Douglas Bader, the double-amputee flying ace of the Battle of Britain

Squadron Leader Douglas Bader, CO of No. 242 Squadron, seated on his Hawker Hurricane at Duxford, September 1940 | Public Domain

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When Douglas Bader accompanied his friend Adolf Galland to a dinner in Munich after the war, he was surprised to find the dining room filled with former Luftwaffe fighter pilots. 'My God,' Bader exclaimed, 'I had no idea we left so many of you bastards alive!'

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The stiff upper lipped hero of Reach for the Sky this was not. Douglas Bader had been a commissioned pilot in the RAF for the grand total of one and a half years when the accident that turned him into one of the most famous pilots of the war took place. Having qualified from RAF Cranwell as a pilot officer in June 1930, it was at Woodley Airfield on the 14th of December 1931 that his cavalier attitude to flight safety and unwillingness to abide by the rules finally caught up with him.

An aerobatics enthusiast, Bader was keen to show off his skills in the air, despite the fact many of the stunts he pulled off were out of bounds to RAF officers. Bader cared little for the views of his superiors when it came to performing dangerous aerial stunts, and it was this headstrong recklessness that would eventually prove his downfall … even if his downfall would prove only temporary.

On that fateful December day, Bader attempted a roll at low altitude while flying his Bristol Bulldog near Woodley Airfield. He clipped his left-wing on the ground, lost control of the aircraft and crashed. He was rushed to the Royal Berkshire Hospital where surgeons amputated his legs, one above and one below the knee. 'Crashed slow-rolled near ground. Bad show,” Bader wrote in his logbook after the accident. It was a particularly British display of understatement.

The road to recovery was hard and painful for Bader, but he was determined to return to a fully functioning life as quickly as possible. With the aid of copious amounts of morphine and his own steely determination, he learned how to use artificial legs with an efficiency that eluded many amputees at the time, and by 1932 he was driving a specially modified car, playing golf and dancing. He even flew a plane and was judged competent for active service. Despite this, the RAF decided to decommission him, much to Bader’s fury. Now out of his beloved Royal Air Force, he got a job with an oil company, much to his chagrin.

As the storm clouds gathered over Europe towards the end of the 1930s, Bader made several attempts to rejoin the service. Finally, he was granted a meeting with the top brass but was disappointed to learn that he was only being offered work on the ground. It took the intervention of Bader’s old pal from his RAF Cranwell training days, Air Vice Marshal Frederick Halahan, to intervene before Bader was given back his wings.

After a refresher course in modern fighter aircraft, Bader flew solo again for the first time on the 27th November, just under a month after Britain declared war on Germany. For several months, he and the men of the RAF sat and waited to see what the Luftwaffe would do. They wouldn’t have to wait long.

Bader first engaged with the enemy during the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk in the final days of the Battle of France. Charged with providing air supremacy for the Royal Navy during the evacuation, Bader and the other members of 222 Squadron took to the skies. Bader claimed his first kill on 1 June, downing a Messerschmitt 109. He would also damage a Messerschmitt 110 the same day. The next sortie saw Bader damage a Heinkel 111 and, three days later, he nearly crashed into a Dornier 17 as he attempted to fire on the plane’s gunner. With the troops successfully evacuated, 222 Squadron was moved to RAF Kirton in Lincolnshire.

Bader himself parted ways with 222 on the 28th of June, taking command as acting squadron leader of 242 Squadron, based in Norfolk. 242 was mainly composed of unmotivated Canadian pilots who had lost many friends during the Battle of France. Through dogged determination and a natural way with the men under his command, Bader was able to earn the Canadians’ respect and whip them back into shape. Under Bader’s command, 242 became an effective fighting force. They would need to be.

The Battle of Britain officially began on the 10th of July 1940 and 242 Squadron was soon in the thick of the fighting. On the 11th of July, Bader - flying solo - was directed towards a Dornier 17 bomber that had been spotted flying up the coast of Norfolk. Bader closed in and opened fire as the Dornier’s rear gunner fired back. He managed to fire two rounds into the bomber before it disappeared behind cloud cover. It would later be observed crashing into the sea off Cromer with no survivors. Bader repeated the trick the following month, taking down another Dornier off the coast of Great Yarmouth, again with no survivors.

As the battle for air supremacy raged over the skies of southern and eastern England, Bader and the Hurricanes of 242 Squadron were transferred to RAF Duxford in Cambridgeshire. Bader soon claimed his next scalps, downing two 109s, while the rest of his squadron brought down a further eight enemy planes on the 30th of August with the help of other fighter squadrons.

The 7th of September saw the squadron back in action once again, downing two 110s with Bader claiming two 109s. Two days later, Bader downed another Dornier. This was followed by an unsuccessful attempt to down a Heinkel, hampered by the fact Bader was out of ammunition. Furious, Bader considered ramming the bomber in an attempt to slice off its rudder. He quickly came to his senses and flew away.

The 15th of September saw Bader damage a Junkers 88 and a Dornier 17 during one of the largest aerial battles of the war. He also shot down another Dornier. On the 18th he downed another JU 88 and another Du 17. The 27th saw him claim another Messerschmitt 109.

By October, it was clear to the Nazi high command that they were never going to gain control of the skies over England, and any hope of an invasion of the United Kingdom was abandoned. The Battle of Britain had been won, and Douglas Bader and the men of 242 Squadron had played their part with steely determination and great courage.

In March 1941, Bader was promoted to active wing commander, transferring to RAF Tangmere in West Sussex where he was put in charge of three fighter Squadrons. Bader’s men were charged with worrying German defences over the Channel and France, tying up valuable German fighters that would instead have been deployed in the east after Germany’s invasion of the USSR in June 1941. Now piloting a Spitfire, Bader and his wing of three squadrons concentrated on engaging with and bringing down Messerschmitt 109s. At this they were immensely successful, downing or damaging several German planes between the 24th of March and the 9th of August. In that time Bader’s wing twice engaged with Adolf Galland, the German fighter ace who would later become Bader’s lifelong friend.

On the 9th of August, Bader was at the head of four Spitfires when he spotted a squad of twelve 109s below him. Diving to engage, Bader went in too steep and nearly collided with the German fighters. Pulling up steeply to 24,000 feet, Bader suddenly found himself separated from his squad mates and far away from the action. Contemplating flying home, he spotted six 109s in the distance and decided to engage. It was a fateful decision.

Dropping in below the fighters, Bader shot down one 109 and damaged another. Realising two of the remaining 109s were turning to engage, he decided to high tail it out of there. Unfortunately, he banked in the wrong direction and collided with another 109, sheering off part of his Spitfire’s fuselage as well as its tail and fin. He made an attempt to bail out, but realised his prosthetic leg was trapped. With his stricken plane spinning towards the ground, he realised there was nothing for it and deployed his parachute, snapping the leg’s retaining strap and successfully ejecting from the vehicle. His landing knocked him unconscious. When he woke, it was to find two German soldiers unbuckling his parachute harness.

Bader was sent to hospital in the small French town of Saint-Omer. He wasted no time in trying to escape, despite having only one leg. He made a rope out of bed sheets and escaped out of the window. A one-legged man in a British uniform wasn’t too hard to spot and he was soon recaptured.

After leaving hospital, Bader was invited to visit an airfield by Adolf Galland, the German air ace he had engaged in the skies over the Channel a few weeks before. Bader, still missing one leg, was treated with great respect by Galland and was even allowed to sit in the cockpit of his personal 109. Bader cheekily asked Galland if there was any chance of taking the plane for a spin. Unsurprisingly, Galland politely refused his request.

He had vowed to be a 'plain, bloody nuisance to the Germans'

One of the more unusual operations of World War II occurred shortly after Bader’s visit to the airfield. Galland approached the British authorities and offered them safe passage to fly over another leg for Bader. The operation was personally approved by Hermann Goering, himself a World War I fighter ace. A squadron of Bristol Blenheims was dispatched along with a fighter escort, and the replacement leg was duly parachuted into a Luftwaffe base near Saint-Omer. The Germans were not impressed when the bombers then headed off to unsuccessfully bomb a nearby power station; on the plus side, Bader now had two legs.

Bader spent the remaining years of the war in various prison camps where he made several unsuccessful escape attempts. He had vowed to be a 'plain, bloody nuisance to the Germans', and he was a man of his word. One notable escape came when he was a prisoner at Stalag Luft III B. Bader and three other prisoners managed to escape the camp and planned to make their way to the Polish border. Unfortunately, a Luftwaffe officer who was keen to meet the legendary flying ace dropped into the camp to pay Bader a visit. The officer discovered Bader was missing and raised the alarm. He and his companions were soon recaptured.

Eventually, Bader’s escape attempts and determination to be as much of a nuisance to the Germans as he could led to a threat to have his legs taken away. When this didn’t put him off, he was transferred to the notorious Colditz castle in 1942. Viewed as escape-proof, Colditz would be Bader’s home for the next three years until the castle was liberated by First United States Army in 1945.

Bader initially planned to stay in the RAF, but after the war he found his interest waning as he was sidelined to an instructor role. He left the RAF for good in 1946, taking up a job with the Shell Oil Company. This allowed him to carry on flying, undertaking public relations duties for the company across Europe and North Africa.

The film Reach for the Sky was released in 1956 and forever associated Bader in the public’s imagination with the stoic, mild-mannered character played by Kenneth More. In reality, Bader was a brash, foul-mouthed, staunchly conservative, outspoken man whose opinions on everything from Rhodesian independence to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament would now be seen as downright offensive. Not that Douglas Bader would have cared one jot about that.

Bader took his final flight on the 4th of June 1979. As he touched down on the runway for the last time, he had recorded 5,744 hours of flying time. He died aged 72 on the 5th of September 1982 from a heart attack while being driven home from an event honouring Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris of Bomber Command. Many former comrades and foes including Adolf Galland attended his memorial service.

'Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t do this or that,' he once said. 'Never let them persuade you that things are too difficult or impossible.'

In Douglas Bader’s case, they most certainly were not.