The Douglas Bader Controversy: Dilip Sarkar Interview

Dilip Sarkar

The World War Two historian discusses the controversial episode of Douglas Bader's career.
Home » Author interviews » The Douglas Bader Controversy: Dilip Sarkar Interview

Dilip Sarkar, you’ve written 6 books about Douglas Bader, and he’s such an inspirational figure – what were the circumstances surrounding his crash and what were his injuries?

Bader was a gifted aerobatic pilot and sportsman, driven to be the best at everything he did. He was also headstrong and over-confident. Having been formally warned by his flight commander on 23 Squadron of the dangers of prohibited low-level aerobatics, on the day in question, 14 December 1931, Bader joined other pilots visiting the civilian flying club at Woodley, near Reading. There, he was goaded by members, after refusing to ‘put on a show’ – so he did – but crashed whilst attempting a slow-roll in his Bulldog biplane fighter. His injuries were near-fatal and only amputation of both legs, one above, the other below the knee, saved his life.

Many of us may know Douglas Bader from the fantastic film Reach for the Sky starring Kenneth More. How accurate a depiction of Bader was that?

Paul Brickhill, an Australian wartime Spitfire pilot, was a journalist writing a heart-warming and romanticised tale for commercial purposes – he was not a historian and consequently the character portrayed by Kenneth More was often far removed from the actual Douglas Bader, and unrecognisable by many who served with him. Bader was dogmatic, uncompromising, invariably knew best and only a team player when leader of it; he was also a product of his socio-educational background, and of his times. All of that said, his remarkable achievement in overcoming his disability and learning to walk on artificial limbs, ultimately returning to operational flying in wartime, remains inspirational and was well presented by More.

Bader was an ace fighter pilot with 22 aerial victories. How impressive are these numbers as compared with his peers?

An ‘ace’ is a fighter pilot with five aerial victories, so twenty-two is a big number, especially so early in the war, considering Bader was captured on 9 August 1941. Putting that figure into context, the official top-scoring RAF pilot of the war was Johnnie Johnson, a Bader protégé, with 38½ kills by 8 May 1945. Although there was a system for verifying combat claims, this was often difficult owing to the speed and individual nature of air fighting, especially at high altitude over enemy territory. Pilots frequently overclaimed, albeit in good faith, and we know that the more aircraft are engaged, the more confusing things become, and so the overclaiming factor increases substantially. Bader often led mass formations, which post-war research indicates overclaimed by up to 7:1 on occasions, so it is very difficult to say exactly how many of those 22 claims actually converted to the wreckage of a German aircraft on the ground. Again, all of that said, it is remarkable in itself than a legless man flew into action at all, let alone became an ace, which he undoubtedly was.

Your new book concerns the ‘Big Wing/Duxford Wing’ Controversy. The theory was based on the German planes shot down by Bader’s Group, but were those numbers inflated?

The claims of the ‘Big Wing’ were demonstrably wildly exaggerated, although apparently accepted with little scrutiny at the time. These great numbers of enemy aircraft destroyed far exceeded the claims of Air Vice-Marshal Park’s 11 Group, covering London and the south-east, which was the frontline. In order to preserve limited resources whilst executing maximum damage on the enemy, Park chose to fight using small formations, usually of a flight (six aircraft), a squadron (twelve) or pairs of squadrons. Conversely, Bader’s theory of attacking with mass fighter formations was totally contrary to the System of Air Defence created by Air Chief Marshal Dowding, Fighter Command’s Chief, but the ‘Big Wing’s’ inflated claims called into question the tactics of 11 Group – the claims of which were less but no known to have been infinitely more accurate. Consequently, the ‘Big Wing’s’ results misinformed tactics, going forward.

Bader’s 12 Group Commander, Air Vice-Marshal Leigh-Mallory, went up against Air Chief Marshal Dowding and Air Vice-Marshal Park, and Bader seems to have been sucked into the flaming row over the effectiveness of the Big Wing. Who was right?

Air Chief Marshal Dowding and Air Vice-Marshal Park were two of the most experienced fighter leaders outside of Germany and were absolutely 100% correct. Air Vice-Marshal Leigh-Mallory had no personal experience whatsoever of fighters, and it must be remembered that Acting Squadron Leader Bader had only very recently returned to the service and learned to fly the new monoplane fighters, and came up with his ‘Big Wing’ ideas after his first experience of intercepting a mass German raid. Leigh-Mallory, however, was very ambitious, and resented Park anyway, for a variety of reasons, and wanted 12 Group to get some of the glory. Similarly, Bader craved action and found playing second fiddle up in East Anglia intolerable, and so the ‘Big Wing’ became a means of propelling both 12 Group and Bader’s 242 Squadron in particular, into the forefront of the battle.

Was Dowding treated badly, and did Bader have a view on this?

Debate still rages regarding whether Dowding was naturally retired, or stood-down having won a major battle so that someone else could take over, with full energy, to deal with the night-bombers, the latest threat, or whether the abrupt replacement of both Dowding and Air Vice-Marshal Park after the Battle of Britain was due to the Big Wing Controversy. Having thoroughly investigated the available evidence, and spoken at length to key-players during their lifetimes, I personally have no doubt whatsoever that Dowding and Park fell victim to men of ambition, including politicians, who saw Big Wings as a means of promoting themselves as the saviours of Britain’s aerial defence.

In an interview published in my recently published book, Bader’s Bader’s Big Wing Controversy, Bader denies that there was any controversy, which is absurd, and definitely attempted to play the whole thing down post-war. He certainly had no personal axe to grind with either Dowding or Park, notwithstanding his clear insubordination, and it is significant that when Lord Dowding visited the film-set of the 1969 epic Battle of Britain, it was Group Captain Bader who insisted upon pushing the old man around in his wheel chair, and, astonishingly, read Keith Park’s eulogy at his memorial service. Dowding considered ‘young Bader to be the cause of much of the trouble’, however, who he considered possessed ‘an over development of the critical faculty’!

When did Bader become a national figure?

Douglas Bader, the legless fighter ace, was naturally a propagandists dream. At first, Air Ministry policy was not to name individuals, for fear of creating an elite, but it soon became impossible to conceal the leading fighter aces’ identities, the exploits of which the public followed keenly. Having no legs, Bader was always the most newsworthy, his feats of derring-do eagerly reported, and even his escape attempts and well-being as a prisoner of war attracted publicity. During the war he became well-known on the Allied side, and even to the Germans, and afterwards, in 1956, Brickhill’s book and Angel’s film ‘Reach for the Sky’ brought Bader’s story to a huge global audience. All these years later, he arguably remains the most famous RAF pilot of all time.

You’re certainly a prolific historian, what’s next?

The next book to be published will be the sequel to the Big Wing story, Bader’s Spitfire Wing: Tangmere 1941, and four others are already queued for release, including ‘Spitfire Down’, featuring stories of Spitfire pilots who failed to return, and ‘Forgotten Heroes of the Battle of Britain’, which will be my 50th book. I am currently working on three photographic books, ‘Faces of The Few’, ‘Spitfire Faces’ and ‘HMS Royal Oak: The Heart of Oak in Photographs’, after which I will be embarking upon a major research project involving a seven-volume series, but that’s top secret until the press release goes out. Suffice it to say, never a dull moment in either my life or office!

Dilip Sarkar is the author of Bader’s Big Wing Controversywhich is out now and published by Pen and Sword.