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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.