by: Rowan Baylis [ ]
Originally published on:
For years there were two versions of the story of how Douglas Bader fell into German hands in 1941. As Bader himself later told the tale, he collided with a Messerschmitt Bf 109 after having dispatched another - and this is the version ingrained in the British public's imagination by his biography and film of the same name - Reach For The Sky. Meanwhile, the Germans were convinced that Bader had been shot down - although they couldn’t find a victor, despite the obvious temptation for any of the pilots involved in the fighting that day to want to add such a prize “kill” to their score. The fact was, none of their combat reports matched the circumstances in which Bader was downed. To add to the confusion, Bader himself clearly also believed he’d been shot down when he was captured, because he asked to meet the pilot responsible when he was introduced to Adolf Galland and the other members of JG 26.
“Bader’s Last Fight” is an updated account of the painstaking investigation by Andy Saunders into the events that led up to and followed Bader bailing out over occupied territory. In the course of his effort to establish once and for all what really happened, the author grew increasingly convinced of an alternative hypothesis - a third scenario that tallied with available accounts and evidence; that Bader was indeed shot down… but not by the Luftwaffe.
The 234-page paperback is necessarily quite technical in its scope, but nevertheless remains thoroughly readable. In fact, rather to my surprise, I found the 16 chapters and numerous appendices are a real “page turner” that had me engrossed from start to finish. The text is backed up by well chosen photos, many of which were new to me, plus maps and reproductions of intelligence reports and radio intercepts.
The author is at pains to stress that his book is not intended to be a biography of Douglas Bader, but he still includes a very useful concise account of his background and career leading up to the events of August 9th 1941. Similarly, he recounts the change in RAF tactics as Fighter Command swung onto the offensive following the Battle of Britain, examining the growth of “Circus” attacks before focusing fully on the ill-fated raid in question - Circus 68.
Circus 68 seems to have been a prize cock-up from the word go, with one of the covering squadrons failing to rendezvous in time to take any part in the dogfighting that followed, causing Bader (who led the sortie) to radio back to base “This is the most obvious farce I have seen in my life”. Nevertheless, the remaining aircraft pressed on into France, where JG 26 was well aware of their approach and was waiting to inflict a classic “bounce”.
In fact, “farce” hardly begins to describe what followed, as the author reveals the uncomfortable truth that more Spitfires fell to British guns than those of the Luftwaffe. The unfolding events are described in almost forensic detail from both sides, combining eye-witness accounts and combat reports to provide a clear insight into the air battle. What is apparent immediately is the dramatically exaggerated claims (primarily by the RAF and less so by the Luftwaffe) amid the chaos of what Fighter Command sought to portray as a successful operation (despite the loss of Bader) that was, in fact, a dismal wash-out that inflicted little significant damage and was more costly to themselves than to the enemy. Tellingly, the author quotes some fascinating reports from within the ranks of Fighter Command of just how some squadron commanders simply didn’t trust the claims being submitted by other units. All in all, as the author describes it, Circus 68 “was a shambles”.
The book explores the topic of “friendly fire” in some depth, explaining how it can happen in the heat of battle. As modellers, we like to think we can spot the difference between a Bf 109F and Spitfire Mk. V at a glance. But add the effects of positive or negative G, adrenaline and fear, and it’s easy to understand how such mistakes occurred. Indeed, camera gun shots in the book reveal the similarities from certain angles, and to RAF pilots used to the square wingtips of the Bf 109E, the new version must have been harder to identify in the heat of battle. Interestingly, the book cites also instances from the Battle of Britain the previous summer when the Luftwaffe fought “blue on blue”, including the recovered debris of an Emil showing clear signs of damage caused by 20mm cannon fire in a combat when no cannon-armed RAF fighters were involved.
The research that went into this book also provided the inspiration for a television documentary on Britain’s Channel 4 some ten years ago. The aim was to locate the remains of Bader’s Spitfire Mk. Va to establish definitively whether it had been involved in a collision or had fallen to gunfire. A number of crash sites were investigated and there was considerable excitement at one point when a flying helmet bearing the initials D.B. was recovered. Disappointingly for the TV producers, this proved to have belonged to the pilot of a Spitfire Mk. IX, Donald Bostock, who baled out of his aircraft safely in 1943. No remains of Bader’s aircraft were found but, through a process of elimination and analysis of the evidence by expert crash investigators, the author is confident that the site where it came down can be firmly established.
Due to the nature in which Bader’s Spitfire apparently broke up in flight, it’s unlikely that any relics from it will ever come to light, and without such physical evidence there will always remain an element of doubt as to what actually happened in Bader’s last dogfight. However, without giving too much away of the plot of what is almost a classic “mystery” story, I must say I found the author’s book a thoroughly engrossing read and his hypothesis over the events of August 9th 1941 totally believable. Thoroughly recommended to anyone interested in WW2 aviation.
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Highs: Painstaking research and clear descriptions bring the events of 1941 to life and lead to some starling conclusions.
Lows: A few minor typos.
Verdict: Bader's Last Fight is a thoroughly absorbing read that I found a real eye-opener.
Copyright ©2020 text by Rowan Baylis [ ]. All rights reserved.
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