Friday, February 21, 2020

Bader ‘squirted’ him

’Tea here with Douglas Bader who described his adventures yesterday with the rear gunner of a Dornier who bailed out and got caught in the tail. It made the bomber aerobat. The other crew bailed out successfully. The Dornier did several loops; the man could not free himself, so, mercifully surely, Douglas, to use his word, “squirted” him’. This is from a diary kept by Guy Mayfield, a chaplain at RAF Duxford during the Second World War. Bader, born 110 years ago today, was based at Duxford. Despite having two artificial legs (he’d lost both limbs some 10 years before the war) he became one of Britain’s most successful air aces, and one of its celebrated war heroes.

Bader was born on 21 February 1910 in St John’s Wood, London, the second son of a civil engineer (who had served with the Royal Engineers during the First World War) and his wife. He won a scholarship to St Edward’s School in Oxford, and, as an excellent sportsman, won a place at the RAF College in Cranwell where he captained the Rugby team and was a champion boxer. He was commissioned as an officer in the Royal Air Force in 1930, but 18 months later crashed his aeroplane, suffering serious injuries, losing both his legs. He quickly learned to walk on artificial legs, and succeeded in completing all the RAF’s demanding training and tests to fly again, but a medical board ruled that he could not continue as an RAF pilot. He joined the aviation department of the Asiatic Petroleum Company, soon to become part of Shell. In 1933, he married Olive Thelma Exley.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Bader was allowed to rejoin the RAF. After a posting to No. 19 Squadron at RAF Duxford where he practised formation flying and air tactics, he joined No. 222 Squadron and saw action over Dunkirk in June 1940, He was promoted to squadron leader and given command of No. 242 Squadron at Coltishall, and, by the end of 1940, the squadron had shot down 67 enemy aircraft, for the loss of only five pilots. He, himself, notched up 23 victories making him the fifth highest ace in the RAF. However, on 9 August 1941, he suffered a mid-air collision over France, and parachuted to the ground. Both his artificial legs were badly damaged. He was taken to a hospital, from where he managed to escape, but he was caught and sent to Colditz.

Bader was freed at the end of the war, and on returning to Britain promoted to group captain. He left the RAF in 1946 and became managing director of Shell Aircraft. In 1969, he left Shell to become a member of the Civil Aviation Authority Board. His wife Olive died in 1971 (they’d had no children), and he married Joan Eileen Murray in 1973. He was knighted in 1976, and died in 1982. Further biographical information is available online from the Royal Air Force Museum, The Douglas Bader Foundation, Wikipedia, History Hit, and Spartacus Educational.

A biography of Douglas Bader by Paul Brickhill, Reach for the Sky, published in 1954, was the biggest-selling hardback in postwar Britain. A film of the book, released two years later, starring Kenneth More as Bader, topped the box office in Britain - though Bader refused to attend the premier as he had fallen out with Brickhill over profits from the book and film. In 1973, Bader published his own autobiography which, tellingly, he called Fight for the Sky - this can be previewed at Googlebooks. There’s no mention in his book of keeping a diary or journal. However, one of his colleagues, Guy Mayfield, a chaplain at RAF Duxford did keep a detailed diary. This was edited by Carl Warner and published in 2018 by Imperial War Museums as Life and Death in the Battle of Britain.
Here are several extracts from Mayfield’s diary, including all those that mention Bader by name.  (Some further extracts - but not about Bader - can also be read online at the Church Times website).

26 May 1940
‘19 Squadron have shot down ten. The Hornchurch wing has shot down 40 in all off the Belgian coast. Sinclair, Stevie, Peter and one other are missing. Too numb to feel much; all one can do is to pray off and on all day. We are preparing for an invasion, 20 parachutists over Dover last night - killed before they landed. No further news of Peter and the others. They went up before breakfast towards the French coast and met about 30 Ju’s. They fell for the usual German trick, for above them MEs were waiting. It’s said that Peter and Michael Lyne got a German each. We are here all depressed and anxious about these casualties.

9.30 p.m. Rather more hopeful news. Sinclair has landed at Manston. A Sergeant Pilot is in a French hospital. Logical Lyne is wounded and landed on Margate beach. He is at Deal Hospital. (The nurse tried to remove his trousers on the beach in order to dress his wound, but he resisted this.) Peter was last seen baling out over the Channel near the French coast; there is a chance he was picked up. Stevie was last seen flying towards Germany. Ball is wounded in the head.

This has been a black and anxious Sunday: I wish I could pray as I sleep. What night thoughts for the twentieth century! Goodbye to Peter, returned with a smart salute from the cockpit; and last talk at dispersal about seeing Thel and having dinner next week. Tonight you don’t know whether he is alive or not. It sounds so easy to say, “He bailed out over the sea”. But have you ever seen the inside of a Spit? Imagine bailing out of that, with the wind resistance, at 250 mph at the slowest! And then - he is a good swimmer. I go on saying prayers - I do for all my friends, and he is - was - one of the most loyal; but where does the prayer reach him? Whether in the flesh or the spirit I cannot say, to adapt St Paul. This day last week we were sitting here talking about dying and was trying to explain how the Christian faith made it easier, what prayer did, how the good things we love are imperishable. He talked again about it and quoted me to myself, notably on the drive back from Thel when we were suddenly recalled. So he took it all in.’

21 June 1940
‘Serious air raid on Tuesday. The aircraft was over here about midnight. We listened to it, standing outside the Mess. We watched the AA guns open and heard whistling incendiaries drop on Cambridge where about 11 people were killed by another large bomb. Petre, Clouston and Ball were sent up. Petre and Clouston claim one shot down apiece. Petre is badly burned but alive. The aircraft shot down by Ball came down near Fulbourne. I went to see it the next morning. The debris was scattered over 300 yards. There was some loot among it: rugger vests and bales of French cloth. Three prisoners are here with us: the navigator, von Arnim, was given breakfast in the Mess and I was given charge of entertaining him. A sergeant is in the guard room; one wounded officer is in the sick bay. We buried a corpse, Paul Gerech, assumed to be RC, at Whittlesford today, I represented the CO. It was strange to see the Nazi flag on the coffin in England. While I was looking at the wreckage, I was joined by the AOC of the Bomber Group; we both looked at the bales of cloth, then at each other, and said nothing.

Life is now very hectic. “Ted Kid Lewis”, the boxing instructor here, is suspected of fifth column activity. I think he is merely punch drunk and talks, so he shouldn’t be here. Croker, a corporal, is also suspect and is being watched by MI5. He knows this and came to see me and to get advice. Two undisturbed nights. But it looks as if there will be life tonight.’

6  September 1940
‘Woke up feeling very sad: partly Pinkham’s death, partly the record of Bob’s death in the the casualty list’, and partly an awful sense of gap left by Peter.

Lane is the new CO of19 Sq. This is well deserved. He ought to have had it immediately after Stevie was shot up. Every now and then one feels a bit bitter about Stevie.

Mr and Mrs Pinkham came to lunch. Boxing in the afternoon. Douglas Bader and his boys are operating from here. Saw him at tea. Heard that Peter King was killed a day or two ago. This is a sad knock. Peter once described him as the best type on the station. So he was. I saw him here last Sunday at lunch but hadn’t a chance to say more than hello to his “There’s the Padre.” I shall miss him most awfully. It seems only a few days ago that he was in here asking should he get engaged to his nurse at Littleport R.A.F., poor little thing. Both the adjutants here, Smalley and Carter, thought well of him while he was acting adjutant of 66 Squadron. He did it so well. And that is high praise from two exacting critics. I wonder if he ever shot down the German that he said he would for Peter. Well, the two Peters ate together again.’

15 September 1940
‘Douglas Bader has got the DSO, Eric Ball the DFC. This is as it should be and one wonders why Douglas wasn’t given the DSO weeks ago. Sat in the hall after lunch and talked to his boys as they came in from a terrific air fight over London. The total score for the day is put at 185. Went on leave.’

19 September 1940
‘An interrupted morning: alarms and chaps to be seen. Went to Cambridge to see Thel on her first time out. To the Q site. Tea here with Douglas Bader who described his adventures yesterday with the rear gunner of a Dornier who bailed out and got caught in the tail. It made the bomber aerobat. The other crew bailed out successfully. The Dornier did several loops; the man could not free himself, so, mercifully surely, Douglas, to use his word, “squirted” him.

The night barrage and bomb flashes over London have been visible this week. They are over here again with indiscriminate bombing; the cloud ceiling is very low. Douglas was saying how it makes him see red to find the Germans over London in the day time just plastering the civilians.’

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