Heroes of the Skies, the new television series that I am presenting over the next six weeks, is screened for the first time this evening.
Thanks to the expertise of others, I am delighted with the quality of this ambitious, ground-breaking series that tells the stories of some of the most heroic airborne combat missions from the entire history of aviation.
Heroes of the Skies combines state of the art camera technology and cutting-edge Computer Generated Images (CGIs) with revealing interviews with war veterans, expert analysis, rare archival footage and images of vintage aircraft.The series enables viewers to be transported back in time to experience the reality and fear of air combat from the Second World War and beyond.
This evening, too, I am a guest of Iain Dale (who, of course, founded this website) on his LBC show. I will be taking part in his Book Club interview from 9pm when we will discuss my latest work, also called Heroes of the Skies, along with my previous three books on gallantry (Victoria Cross Heroes, Special Forces Heroes andGeorge Cross Heroes). I am sure Iain and I will also examine the reasons behind my half-century long passion for bravery, in general, and gallantry medals, in particular.
Tonight’s episode of Heroes of the Skies, the television series, begins with, arguably, Britain’s most celebrated fighter ace of all time: the highly-decorated though equally controversial Douglas Bader.
Bader was immortalised in the book and the film, Reach for the Sky, which chronicled an extraordinary life and career. He was one of Britain’s most successful fighter aces despite a crash in 1931, while attempting aerobatics, which cost him both his legs. Bader’s typically understated verdict on the incident was: “Bad show.”
Yet, after gaining permission to fly again at the start of the Second World War, he was eventually credited with 20 victories, four shared victories, six “probables”, one shared “probable” and 11 enemy aircraft damaged. Between October 1940 and September 1941, Bader was decorated with the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and Bar and the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and Bar.
After Bader became a Prisoner of War (PoW) – the result of either a mid-air collision (or possibly even being shot down) – the Germans eventually had to confiscate his tin legs to foil his persistent escape attempts. Eventually, however, he returned to Britain a war hero: in June 1945, he was given the honour of leading a victory flypast of 300 aircraft over London.
Bader, who reached the rank of group captain, flew for the last time, as a civilian, on June 4 1979, having recorded 5,744 hours and 25 minutes flying time. As a fighter pilot, he attributed his success to three basic rules: if you had height, you controlled the battle; if you came out of the sun, the enemy could not see you; and if you held your fire until you were close, you seldom missed.
Many more honours and tributes followed including a CBE in January 1956 for services to the disabled and a knighthood in January 1976. Bader died, aged seventy-two, from a heart attack returning from an RAF dinner at the Guildhall in central London on September 5 1982.
In his biography of Bader, Reach for the Sky, Paul Brickhill concluded: “I agree with those who class him as the best fighter leader of World War II (and one of the best pilots). Also I know of no other fighter tactician so outstanding in other wars.”
I make no apology for highlighting this inspirational new television series in my blog. For much of the past decade, I have done everything in my power to champion the bravery of others, particularly members of our Armed Forces.
Heroes of the Skies has been executive produced by Ian Russell and Nick Godwin of Cineflix. My thanks also go to the team at Channel 5, including John Hay, its former commissioning editor for factual programmes.
It will, of course, be the viewers, including the critics, who decide whether the series is a success. However,I urge you to sample one episode, at least, and judge for yourselves whether it’s a good way to spend an hour of your time each week until the end of October.
• Heroes of the Skies, a six-part series, begins on Channel 5 this evening at 8pm, repeated every Tuesday at 7pm, and runs until October 25. It is being screened in association with a book, also called Heroes of the Skies, by Michael Ashcroft, which is published in hardback by Headline and costs £20 (RRP). The book is available from all good bookshops or visit: www.amazon.co.uk . All author’s royalties from the book are being donated to the RAF Benevolent Fund. For more information about the television series and the book, visit: www.heroesoftheskies.com. Iain Dale’s Book Club interview with Lord Ashcroft begins on LBC at 9pm this evening.