My first meeting with the legless Battle of Britain fighter pilot Douglas Bader was thumbing a lift on the A3 road south of London in 1941. As an RAF Corporal and Physical Training Instructor, I had a few days leave and was trying to get back to my home near Godalming.
A Bentley sports car ignored a crowd of army blokes hitching behind me and pulled alongside. It was a good looking RAF officer. “Jump in,” he said. I told him where I wanted to go.
“Where are you stationed?” he asked. “Uxbridge Sir,” I replied.
“I’m going to Tangmere so I can drop you near your home,” he said.
It was obvious he had artificial legs by the special controls and his awkward movements. I could not make head or tail of the fact that this guy had pilot’s wings.
Those who have seen the film “Reach for the Sky” will know that he was ultimately shot down and spent most of the rest of the war at Colditz prisoner of war camp. A flying accident in the 1930s had left him with one leg amputated just above the knee and the other just below the knee.
My next meeting with him was when we were drawn to play together in the Berkshire Pro-Am in the late 1950s. We immediately clicked and got on like a house on fire, although I kept calling him “Group Captain.” As a lowly Corporal, I thought I would be on a charge if I called him anything else.
It was a very cold, wet day and we both got soaked. I was shivering in my waterproofs but Douglas was continuing to play in a short-sleeved shirt.
“God, aren’t you cold?” I asked.
“I’m fine,” he replied. “My blood doesn’t have as far to travel round as yours.”
Later that year, I played with him again at the Harry Secombe Pro-Am at Effingham. On one hole, he played a 5 iron out of a shallow bunker trying to reach the green; but in hitting the ball so hard he spun round and fell over backwards. I immediately put a hand down to pull him out.
He knocked my hand away. “Get out of the way Max,” he said.
Later he came up to me and apologised but told me never to help him if it happened again. “I have to get out of it myself,” he said.
Some years later the boot was on the other foot. My wife was following us round at the Bowmaker Pro-Am at Sunningdale on a hot day when it was slippery on the heathery ground. Joan was sliding around in sandals until Douglas came up to her.
“Come on Joannie,” he said. “Hang on to me.”
The second year at the Berkshire, I was drawn not only once again with Douglas but also with Brigadier Charles Newman VC, who had led the sea raid on St. Nazaire and rammed a destroyer into U-boat pens, putting them out of action for 9 months. He was also a prisoner for the rest of the war.
Neither of them gave a monkey’s for anyone and were wonderful company, laughing and joking the whole way round. We managed to work it so that the three of us played together the next year as well, but then the committee put a stop to it.
From then on we took every opportunity we could find of playing together in Pro-Ams and Exhibition Matches. Douglas was a 6-handicap golfer. As you would expect, he was immensely strong in the trunk and arms, swinging very stiffly but hitting the ball a surprisingly long distance by his shoulder power. His swing was similar to the way Gary Player hit the ball in his senior years. Newman was 12 handicap.