Blunt, headstrong and very hard work, but I still liked hero Captain Douglas Bader
Arguably the rudest man I ever met was Group Captain Douglas Bader, who comes to mind today because of the photograph of the World War Two pilot which has just landed on my desk. I was in awe of the great man when our paths crossed one day at Ards Airport, but he was difficult beyond belief and it was a kind of relief when he said his farewells.
Bader – who lost both his legs in a flying accident in 1931, but still persuaded the RAF to give him back his wings when the war broke out eight years later – was a hero in the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain in 1940, flying Hurricanes and Spitfires and shooting down at least 24 enemy aircraft.
The picture shows Bader one afternoon in 1947 at Belfast Airport, which in those days was at Nutt's Corner, being presented with a shillelagh by a Dr WB James, who in the caption is described as chairman of the Belfast Branch, which apparently was having an air display that September 13.
But the Belfast branch of which organisation? The caption doesn't say, so if there is anyone out there who can solve this little mystery of 66 years ago I'll be delighted to hear from them.
What surprises me is that the framed photograph, which has some historical value because Bader's autograph is on the back, arrived anonymously. You'd have to wonder why this unique picture was being given away.
Now, getting back to Bader the hero. Let me remind you of how his Spitfire was shot down over France in 1941 and he was taken prisoner, ending up in the infamous Colditz Castle after several attempts to escape. Apparently, in spite of the trouble he was giving the Germans, Hitler gave permission for the RAF to be allowed to drop a spare set of artificial limbs to Douglas. He remained in Colditz until 1945 when the war ended.
That day at Ards, where he flew in on a private visit, I plucked up the courage to ask him if a story about his behaviour at a dinner in Berlin in honour of 30 or so Luftwaffe pilots a couple of years after the war ended was true.
Bader was reported to have told his former enemies in the skies in his speech: "I thought we had shot all you b******s down in the war."
Douglas, who was honoured with a DFC, looked me straight in the eye that afternoon in a hangar at Ards and retorted: "Of course I made that remark – just remember, though, I was only half serious. When we landed our planes back on the runway after a aerial battle we were no longer trying to kill one another until we had to take off again."
Everyone respected Bader at Ards that day, but we were all a little relieved when he climbed into his plane and took himself off. Not an easy man to entertain.
He often expressed the opinion that he would make a better Prime Minister than whoever happened to be in residence at No 10 Downing Street at the time.
He wanted to close down all betting offices – describing them as breeding grounds for crime –and if he had his way he would have reintroduced the death penalty for murder.
Sure, he was blunt and headstrong to a fault, but in spite of these characteristics I still liked the man and had a lot of respect for an exceptional RAF hero with a big heart. I was sad when Sir Douglas died suddenly aged 72 in 1982.