Lympne and Reach For The Sky
Douglas Bader’s Return to Fight Happened Here
Most of the British population must surely have heard of the exploits of the icon that was Douglas Bader, through the book and 1950’s film biopic Reach For The Sky. His loss of both legs in a flying accident in 1931 has been well documented. Little known is that Lympne played a major role in the real events of his flying career in the RAF in June 1932. From the pages of Reach For The Sky by Paul Brickhill we learn….
‘ A pleasant note came to him from the Under Secretary of State for Air, Sir Philip Sassoon, inviting him for a weekend at his house near Lympne. Clearly it would be not only a pleasant weekend, but a chance to find out where he stood for his future in the Air Force: once at Cranwell he had briefly met Sassoon and everyone in the RAF seemed to like and admire him for his hardworking helpfulness. Sassoon even suggested that he bring a young man from the Squadron with him as companion. So he drove down in the MG with Peter Ross, a thickset, lively young Pilot Officer with whom he had become friendly.
Sassoon was a millionaire and his house was a mellow old mansion set among cypress trees on a slope beside Lympne Aerodrome, where 601 Auxiliary Squadron was busy flying Hawker Demon two seater fighters on its annual summer camp.
The Saturday afternoon they spent lying beside the swimming pool with the Demons taking off and noisily climbing over the pool and the treetops. As one of them roared over, Bader said wistfully: ‘By gosh, I wish I were up there again.’ He turned to his host and added: ‘You know, Sir, I’m quite sure I could fly perfectly well now. It’d be easier than driving a car – not so much footwork.’
‘Well, they’ve got an Avro 504 on the aerodrome,’ Sassoon said. ‘ Would you like to have a shot at it?’
‘I’d love to,’ Bader said, exhilarated and hardly believing, and Sassoon promised to arrange it. Bader spent the rest of the afternoon in nervous hopes that Sassoon would not forget. But at dinner that night, Sassoon said: ‘I’ve had a word with the C.O. of 601. The Avro will be ready for you in the morning, and Ross can go up with you in the other cockpit.’ They were the most melodious and exciting words he had ever heard.
In the morning it felt wonderful just to be putting on overalls, helmet and goggles again, and to be walking up to a well remembered Avro.
‘Take it as long as you like,’ Norman, the C.O. of 601 said. ‘ All I ask is bring it back in one piece.’
Getting into the cockpit was not the trouble he thought it might be. He put his foot into the slot at the side of the rear cockpit and Ross gave him a heave up. Then, clutching the leather padded rim of the cockpit with his left hand it was simple to grab his right calf and swing it over into the seat. He eased himself down, delighting instantly in the old, familiar smell of an old Avro cockpit; the blend of castor oil, dope, leather and metal that rolled the months back more subtly and potently than any other sense. Sitting in the familiar seat, eyeing instruments and crash pad, and taking the stick in his hands, sent a flush of enchantment through him. He set each foot on the rudder bar and pushed each end in turn – it was easy; nerveless in the foot, but sensitive in the shin and right thigh. He’d be literally be flying by the seat of his pants.
Ross climbed into the front and shortly his voice came through the earphones: ‘Shall we start her up from here, Douglas?’
‘No,’ he said; ‘ just turn on your switches and take your hands off. Leave everything alone. I’ll do it.’
The Huck starter backed up and turned the propeller; the warmed up engine caught smoothly and throatily, and the aeroplane was quivering with life. He ran up to test magnetos, set the cheesecutter trim to neutral, waved the chocks away and taxied carefully downwind, jabbing the rudder and finding it easy to steer. Turning at the hedge, he saw the grass stretching down to Romney Marsh, pushed the throttle forward and the engine let out a deep, hearty bellow. She started rolling, and as the tail came up she yawed with the torque he prodded automatically at the rudder and she straightened, gathering speed. Pure joy flooded him at that moment; he knew already he was completely at home. At about 55mph he let her come gently off the grass, climbed a little, turned and circled the aerodrome and then steered for Kenley. The old touch was back and as she cruised over the familiar fields he was sublimely happy. A circuit over Kenley and then he was slanting into land. This was the acid test.
She swayed and dipped docilely as he nursed her with delicate and quick little movements of stick and rudder so easily that he did not notice how simple and automatic it was to hold her straight. Quite unconscious of the legs he flattened; held back, back, back and then she touched gently on three points. On the landing run he was conscious of his legs again, but held her straight with ease and turned to the tarmac apron in front of the squadron’s hangar, full of satisfaction. Ross turned his head back from the front cockpit. ‘Not bad,’ he grinned, ‘Not bad at all. I couldn’t do much better myself.’
He helped Douglas out, guiding his left foot into the slot because the wooden foot could not feel it. A lanky figure sauntered across the tarmac to them. ‘Hey, hey,’ said Harry Day. ‘Peter been giving you a taste of the air again?’ ‘No he hadn’t,’ Bader grinned. ‘I was just giving him a lesson.’
‘You were,’ Day said. ‘Well I might have known it was you from that ruddy awful landing.’
After an extremely cheery lunch in the mess Bader flew Ross in the Avro back to Lympne and made another neat landing. That afternoon he was happier than he could remember. At the house Sassoon asked how he had got on, and he said: ‘Absolutely fine sir. Honestly, no different at all to flying with my old legs.’ Later he added: ‘I’ve got to have a medical board sir, to see if I can fly again. I was rather hoping you might let them know in advance that I actually have flown again and that it is perfectly simple with these legs.
Sassoon said: ‘You let me know before you go for your board and I’ll see to it.’
That was all he needed. The clincher! All worries fell away in that moment. He’d be back on the squadron flying again as though nothing had happened with the full life he wanted so badly stretching out in front of him. in that faith a glow suffused every part of him.’
Sadly for Douglas Bader, the return to RAF flying was blocked at this time and he was invalided out of the RAF in 1933. It would take the outbreak of war in 1939 to change things in his favour. The rest is well documented in history.
Article put together by John Simpson