There are only three of the 95 New Zealand pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain alive after Tauranga resident John Gard’ner died in Tauranga Hospital on Friday.
He died after a brief illness, and now Bernie Brown, also of Tauranga, Alan Gawith of Nelson and Keith Lawrence, who is in England, are the final three alive.
John Gard’ner shortly before his trip to London last year.
John was active to the end, with his friends at Classic Flyers earlier this year arranging to fly him to the Wairarapa, says chief executive officer Andrew Gormlie.
“We were going to take him to the Masterton Airshow from here in an aircraft, but the weather turned rubbishy, and that sort of put the lid on that,” says Andrew.
“At 92 it’s a bit tough on a rough day.
“He was a friend of ours, we knew him quite well, but at the end of the day some of these really old fellows don’t bother to join up with these things, but he used to come and go at times and he frequented our place as an interested party.
“He was a member of the Aviation Historic Society, which is some of the old chaps that meet here every month.”
John Gard’ner joined the Royal Air Force in 1938 because he wanted to see the world.
He began the war flying Boulton Paul Defiants for 141 Squadron, a single-engined aircraft that carried no forward firing guns and a gunner in a dorsal turret.
It was reckoned one of the RAF’s worst aircraft.
John was shot down over Folkestone on July 19, 1940, nine days after the Battle of Britain started. Messerschmitt 109s attacked the flight of nine Defiants, sending four into the sea including John’s. A fifth crashed at Dover and a sixth fell short of its base.
John was the only one of eight men in the sea including fellow New Zealand pilots John Kemp and Rudal Kidson, to survive. Afterwards, 141 Squadron operated at nights.
John flew mostly on night fighters with 141, 409 Royal Canadian Air Force Squadron, on Beaufighters, and 219 and 488 (NZ) Squadrons on Mosquitoes for the rest of the war. When John finished, he was a squadron leader and flight commander on 488. His only kill was a Focke Wulf 190 he shot down over France on November 1944.
He remained in the RAF and after the war transferred to jet aircraft, flying Gloster Meteors, the RAF’s first jet fighter.
John was seconded to the US Marine Corps in 1950 and flew F3D Skyknights in the Korean War.
He retired from the air force in 1965. His last military post was as air attaché in Brussels, and his final rank group captain.
The last time John flew an aircraft was in Tauranga for his 90th birthday. With an instructor on board he took off, flew around ‘did a few tight turns’ and landed.
John bought an orchard in the Bay of Plenty after returning to New Zealand. Late last year he flew to England to attend the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and the dedication of the statue of Sir Keith Park, the New Zealander who directed the day-to-day operations of the RAF fighters in the key defence sector during the battle.
John was born in Dunedin on June 14, 1918. He is survived by his wife Suzanne, two sons and two daughters.