My history hero: David Cameron chooses Douglas Bader (1910–82)

Former prime minister David Cameron nominates Second World War flying ace Sir Douglas Bader as his history hero...

Douglas Bader in October 1940. “He was competitive, unruly, foolhardy – but also brilliant, brave and hugely talented,” says David Cameron. (Photo by Fg Off S A Devon/IWM via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the August 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine

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Sir Douglas Bader was the best-known RAF flying ace of the Second World War. Both of his legs were amputated following a crash in 1931, yet after the outbreak of war he talked his way back into the RAF and was promoted to squadron leader, then group captain. He was credited with 22 solo aerial victories, a further four shared victories and several ‘probables’.

Taken prisoner after bailing out over France in 1941, he made several escape attempts before being transferred to Colditz, where he spent the rest of the war. His story was told in Paul Brickhill’s book Reach for the Sky (1954), made into a hit film.

Q: When did you first hear about Douglas Bader?

A: As a boy. I grew up reading his biography Reach for the Sky and watching the film starring Kenneth More.

Q: What kind of person was he?

A: Competitive, unruly, foolhardy – but also brilliant, brave and hugely talented.

Q: What made him a hero?

A: He played a massive role in the Allied victory – and did so against all the odds. This was a pilot who lost both legs in a flying accident, yet resolved to get back into the RAF. He spent the rest of his life helping disabled people and touring the world to speak about his experiences. He continued working right up until his death.

I can’t think of a life story more packed with courage and fortitude – and it should inspire pride in every single Briton.

Q: What was Bader’s finest hour?

A: There were so many – every one of his aerial victories was an incredible feat. But I think his best moment was probably when he was re-admitted to the RAF. Think about it: several years after losing your legs in an aerobatic stunt, after cajoling so many people, after repeatedly being told no – imagine being airborne once again. Not only did Bader prove to his superiors that he was capable of flying, he turned the plane upside down, just for good measure.

Q: Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?

A: He has been criticised for some of his views and his outspoken manner. There was once talk of him becoming an MP after the war, but he chose a career with Shell instead, because it meant he could carry on flying. It was probably for the best – I think he was probably better off in the cockpit than at the dispatch box.

Q: Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

A: None. But his widow met my father after my father lost a leg.

I remember how her encouragement meant a lot. My father was also disabled. To be so in the 1930s and 1940s was pretty tough. But still, as a young man he played tennis competitively. And he built up a successful career as a stockbroker. He never let his disability affect him or hold him back.

Q: You studied history A-level but not at university. Do you ever wish you had?

A: Yes, I do. I studied politics, philosophy and economics, which of course takes in so much of global history. But I think history as a subject is incredibly important – especially British history. It’s vital we know who we are as a country. That’s why, when we came into government, we were so determined to put British history back at the forefront of the school curriculum. I want children growing up today to be inspired by heroes of history like Douglas Bader – to know about the people who made Britain great.

Q: If you could meet Bader, what would you ask him?

A: I’d like to know what he’d have done if he’d been unable to rejoin the RAF. Where might he have channelled his energy and talents? I’d also like to know what he was thinking during crucial moments – what’s it like to be 3,000 feet in the air, over occupied France, face-to-face with a German Messerschmitt? What was it like to bail out?

Q: Do you think you would have made a good fighter pilot?

A: No. They’re known as ‘the Few’ for a reason. This was a special breed of men, whose dedication and daring saved our country. We all owe them so much, but very few of us could do what they did. That said, I would love to have had the chance to fly a Spitfire!

David Cameron was talking to York Membery.

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David Cameron served as prime minister for six years from 2010.