Some decades ago, I expect everyone knew who Douglas Bader was. The prickly RAF pilot made a name for himself during the Battle of Britain, and the broader Second World War, as an uncompromising squadron leader who set upon the Luftwaffe with ruthless efficiency. He helped pioneer new fighter tactics, was a skilled dogfighter, and when he was ultimately shot down over German-occupied territory, he became a tremendously irritating POW.
Oh, and he did all that without legs.
If you’ve read Grand Banks, you will have come across our fictional version of Douglas Bader –– he’s the co-pilot of the skycruiser Skipper Miller. The background mentioned for him in that book is, for the most part, exactly correct: as a young RAF pilot, Bader was doing some low aerobatics when he dug a wingtip into the field, and crashed quite brutally. His logbook entry for the day reflected the seriousness of his injuries: “Crashed slow-rolling near ground. Bad show.”
Sorry, did I mention he was British?
Bader was left with a considerable disability –– both legs were amputated –– in an era when disabilities were not well accepted in society. He, however, refused to give up on life; with two ‘tin legs’ fitted, he re-qualified as a pilot (probably would have argued that he was never unqualified), and by the time the Second World War rolled around, he was knocking on the RAF’s door, insisting that he could help alleviate their pilot shortage. Thanks to the desperation of the Battle of Britain, he was welcomed back, and he excelled –– ended up commanding a squadron of Canadian pilots, in fact.
Bader has long been an inspirational figure to many, and rightly so. Not only did he prove that people with disabilities are not second-class, he helped win the Battle of Britain. He became something of a living legend, and his fame was bolstered when actor Kenneth More (who I want to be when I grow up) portrayed him in 1956’s Reach For the Sky, a movie about his life:
Legs or no, who wouldn’t want to possess such a cavalier disdain for damned-fool rules, and so much sporting determination in the face of adversity? (Sidebar: for His Majesty’s New World readers, he is indeed flying an Avro 504).
But the realities of Bader’s life were, perhaps unsurprisingly, less charming than the movie. While Kenneth More played a proper hero, Bader was known for strong language, stronger opinions, and an aggressive personality. Some reports contend he was hated by his pilots –– too uncompromising, and brash. Perhaps. It’s been suggested that some of his proposals on immigration to Britain, and race relations in Africa, wouldn’t have sat well with my ancestors. Could be. And after the war, as a guest of a group of former-Luftwaffe pilots in Germany, he reportedly greeted them by saying: “My God, I had no idea we left so many of you bastards alive.” Epic.
So it’s quite probable that Bader –– a man forced to fight for everything he had, who achieved much in a world that made no accommodation for disabilities –– had a sharper side to his character.
But like him or not (I tend to be in the former camp), Bader knew what he was about. For decades after the war, he remained a popular expert on all things to do with air warfare. Indeed, in this clip from 1966, he basically lays out the premise for the movie Top Gun:
He also worked hard for people with disabilities –– was eventually Knighted for that –– and upon his death, a foundation was set up in his name, to continue his efforts.
Clearly, Bader was quite a character –– the sort of hero who, alternate timeline or not, deserved to be part of the action of 1941. Dropping him into Grand Banks seemed wholly appropriate… though to be fair, our alternate version might come off more like Kenneth More than the man himself. If that’s so, just call it one of my conceits as the author.
But here’s a question: why include a real figure like Bader at all?
Well, for reasons that will become clear at some point in the future, a pilot without his original legs could be rather important to Champions. And in today’s cynical times, a wholly fictional pilot who lost his legs, but never gave up, might not be considered believable. Who better, then, than Douglas Bader himself?
In time, we’ll see what he gets up to…