The life of Sir Douglas Bader was so extreme, so eventful and so dramatic, that were you to pitch it as the idea for a fictional film, you’d likely be laughed out of town. Yet it all happened; every single aspect of Bader’s amazing, at times excruciating and always improbable experience of the second world war was (and is) grounded in fact, making his one of the most fascinating combat experiences of the conflict.
This, then, is the story of how the privileged amputee with an Oxbridge accent became one of the RAF’s foremost fighter aces, a hero to many and a national icon for the post-war era.
Born into privileged surroundings and a typically upper-class family in 1910, Bader’s world was turned upside-down by the Great War and the wounds it inflicted upon his father, the family breadwinner and a man destined to succumb to complications from his shrapnel wounds in the years after hostilities ceased.
Of course, Bader was far from unique in having lost a father to the Great War, but the death of the family’s chief provider placed them in something of an economic bind. His mother soon remarried but times remained relatively tough for the Bader clan, something that doubtless played a role in the teenage Douglas’s increasingly unruly behaviour. There are numerous anecdotes about Bader junior raising hell with an air rifle with his brother, behaviour which only increased as he graduated to public school, then Cambridge University.
A gifted sportsman and a natural athlete, a life spent playing professional rugby seemed to await Bader and probably would have, had he not become fixated with aviation in 1923 following a chance meeting with an Avro 504 while on holiday. This lead to an obsession with flight soon after, and it wasn’t long before Bader had joined up as a cadet at RAF Cranwell, splitting his time between this, sport and his Cambridge studies.
Bader joined the RAF in 1928 as an officer cadet and proceeded to cutting a dashing figure, blending immense natural talent with a healthy disrespect for authority. He was a near peerless pilot right enough, but he also spent a good portion of his time racing motorbikes on public roads, scrapping his colleagues, flunking exams and drinking heavily. In short, he was a bit of a lad.
Come the 1930s, and Bader had morphed into a gifted yet unhinged pilot, prone to low level acrobatics and daredevil stunts as part of No.23 squadron in Surrey. Things camr to a head in the December of 1931 when Bader, responding to a dare, crashed his Bristol Bulldog MkIIA just outside Reading, the plane falling to bits after his left wing-tip touched the ground.
Bader was rushed to hospital where doctors rushed to save both his life and his legs. They were successful in the former yet failed at the latter, with surgeons forced to amputate both his legs, one below the knee and one above. Bader took the loss remarkably well, even going so far as to record the incident in his flight logbook in typically unflappable style:
“Crashed slow-rolling near ground. Bad show.”
Despite wasting no time in proving he was still able to fly and fly competently Bader was invalided out of the RAF in April 1933, only returning to the service in the autumn of 1939, and even then, only due to the increased political tensions and his incessant pestering of the powers that be. He was readmitted to the RAF at the end of the year, and by 1940 had been posted to RAF Duxford to fly Spitfires.
This was at the height of the so called ‘Phoney War,’ when Britain and France faced off against Nazi Germany without really engaging in non-naval combat, and as such it presented Bader with plenty of opportunity to further refine his craft. It was in 1940 that the 29-year-old first discovered that his lack of legs was actually in advantage in some respects, namely his ability to remain conscious for longer, while turning more tightly than his squadron mates. His lack of legs meant that the blood couldn’t do what it tended to do in such manoeuvres, draining from the brain to the legs, leading to temporary black outs.
Come the summer of 1940, and Bader was in action for real, dog fighting with the Luftwaffe in the Battle of France, a campaign in which he achieved the first of twenty two ‘kills.’ He was transferred to Hurricanes for the Battle of Britain and picked up pretty much where he left off, downing a succession of Dornier Do 17s, Junkers Ju88s, BF109s and BF110s to end the battle as Flight Lieutenant, promoted to Squadron Commander, the Wing Commander by the Spring of 1941.
The Battle of Britain gave Bader to test a theory of his regarding the best way to ambush, then destroy massed ranks of German aircraft, a tactic eventually known as Big Wing. It saw massed groups of Spitfires and Hurricanes assembling north of London in readiness for the waves of Luftwaffe bombers to appear, upon which they’d attack. This was in marked contrast to the way the RAF had approached the issue earlier in the Summer, one defined by smaller, more cautious attacks susceptible to ambush by German fighters.
While the merits of Big Wing would be the topic of continued discussion for the rest of the war, there was no denying that it was effective when employed by Bader and whichever squadron he happened to be commanding, as evidenced by his rapidly growing tally of ‘kills’ over France in 1941.
Bader’s luck finally ran out on the 9th of August 1941 while battling a gaggle of 12 BF109s over Northern France. He’d already shot one down and damaged another, but when he turned and headed for home he collided with another enemy craft and ripped much of the rear of his Spitfire clean off.
Other accounts have since stated that Bader’s ‘Spit’ was either shot down by another 109, or more gallingly from an RAF perspective, was the victim of friendly fire! Either way, the outcome was the same; Bader’s plane was sent into a dizzying spin, and while he was able to throw open the cockpit canopy and jump out, he found his progress impeded by, believe it or not, his prosthetic leg, still wedged within the Spitfire! It was only when he pulled his chute that the bolts retaining his leg snapped, and he was able to break free of the pirouetting plane.
“My right leg was no longer with me… the leather belt which attached it to my body had broken under the strain, and the leg, the Spitfire, and I had all parted company.”
It didn’t take the Germans too long to apprehend a legless pilot marooned in the French countryside, especially as Bader had been knocked-out by his exploits! He awaked some hours later to find a pair of Germans untangling from his parachute and was captured, then sent to hospital to recuperate.
Bader’s reputation as a pilot – a legless one at that – had spread throughout the Luftwaffe by the time of his capture, and as such he was both well treated and viewed as something of a celebrity. He was given a tour of Col Adolf Galland’s squadron and was permitted to sit in his BF109, even going so far as to request a test flight. It was declined.
Quite how popular Bader was with his captors can be gauged in the efforts both sides went to in order for him to have a new prosthetic leg, the original having been lost in the crash. Discussions between the RAF and the Luftwaffe eventually resulted in a lone Bristol Blenheim being given safe passage to drop a new limb over the town of St Omer, a mission duly recorded in legend as ‘The Leg Op.’
Well treated as he no doubt was, Bader evidently had no intention of remaining a German captive for very long – not if he could help it. As such he began formulating a plan of escape right away, a plan lent added impetus by Baden’s commitment to ‘goon baiting,’ effectively causing his captors as much frustration and inconvenience as possible. This in turn resulted in numerous escape attempts from both hospital and a succession of POW camps dotted throughout the third Reich. Indeed, so prolific an escaper was Baden that his German guards even threatened to confiscate his legs!
Then, in the summer of 1942 and after yet another unsuccessful bid for freedom, Bader wsa dispatched to Colditz Castle, the supposedly escape proof medieval fortress designated as the holding pen for all of Nazi Germany’s most prolific and ardent of POW escapees. He remained cooped up here for the remainder of the war, though Colditz didn’t prevent him from helping and abetting the planning of numerous escape attempts by his fellow POWs.
Bader emerged from the war as a national hero; one of a fractionally small number of confirmed ‘aces’ and one of the most popular military personalities. He gradually grew dissatisfied with post-war RAF life and eventually moved to Shell, to a job which still gave him freedom to fly planes as and when he wanted. He died of a heart attack in 1982 while being driven through central London, mere hours after having given a speech honouring Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris.