himself down, so he said that was just too bad. One of the ladies, she had a, she was discovered as helping, she was in the, what the Belgians called, the Secret Army, and she was sort of a member of these people and she’d been, I don’t know whether she was betrayed by somebody but the Germans came to pick her up, and in some way, she got up on to the roof of the house she was in and she was standing up by the chimney stack and one of the German soldiers shot her, in the leg. And when, they took her prisoner then of course, and she went to a concentration camp but they fixed her leg and when mum and I went over one time, she showed us this nasty scar in her leg where this bullet had gone in, but otherwise, the man who’d organised the flight out of France, organised the escape line, Belgian, and he was betrayed, and he was tortured and I learnt afterwards he threw himself out of an upstairs window to avoid this torturing, and killed himself. But as I was told, not particularly due to you, I’d have felt a little bit awkward, bit shocked really, didn’t want to think I was going to cause other people trouble like that, but apparently he was betrayed, by a so called friend. [Sniff] [Pause] Trying to think if there’s anything as a follow up.
PL: Going back to Bomber Command, what are your feelings about how Bomber Command has been treated over the years?
FG: I don’t know how to think about it to be honest. I don’t try to think about that. It was all done at the time, it was thought it was necessary and you know at the time, everybody’s saying, oh you know, course we were dropping bombs on civilians as well as on industry: ‘oh never mind, kill a few of them off’, that was the attitude, didn’t think much of it otherwise, and I must admit when I looked out at Hamburg burning I thought it must be terrible down there and it was. We learned after the war how terrible those raids were for the Germans. Six hundred bombers raided Hamburg three nights running. Then I went back as a civilian, because British Airways did a run, London to Hamburg, and I did those. [Laugh] Yes. Long time ago, it’s all in there and I’ve got a good memory.
PL: You have a fantastic memory. It’s been the most extraordinary experience, listening to your story, and is there anything else at all that you would like to mention or talk about as part of your interview?
FG: Well I’d like to give credit and thanks to all the people that really helped me, especially the Belgians and French, otherwise, I think that wraps up the war story.
PL: Well Fred, I’d just like to thank you again.
FG: That’s all right.
PL: For sharing your story.
FG: Pam isn’t it?
PL: It is.
FG: Do you mind if I call you Pam?
PL: Absolutely! It’s been just fascinating and it’s just I mean it’s like the most extraordinary story really of survival and of huge, huge value to the Digital Archive, so thank you very much indeed.
FG: You’re welcome. I quite enjoy talking about it still.
PL: Lovely.
FG: Some people who’ve had experiences like that don’t want to talk about it. Whether or not it’s because they can’t talk about it, haven’t got a very good vocabulary, and I’m not too bad at that am I?
PL: Very good.
FG: I don’t know what sort of accent I’ve got because it’s a mixture, but it’s northern Oxfordshire and it’s a little bit sort of rural, but apart from that have to live with it.
PL: It’s a wonderful accent, Fred Gardiner, thank you very much indeed.
FG: You’re welcome, Pam.
PL: So sorry, we’re restarting.
FG: You switched off.
PL: I’ve just started it again, so that we can hear about your work with the charter company. And you were flying?
FG: Yes, Halifax freighters. And I’ve written an account of my four, three or four months with them. I’ve got it written down the if you’d like to borrow it and read it at any time. That was interesting, very interesting, and quite dangerous.
PL: So that was after the war?
FG: Yes, immediately after the war.
PL: So what made it dangerous Fred?
FG: The way the aircraft were operated. [Throat clear] [Pause] Yes, it was a bit dangerous, in fact one of the aircraft had to ditch in the sea. They were coming back from Italy with a load of fruit, they got low on fuel or something, and I think they’d got a pretty poor wireless operator, and they had to ditch. Because on one trip I had to send a distress call because we were running out of fuel, in bad weather, over Norway, that was, that was a bit dodgy, I could see us ditching. [Cough] The aircraft was full of stockings, boxes of stockings, made in Britain, exported to Norway. And when we got to Norway there was low cloud, very low cloud, and Oslo is situated in some, between some nasty hills, not, I don’t know whether you’d say mountains, but pretty steep hills, and I flew with a very good pilot, he was really super, and it was my job, as the wireless operator, to get him bearings, radio bearings, that he could follow in to land, and the idea was I got lots of bearings from the ground station as fast as I could, one after another so that he could keep lined to the runway and come down until he could see it and you’d know if you were on the right course that there weren’t any high hills in the way, so that was satisfactory, but the weather was so bad that he overshot twice because he couldn’t quite make it. Up and round again, same procedure again, I think on the third attempt, third trip he managed to touch down. No, wait a minute, no, that wasn’t, that’s not true, on the third trip he didn’t make it and he said ‘I’m going to have to divert somewhere’ and - I don’t know why had a slip of memory there - so we set off going south from Oslo and we were getting low on fuel, and it was low cloud, everywhere, so I said ‘shall I send a distress call?’ ‘Yes’, he said, ‘you might as well.’ I sent a distress call and it was answered by a station, all in Morse code of course, this station’s callsign was S E A, I remember, Sea, S E A, and I didn’t know where SEA was so I had to ask the operator on the ground where are you, who are you? And they sent me a stream of stuff back and it proved to be a Gothenburg airfield, so we headed for that and I continued to get these bearings and give them up to the captain and he carried on flying towards them until in the end we got down quite low over the sea and Gothenburg people fired up some search rockets and a searchlight and Very cartridge lights because the weather was still very bad, and being over the sea we weren’t likely to hit any hills and when we got very close to Gothenburg and the pilot could see where he, just see where he was, he did a circuit round and he lost sight of it in the circuit, that was how bad it was, so he had to do that sort of approach again, using the radio. Anyway, after a couple of runs at it, he touched down, fortunately the runway was right on the edge of the coast and he flew over a sandy beach, onto the runway which we were able to do, and when we came to the end of the runway and sorted ourselves out and they got some people up to fill up the tanks and they came back and they said your tanks are more or less empty! I think I saved that, I think I saved that Halifax that day.
PL: Well, to have survived the war and everything that you went through then, you know, to have been lost in that way would have been just so terrible, wouldn’t it.
FG: Yes. Yes, I had a quite interesting time in flying. One or two little hiccups in BA, BEA actually, with engine trouble, engines failed two or three times I was on, engine failure. Very good pilots all the time, got us down on single engine. [Pause]
PL: Are you happy for us to end there?
FG: Happy?
PL: For us to end there?
FG: Yes.
PL: There’s nothing else you want to say? Is there anything else that you would like to say?
FG: Just have a quick think. [Pause] I don’t know if you like to, I’ve got a copy of my time with that charter company and I think it makes an interesting story, all in all, I don’t know if you’d like to read it?
PL: I’d love to read it, let’s end there then. Thank you very much.


Pam Locker, “Interview with Ernest Frederick Gardiner,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 18, 2024,

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