Heroes of the Skies

Was Bader our greatest flying ace?
Sunday Express by Lord Ashcroft article on 16 September 2012


HE was immortalised in the book and film Reach For The Sky, which chronicled an extraordinary life and career during which he was one of Britain's most successful fighter aces of the Second World War. Douglas Bader finished the conflict with the remarkable achievement of being credited with 20 victories, four shared victories, six "probables", one shared "probable" and 11 enemy aircraft damaged.

Bader's score is all the more remarkable because eight years before war broke out he crashed his aircraft while attempting aerobatics: an accident that cost him both his legs.

Bader, the subject of the first episode of a six-part Channel 5 series Heroes Of The Skies, which I present this week, was born in St John's Wood, north-west London, on February 21, 1910, the second son of a civil engineer and his wife.

He took his first instructed flight on September 13, 1928, and flew solo on February 19, 1929. Bader was commissioned as a pilot officer into 23 Squadron, based at RAF Kenley, Surrey, on July 26, 1930.

On December 14, 1931, while training to defend his pairs' title at the forthcoming 1932 Hendon Air Show, Bader carried out some low-level stunts in a Bulldog above Berkshire. When the tip of his left wing touched the ground he crashed and was badly injured.

At the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading one of his legs was amputated above the knee, the other below the knee. Bader's entry in his logbook stated: "Bad show."

During a long convalescence he received a pair of artificial legs that enabled him to drive a modified car, play golf and dance.

As the Second World War loomed Bader angled for a posting and finally regained a medical categorisation for operational flying in November 1939. On November 27, 1939, almost eight years after his accident, Bader flew solo once more.

It was with 222 Squadron that he tasted his first combat. On June 1, 1940, while patrolling the coast near Dunkirk, he shot down a Messerschmitt Me 109 fighter. More "kills" soon followed, including five claimed in a single day.

Between October 1940 and July 1941 Bader was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and Bar, and the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) yet at this point and indeed for much of the war Bader divided opinion: many fellow pilots admired his courage, leadership and determination. Others considered him selfish, crass and arrogant.

On August 9, 1941, while over the French coast, he ran out of luck, suffering an apparent mid-air collision (though it is possible he was shot down). With his fuselage, tail and fin gone from behind him he descended into a spin at around 400mph. He even found himself trapped by one of his prosthetic legs but eventually managed to parachute to safety.

As a PoW Bader was treated with respect by the Germans: a drop-off was arranged to replace his lost leg. It was while Bader was in the early stages of being a PoW that the Bar to his DFC was announced on September 9, 1941.

In August 1942, after several escape attempts, Bader was sent to Colditz Castle where he remained until April 1945, when he was freed by the advancing US Army.

Bader returned to Britain a war hero and in June 1945 led a victory flypast of 300 aircraft over London. However his affection for the RAF waned and he retired as a group captain in July 1946 to take a job with Royal Dutch Shell, which had taken him on after his 1931 accident. He worked as chairman of Shell Aircraft Ltd until retiring in 1969.

His fame had grown worldwide after his biography Reach For The Sky by Paul Brickhill was published in 1954. Two years later in a film of the same name Kenneth More starred as Bader. On January 2, 1956 Bader was appointed a CBE for services to the disabled and was knighted in June 1976. He died aged 72 from a heart attack when returning from an RAF dinner in London on September 5, 1982.

Bader became the most famous British pilot of the war and was arguably also the best. Brickhill concluded: "I agree with those who class him as the best fighter leader and tactician of the Second World War (and one of the best pilots). Also I know of no fighter tactician so outstanding in other wars."

Heroes Of The Skies, presented by Lord Ashcroft, begins on Channel 5 on Thursday at 8pm. It is being screened in association with a book of the same name by Lord Ashcroft (Headline, £20). To order send a cheque or PO made payable to Sunday Express Bookshop to: Express Bookshop, PO Box 200, Falmouth TR11 4WJ or call 0871 988 8366 (calls cost 10p a minute from UK landlines) or order at expressbookshop.com. UK delivery is free. For more information, visit: heroesoftheskies.com

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