CRAIG BROWN: I met my World War II fighter ace childhood hero… and didn’t even like him!
The first celebrity I ever met was the World War II fighter pilot Douglas Bader.
Today, he is rather a forgotten figure, but back in 1967, when I was ten years old, he was as famous as can be. A biography of him, Reach For The Sky, was the biggest-selling book of its day, and the film of it, starring Kenneth More, won the Bafta for best British film a few years earlier.
Bader had lost both legs in a flying accident in 1931, but he proved undaunted and flew with the RAF in World War II, shooting down 20 enemy planes in two years.
In 1942, he had to bail out of his plane, was captured by the Germans and ended up in Colditz. At the end of the war, he returned home a hero, his name a byword for courage and perseverance.
Recently, author Ben Macintyre published a history of Colditz in which he depicted another side of Bader: a vain, imperious bully.
World War II fighter pilot Sir Douglas Bader (1910 – 1982) photographed in October 1940
‘He was a show-off, the most pompous chap I’ve ever met,’ said one of his fellow pilots, and others weighed in, too. ‘He treated the ground crew with withering superiority, and they detested him,’ concluded Macintyre.
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Bader’s treatment of his batman, Alex Ross, in Colditz was particularly mean. ‘I don’t think all the time I knew him he said “please” or “thank you”’ recalled Ross. ‘I soon understood why none of the other orderlies wanted to work for him; you had to be at his beck and call all the time. I know he was a very brave man, but he could also be a monster.’
At the Hay Festival this month, Macintyre created a furore in certain quarters when he declared that Bader was ‘racist, snobbish and brutally unpleasant to anybody he considered to be of a lower socio-economic order’.
The rent-a-quote Conservative Party Deputy Chairman Lee Anderson responded predictably by tweeting: ‘Another vile attack on our Great British hero and flying ace Douglas Bader.’
In the Spectator magazine, the rather more sophisticated Douglas Murray was equally incensed at the traducing of a hero. ‘I hope that people without legs point out that Bader was one of theirs and tell Macintyre where to stick it.’
Since then, people have come out to fight on either side, some remembering the kindness Bader showed to those mutilated by war, others recalling yet more examples of his arrogance.
‘Soon after the war,’ remembered one Spectator reader, ‘I was serving at my regimental depot when a young recruit fell from a platform and lost both legs to an incoming train. Not surprisingly, his spirits were very low and he did not want to live like that.
‘Douglas Bader made several visits to persuade him that it was possible to have a good and productive life with artificial legs — and gave him the determination to live.’
A former managing director of the BBC recalled how the witty broadcaster Robert Robinson had returned from interviewing Bader astounded by his arrogance.
‘He may be a hero,’ said Robinson, ‘but after a few minutes you want to shout, “Race you down the corridor.” ’
And so to my own memories of Bader. The headmaster of my boarding school had approached him to come and speak at the school prize-giving. Given that our guest speakers were usually local bigwigs, missionaries, or, worst of all, other headmasters, there was considerable excitement among pupils and staff alike at the pros-pect of coming face-to-face with this world famous air-ace.
For some reason — perhaps because I had managed to skive off all the preceding sporting activities — I was given the task of welcoming our famous speaker and handing him a programme of the day’s events.
Programme in hand, I remember standing at the end of the school’s long drive, nervously awaiting Bader’s car, going over the welcoming rigmarole in my head: shake his hand, say ‘Welcome, sir, here is a programme’ and pass it to him.
Eventually, the big black car arrived, and out tottered the war hero. Nervously, I walked up to him, and went through all the right moves. He responded by snapping, ‘Your tie’s crooked, boy’ and moving on.
Since then, I have never doubted that he was a hero. But, from that moment on, I have always been aware that many heroes are best avoided.
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