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He may not have downed the most German aircrafts but the legend that has emerged around Douglas Bader through the film Reach for the Sky continues to this day. He personified the air of invincibility of dogfighters and despite losing his legs in an air crash he went on to become a British aerial ace with 22 confirmed kills. But there is so much more to Douglas Bader than just the legendary will to keep fighting for King and Country. He was a superb leader of men, cunning and tenacious, these were key attributes when he tried to escape from the escape-proof Colditz Castle after becoming a prisoner of war.
Douglas Robert Steuart Bader was born on February 21st, 1910 in St John’s Wood in London. When his father died in 1922 his mother showed little interest in the youngster and he became quite unruly and hard to control. Such was his unruliness that on one occasion Douglas shot his older brother with an air rifle at close range. His aggressive behaviour was channelled successfully when he went to St Edward’s School for secondary education where he excelled at sports, particularly rugby and cricket. In 1928 he won one of six annual prize cadetships with RAF Cranwell and joined the air force as an officer cadet. Bader’s rebellious streak almost cost him his career when he was caught too often racing motorcycles and came close to being expelled, as well as coming 19th out of 21 in his class examinations. Later that year on September 13 he flew for the first time in an Avro 504. He went solo six months later on February 19th, 1929. The young pilot was commissioned into the Royal Air Force as a pilot officer on July 26th, 1930 with No. 23 Squadron at RAF Kenley in Surrey.
Douglas Bader’s reckless aerial activities continued and he often flew illegal and dangerous stunts in his Gloster Gamecock and Bristol Bulldog aircrafts. His luck seemingly ran out on December 14 when whilst visiting Reading Aero Club he attempted some low flying aerobatics at Woodley Airfield. As he came in fast and low the wingtip of his Bulldog touched the ground and crashed. Douglas Bader was pulled from the wreckage and taken to Royal Berkshire Hospital where his legs were amputated. Through sheer superhuman willpower and stubbornness, Bader somehow managed to regain his ability to drive a car when given a pair of artificial limbs. In June 1932 he got back in the air in an Avro 504 and a subsequent medical examination found he was fit for active service only for the decision to be reversed. In May 1933 he was invalidated out of the Royal Air Force and instead took a desk job with Asiatic Petroleum Company (now Shell).
The growing tension in Europe in the late 1930s saw his return to the Royal Air Force albeit only a ‘ground job’ but he had a friend in Air Vice Marshall Halahan, commandant of RAF Cranwell who asked the Central Flying School to reassess his flying abilities. In November 1939 he had his wings’ restored and was posted to No. 19 Squadron at Duxford in January 1940 where he was introduced to the Supermarine Spitfire.
Douglas Bader challenged the hierarchy’s tactics and instead proposed using the sun and altitude to ambush the enemy. Despite his opposition, Bader obeyed the official doctrine. He got his first taste of combat with No. 222 Squadron during the Battle of France and covered the evacuation of Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk. On June 1st, 1940 Bader bagged his first kill, a sole Bf 109 that took no evasive action. He followed this up with the destruction of a Heinkel He III. After Dunkirk, he was promoted to command No. 242 Squadron flying Hawker Hurricanes at RAF Coltishall. Bader added to his tally on July 11 when he was alone in the sky and came across a Dornier Do 17 bomber and watched as the German aircraft crashed into the sea off Cromer. Another Dornier was noted as destroyed a few days later off Great Yarmouth. Later in June he added to his score with a pair of Messerschmitt Bf 110’s.
The Battle of Britain was a desperate time for the Royal Air Force but Douglas Bader’s cool leadership and courage drove his fellow pilots on to great things. On 14 September this was recognised when he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order as well as the Distinguished Flying Cross. Later during the battle, he racked up a large number of confirmed kills and numerous damaged enemy aircraft.
When in March 1941 became acting wing commander at RAF Tangmere he flew Spitfires against German fighter units in occupied France with the aim of tying down vital resources that would otherwise have made their way to the Russian front. During this time he was given permission to have his initials ‘D-B’ painted on his aircraft which gave rise to his radio call sign of ‘Dogsbody’. In June 1941 Douglas Bader destroyed a Bf 109E near Desvres and four days later added a pair of Bf 109F’s. Bader added to his scorecard throughout July.
On 9 August 1941 Douglas Bader was in the cockpit of Spitfire W3185 over the French coast when his section of four aircraft was bounced by a dozen Bf 109’s. After some aerobatic manoeuvres he found himself alone and separated from the other British aircraft. He found a target and destroyed a pair of fighters and bringing his total to twenty-two confirmed kills. Luck, however, ran out as his aircraft disintegrated in midair. In seconds his aircraft was destroyed. He tried to bail out but his artificial legs were pinned into the cockpit. Falling fast he wrestled with the prosthetics until they snapped and released him and he parachuted to the ground without his legs.
On being captured Bader was treated with great respect by the Germans with General Adolf Galland notifying the British of his damaged leg and offered them safe passage to drop off a replacement in what became known as ‘Leg Operation’ on August 19th, 1941 when the replacement was dropped by parachute over St. Omer. With his leg in place, Bader attempted to escape from the hospital where he was receiving treatment for his injuries. He tied together bedsheets and by moving another patient’s bed closer to the window to allow the makeshift rope to reach the ground. The escape plan worked well initially but he was betrayed by a woman working at the hospital. Bader hid in a garden where he was later discovered. As a prisoner of war Bader was troublesome for his captors. He made repeated escape attempts including a partially successful one in August 1942 from Stalag Luft III-B at Sagan. He and fellow escapee Johnny Palmer were on the loose for two days before being recaptured. His repeated escape attempts resulted in Bader being sent to Colditz Castle where he remained until April 15th, 1945.
Douglas Bader remained with the Royal Air Force until resigning to join Royal Dutch Shell on July 21st, 1946. Shell, unlike the Air Force, would allow Bader to continue flying all over the world in a role he kept until his retirement in 1969. Throughout this time he was a campaigner for disability charities and was knighted in 1976 for services to disabled people. Eight years later on September 5 Douglas Bader suffered a heart attack and died.
"Crashed slow-rolling near ground. Bad show."
"Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men.”
“Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t do this or that. That’s nonsense. Make up your mind, you’ll never use crutches or a stick, then have a go at everything. Go to school, join in all the games you can. Go anywhere you want to. But never, never let them persuade you that things are too difficult or impossible.”
“I have to call it an accident.”
“My God, I had no idea we left so many of you bastards alive".
“I then realised my appearance was a bit odd. My right leg was no longer with me. It had caught somewhere in the top of the cockpit as I tried to leave my Spitfire.”
“I just made a balls of it, old boy. That’s all there was to it.”
“The sea from Dunkirk to Dover during these days of the evacuation looked like any coastal road in England on a bank holiday. It was solid with shipping.”
“I was floating in the sunshine above broken, white cloud ... I heard an aeroplane just after I passed through. A Bf 109 flew past.”