Reach for the Sky

Surfing the net (as you do), I chanced upon This is Your Life – an ancient Eamonn Andrews show, where the guest was Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader CBE, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar, DL, FRAeS.

(Not that I’m likely ever likely to be asked on to This is Your Life, but, personally, I hate surprises.  I have a notion that if I’d ever had the green book and the microphone shoved in my face, I would have been very ill-mannered and said sod off.  But who knows?  Why would you disoblige dear friends who had gathered together on your behalf?)

Now Sir Douglas was a notoriously prickly character, and I wonder if Eamonn had any reservations about approaching him.  He was ambushed during a charity do where he was dispensing largesse, and he took the whole thing in good grace, as if it were a marvellous wheeze.  Back at the studio, there was a glittering parade of the great and the good.

I was curious to hear about Sir Douglas because, oddly enough, I’d had a description from first hand at close quarters.  A friend of my father’s happened to be a POW in Stalag Luft 3, where Sir Douglas was incarcerated before his transfer to Colditz.  “Bader?  Frightful fellow!”  I have to say my father’s friend did not have a good word for several other high profile POWs, who apparently continuously goaded the Germans who would then extract reprisals, of a more or less petty nature, on everybody in the camp, to increase the general level of discomfort.  Sir Douglas had a reputation of a man who was inherently belligerent, foul mouthed, bullying, aggressive, rude, cocky, and generally insufferable.  He seemed to have been a “marmite” pilot; you either loved him or loathed him.  Bader and Bob Stanford Tuck, for example, clashed, although their relationship later warmed.

Well, from This is your Life, I had the impression of a man who had mellowed.  But who can say?  Perhaps he was advised that, on the show, all he needed to do was smile and say nothing, which was pretty much what he did.  Perhaps there was an indication of control freakery in his propensity to direct his guests to their seats, even before Eamonn had the chance to interview them.  A commander, then.  Eamonn dealt with this with the utmost tact.  There was plenty of reference to Bader as hero and inspiration, fearless and indomitable, and if there was any reference to the darker side of his sheer bloody-mindedness, it was generally in the form of a quip.  Stanford Tuck told the well-known anecdote of Bader being transferred out of the prison camp, passing a line of German soldiers, and “inspecting the buggers”.  I thought that was perhaps a tactless expression in view of the presence of Adolf Galland, but no doubt General Galland had heard it all before.  Galland’s own anecdote was remarkable: when Bader was shot down, the Luftwaffe invited him to tea (this must have been before the death of chivalry), and Bader asked if he might sit in the cockpit of a Messerschmitt 109.  Galland duly obliged.  Then Bader asked if he might take off and fly one circuit round the aerodrome.  I had the impression that if he had given his solemn parole not to attempt to escape, his wish might have been granted.  But it was a request too far.  Maybe Galland realised that Bader, once airborne, would attack.

The Germans held Bader in great awe.   When he was shot down, he only managed to bale out by detaching one of his tin legs that had got jammed under the rudder pedals.  The Germans let the RAF drop off a replacement leg.  Mind you, that sortie was appended to a routine bombing raid.

I would have liked to hear a little more of Bader’s aggressive side.  It might have shed some light on some of the great battles within Fighter Command, 12 versus 11 group, Trafford Leigh Mallory versus Keith Park, the Big Wing versus the individual fighter.  As with any large organisation, the senior officers of the RAF vied with one another for power.  Men like Park, and Sir Hugh Dowding, were eventually pushed out.  This is the side of the story one hears less about.  I suspect the definitive history of the RAF is yet to be written.

So throughout the show, I was intrigued to discover whether I was looking upon a great hero and an inspiration during the Battle of Britain, or a pain in the neck.  They played a clip of the actor Kenneth More, who played Bader in the film Reach for the Sky, suffering the catastrophe that was the defining moment of Sir Douglas’ life, the slow roll at low level in 1931 that all went pear-shaped and cost him his legs.  I say “defining moment”, but of course the real defining characteristic of the man was precisely that he refused to allow this single incident to define his life.  But it was interesting to observe the reaction of the man watching his own daredevil act of folly, the crash that so nearly cost him his life.  Maybe it was all down to the stiff upper lip, but I had the odd impression that Sir Douglas was watching something that had happened to somebody else.

Equally intriguing was his reaction to the guests in the studio and to the televised tributes from afar.  He greeted his friends and colleagues with warmth and affection, always rising to shake hands or embrace those who came to the studio.  Some of the guests were extraordinarily distinguished, including, in addition to Stanford Tuck and Adolf Galland, Johnnie Johnson, Vera Lynn (she called him Duggie), the actors John Mills and James Stewart, and, by mail, Elizabeth R, the Queen Mother.  He greeted them all with cordiality but, I thought (with the possible exception of the Queen Mother), a certain emotional detachment.  I wondered, is this a complex character or, on the contrary, is there a profound simplicity here, a man who is defined by just a few overwhelming impulses, the impulse to aggression, for victory, and for recognition, alongside the total absence of the impulse to fear?

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