Sunday 16 November 2008

Sydenham VC holders

Sydenham can boast several VC holders. The earliest holder I could find was Private Harry Hook (1850-1905) who received his VC at Rorke's Drift, Natal, in 1879. He bought his discharge in June 1880 and came to live on Sydenham Hill. However by March 1881 he was working as a groom in Monmouthshire (he probably did similar work in one of the large houses on Sydenham Hill), so his links with Sydenham were short-lived.

Major Francis Harvey (1873-1916) has a rather stronger connection as he was born in Sydenham, although I haven't yet been able to establish where. He was mortally wounded at the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916, and his VC was awarded posthumously.

Our next VC technically lived in Camberwell. Commander Gordon Campbell (1886-1953) was the seventh son of Colonel Frederick Campbell who lived at 2 Crescent Wood Road, Sydenham Hill from about 1882 until his death in 1926. Gordon attended Dulwich College and on leaving in 1900 joined the navy. He won his VC in February 1917, as commander of a Q-ship (a tramp steamer armed with hidden guns and torpedoes, intended to lure U-boats). Gordon Campbell's nephew, Lt Col Lorne Campbell (who grew up in a house near the petrol station on Crystal Palace Parade) also won a VC, during World War 2.

However, Philip Gardner had the strongest links with Sydenham. His father, Stanley, lived at 37 Trewsbury Road from about 1914. Stanley ran the family business, J Gardner & Co, Monument Works, Beckenham. They made air-conditioning equipment.

Pip was born in Sydenham on Christmas Day, 1914. He attended Dulwich College 1928-1932 and, on leaving, went to work in the family firm. In 1938 he joined the Westminster Dragoons, Territorial Army (confiding to a friend: "I must do my duty, but I'm no soldier"). In 1940 he was commissioned into the Royal Tank Regiment and in April 1941 was posted to North Africa.

In June 1941 Pip was awarded the MC. Several tanks had entered a minefield in Libya, and become immobilised. The senior officer, inspecting the damage, stepped on a mine. Pip jumped from his own tank and walked through enemy machine-gun fire to the injured officer. He returned to his tank to get morphine, and went back to the officer. The man was dying, so Gardner stayed with him until the end, still under machine-gun fire. He then led the tanks back to safety.

Five months later, at Tobruk, Pip won his VC. He took two tanks to assist two armoured cars, broken down and easy targets for enemy gunfire. Pip tied a tow-rope to one of the cars. It broke, so he returned to the car and, despite wounds to his arm and leg, he managed to carry a wounded man back to the tank, and eventually safety, all the time under heavy fire. The citation said: "The courage, determination and complete disregard for his own safety … enabled him, despite his wounds and in the face of intense fire at close range, to save the life of his fellow officer in circumstances fraught with great difficulty and danger" or, as he put it in a letter to his parents: "I went back again and got the poor chap out of the car and on to the tank and set off again".

Pip Gardner died in 2003 aged 88. He showed genuine heroism, all the more impressive because of his modesty. One obituary described him as "the most delightful of men, combining modesty, courage and charm with sensitivity and strength of character". When he was 71 he caught a robber in the street, and held him until police arrived. Afterwards he commented to his companion: "Well, that got the adrenaline going a bit!"

Pip sold the engineering side of the business in 1988, but remained chairman of J Gardner Holdings until 2001. Although he long ago moved from the area, the Gardner Industrial Estate, in Kent House Lane, is a tangible reminder of his close links with Sydenham.

I am very grateful to Jan Piggott for providing much information on Pip Gardner.


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Rodney Compton said...

Hi Steve - I was talking to a chap the other day who described the area around Bell Green as 'paradise' or 'heaven' or something like that - any reflections