Friday, February 19, 2010
Douglas Bader: A Flawed Hero
It's exactly 100 years ago this week since the birth of the great WW2 fighter ace Douglas Bader. Here's my Daily Express piece on a very courageous- but flawed- British hero.
HE was the most famous fighter pilot Britain has known. a man who overcame the loss of both legs to command a Fighter Squadron during the Battle of Britain. Shot down and captured by the Germans, his numerous escape attempts led him to being imprisoned in Colditz Castle.
Douglas Bader, born 100 years ago this week, was a man of extraordinary courage and determination. Yet there was a darker side to this great British war hero. He could be arrogant, selfish and breathtakingly rude. He treated underlings appallingly and was thoroughly disliked by many of his comrades. He was prone to boasting and showing off.
The traditional view is that it was Bader’s accident at the age of 21 that made him into such a tenacious, aggressive and at times difficult man. But as a new book by SP Mackenzie reveals it was Bader’s harsh and unhappy childhood that forged his uncompromising character and instilled in him the iron will with which he was to overcome the enormous challenges he faced in his early life.
Born into a middle-class family on February 21 1910, the young Bader was neglected. when his parents returned to India to work they left baby Douglas behind, farming him out to relatives on the Isle of Man for the first two years of his life. According to a cousin, his mother, who had become ill with measles during childbirth and required a major operation, “hated” her new son and always took the side of his elder brother Derick in any dispute.
Bader’s father, a civil engineer, was “a remote gruff figure” who fought regularly with his wife. shorn of parental affection and subject to intense sibling rivalry Douglas cut a sad and lonely figure.
“The only times he cried,” writes previous biographer Paul Brickhill, “were when his parents and Derick went visiting in the car and left him behind, which they often did.”
After his father died from injuries he had received in the First world war his mother married a Yorkshire clergyman. But the mild-mannered Reverend ernest Hobbs failed to become the sort of father-figure the young Douglas lacked.
Meanwhile sibling rivalries intensified. During one summer holiday Derick shot Bader in the shoulder at close range with an air-gun. Unable to assert himself against his older brother, Bader started to pick fights with other children – a sign of the aggressive nature he would put to good effect when targeting enemy air- craft in the second world war.
At St Edward’s, his public school in Oxford, he failed to shine in the class- room but excelled at almost all sports. Yet here too trouble was never far away. He once was beaten up by an older boy, the future film star Laurence Olivier, after he had bowled him out during a cricket match.
“By the time he was in his final year at school the central elements of his nature were already manifesting themselves: the urge to compete and win, the desire to lead, the need to prove himself, the blustery self-confidence that marked a certain loneliness,” writes Mackenzie.
Bader admitted he had “no idea” about what to do after leaving school but a visit to a former pupil who was now a cadet at the RaF College at Cranwell whetted his appetite for a career in the air. He felt instantly at home in the rough and tumble world of the RAF and showed a natural talent for flying.
However his over-confidence and love of dare- devil stunts was to cost him dear. In November 1931 Bader tried to perform an acrobatic roll in which his wing-tips would be no more than 10ft off the ground. He badly misjudged his speed and his plane cart-wheeled into the ground.
Bader was lucky to escape with his life. Only the early arrival of a rescuer prevented him from bleeding to death and when Bader arrived at hospital he was just in time to catch one of the best surgeons of the day before he left for home. Bader’s right leg had to be amputated above the knee, his left leg was cut off below the knee shortly after.
Yet he was determined his disabilities were not going to end his career. His Lazarus-style recovery was, as Mackenzie states, “to prove a unparalleled triumph of determination and willpower over physical adversity”. Bader, fitted with tin legs, was back in the cockpit less than a year after his accident.
The RAF was less keen about the disabled pilot returning to fly but Bader bombarded the air Ministry with phone calls demanding an interview. with characteristic bloody-mindedness he declared he would never take no for an answer.
“By God, I’ll sit on their doorsteps until I get in,” he vowed. a month later the air Ministry finally relented. “Getting back into the RAF was a masterpiece of persistence,” Bader wrote.
This fiercely ambitious man was soon in charge of his own squadron. “People fell in behind him because he had the personality to run things,” remarked a subordinate.
On September 7 1940 Bader and the pilots of three RAF squadrons engaged the Luftwaffe in battle over London. Twenty German planes were destroyed, 10 by Bader’s squadron. Bader was eager not only to combat the Germans but also to take on the RAF’s higher command over tactics.
He believed that mass fighter formations would yield better results than the more cautious system favoured by the commander-in-chief Hugh Dowding. Not for the first time Bader got his way and he was promoted to wing commander.
However in August 1941 his combat days came to an end when he was forced to bail out over northern France and was captured. The Germans didn’t know what they were letting themselves in for. Bader had one aim: to escape and return home to rejoin the war effort. He made so many escape attempts that the Germans threatened to take away his artificial legs.
Eventually Bader ended up in Colditz. There he continued to take delight in annoying his captors, blowing pipe smoke into their faces and refusing to salute those lower in rank than himself. His “goon-baiting” didn’t go down well with all the other prisoners who often suffered privations as a consequence.
Bader's self-centredness was also demonstrated by the way he treated his medical orderly Alec Ross, who regularly had to give him piggy-back rides up and down the stairs of Colditz Castle. “I don’t think all the time I knew him he said ‘please’ or ‘thank you’,” revealed Ross. When Ross told Bader that he was going home in an exchange of prisoners Bader replied: “No, you’re bloody not. You came here as my skivvy and that’s what you’ll stay.”
When the war was over Bader was urged to stand as a Conservative MP but refused, stating that the only political job he would be interested in would be prime minister.
Despite such arrogance his status as a national hero was given a further boost with Paul Brickhill’s biography Reach For The Sky in 1954, which was made into an equally popular film starring Kenneth More.
Although he did mellow slightly with age Bader could still be outrageous. At one Luftwaffe reunion in Munich, he looked at a beer cellar full of his former foes and said, “My God, I had no idea we left so many of the bastards alive.”
In 1982 Bader, who had been knighted six years earlier, died from a heart attack aged 72. Perhaps his greatest legacy was the inspiration he gave to others. Mackenzie tells the story of David Butler, who at 12 lost a hand and both legs in a bomb explosion. “I very much admire Bader,” said Butler. “When you see what he has been able to achieve you go and try to do it yourself.”