Belfast Telegraph

Back Then: Wartime hero Bader pays us a flying visit

Legless RAF ace Bader kept promise to Colditz friend by going to Newtownards

By Eddie McIlwaine

Adolf Hitler and I had one thing in common - we both had a high regard for Group Captain Douglas Bader, who died in 1982 aged 72.

Hitler had such respect for this RAF flying ace that when he was shot down over France and imprisoned in Colditz, he gave permission for a spare set of artificial limbs to replace the pair destroyed when Bader's Spitfire crashed.

But after Bader made several escape bids from infamous Colditz, Hitler ordered the limbs to be taken away. He remained a prisoner in Colditz until the war was over.

He was arguably the rudest man I ever met, but what a storybook hero of WWII he turned out to be, persuading the RAF to give him back his wings after losing his legs in a flying accident. Despite his disability - a word he refused to use - Douglas in Spitfires and Hurricanes was a driving force in the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain in 1940, shooting down at least 24 enemy aircraft. He was honoured with a DFC. I recall his name today as Bader is being honoured at WWII occasions everywhere for a different reason that is special to me.

You see, it's 50 years almost to the day since I came face to face with the great man at Newtownards Airport, where he was keeping a promise to a fellow prisoner in Colditz - a Co Down man, of course - that he would pay the little airfield a visit when they were free and the war was over.

I seem to remember that this was the second of two visits to Newtownards by Bader. Perhaps the friend who invited him in the first place is still around and will get in touch.

By the way, books about Bader, including one called Reach For The Sky, are to be made available again in the spring.

Bader couldn't help being rude and grumpy after what he had come through in the war, but colleagues assured me that day at Ards that it was all a front, and I found him a joy to chat with, although he wasn't keen to discuss his Spitfire exploits.

He became a Sunday newspaper columnist in later life and became very serious in his outlook. He wanted to close down all betting shops and bring back capital punishment for murder.

Bader was blunt and headstrong, but in the short time we spent together I really did respect an exceptional RAF hero with a big heart.

Boy, it's good to see we're getting back on the ball at football matches

One of my big regrets is that I never got to be a ball boy. I used to go with my dad to football matches at Windsor Park and The Oval and wish that I was down on the pitch fielding the ball when it drifted past the goals, and setting it up for the goalkeeper. 

It would have been special as a little boy to have had that honour, but for some reason it never happened and eventually the ball boy era passed and it was too late for me.

I only mention the ball boy thing today because I notice that it is coming back in the Premiership with the boys dressed in soccer gear the colour of the home team.

One habit at big matches that gets up my nose is watching the teams coming out hand in hand with little boys and girls before the kick-off. It means nothing and is only done for show. I don't think the children even enjoy the experience.

Bring back the ball boys, I say, and drop the hand in hand stuff before the game actually starts.

Belfast Telegraph


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