Bernard, Percy Ronald Gardner, fifth Earl of Bandon 1904-1979, air chief marshal, was born some twenty minutes before his twin brother at Gillingham, Kent, 30 August 1904, the eldest of the three children (the last of whom was a daughter) of Ronald Percy Hamilton Bernard, great-grandson of the second Earl of Bandon and a captain in the Rifle Brigade, and his wife, Lettice Mina, daughter of Captain Gerald Cecil Stewart Paget, son of Lord Alfred Paget, fifth son of the first Marquess of Anglesey [qv.]. Percy Bernard, invariably known as Paddy, lived during his childhood on the Theobald's Park estate in Hertfordshire where his parents had been loaned a house by the eccentric Lady Meux. In the summer of 1914 he and his twin brother were sent to St. Aubyn's Preparatory School at Rottingdean, and four years later both boys entered Orange dormitory at Wellington College where the elder was incorrectly referred to as Bernard minor throughout his school-days. Although he showed promise as an athlete and rugger player he never excelled academically and it was only after spending the summer of 1922 at a Norfolk crammer that he passed the entrance examinations to the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell.
In May 1924 he became the fifth Earl of Bandon on the death of his grandfather's cousin. The peerage being Irish did not carry with it a seat in the House of Lords. His inheritance was the estate of Castle Bernard in county Cork, but the castle had been burnt down by the Sinn Fein in 1920 and the fourth Earl had deliberately made little financial provision for his successor. The saving grace was the £123,000 compensation paid by the governor for the destruction of the castle. From the viewpoint of the Royal Air Force the fact that Cadet Bernard was now the Earl of Bandon had immediate significance and future value. The army and navy had counted men of title amongst their serving officers for generations, but it was unprecedented for a twenty-year-old peer of the realm to be making his career in the RAF which was still struggling to retain its independence as the third Service.
During the next two decades Bandon served as an instructor at Sealand, near Birkenhead; was posted to Egypt for five halcyon years where he became adjutant of No. 216 Squadron and gained renown as the pilot of the first Vickers Victoria to fly non-stop from Khartoum to Cairo; commanded No. 82 Squadron at the outbreak of World War II; was appointed to the DSO (1940); and in 1941 became station commander at West Raynham. The next year he was posted to AHQ India before joining headquarters, South-East Asia Command. At the end of the Burma campaign, already mentioned three times in dispatches he was honoured by the Americans who awarded him the USAAF Distinguished Flying Cross for leadership and command and the Bronze Star medal.
On his return to England he became commandant of the Royal Observer Corps and revitalized their morale which was low since wartime incentive had departed and their future was uncertain. He was air officer commanding No. 2 Group of the British Air Forces of Occupation, Germany, in 1950-1 and subsequently, as AOC No. 11 Group had the responsibility for organizing the coronation fly-past over Buckingham Palace and the coronation review of the RAF at Odiham in 1953. After serving as assistant chief of air staff (training), he was appointed C-in-C 2nd Allied Tactical Air Force in Germany, and in March 1957 was officially reprimanded by the secretary of state for air, George Ward (later Viscount Ward of Witley), for giving information to foreign pressmen that tactical atomic weapons would soon be stored in Europe. As C-in-C Far East Air Force from 1957 to 1960 he received a rocket telegram from Earl Mountbatten of Burma [qv.] in August 1959 after he had shrewdly realized the strategic importance to the RAF of the Indian Ocean island of Gan and virtually commandeered it. His final posting was as commander Allied Air Fores, Central Europe, 1961-3. He was promoted to air chief marshal in July 1959, and placed on the retired list in February 1964. He was created CB (1945), CVO (1953), KBE (1957), and GBE (1961).
Throughout his distinguished career Bandon retained the élan of the pioneering days of the Royal Air Force which was always his first love. He possessed moral courage to a high degree and had the gift of conveying to those around him, irrespective of rank, a sense of loyalty. Affectionately known as The Abandoned Earl, in his later years he epitomized the man that young airmen hoped a senior RAF officer would be. His qualities of leadership were acknowledged to be outstanding, but equally his schoolboy humour, his practical jokes, and his crude language allied to his non-conformist attitude were frequently resented, particularly by those who found it difficult to recognize his true ability.
In 1933 he married (Maybel) Elizabeth, second daughter of Raymond William Playfair, banker, of Nairobi, Kenya. Two daughters were born before the marriage was dissolved in 1946. In that year he married Mrs Lois White, daughter of Francis Russell, banker, of Victoria, Australia.
He always found pleasure in fishing, particularly in the river Bandon where salmon abounded, and in shooting, especially in the bogs where snipe and woodcock were to be found in the vicinity of Castle Bernard. He was also an enthusiastic gardener with considerable knowledge of rhododendrons. He died 8 February 1979 at the Bon Secours Hospital in Cork, after a short illness. As there was no male heir the earldom became extinct.
A portrait in oils (c. 1969) of Bandon in the uniform of an air chief marshal and the robes of a peer of the realm hangs in the dining hall at the Royal Air Force College, Cranwell.
The Times, 23 November 1979
Contributor: Michael Seth-Smith