Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader CBE, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar
Back in nineteen seventy aged twenty-two, I returned here to the UK by sea aboard the Greek passenger liner RHMS Ellenis to see both of my aging aunts. Once I arrived I soon realised that the money I had wouldn’t last long. So after I had found a bed in a working mens hostel in a village on the western border of Heathrow (Colnbrook), I started looking for work.
I came across a low paid job on Heathrow airport thanks to my talking to a couple of blokes in the pub across the road from the hostel, as an aircraft cleaner for a small business situated on the south side of the airport – Field Air, that maintained business jets like the Hawker Siddley 125, and provided a fleet of aircraft tugs.
That’s when I met Douglas for the first time. Or rather I should say I stood open-mouthed when he climbed out of his twin-engined private plane, slid along the wing, and fell in a heap on the hanger floor when one of his shoes skidded on a patch of oil. When the foreman ran over to help him, Douglas angrily shoved him away telling him, not one of us, to “get that bloody oil cleaned up you idiot!” before he clanked his way across the hanger on his tin legs, puffing on his pipe and winking at us. He hated sycophants.
No one had told me he was our boss. To say I was in awe of him would be an understatement. After all, he was one of the ‘few’ who acted as Britain’s last line of defense back in 1940 against Goering’s Luftwaffe in what became known later as The Battle of Britain, at that time flying Hawker Hurricanes.
I introduced myself on that first day when I said, “G’day Douglas, nice to meet you.” You could have heard a pin drop as everyone in the hanger expected him to explode in anger at my using his Christian name. He turned himself round and clanked over to me. He stood there hands on hips, fixing me with those steely eyes of his with a look on his face which would have shattered granite, before he cracked a smile and shook my hand. We instantly liked each other, much to the annoyance of his foreman. My Kiwi accent and attitude came into its own that day.
A week after I had started, Douglas sent me to be trained to operate one of the two large tugs in his fleet, used to manoeuver all airliners which meant a sharp pay rise for me.
From then on whenever he flew in from wherever he had been in Europe on business, he always made a point of coming to talk to me, which further annoyed the hell out of the foreman. I would have loved to have flown with him to the Continent and back just once, but I wasn’t about to press my luck. Although, thanks to him, I did get the chance to fly in one of the HS-125’s in a nonstop round trip to Ireland and back once…
A few months before I left his employ, I was one of a handful of his workers who helped him move house after his wife sadly died. In thanks he got us all drunk at his new local pub. God only knows how we managed to drive back to Heathrow afterwards without getting done for driving while under the influence. But we did.
Not many people can say that they once worked for a legend and a decorated hero and had a beer or three with him. But I did and was proud to do so…
PS – did I mention that he had a brand new Spifire engine still in its crate in one of his sheds behind the hanger?