June 2023

The Nation Reviewed

Heroes and villains

By Don Watson
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
Cancelling Douglas Bader, legendary fighter pilot, World War Two hero and unreconstructed racist

If, as someone said, “No man is a hero to his valet”, it is also true that every man is a valet to his hero. Well, as we make them, we can break them. So, I have cancelled Sir Douglas Bader. Others may choose to follow my example, but for now it is a personal cancellation, not a global one.

For readers not familiar with the name, Douglas Bader was a fighter pilot, a World War Two air ace. Countless boys of my generation were raised on his heroics, as described in the Paul Brickhill book Reach for the Sky and its film adaptation, in which the always jolly decent Kenneth More played Bader with jolly decent pipe-addicted indomitability.

A hyperactive offspring of the British Raj, the Western Front, absent parents and English public schools, Bader joined the Royal Air Force in 1928 and, three years later, while lairising in a Bristol Bulldog, he crashed and mangled both his legs. “Bad show,” he wrote in his pilot’s log, but that was only after someone took hold of his severed femoral artery and held on to it until he reached hospital, where his legs were amputated. Soon after, according to the Brickhill biography, Bader was drifting to the very edge of death when he heard a nurse in the corridor say, “Sssh! … There’s a boy dying in there,” whereupon the boy decided he would live.

That is the first part of the legend: Man defies Death and is reborn.

The second part goes like this. With war approaching, Bader, now with tin legs and a golf handicap of five, insistently begs the RAF to take him on as a fighter pilot. The RAF at last relents, and over France in 1940 and, soon after, in the Battle of Britain, he shoots down a couple of dozen German planes. Of all those alpha male marvels of derring-do fighting duels to the death in the skies above the English Channel, legless Bader was the most marvellous.

That’s the second part of the legend: Man who conquered Death becomes Death’s instrument in the war with Evil.

But then, in a dogfight over France, he loses the rear end of his plane. As the disintegrating Spitfire hurtles spiralling towards the fields of Pas-de-Calais, the famous air ace manages to extricate himself, and, beneath a parachute (in my boy’s imagination, with his pipe still clamped between his teeth), he floats safely to the ground. German soldiers capture him and take him to a hospital, in the very town where the father who abandoned him died of injuries suffered in the earlier war. To escape from the doomed plane, our Douglas had to tear off one of his legs, but so great is his renown, in the interests of public relations the Germans take leave of their usual beastly senses and with Hermann Göring’s express approval allow the delivery of another leg from England.

At this point it is useful to remind ourselves that the story is true and not one got up by Cervantes or Hans Christian Andersen.

No sooner has he strapped on the new leg than Wing Commander Bader is abseiling down the wall of the hospital on knotted sheets and hobbling off in the dark towards England. The Germans find him in a haystack and send him to a POW camp. When he tries to escape, he is sent to another camp from which he also tries to escape, and so on, until he winds up at Colditz Castle, which is all but escape-proof. And there he remains for three years, planning escapes, mocking and abusing his captors like a fiend, and generally exercising his outrageous ego, until the Americans arrive.

In the last part, our Odysseus hitches a ride with a glamorous American female journalist and motors triumphantly through the ruins of Europe, to be reunited with his wife and home in the England he has so valiantly defended.

So ends a real-life story that might easily have been a rendering of some antique fable, one of those protean fantasies of the human imagination that resound in all civilisations across all time. And who knows if it were not the echoes of all the tales of wonder ever told that engraved Bader’s story so deeply in our boyhood imaginations – deeply enough to relegate even the great racehorses and Betty Cuthbert.

So now, in gathering elderliness, it is unsettling to learn, in Ben Macintyre’s new book about Colditz, that Douglas Bader was a bit of a stinker. In Colditz, he made a personal valet of a little Scots prisoner, one of several the Germans shipped in from other POW camps to be “orderlies” for interned British officers. Every day, the orderly, a fellow British soldier after all, was obliged to bring Bader his breakfast in bed and carry him – sans les jambes – on his back down two flights of stairs to the bathroom, and up the stairs again when Bader had finished his ablutions. When the valet was offered a place among a group of men to be exchanged with German prisoners in Britain, Bader made sure his man was made to stay in Colditz. In all his three years of servitude, the Scotsman recalled, not once did our hero say thank you.

Then, a few years after the end of the war, Bader wrote an introduction to a book written by a Hans-Ulrich Rudel, a formidable Luftwaffe airman. Rudel was more than a dutiful warrior for his country. He was an avid unreformed Nazi and, in Argentina after the war, a friend and protector of war criminals including Josef Mengele. Confronted with these facts, Bader made no apologies. His war, it seems, was with Germany, much less so with Nazi ideology, or even Nazi crimes.

In truth, Bader was more than a bit of a swine personally. He was a bit of an unreconstructed imperialist racist stinker. His attitudes were at least as bad as Enid Blyton’s. To not cancel him would be unfair to Noddy. Among others.

They will say, of course, that we should not judge him because he was just a man of his time, and it is true that among the dauntless crews of the RAF there were surely others with odious outlooks. We might have to cancel the whole lot of them: those few to whom the many never owed so much, as Churchill put it. (Churchill – there’s another one!) Come to think of it, why stop at the few? We should cancel the many who made heroes of them. Just to make sure we don’t miss any. In fact, instead of cancelling all these men of their time, it would be easier to cancel the time of these men. The whole time. Yikes! you say. But really, what would it matter if we drew a big thick line through history? No one reads it anyway.

If we don’t know history, or give a fig for it, who will notice if in the name of truth-telling we excise portions we find uncongenial, or if by vandalising monuments to old heroes we replicate the follies of the valets who put them there?

As Douglas Bader defended freedom and decency in his Spitfire – and, whatever his sins, he did – we might be brave enough to defend them in places where until recently we studied history and all the other fields that prove the baffling complexities of the human story.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author. His books include The Passion of Private White, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, The Bush and Watsonia, a collection of his writing.

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