As one who writes often about military history, I try to steer clear of such superlatives as “legendary” for fear of marginalizing the word’s real meaning through over-use or well-intentioned hyperbole. In the case of a now-deceased RAF veteran of the Battle of Britain by the name of Douglas Bader however, I have no such hesitation.
By any measure, Squadron Leader Sir Douglas Robert Steuart Bader (1910-1982) stands out even among the relatively small group of warriors denominated by Winston Churchill as “The Few”. Born in a suburb of London to a military father who was wounded in WW I and whose postings took his wife Jessie and their family briefly to India, Doug would end up living in South Yorkshire after his father’s death and Jessie’s remarriage. If there was one trait which defined his growing-up years, it was a distaste for authority and a commensurate disdain for doing what others told him to do. Fortunately he seemed always to be able to benefit from the intervention of teachers and friends who recognized his stubborn “can do” attitude and a gift for leadership. His school and college years were marked by an athleticism which led him to excel in Rugby and other physically-demanding sports. He loved fast cars, and eventually discovered aviation.
Graduating from flying cadet training in 1930, Bader was posted to No. 23 Squadron RAF where he quickly attained a reputation as a “daredevil” in the training biplanes of the day, frequently carrying out aerobatic maneuvers at low altitude. On 14, December,1931, while training for the famous Hendon Air Show, he caught a wingtip while attempting a slow roll too close to the ground – probably on a dare. The accident changed his life dramatically, with the amputation of one leg above the knee and the other just below the knee in addition to other serious injuries.. He awakened from a morphine-induced coma to overhear two nurses just outside the door of his hospital room being reminded to speak quietly because “don’t you know there’s a young boy dying in there !” Those words somehow lodged in his mind and sparked a determination inside the consciousness of the 21-year old to beat the odds against survival.
In an RAF hospital at Uxbridge, Bader waged a long and painful battle, eventually being fitted with two prostheses with which he planned to make a full come-back. He discovered that he could descend a stairway faster by draping the artificial devices over his head and carrying out a rapid descent hopping on his now-powerful arms and shoulders. One day at a local Pub, while carrying out such a maneuver, he met a pretty English girl on her way up. It was love at first sight, and Thelma Edwards would become his devoted wife and side-kick in October, 1933. She would be at his side as he taught himself to play golf, falling down after each stroke at first, but never giving up. He in fact became proficient enough to play competitively in later years.
Back in civilian life, Bader never stopped planning his way back into a cockpit and as war clouds carried England and her European allies closer to conflict with Nazi Germany, he began “pulling strings”. The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill finally told the Air Chief Marshall to get this “pest” off his back; “at least give him a flight test”, which no one thought he could pass. To the embarrassment of his bosses Bader performed admirably, and on November 27, 1939, eight years after his horrific crash, Douglas Bader, in RAF “blues” was back in the cockpit, where he promptly flew the circuit upside down at 600 feet.
Flying first the Hawker Hurricane, and then his beloved Spitfire Mk V-A, Bader became one of the first “Aces” of the Battle of Britain, with 20 kills, and another 20 either “probables”, shared kills or “damaged”. Leading first a squadron, then an entire wing, he introduced new combat tactics which would become fighter doctrine in England’s air war. He had his initials “DB” painted large on the fuselage of his “Spit” and became known by his radio call-sign “Dogsbody”. Like his German counterpart, Eric Hartmann, (the subject for a future article), Bader believed in getting in real close to the enemy plane before firing his guns. The danger of collision with debris from the victim is thus very high. On at least one occasion, he intentionally severed the rudder of a Messerschmitt with his propeller when he ran out of ammunition for his guns.
On August 9, 1941 while leading his wing on a fighter sweep over occupied France, Bader lost the entire tail section of his Spitfire. When attempting to drop out of the cockpit to escape the falling fighter, his right prosthesis became trapped beneath the rudder pedal. When his chute deployed, he was pulled the rest of the way out, leaving his artificial leg behind. To state that the German soldiers who captured him were speechless is only the beginning of the real-life “Bader Legend”.
In captivity, Bader convinced his captors to permit his friends to parachute a replacement leg to him, at the same time applauding the bomb load they left on the same trip. His escape attempts were constant and an embarrassment to the Germans. While imprisoned at Stalag Luft III, he was befriended by General Adolph Galland, the commander of the entire German Luftwaffe Fighter Command, with whom he remained friends for the rest of his life. (I had a chance to interview Galland along with Battle-of-Britain Ace Robert Stanford-Tuck in 1973 and to gain a rare look into the life and character of Doug Bader.)
Eventually, Bader ended up in a cell in Colditz Castle (Oflag-IC), where the Germans sent the most incorrigible of POWs. Even there, his escape attempts and refusal to follow orders from his guards continued. He was an inspiration to other prisoners, including a friend of mine who was sent there later in the war, having been captured during the Battle of The Bulge. He told of how Bader – who was permitted to make short walks in the nearby countryside – would hide potatoes gleaned from the fields, in his artificial legs to bring back to the under-fed POWs.
In 1976, Douglas Bader, DSO, DSC, COB was knighted and became Sir Douglas Bader, not for his wartime service, but for a lifetime devoted to helping others overcome disabilities. He died of a heart attack on September 5, 1982 at the age of 72. His old enemy and good friend General Adolph Galland was among the mourners at the funeral.
Nearly every RAF base in England, and many towns and villages in that island nation honor his name in some way.
The most often-seen photo of Douglas Bader is this one, standing on the wing of his Hurricane fighter in 1939. He spent much of his life motivating disabled people of all ages to strive mightily, and to NEVER GIVE UP !