It was early 1977 and I was a nondescript, Canadian Armed Forces captain nearing the end of a four year posting with NATO in Lahr, West Germany. I attended two mess dinners, about a month apart, in the Black Forest Officers’ Mess, idyllically set in the foothills of the rolling woodland of the same name. As nondescript captains tend to be more impressionable, I must admit to at least a modicum of excitement beforehand at the knowledge that Luftwaffe General Adolf Galland would be the guest of honour at the first dinner, and Royal Air Force Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader at the second.
Galland piloted his private aircraft into the Lahr Airfield together with his companion. I still remember the deep discomfort I felt as the commander of our headquarters introduced him at the dinner with an effusive rundown of the General’s wartime decorations, some of which were awarded by Hermann Goering and others by Adolf Hitler. Here was a fellow who had shot down possibly as many as 104 Allied aircraft between May 12, 1940 and April 26, 1945, from his first ”kill” of a Hawker Hurricane over Belgium while piloting a Bf109E to his last, a B-26 Marauder while flying the Me-262 turbojet over Munich-Reim. During this latter flight, Galland’s last of World War Two, he was shot down by USAAF Lieutenant Jim Finnegan piloting a P-47 Thunderbolt escort fighter. The Me-262 crashed on landing.
Years after the war Finnegan and Galland began corresponding. They finally met in 1979 at an Air Force Association meeting in San Francisco. I recently related the tale of Finnegan’s and Galland’s meeting to a dinner guest at our house. I could see the wheels turning as she smiled and mischievously said, “What do you say to someone like that? Nice shot?”
Finnegan is said to have been impressed by Galland as a “true warrior.” It is events such as these that lend an intriguing perspective to the expression strange bedfellows and cause one to reflect upon whatever wisdom underlies a universal aversion by war veterans to talk about their experiences with family members and others who were not there.
While looking at a list of Galland’s kills, I observed that one of them occurred over Chelmsford, in Essex. I wondered at the possibility that my uncle who lived in the area during the war and my cousins who still dwell there may have witnessed the dogfight and could never have surmised that one of their Canadian born kin would be attending a formal dinner and listening to one of the combatants almost 37 years later.
Understandably, Galland didn’t say much at all about the war except to mention his famous encounter with Goering when he was asked as General of the Fighters what he needed to achieve air superiority and he replied, “A wing of Spitfires.” A large part of his brief speech amounted to the narration of some lengthy German poem, its intrinsic entertainment merit stemming from his nonsensically rapid-fire delivery. But what else could the poor fellow talk about for an audience of Canadians, and mainly pilots at that? How he might have wished that his side had won? It must have been a little frustrating for him, having to try to stifle the swashbuckling side of his personality.
Sir Douglas Bader’s disposition was less flamboyant, somewhat more naturally truncated by that endogenous conservatism for which the British are renowned. Bader was forcibly retired by the RAF in 1933, after he lost his legs in a crash that came about when he succumbed to a dare by fellow pilots to perform some low level acrobatic stunts in an aircraft not designed for them.
When war broke out, Bader and his metal alloy legs were welcomed back into the RAF where he qualified on the famous Hawker Hurricane. His first kill was over Dunkirk in 1940. He flew throughout the Battle of Britain and had shot down 22 enemy planes by 1941, when he collided with a Messerschmidt and was captured by the Germans. After he tried to escape several times, the Germans transferred him to Colditz, from where he was freed in 1945.
The high regard in which Bader was held resulted in his being chosen to lead a 300 aircraft victory flypast over London in June of 1946. If he did so with a lump in his throat, who would have blamed him?
Following our dinner, Sir Douglas excused himself for having to pace back and forth when he stood to speak, an exigency imposed by his circulatory system. He spoke mostly of politics and politicians, whom he blamed for starting all wars. I still recall his summary statement: “ . . . and if we’re not careful, they’ll have us involved in another one.”
Adolf Galland died in 1996, just short of his 84th birthday. Sir Douglas Bader died of a heart attack in 1982 at age 72. I still have the menus from both mess dinners. It wasn’t until I asked Bader for his autograph on the menu for the second dinner that I began thinking how I should have requested Galland’s on the first one. When I think back, it wasn’t exactly my best shot. I might have made a fortune by promoting them on eBay, pointing out the phenomenon that the letters in each of their full names add up to 12 and claiming that if both menus were held up to the light with the signatures superimposed, one could make out the image of a dogfight between a P-47 and an Me-262 being flown by the Madonna and the Pope, eating cheese sandwiches.