Who Was Charles Gardner? The Broadcaster Who Brought Hope During Britain’s Darkest Hour | History Hit

Who Was Charles Gardner? The Broadcaster Who Brought Hope During Britain’s Darkest Hour

Robert Gardner

19 Nov 2019
German Heinkel He 111 bombers over the English Channel 1940. Image source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 141-0678 / CC-BY-SA 3.0.

It was July 1940. The country was at its lowest ebb fearing imminent invasion by the Germans.

They had already swept over France through Belgium, forcing the RAF to withdraw its men and aircraft to England while the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were chased back to the sea to be rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk.

Soldiers from the BEF fire at low flying German aircraft during the Dunkirk evacuation.

Soldiers from the BEF fire at low flying German aircraft during the Dunkirk evacuation.

So, when a chirpy excitable voice came on the air on the BBC nine o’clock news on Sunday July 14 to describe an RAF victory against the Germans in a dog fight above the channel, most people cheered and were up-lifted by this little ray of hope.

A blow-by-blow report

The voice belonged to my father, Charles Gardner, then 28 years old who had joined the BBC in 1936 to become, with Richard Dimbleby, their first news reporters.

That weekend in July he had ventured down to Dover with a recording car with the expectation of an enemy attack. His instincts were correct when a squadron of Junkers 87 dive bombers appeared and began attacking a convoy in the Channel.

An Observer Corps spotter scans the skies of London during the Battle of Britain.

An Observer Corps spotter scans the skies of London during the Battle of Britain.

Standing by an anti-aircraft gun high on the cliffs with his microphone in hand, he began describing the action as RAF Hurricanes and Spitfires raced up to engage the enemy in fierce combat.

This spontaneous eye-witness account lasted just nine minutes and was the first blow-by-blow account of a Battle of Britain encounter which saw the Germans fighters turn tail and flee back home without causing any damage to the convoy.

In June 1940 Nazi Germany overran France and forced the British army to evacuate at Dunkirk. Severely lacking in military equipment, Britain and its Empire now stood alone against Adolf Hitler's forces. But new Prime Minister Winston Churchill refused to agree to peace terms, forcing Hitler to plan an invasion - codenamed Operation Sea Lion. To stand any chance of crossing the English Channel, Germany would have to crush the Royal Air Force and gain control of the skies during that summer. The Battle of Britain, the first major battle to be decided entirely by air power, had begun.
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The response was such from the listeners that the BBC had to repeat the broadcast the next day and indeed the reaction on the radio and the newspapers, in today’s terms, ‘went viral.’

Controversy and public support

But it also caused controversy with some furious letters in the press deploring the commentary as if it was a football match when men’s lives were at stake.

There were questions in the House of Commons, which were rebuffed by the Minister concerned, and the Director General of the BBC made a positive statement in support of his man.

Most of the newspapers applauded and a BBC survey of listeners confirmed the large majority did too.

Lipika Pelham talks to Dan about the Dutch Jewish community in Amsterdam, how the Sephardim Jews ended up there and what they endured during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.
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At the time my father had no idea the impact his broadcast would make. And indeed, he and the engineers with the recording car were more concerned with getting the recording back to London and cleared by the censors in time for the nine o’clock bulletin, which was a focal point of news at a very anxious time in our history.

The censors responded by going to Broadcasting House themselves to save time and they then cleared the report word by word.

This was not the first time my father had witnessed German aggression from the air, for just two months earlier he had had to escape from France after the RAF withdrawal in the face of the German invasion.

Broadcasting House, the home of the BBC. Image source: Stephen Craven / CC BY-SA 2.0.

He had already spent nine months there as a BBC War Correspondent in what has been called the ‘phoney war.’  Air action was minimal but he broadcast many stories of the RAF men and their machines. Bombing action increased before the invasion on May 12, including some near misses close to him which he duly reported.

Now back home he continued his news job, but soon decided to leave the BBC to ‘join up.’ He did this because he was ‘bored.’ In his own words

‘not because nothing was happening, but because so much was going on and I was reporting so little of it.’

This time the censors were not so accommodating. So, he joined the RAF as a pilot. It was quite natural he should choose the RAF, not only because of his association with them in France but because he also had a pilot’s licence.

This was an expression of his long-time fascination by developments in aviation from the days when he was a junior reporter on the Nuneaton Tribune and later with the Leicester Mercury. He continued this interest with the BBC as unofficial air correspondent.

Reporting the ‘Forgotten Army’

For the next four war years he served as an RAF officer, first flying long-range Catalina aircraft of Coastal Command on patrols over the North Atlantic protecting the vital convoys. In early 1942 his squadron was posted to Ceylon which was then being threatened by the Japanese Navy.

He was at the controls when his aircraft sighted the enemy fleet and was shot at. After completing many sorties, the last being as captain, he was recruited onto the staff of Lord Mountbatten, Supreme Commander South East Asia.

Charles served under Lord Mountbatten in Burma - seen here inspecting members of the Royal Navy.

Gardner served under Lord Mountbatten in Ceylon – seen here inspecting members of the Royal Navy.

His task was to promote the heroic and brilliant counter campaigns of the British 14th Army against the Japanese who had invaded Burma. Known as the ‘Forgotten Army’ it was Charles Gardner’s job, his passion, to let the British people know of their achievements by countless bulletins and news reports to London.

An enduring legacy

After the war Charles Gardner returned to the BBC and became the official air correspondent at a time of British dominance in the aviation world from the late 1940s to the 1960s.

But his Battle of Britain Broadcast still remains his most recognised work. At the time I was just two years old and so was completely unaware of the broadcast and its impact.

Alongside the use of RADAR in World War Two, a special wing of the RAF was set up to intercept, disrupt and 'bend' radio signals from Germany. Luftwaffe planes from Germany followed these signals in order to drop bombs effectively on their targets. Because of the untold story of the RAF 80 Wing Units, when a Nazi plane thought it was dropping bombs on London at night, it was in fact dropping them in fields in Surrey!
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Indeed, it was not until the 1960s that I even heard it. I was at Waterloo station waiting for a train and decided to dip into the old news theatre, alas no more, to while away the time.

As I got to my seat up came some footage of the Germans dive bombing a convoy in the English Channel and then dubbed in was my father’s voice describing the action.

The film had been produced separately by Paramount News and then my father’s voice-over had been added. It still had tremendous impact which has survived to this day.

Robert Gardner MBE is the author of Battle of Britain Broadcaster , a biography of his father Charles Gardner, whose voice became familiar to millions of radio listeners in the Second World War. It is published by Pen & Sword Books.


Robert Gardner