This article was first published in the March 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine
RAF pilot Douglas Bader lost both his legs in an accident in 1931 when, while practising acrobatics, he flew his plane at too low an altitude. But his disability didn’t prevent him from becoming one of the heroes of the Battle of Britain nearly ten years later, overall being credited with 23 aerial victories during the Second World War. After finally being shot down himself in 1941, quite possibly by friendly fire, he spent the rest of the war in German custody. After an escape in 1942, he was recaptured and imprisoned in the infamous Colditz Castle. Bader left the RAF in 1946 but continued to fly until three years before his death. He was knighted in 1976.
When did you first hear of Douglas Bader?
It was at my prep school when I was about 11. He was giving out the prizes and there was great excitement because it wasn’t going to be the usual boring local professor or vicar. It was going to be this war hero called Douglas Bader. We knew this fellow was something special. I remember going up on stage to receive my prize, being handed a book by him, shaking him by the hand and heading off the stage again. It was a brief encounter but one that remains with me.
What kind of man was he?
He was an extraordinarily determined man and a great patriot, but also a showman. He actually lost his legs in 1931, not during the war. When war broke out, having not flown for the best part of ten years, he was stuck in a biplane to do a refresher course. He was sent off on his first solo flight where he flew this biplane upside down! Completely bonkers. And from there he became a Battle of Britain hero, a legendary figure who was extraordinarily brave. This wasn’t fictional Biggles. This was real life.
Bader was shot down once. He managed to get himself out of the cockpit and released his parachute, but the force of that left one of his prosthetic legs behind. He was captured with only one leg, but such was the respect for him, even among the Germans, that Göring allowed a British plane safe passage to parachute a leg off for Bader to have in the prisoner of war camp!
What was his finest hour?
His leadership during the Battle of Britain. Pilots were being killed at a staggering rate but he got out there and led from the front. There must have been terrible fear and deep sadness every time someone didn’t come back, but this bloke with tin legs would march off towards his aeroplane to go back up again. He must have had an extraordinary galvanising effect on the people he was flying with. You would have to follow that example.
Is there anything you particularly don’t like about him?
It would be his recklessness. I don’t think I’d have liked to have got in an aeroplane with him – and I’m someone who’s a pilot. It would terrify you to death. If he’s flying planes upside down at 600 feet, it wouldn’t be particularly good news to hear: “Welcome onboard this Ryanair flight to Malaga. I’m Captain Bader.”
Any parallels between your life and his?
None – I’m a complete coward. We clearly share a love of flying and, as a pilot, I do appreciate his skill – and his luck. I know from experience that it’s extremely difficult to see a glider when you’re flying. So what must it be like trying to pick out an enemy aircraft that’s got you in its sights? It might be behind you, it might be above you. This was flying on an entirely different level to the one that I know.
Jonathan Agnew was talking to Nige Tassell
Fresh from captaining the Test Match Special team at the Ashes series, Jonathan ‘Aggers’ Agnew will be leading the BBC’s radio coverage of the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup between February and April. His book, Thanks Johnners: An Affectionate Tribute to a Broadcasting Legend, is published by Blue Door.