One of the first soldiers to witness the horrors of Belsen concentration camp
On June 6, it’ll be 74 years since Allied troops began one of the most audacious and daring operations of the Second World War: the invasion of France.
In this edition of The Big Interview, we meet Légion d’honneur recipient John Gardiner – a veteran of D-Day, the Battle of the Ardennes and one of the first soldiers to step foot inside Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp.
It didn’t take long to realise just what he had been through during the war, as he showed us his original dog tags attached to a metal chain.
He described how one of them was fireproof so could be picked out of the ashes, and the other wouldn’t get destroyed in water if he were to drown.
The reality of what he was expected to give as a soldier during the Second World War hit home.
However, before he ever left for the shores of France, there was enough complication just getting him into a regiment.
After signing up and taking his primary and core lessons for a few months, he was sent to Northampton
but after a week, he still hadn’t been assigned anywhere.
“My mates all got posted away and I couldn’t understand it. An officer came over asked how long I had been waiting to be assigned for and I said two weeks. I got taken away and put in a cell! I didn’t know what the hell was going on.”
Every day for over a week, John was taken out of his cell and put in front of a soldier who asked him all manner of questions from where he lived in Devon to how many cinemas there were in Sidmouth.
“I even got asked what the constable’s name was in my little town.”
It turned out that John hadn’t taken his papers with him when he left his core training and they didn’t know who he was.
“Eventually they said ‘Have you ever thought of joining the Airborne Division?’ I said ‘No’, so they said ‘Answer that question again!’ I knew what he was getting at then!”
So, at the tender age of just 18, this is where John’s war would begin – with the 12th (Airborne) Battalion, the Devonshire Regiment invading the beaches of Normandy.
“Well, they didn’t have enough room, because it was three battalions, so only a few managed to go and land by glider and the rest of us all had to go land on the beaches to rejoin them and hold the left flank.”
John, along with his comrades, landed on Sword Beach and they fought their way to join those that had managed to go via glider and take Pegasus Bridge.
Not long after crossing, and after a following battle in which he was shelled for four hours, he earned his first stripe:
“They came down and shouted ‘Corporal Gardiner! Corporal Gardiner!’, I didn’t answer. I just thought ‘Oh, someone’s got my name as well’.
‘Corporal bloody Gardiner, where are you?!’
‘He then came down and said ‘What’s your name?’ – I said ‘Private Gardiner’. He said ‘Well bloody get up CORPORAL Gardiner!”’
The officer took a piece of chalk, gave him a stripe and said ‘now bugger off up to 13th Platoon.’
Things weren’t going to get any safer or easier. One of his next tasks, which could easily fit in a Hollywood film, was to go out at night and get as close as he could to hear what the Germans were doing on their front lines, as they were trying to move their tanks without turning the engines on.
“You had to be so careful because they had mined all the roads with S-mines.”
These mines contained thousands of ball bearings and would spring up into the air if set off. They were all tied together, so if you set one off, the whole set would blow.
“We had to go out with masking tape, crawling and feel for these wires. If there were no wires, you had to put this tape along as you went along.
‘It was to make sure that if you had to run for it, you didn’t bloody well kill yourself as you just ran straight between these lines of masking tape!”
The life of his and his fellow soldiers were put into the hands of a thin line of tape.
After a few months holding the area and a number of other battles, including pushing the Germans back across the Seine, John and his fellow comrades were relieved and returned home to England to complete some more training.
“It came to Christmas Eve and the Sergeant came in he said ‘Right! Everyone get out! Draw your [battle] kit – we’re on the move!’
‘We had to get into trucks and then get on these aircraft and they flew us out to Brussels. And they said ‘You’re going up into the Ardennes!”’
The Airbornes were sent into the Ardennes to clear the Germans out and push them back across the Dutch border as they went.
“I just remember it was bloody freezing!”
After a few months of fighting, on the way out of the Ardennes after being relieved, they could only move at night and they had to walk in broken steps to avoid being spotted or heard.
“We had to stop at this little farm. There was an old lady and a bloke. I remember the old lady saying ‘You like meat? All English Tommy like meat!’
‘And then she said ‘You English people are funny. It’s f***ing this and f***ing that. You drink and drink all the time!’
‘I thought she was swearing at me! It wasn’t until we moved into Germany that I realised that Foching was a drink and said to myself ‘Oh! That’s what she was on about – drinking all the time!”’
After coming back from the Ardennes to England to train again, John’s war was only going to get more intense.
The 6th Airborne was sent 50 miles over the German front line on the Rhine as part of Operation Varsity, an operation involving more than 16,000 paratroopers and several thousand aircraft. It was the largest airborne operation in history to be conducted on a single day and in one location.
The British 6th Airborne Division was ordered to capture the villages of Schnappenberg and Hamminkeln, clear part of the Diersfordter Wald (Diersfordt Forest) of German forces, and secure three bridges over the River Issel.
During this Operation, John and his fellow soldiers had to advance on this German ridge and, after 74 years, the emotion was just as raw as it had been at the time. A fellow Devonian and best mate from Newton Abbot, Jack Bristow, was advancing with John and was shot through the stomach.
“He was right beside me and I can always remember it, he put up his hand and said ‘John, don’t leave me here.’”
John’s voice broke for a second during the interview and he took a second to compose himself. “An officer came up behind and said ‘Don’t bloody stop – someone will take care of him!’
I found out later, he had died.”
John and the 6th Airborne had to push on to the Baltic coast to meet up with the Russians. On the way, though, they would stumble upon something that would come to define the horror of the Second World War.
He was driving with a superior officer carrying supplies when they were stopped by an old man. “We were just about to move on and we heard ‘Are you Americano?’
‘There was this bloody great gate with barbed wire all over it and this one little lowly bloke standing inside. All he wanted was the Americano.
‘He opened the gate, and there was all these buildings in behind. He took us over to this corner and opened this door and there were these bunk beds with all barbed wire on the bunks.
‘We came out and we saw this bloody great pit full of bodies.”
John had just been one of the first Allied soldiers to enter the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. “We always had cameras because we picked them up from captured Germans and I took some photos and then we went on to meet the Russians and met them about 10 or 12 days before the war ended.”
When John eventually developed the photos, he realised that there were some photos of German soldiers already on the camera.
After briefly returning home, John would shortly find himself in Italy where he would join the military police.
When asked if he was ever injured during the course of the war, it hit home just how lucky I was to have been talking to him today: During his landing over the Rhine, John and his fellow soldiers were tasked with blowing up a German pylon before moving up further into enemy lines.
“Me and a mate were told to go into a trench up on a ridge and keep an eye on the front, watching for any Germans moving up through. We did that and anyone moving through the grass, I just opened up the Bren gun.
‘Then the Sergeant came over and said take five, so I put my helmet down and sat on my helmet.
‘I didn’t realise that the trench was booby-trapped and I put my helmet over a mine that had been dug into the sand. After moving around for a little while, chatting, it must have pulled the pin out and it went off right under my helmet!”
John couldn’t feel his legs or walk afterwards but his comrades refused to leave him behind. He was moved around for the next two days on a trailer containing mortar shells before a mixture of fear, as he described, and perseverance got him moving around again. His helmet saved his life.
John would find himself in the military police for a little while before returning to his hometown of Sidmouth and spending the next few decades on the buses.
Before even reaching his early 20s, John had invaded the beaches of Normandy, fought in the forests of the Ardennes and was hit by the horrors of discovering a German concentration camp.
However, what I found most telling, was that the most animated John got was describing how he, at the age of 93, could no longer drive.
I can tell you now: they don’t make them like him anymore.