Dieppe profile of courage: John Edwin Gardiner

News Article / August 16, 2019

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By Major (retired) William March

The eldest son of James Garfield Gardiner and his second wife, Violet (McEwen), John Edwin Gardiner was born in Lemberg, Saskatchewan on July 8, 1919. His father’s political career, first as a Member of the Legislative Assembly, then Premier of Saskatchewan and finally as a Liberal member of parliament, meant that John would attend various schools in Lemberg, Regina and Ottawa. However, it was while in Regina that he discovered his passion for aviation, learning to fly at the local flying club.

After graduating from Glebe Collegiate in Ottawa, he attended the University of Toronto to study engineering. Intending to pursue a degree in aeronautics, he decided instead to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force on November 19, 1940.

John’s training took him to No. 2 Elementary Flying Training School at Fort William (now Thunder Bay), Ontario, and then on to No. 11 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) in Yorkton, Saskatchewan. Receiving his wings on October 7, 1941, he found himself on his way to England less than a month later. Posted to No. 8 SFTS at Royal Air Force (RAF) Station, Montrose, Scotland, John began his training as a fighter pilot on the Hawker Hurricane before proceeding to No. 57 Operational Training Unit (OTU) at RAF Hawarden, Wales, where he was introduced to the Supermarine Spitfire.

After John was posted to 403 “City of Calgary” Squadron in April 1942, located at RAF Station North Weald, Essex, the commanding officer of the OTU noted that the young Canadian “should develop into a useful leader as he is both keen and reliable. His natural ability is well above the average – this combined with a well-defined sense of responsibility on the ground should make him an asset to any Squadron.”

Over the next several months John gained experience in the deadly skies of Occupied Europe flying the Spitfire Mark Vb. His first operational mission was flown on May 8, 1942, when he and the rest of the squadron escorted six Boston light bombers attacking the French port of Dieppe.

Operational sweeps and escorts missions were interspersed with intense training that could sometimes land an overly-keen fighter pilot in trouble. While the squadron was operating out of RAF Station Catterick, North Yorkshire, the squadron Operational Record Book (ORB) recorded that on August 1, “Pilot Officer J.E. Gardiner has been put on charge for low flying. He was returning from an air-to-air firing and cine [camera] gun practice . . . on July 27th and was seen flying as a low altitude . . . He was not doing a beat-up, simply looking the land over . . . to familiarize himself with the ground appearance from low altitude.” Despite such a dastardly deed, the entry in the ORB goes on to note that “P/O [Pilot Officer] Gardiner is definitely the steadiest young pilot in the Squadron. He does not drink, is exceptionally keen about flying, is very conscientious and is action No. 2 in the Flight.”

As fate would have it, the site of John’s first operational mission would also be his last. On August 16, 1942, 403 Squadron departed for RAF Station Manston, Kent, in preparation for their role in support of Operation Jubilee, the raid on Dieppe. At 0645 hours on August 19, 12 aircraft from 403 Squadron took to the air for the first of four missions that day. Arriving over the beaches half an hour later they immediately engaged German fighters. Combat was brief, intense and deadly. Although squadron fliers claimed two enemy aircraft destroyed, they discovered that three pilots were missing when they returned to their airfield at 0820 hours. One of them was John Gardiner.

During the fight Pilot Officer Norman Monchier (from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia), John’s wingman, had had his Spitfire, damaged making it hard to control. John kept pace with his friend, attempting to what provide cover he could when they were engaged by a German fighter. In the midst of dealing with this threat the two Spitfires collided and crashed to earth.

In a letter to John’s mother written on August 25, 403 Squadron’s commanding officer, Squadron Leader Leslie Sydney Ford (from Shelburne, Nova Scotia), did what he could to comfort the family describing her son as “. . . one of our finest pilots. He had a quiet and earnest personality and endeared himself to all the officers who were very fond of him.” Everyone hoped that John had survived and was a prisoner of war but, in November 1942, the International Red Cross, quoting German sources, confirmed that Pilot Officer Gardiner had been killed on August 19.

In October 1944, the grief at the loss of her son became too great and Mrs. Gardiner took her own life.

In 1945, John’s father learned that his son and Pilot Officer Monchier were buried in a small cemetery in the French village of St. Aubin-le-Cauf a few kilometers southeast of Dieppe. He visited the grave site in 1946 and learned from local witnesses that the John and his friend had perished from injuries sustained in the crash. German personnel had arrived on scene quickly and initially forbade the local townspeople from burying the Allied airmen but relented three days later and the two Canadians were interred in the local cemetery.

 One of the townspeople wrote to the RCAF casualty officer in February of that year enclosing some pictures of the gravesite and asking him to “. . . kindly forward them [to the families]…and express to them our feelings of deepest sympathy in their sad bereavement. The graves of their sons, who gave their young lives for their country and for ours, will not be forgotten and great care is taken of them.

“Whatever we did or can do is so very little compared to what they did for us. May God have their souls.”

John Edwin Gardiner was 23 years old.  


 

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