The man behind the legend

By John Behague

During the war, who would have thought that someone busily dropping bombs on the Germans would eventually be made a saint? Well, that has seriously been considered for the late Group Captain Lord Leonard Cheshire. There seems no doubt that his work after the war for the sick and dying is worthy of greater recognition. But when I heard about the discussion over Group Captain Cheshire I thought of another man, also a pilot, also a hero, and just as deserving of a higher accolade. His name was Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader, and I was privileged to have met him.

Those who knew Douglas Bader during the Battle of Britain and later in Colditz had mixed feelings about him. He had charisma and charm, but some regarded him as cocky, demanding, outspoken and impatient. A good many of his superiors called him arrogant. To younger pilots he was a living legend, to some older ones a brute.

He was all these things and more, and set a vigorous pace and an example some found impossible to follow. He also possessed enormous guts, and fierce determination. Most of the things he endured and achieved after the war would put some saints to shame, but the last thing he wanted in life was to be placed on a pedestal.

1 first met Bader after the war when he was a flying ambassador for Shell and I was working with BBC News. Whenever he returned from some trailblazing trip or other he would immediately go to earth. He tended to shun the Press, but I soon found he had a soft spot for the BBC, and was able to coax one or two stories from him.

He would grimace, suck at his pipe, sway backwards and forwards on his tin legs and say: "Look, old boy, there are far, far better fish in the sea than me, and I can't tell you anything!" But if you persisted, he would give way and respond in short, staccato sentences, and the resulting interviews made good broadcasts.

At that time I was responsible for a weekly BBC slot called Sentimental Journey in which I would transport prominent people back through time to their moments of great triumph or disaster.

The series became quite popular and I desperately wanted an airman. I wanted to interview Bader, and take him to Kenley Airfield, near Croydon, from where he'd taken off on a fateful day in 1931, and later crashed and lost his legs.

"He won't do it," they all told me.

It was a most presumptuous proposition, they said. To question a man about a catastrophe which had seared his life was one thing, but to expect him to return to the scene was another. I phoned Douglas Bader. After I had put the request to him there was a long pause. I heard him draw on his pipe.

I waited.

Then he spoke: "Well, old boy, since it's you, and it's Kenley, I'd love to see the old station again. You fix it. Make it next Monday at ten, and I'll be there." That was it.

The date was mid-March, 1966. I'd arrived early at Kenley to meet the WAAF commanding officer, and she was showing me the wall in the mess bearing the signatures of the famous Battle of Britain pilots who had operated from the airfield during the war.

Suddenly there was a squeal of brakes and a sports car pulled up outside. It was spot on ten o'clock and the straight, stocky figure of Douglas Bader appeared.

"What the heck's all this?" were his opening remarks as he stepped in, scattering a group of WAAF officers. "Who let them in?"

In his day, the mess was a strictly male domain, and when he realised the station was now non-operational and an all-female records establishment, he appeared somewhat bemused.

I took him to the end of the strip, switched on my recorder, and we were soon back in the days when young Bader was flying Bristol Bulldog bi-planes, playing every kind of sport, indulging in wild antics - which on one occasion came close to seeing him kicked out of the air force - and enjoying life to the full.

"It was truly a man's life," he told me. "We weren't allowed to get married until we were 30. We all lived in the mess, dined-in four nights a week and spent the weekends playing sport. There were no women on the station. We all knew each other, went out together, played games together, flew together. Life was great, and flying was what we all loved."

"Do you mind talking about the accident that changed your life?" I asked.

He bit hard on his pipe. "It was quite simple," he said. "I did what we all used to do. I flew low. I did an acrobatic very near to the ground, made an error, and the result was I lost my legs. The great thing about this is that I've always felt in life that if something happens to you which is your own fault, it makes it much easier. If I'd been knocked down by a car I would have felt differently about it. But11ost my legs flying, and it was entirely my own fault and nobody else's. So it made a tremendous difference to my mental approach to it."

But there was more to it than that, surely. Was it just guts or some other quality that kept him going?

"I think it's a sense of humour more than anything else," he said. "Some people have great courage. Those I admire tremendously are the paraplegics and polio victims, who often have some inner strength which enables them to go on with life. As for the word 'guts', you can use it in the widest possible sense, and I don't know whether it's guts or adaptability, but my own belief is that the real thing in life is to have a sense of humour so that you can laugh at yourself."

What about his bolshie attitude towards some of his superiors during the Battle of Britain when he was a squadron commander? It was all to do with the "battle of bumph", he said. He firmly believed that if he hadn't ditched most of the memos and letters that came flooding in to his office, he wouldn't have had time to take on the Luftwaffe.

He deliberately ignored all the letters from Group HQ or Fighter Command until they sent a signal requesting a reply. Then he would send one. "Only about two per cent of the letters I got were followed up by a signal asking me to reply," he said. He therefore saved time which he could use to badger his pilots and keep his maintenance teams on top line.

In the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading where he was taken after the crash he began to sink rapidly. It was only when he overheard a remark by a nurse that he was dying, that he decided it was not on, and willed himself to get better.

Bader's Belief

Would he call himself a religious man?

"I believe that there is something at the end of all this, but what it is I don't know. I try to act and behave like a Christian in the Christian code, but I'm not a dyed-in-the-wool blind faith Christian. My own belief is that we come back again. I don't believe we end this life in a blank. I think the word is reincarnation."

After the interview he took off on another of his trips for Shell and I did not hear from him again for some years. However, unobserved by the public and even most of his friends, Douglas Bader was bringing hope to people all over the world who had suffered disabilities such as his. He would travel hundreds of miles at his own expense to visit men, women and children who had lost limbs. Children still in a state of shock would perk up and take notice of this man with the big smile, cheerful confdence and tin legs, and make excellent recoveries.

If his Air Force acquaintances who had resented his quick tongue and forceful manner, could have seen him at the bedsides of people, showing them how to use their new limbs, they would have changed their opinion of him.

I was still not altogether sure of his philosophy until I came across a book called The Bader Tapes written by John Frayn Turner, one of his closest friends. It includes details of Bader's work for the limbless, with charming stories of his love for children and how they followed him around like a Pied Piper.

To Douglas Bader everything had to be done now. He lived in a world of the present, always looked forward and never looked back. Positive thinking was his philosophy. He believed people could achieve anything if they had the will and the nerve. He was the first man in the world to lose both legs, and then walk without a stick and lead a normal life. It was a great triumph of mind over matter.

If you had ever suggested to this remarkable man that he had saint-like qualities he would have stuck the stem of his pipe into your chest and exclaimed: "Saint! Don't be daft, old boy," and burst into peals of laughter.

Yet someone very close to him once called him "one of the greatest Christians alive". I hope Leonard Cheshire eventually gets his sainthood. All that Douglas Bader ever wanted was his wings.

Attempt to shoot down Bader

In December, 1996, a TV programme did its best to besmirch Bader. It prompted the following letter from me to a London newspaper:

SIR-- Why do we denigrate our dead heroes? No other country in the world does it, but for some reason we delight in digging up the dirt on great men. Churchill's bones have several times been turned over, T.E. Lawrence is still being hounded; Colonel Spencer Chapman, who bravely carried on the war against the Japanese from the jungles of Malaya, has been called weak and insecure; Guy Gibson VC, leader of the Dam Busters Squadron, whose brilliant book Enemy Coast Ahead became a best seller, has been called a merely average pilot, bumptious and extrovert. Now comes the criticism of legless pilot Douglas Bader as being crass, egotistical and suffering from a personality disorder.

I despair, and so must many other ex-servicemen.

When I worked for the BBC after the war I met Bader several times, and on one occasion took him to the airfield at Kenley, near Croydon, from where he'd taken off on a fateful day in 1931 and met disaster. He was friendly, tough, and was happy to talk about his attitude to life.

He reckoned it was his ability to laugh at himself that kept him going, but you realised that he didn't treat fools particularly gladly, and at times his tongue could be like steel. He admitted the accident to have been a stupid mistake on his part but there was nothing else for him to do but press on, which he did admirably. He was anything but crass and egotistical, and refused to talk about what he'd done after the war.

What I found out later was that Douglas Bader for many years acted as an angel of mercy, travelling long distances at his own expense to hospitals to visit children who had lost their limbs, and by demonstrating how well he managed on his own tin legs brought new hope into their shattered lives. He became a kind of flying Pied Piper and the youngsters loved him.

Douglas Bader hated publicity and if he were alive to day and heard what was being said, he'd probably puff away at his pipe, laugh a bit, then say "bloody idiots!" And that would be that. It would be like water off an old duck's back.


Brighton, Sussex

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