“Joan, tell me about Douglas.”
Figures in black slowly circled the room. Sipping tea, or something stronger, munching cucumber sandwiches, they talked in quiet, respectful voices. Douglas would have hated it, thought Joan Bader. She was happy to be distracted by the request.
“Oh, he broke every rule in the book.” She laughed, causing heads to turn. Unperturbed, the widow eagerly continued.
“Douglas joined the Royal Air Force in 1927, inspired by his Uncle Cyril. His family heartily disapproved but Douglas never looked back, even when his superiors verbally thrashed him for not flying according to regulations and for bending orders past their breaking points.”
“Did he ever regret the accident in 1931?”
“He regretted the stupidity of accepting the dare and doing that slow roll too close to the ground. Of course, the shock of losing his legs because of it depressed him for a while. But Douglas was never one to stay down for long.”
Joan savoured the memory of her late husband’s indomitable spirit.
“He was the first to use Marcel Dessoutter’s newly-invented ‘tin’ legs, as Douglas called them. He worked extremely hard to walk, step after agonizing step, refusing to use walking sticks. He insisted that he would start as he expected to go on.”
Tears welled up. Her questioner politely sipped his tea, allowing her to dry her eyes with the corner of a lace-trimmed handkerchief. Recovered, she continued.
“He passed the RAF’s medical board and they pronounced him fit for restricted flying duty. Then, suddenly, they retired him. He was numb with shock.”
“Then came Thelma?”
“Yes, they married in 1933. He often told me that he wouldn’t have gotten through without her. He yearned to fly again. The war saved his sanity. Eight years after he lost his legs he was in the cockpit again.”
Joan smiled. “So excited that he couldn’t resist turning the aeroplane upside down on his first flight. He got away with it then, but barely missed being grounded later.”
“Before he took over command of 222 Squadron, he crashed his Spitfire. His own fault really, something to do with setting the pitch of the propeller incorrectly. Anyway, he bent his legs and his ego. Happily Leigh-Mallory, the Air Vice Marshall, accepted it as simple accident.”
“I heard one of his old buddies reminiscing about his rather unorthodox training practices.”
“He trained his pilots to fly as he did—that caused some consternation among the RAF hierarchy. He didn’t get much of an opportunity to prove how right his tactics were until he took over the Canadian 242 Squadron in 1940.”
“I read somewhere that they were a pretty broken bunch when he got to them.”
“Yes, they’d been badly trounced in France. They weren’t too thrilled to have a legless squadron leader. They thought he’d lead them from behind a desk.”
Joan’s companion murmured: “How wrong they were.”
“He inspired them with his courage and leadership. In the early days of the Battle of Britain, the squadron ran convoy patrols and got the occasional crack at the German bombers. Then Douglas convinced Leigh-Mallory to implement his “Big Wing” idea.”
“Lots of fighters attacking at the same time?”
“Yes, and it worked. The pilots were a mixed lot. The Canadians were easy to understand, of course, but the Poles and Czechs always lost their little bit of English in the excitement of the fight and chattered unintelligibly during the operations. But they did the job.”
“What happened after the Battle of Britain?”
“Douglas moved on to the Tangmere Wing. They got to cross the channel and fight over enemy territory. Their call sign was ‘Dogsbody’ and the Germans hated what hearing it came to represent. When the squadron came back from their forays, Douglas used to open the canopy and light his pipe in celebration of another successful mission.”
“In a Spit?” This came from one among the small group now gathered around Joan.
“Silly, wasn’t it? The other pilots would move their planes out of the way just in case his blew up.”
“Think of how much more he could have done if he hadn’t been shot down in 1941.”
Joan laughed. “Yes, but think of how distracted he kept the Germans with his endless escape attempts.”
“He was a hero.”
Joan smiled again. “Only because he never quit, not until the day he died.”
*Queen Elizabeth knighted Douglas Bader in 1976. When he died in 1982, the London Times obituary remembered him for “his personification of RAF heroism.”
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