Douglas Bader

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Squadron Leader Douglas Bader c.1940

Featured image: Bader in 1955

Group Captain Sir Douglas Robert Steuart Bader, CBE, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar, FRAeS, DL (21 February 1910 – 5 September 1982) was a Royal Air Force (RAF) flying ace during the Second World War. He was credited with 22 aerial victories, four shared victories, six probables, one shared probable and 11 enemy aircraft damaged

Bader joined the RAF in 1928, and was commissioned in 1930. In December 1931, while attempting some aerobatics, he crashed and lost both his legs. Having been on the brink of death, he recovered, retook flight training, passed his check flights and then requested reactivation as a pilot. Although there were no regulations applicable to his situation, he was retired against his will on medical grounds.

After the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, however, Douglas Bader returned to the RAF and was accepted as a pilot. He scored his first victories over Dunkirk during the Battle of France in 1940. He then took part in the Battle of Britain and became a friend and supporter of Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory and his “Big Wing” experiments.

In August 1941, Bader bailed out over German-occupied France and was captured. Soon afterward, he met and was befriended by Adolf Galland, a prominent German fighter ace. Despite his disability, Bader made many escape attempts and was eventually sent to the prisoner of war camp at Colditz Castle. He remained there until April 1945 when the camp was liberated by the First United States Army.

Bader left the RAF permanently in February 1946 and resumed his career in the oil industry. During the 1950s, a book and a film, Reach for the Sky, chronicled his life and RAF career to the end of the Second World War. Bader campaigned for the disabled and in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 1976 was appointed a Knight Bachelor “for services to disabled people “and continued to fly until ill health forced him to stop in 1979. Three years later, at the age of 72, Bader died on 5 September 1982, after a heart attack.

Early years, childhood and education

Bader was born on 21 February 1910 in St John’s Wood, London, the second son of Frederick Roberts Bader, a civil engineer, and his wife Jessie Scott MacKenzie. His first two years were spent with McCann relatives in the Isle of Man while his father, accompanied by Bader’s mother and older brother Frederick (named after his father but called ‘Derick’ to distinguish the two), returned to his work in India after the birth of his son. At the age of two, Bader joined his parents in India for a year; however, when his father resigned from his job in 1913 the family moved back to London, and settled in Kew. Bader’s father saw action in the First World War in the Royal Engineers, and was wounded in action in 1917. He remained in France after the war, where, having attained the rank of major, he died in 1922 of complications from those wounds in a hospital in Saint-Omer, the same area where Bader would bail out and be captured in 1941.

Bader’s mother remarried shortly thereafter to the Reverend Ernest William Hobbs. Bader was subsequently brought up in the rectory of the village of Sprotborough, near Doncaster, West Riding of Yorkshire.  Bader’s aggressive energy found a new lease of life at St Edward’s School, where he received his secondary education. During his time there, he thrived at sports. Bader played rugby and often enjoyed physical battles with bigger and older opponents. Bader’s sporting interests continued into his military service. He was selected for the Royal Air Force cricket team, to play a first-class match against the Army at the Oval in July 1931. He scored 65 and 1. In August, he played in a two-day game against the Royal Navy. He played cricket in a German prisoner of war camp after his capture in 1941, despite his later disability.

In mid-1923, Bader, at the age of 13, was introduced to an Avro 504 during a school holiday trip to visit his aunt, Hazel, who was marrying RAF Flight Lieutenant Cyril Burge, adjutant at RAF Cranwell. Although he enjoyed the visit and took an interest in aviation, he showed no signs of becoming a keen pilot. Still very sports minded, an interest which dominated Bader’s formative years, he took less of an interest in his studies. Bader received guidance from Warden Kendall and, with Kendall’s encouragement, he excelled at his studies and was later accepted as a cadet at RAF Cranwell. Soon afterwards, he was offered a place at Oxford University, but turned it down as he preferred Cambridge University.

His mother refused to allow Bader to attend Cambridge in December 1927, claiming she could not afford the fees.  A master at St. Edwards, a Mr. Dingwall, helped pay these fees in part. Due to his new connection with Cyril Burge, Bader learned of the six annual prize cadetships offered by RAF Cranwell each year. Out of hundreds of applicants, he finished fifth. He left St Edward’s in early 1928, aged 18.

Joining the RAF

In 1928, Bader joined the RAF as an officer cadet at the Royal Air Force College Cranwell in rural Lincolnshire. He continued to excel at sports, and added hockey and boxing to his repertoire. Motorcycling was tolerated at Cranwell, though cadets usually took part in banned activities such as speeding, pillion racing and buying and racing motorcars.

On 13 September 1928, Bader took his first flight with his instructor Flying Officer W. J. “Pissy” Pearson in an Avro 504.  After just 11 hours and 15 minutes of flight time, he flew his first solo, on 19 February 1929.

Bader competed for the “Sword of Honour” award at the end of his two-year course, but lost to Patrick Coote, his nearest rival.  On 26 July 1930, Bader was commissioned as a pilot officer into No. 23 Squadron RAF based at Kenley, Surrey. Flying Gloster Gamecocks and soon after, Bristol Bulldogs, Bader became a daredevil while training there, often flying illegal and dangerous stunts. While very fast for its time, the Bulldog had directional stability problems at low speeds, which made such stunts exceptionally dangerous. Strict orders were issued forbidding unauthorised aerobatics below 2,000 feet (610 m). Douglas took this as an unnecessary safety rule rather than an order to be obeyed. After one training flight at the gunnery range, Bader achieved only a 38 percent hit rate on a target. Receiving jibes from a rival squadron (No. 25 Squadron RAF), Bader took off to perform aerobatics and show off his skill. It was against regulations, and seven out of 23 accidents caused by ignoring regulations had proven fatal. The CO of No. 25 Squadron remarked that he would order Bader to face a court-martial if Bader was in his unit. The COs of Bader’s unit, Harry Day and Henry Wollett, gave the pilots more latitude, although Day encouraged them to recognise their own limits.

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Bader, Fl.Lt. Harry Day and Fl.Off. Geoffrey Stephenson during training for the 1932 Hendon airshow, with a Gloster Gamecock

No. 23 Squadron had won the Hendon Air Show “pairs” event in 1929 and 1930. In 1931 Bader, teamed with Harry Day, successfully defended the squadron’s title in the spring that year. In late 1931, Bader undertook training for the 1932 Hendon Air Show, hoping to win a second consecutive title.  Two pilots had been killed attempting aerobatics. The pilots were warned not to practise these manoeuvres under 2,000 feet (610 m) and to keep above 500 feet (150 m) always.

Nevertheless, on 14 December 1931, while visiting Reading Aero Club, he attempted some low-flying aerobatics at Woodley Airfield in a Bulldog Mk. IIA, K1676, of 23 Squadron, apparently on a dare. His aircraft crashed when the tip of the left wing touched the ground. Bader was rushed to the Royal Berkshire Hospital, where, in the hands of the prominent surgeon J. Leonard Joyce (1882–1939), both his legs were amputated — one above and one below the knee. Bader made the following laconic entry in his logbook after the crash: Crashed slow-rolling near ground. Bad show. — Douglas Bader

In 1932, after a long convalescence, throughout which he needed morphine for pain relief, Bader was transferred to the hospital at RAF Uxbridge and fought hard to regain his former abilities after he was given a new pair of artificial legs. In time, his agonising and determined efforts paid off, and he could drive a specially modified car, play golf, and even dance. During his convalescence there, he met and fell in love with Thelma Edwards, a waitress at a tea room called the Pantiles on the A30 London Road in Bagshot, Surrey.

Bader got his chance to prove that he could still fly when, in June 1932, Air Under-Secretary Philip Sassoon arranged for him to take up an Avro 504, which he piloted competently. A subsequent medical examination proved him fit for active service, but in April 1933 he was notified that the RAF had decided to reverse the decision because this situation was not covered by King’s Regulations. In May, Bader was invalided out of the RAF, took an office job with the Asiatic Petroleum Company (now Shell) and, on 5 October 1933, married Thelma Edwards.

Return to RAF

With increasing tensions in Europe in 1937–1939, Bader repeatedly requested that the Air Ministry give him a posting and he was finally invited to a selection board meeting at Adastral House in Kingsway. Bader was disappointed to learn that it was only “ground jobs” that were being offered. It appeared that he would be refused a flying position;  but Air Vice Marshal Halahan, commandant of RAF Cranwell in Bader’s days there, personally endorsed him and asked the Central Flying School, Upavon, to assess his capabilities.

On 14 October 1939, the Central Flying School requested Bader report for flight tests on 18 October. He did not wait; driving down the next morning, Bader undertook refresher courses.  Despite reluctance on the part of the establishment to allow him to apply for an A.1.B. (full flying category status), his persistent efforts paid off.  Bader regained a medical categorisation for operational flying at the end of November 1939 and was posted to the Central Flying School for a refresher course on modern types of aircraft. On 27 November, eight years after his accident, Bader flew solo again in an Avro Tutor; once airborne, he could not resist the temptation to turn the biplane upside down at 600 feet (180 m) inside the circuit area. Bader subsequently progressed through the Fairey Battle and Miles Master (the last training stage before flying Spitfires and Hurricanes).

Second World War

Phoney war

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Squadron Leader D R S Bader, DSO, DFC. (1940) by Eric Kennington

In January 1940, Bader was posted to No. 19 Squadron based at RAF Duxford near Cambridge, where, at 29, he was older than most of his fellow pilots. Squadron Leader Geoffrey Stephenson, a close friend from his Cranwell days, was the commanding officer, and it was here that Bader got his first glimpse of a Spitfire. It was thought that Bader’s success as a fighter pilot was partly because of his having no legs; pilots pulling high “g-forces” in combat turns often “blacked out” as the flow of blood from the brain drained to other parts of the body, usually the legs. As Bader had no legs he could remain conscious longer, and thus had an advantage over more able-bodied opponents.

Between February and May 1940 Bader practised formation flying, air tactics, and undertook flights over sea convoys. Bader found opposition to his ideas about aerial combat. He favoured using the sun and altitude to ambush the enemy, but the RAF did not share his opinions. Official orders/doctrine dictated that pilots should fly line-astern and attack singly. Despite this being at odds with his preferred tactics, Bader obeyed orders, and his skill saw him rapidly promoted to section leader.

During this time, Bader crashed a Spitfire on take-off. He had forgotten to switch the propeller pitch from coarse to fine, and the aircraft careened down the runway at 80 mph, ultimately crashing. Despite a head wound, Bader got into another Spitfire for a second attempt. Leigh-Mallory made Bader a flight commander of No. 222 Squadron RAF a few weeks later which also meant an advance from flying officer to flight lieutenant.

Battle of France

Bader had his first taste of combat with No. 222 Squadron RAF, which was based at RAF Duxford and commanded by another old friend of his, Squadron Leader “Tubby” Mermagen. On 10 May the Wehrmacht invaded Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. The campaigns went badly for the Western Allies and soon they were evacuating from Dunkirk during the battle for the port. RAF Squadrons were ordered to provide air supremacy for the Royal Navy during Operation Dynamo.

  • While patrolling the coast near Dunkirk on 1 June 1940 at around 3,000 feet (910 m), Bader happened upon a Messerschmitt Bf 109 in front of him, flying in the same direction and at approximately the same speed. He believed that the German must have been a novice, taking no evasive action even though it took more than one burst of gunfire to shoot him down. Bader was also credited with a Messerschmitt Bf 110 damaged, despite claiming five victories in that dogfight.
  • In the next patrol Bader was credited with a Heinkel He 111 damaged. On 4 June 1940, his encounter with a Dornier Do 17, which was attacking Allied shipping, involved a near collision while he was firing at the aircraft’s rear gunner during a high-speed pass.

Shortly after Bader joined 222 Squadron, it moved to RAF Kirton in Lindsey, just south of the Humber.

After flying operations over Dunkirk, Bader was posted to command No. 242 Squadron RAF as acting squadron leader on 28 June 1940, a Hawker Hurricane unit based at RAF Coltishall, mainly made up of Canadians who had suffered high losses in the Battle of France and had low morale. Despite initial resistance to their new commanding officer, the pilots were soon won over by Bader’s strong personality and perseverance, especially in cutting through red tape to make the squadron operational again. Bader transformed 242 Squadron back into an effective fighting unit. Upon the formation of No. 12 Group RAF, 242 Squadron was assigned to the Group while based at RAF Duxford. No. 242 Squadron only became fully operational on 9 July 1940.

Battle of Britain

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Bader sitting on his Hurricane, as commanding officer of No.242 Squadron after the Battle of France

After the French campaign, the RAF prepared for the coming Battle of Britain in which the Luftwaffe intended to achieve air supremacy. Once attained, the Germans would attempt to launch Operation Sea Lion, the code name for an invasion of Britain. The battle officially began on 10 July 1940.

  • On 11 July, Bader scored his first victory with his new squadron. The cloud base was down to just 600 feet while drizzle and mist covered most of the sky, and forward visibility was down to just 2,000 yards. Bader was alone on patrol, and was soon directed toward an enemy aircraft flying north up the Norfolk coast. Spotting the aircraft at 600 yards, Bader recognised it as a Dornier Do 17, and after he closed to 250 yards its rear gunner opened fire. Bader continued his attack and fired two bursts into the bomber before it vanished into cloud. The Dornier, which crashed into the sea off Cromer, was later confirmed by a member of the Royal Observer Corps.
  • On 21 August, a similar engagement took place. This time, a Dornier went into the sea off Great Yarmouth and again the Observer Corps confirmed the claim. There were no survivors.

Later in the month, Bader scored a further two victories over Messerschmitt Bf 110s.

  • On 30 August 1940, No. 242 Squadron was moved to Duxford again and found itself in the thick of the fighting. On this date, the squadron claimed 10 enemy aircraft, Bader scoring two victories against Bf 110s. Other squadrons were involved, and it was impossible to verify which RAF units were responsible for the damage on the enemy.
  • On 7 September, two more Bf 110s were shot down, but in the same engagement Bader was badly hit by a Messerschmitt Bf 109. Bader almost baled out, but recovered the Hurricane. Other pilots witnessed one of Bader’s victims crash.
  • On 7 September, Bader claimed two Bf 109s shot down, followed by a Junkers Ju 88.
  • On 9 September, Bader claimed another Dornier. During the same mission, he attacked a He 111 only to discover he was out of ammunition. Enraged, he thought about ramming it and slicing off the rudder with his propeller, but turned away when he regained his composure.

On 14 September, Bader was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his combat leadership.

  • On 15 September, known as the Battle of Britain Day, Bader damaged a Do 17 and a Ju 88, while destroying another Do 17 in the afternoon. Bader flew several missions that day, which involved heavy air combat. The original combat report states that he destroyed one enemy aircraft, claimed no probable, but did claim several damaged. The Dornier’s gunner attempted to bail out, but his parachute was caught on the tail wheel and he died when the aircraft crashed into the Thames Estuary. Further detail suggests Bader took pity on the gunner and “tried to kill him to put him out of his misery”.
  • Another Do 17 and a Ju 88 were claimed on 18 September. A Bf 109 was claimed on 27 September. Bader was gazetted on 1 October 1940. On 24 September, he had been promoted to the war substantive rank of flight lieutenant.
As a friend and supporter of his 12 Group commander, Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Bader joined him as an active exponent of the controversial “Big Wing” theory which provoked much debate in the RAF during the battle. Bader was an outspoken critic of the careful “husbanding” tactics being used by Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, the commander of 11 Group. Park was supported by Fighter Command Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the overall commander. Bader vociferously campaigned for an aggressive policy of assembling large formations of defensive fighters north of London ready to inflict maximum damage on the massed German bomber formations as they flew over South-East England. As the Battle progressed, Bader often found himself at the head of a composite wing of fighters consisting of up to five squadrons, known as the “Duxford Wing”. Achievements of the Big Wing were hard to quantify, as the large formations often took too long to form up, over claimed victories, and too often did not provide timely support of the over-committed 11 Group. The episode probably contributed to the departure of Park, who was replaced with Leigh-Mallory in November 1940, and Dowding. While it is not known whether Mallory and Bader were aware that the claims of the RAF and Big Wings were exaggerated, they certainly tried to use them as a potent tool with which to remove Park and Dowding from command and pursue the Big Wing tactic.  After the war, Bader insisted that both he and Leigh-Mallory wanted the Big Wing tactic enacted in 12 Group only. They both believed, according to Bader, that it was impractical to use it in 11 Group, as the command was located too close to the enemy and would not have enough time to assemble.

RAF ace Johnnie Johnson offered a balanced view of Bader and the Big Wing:

Douglas was all for the Big Wings to counter the German formation[s]. I think there was room for both tactics – the Big Wings and the small squadrons. It might well have been fatal had Park always tried to get his squadrons into “Balbos”, for not only would they have taken longer to get to their height, but sixty or seventy packed climbing fighters could have been seen for miles and would have been sitting ducks for higher 109s. Also, nothing would have pleased Göring more than for his 109s to pounce on large numbers of RAF fighters. Indeed, Adolf Galland and Werner Mölders complained about the elusiveness of Fighter Command and Park’s brilliance was that by refusing to concentrate his force he preserved it throughout the battle. This does not mean, as Bader pointed out at the time, that two or three Balbos from 10 and 12 Groups, gaining height beyond the range of the 109s, would not have played a terrific part in the fighting.

During the Battle of Britain, Bader used three Hawker Hurricanes. The first was P3061, in which he scored six air victories. The second aircraft was unknown, but Bader did score one victory and two damaged in it on 9 September. The third was V7467, in which he destroyed four more and added one probable and two damaged by the end of September. The machine was lost on 1 September 1941 while on a training exercise.

On 12 December 1940, Bader was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his services during the Battle of Britain. His unit, No. 242 Squadron, had claimed 62 aerial victories.  Bader was gazetted on 7 January 1941. By this time, he was an acting squadron leader.

Wing Leader

On 18 March 1941, Bader was promoted to acting wing commander and became one of the first “wing leaders”. Stationed at Tangmere with 145, 610 and 616 Squadrons under his command, Bader led his wing of Spitfires on sweeps and “Circus” operations (medium bomber escort) over north-western Europe throughout the summer campaign. These were missions combining bombers and fighters designed to lure out and tie down German Luftwaffe fighter units that might otherwise serve on the Russian front. One of the wing leader’s “perks” was permission to have his initials marked on his aircraft as personal identification, thus “D-B” was painted on the side of Bader’s Spitfire. These letters gave rise to his radio call-sign “Dogsbody”.

During 1941 his wing was re-equipped with Spitfire VBs, which had two Hispano 20 mm cannon and four .303 machine guns. Bader flew a Mk VA equipped with eight .303 machine guns, as he insisted that these guns were more effective against fighter opposition. His tactics required a close-in approach in which he felt the lower calibre weapons had a more devastating effect. At the time, RAF trials with wing-mounted cannons had also revealed many shortcomings that precluded a widespread acceptance of the armament.

Bader’s combat missions were mainly fought against Bf 109s over France and the Channel.

  • On 7 May 1941, he shot down one Bf 109 and claimed another as a probable victory. The German formation belonged to Jagdgeschwader 26 (Fighter Wing 26), which on that date was led in action by German ace Adolf Galland, and was also when Galland claimed his 68th victory. Bader and Galland met again 94 days later.
  • On 21 June 1941, Bader shot down a Bf 109E off the coast near Desvres. His victory was witnessed by two other pilots who saw a Bf 109 crash and the German pilot bail out.
  • On 25 June 1941 Bader shot down two more Bf 109Fs. The first was shot down between 11:58 and 13:35 off the coast of Gravelines; the pilot bailed out. In the same action he shared in the destruction of another Bf 109F. The second Bf 109 was shot down in the afternoon.

The following month was more successful for Bader.

  • On 2 July 1941, he was awarded the bar to his DSO. Later that day he claimed one Bf 109 destroyed and another damaged.
  • On 4 July, Bader fired on a Bf 109E which slowed down so much that he nearly collided with it. Squadron Leader Burton saw the entire combat and noted the Bf 109 “fell away in a sloppy fashion”, “as though the pilot had been hit”. It was marked as a probable.
  • On 6 July, another Bf 109 was shot down and the pilot bailed out. This victory was witnessed by Pilot Officers Johnnie Johnson and Alan Smith (Bader’s usual wingman).
  • On 9 July, Bader claimed one probable and one damaged, both trailing coolant or oil.
  • On 10 July Bader claimed a Bf 109 (and one damaged) over Bethune. Later, Bader destroyed a Bf 109E which blew up south of, or over, Calais.
  • On 12 July, Bader found further success, shooting down one Bf 109 and damaging three others between Bethune and St Omer. Bader was again gazetted on 15 July.
  • On 23 July, Bader claimed another Bf 109 damaged and possibly destroyed, even though the action resulted in two Bf 109s destroyed. The other was shot down by Squadron Leader Burton. Bader did not see his Bf 109 crash, so he claimed it as a damaged only, despite the fact pilots of No. 242 Squadron RAF saw two Bf 109s crash

Bader had been pushing for more sorties to fly in late 1941 but his Wing was tired. He was intent on adding to his score, which, according to the CO of No. 616 Squadron RAF Billy Burton, brought the other pilots and mood in his wing to a near-mutinous state. Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Bader’s immediate superior as OC No. 11 Group, Fighter Command, relented and allowed Bader to continue frequent missions over France even though his score of 20 and the accompanying strain evident on his features obliged Leigh-Mallory to consider his withdrawal from operations. Ultimately, Leigh-Mallory did not want to upset his star pilot, and did not invoke any restrictions.

Last combat

Between 24 March and 9 August 1941, Bader flew 62 fighter sweeps over France.

  • On 9 August 1941, Bader was flying a Spitfire Mk VA serial W3185 “D-B” on an offensive patrol over the French coast, looking for Messerschmitt Bf 109s from Abbeville or Wissant without his trusted wingman Alan Smith. Smith, who was described by fellow pilot Johnnie Johnson as “leechlike” and the “perfect number two”, was unable to fly on that day due to a head cold, so was in London being fitted for a new uniform ready for his officer commission. It is possible that this may have been a contributing factor as to how events unfolded. Just after Bader’s section of four aircraft crossed the coast, 12 Bf 109s were spotted flying in formation approximately 2,000 to 3,000 feet (600 to 900 metres) below them and travelling in the same direction. Bader dived on them too fast and too steeply to be able to aim and fire his guns, and barely avoided colliding with one of them. He levelled out at 24,000 feet (7,300 metres) to find that he was now alone, separated from his section, and was considering whether to return home when he spotted three pairs of Bf 109s a couple of miles in front of him. He dropped down below them and closed before destroying one of them with a short burst of fire from close range. Bader was just opening fire on a second Bf 109, which trailed white smoke and dropped down, when he noticed the two on his left turning towards him. At this point he decided it would be better to return home; however, making the mistake of banking away from them, Bader believed he had a mid-air collision with the second of the two Bf 109s on his right that were continuing straight ahead. Bader’s fuselage, tail and fin were gone from behind him, and he lost height rapidly at what he estimated to be 400 mph (640 km/hr) in a slow spin. He jettisoned the cockpit canopy, released his harness pin, and the air rushing past the open cockpit started to suck him out, but his prosthetic leg was trapped. Part way out of the cockpit and still attached to his aircraft, Bader fell for some time before he released his parachute, at which point the leg’s retaining strap snapped under the strain and he was pulled free.  A Bf 109 flew by some 50 yards away as he neared the ground at around 4,000 feet (1,200 metres).

Controversy over cause

Although Bader believed for years that he had collided in midair with a Bf 109, two other possibilities have later been put forward; that he was shot down by a German Bf 109, or alternatively that he may have been a victim of friendly fire.  Recent research shows no Bf 109 was lost to a collision that day, and there is also doubt that a German pilot was responsible for shooting him down. Feldwebel Max Meyer of II./Jagdgeschwader 26 flying a Bf 109 had claimed him shot down that morning and according to Luftwaffe records a Leutnant Kosse of 5./JG 26 and Meyer, of 6./JG 26 were the only German pilots to claim a victory that day. Furthermore, Meyer mentioned that he had followed the downed Spitfire and watched the pilot bail out, something which seems to match this passage in Bader’s memoirs:

I was floating in the sunshine above broken, white cloud … I heard an aeroplane just after I passed through. A Bf 109 flew past.

The quest to find Bader’s Spitfire, W3185, shed light on the demise of another famous wartime ace, Wilhelm Balthasar, Geschwaderkommodore of Jagdgeschwader 2, who was killed in action on 3 July 1941 when his Bf 109F crashed into Ferme Goset, Wittes, France. It was recovered in March 2004. Later, in the summer 2004, a further aircraft was discovered in Widdebrouch. It was found to be that of a Bf 109F, flown by Unteroffizier Albert Schlager of JG 26, who was reported missing during Bader’s last combat on 9 August 1941. A brief glimpse of hope was discovered later, when a Spitfire wreck was found. Inside was a flying helmet with the letters “DB” written on the top. It was later identified as a Spitfire IX, owing to the findings of a 20mm cannon (which Bader’s Spitfire did not have), and ammunition dated as 1943.

Bader’s aircraft was not found. It is likely that it came down at Mont Dupil Farm near the French village of Blaringhem, possibly near Desprez sawmill. A French witness, Jacques Taffin, saw the Spitfire disintegrating as it came down. He thought it had been hit by anti-aircraft fire, but none was active in the area. There were also no Spitfire remains in the area. The lack of any remains was not surprising, owing to the Spitfire breaking up on its descent. Historians have also been misled as to the whereabouts of the Spitfire because of a mistake in the book Reach for the Sky, in which Bader stated his leg had been dug out from the wreckage but was damaged, indicating a definite crash site. Bader’s leg had been found in an open field.

Prisoner of war

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Colditz Castle in April 1945. Bader was a prisoner here for nearly three years

The Germans treated Bader with great respect. When he bailed out, Bader’s right prosthetic leg became trapped in the aircraft, and he escaped only when the leg’s retaining straps snapped after he pulled the ripcord on his parachute. General Adolf Galland notified the British of his damaged leg and offered them safe passage to drop off a replacement. Hermann Göring himself gave the green light for the operation. The British responded on 19 August 1941 with the “Leg Operation” — an RAF bomber could drop a new prosthetic leg by parachute to St Omer, a Luftwaffe base in occupied France, as part of Circus 81 involving six Bristol Blenheims and a sizeable fighter escort. The Germans were less impressed when, task done, the bombers proceeded on to their bombing mission to Gosnay Power Station near Bethune, although bad weather prevented the target being attacked. Galland stated in an interview that the aircraft dropped the leg after bombing Galland’s airfield. Galland did not meet Bader again until summer 1945, when he, Günther Rall and Hans-Ulrich Rudel arrived at RAF Tangmere as prisoners of war. Bader, according to Rall, personally arranged for Rudel, a fellow amputee, to be fitted with an artificial leg.

Bader escaped from the hospital where he was recovering by tying together many sheets. Initially the “rope” did not reach the ground; with the help of another patient, he slid the sheet from under the comatose New Zealand pilot, Bill Russell of No. 485 Squadron, who had had his arm amputated the day before. Russell’s bed was then moved to the window to act as an anchor. A French maid at the St. Omer hospital attempted to get in touch with British agents to enable Douglas to escape back to Britain. She later brought a letter from a peasant couple (a Mr. and Mrs. Hiecques), who promised to shelter him outside St. Omer until he could be passed further down the line. Until then, their son would wait outside the hospital every night until there was a chance of escape. Eventually, he escaped out of a window. The plan worked initially. Bader completed the long walk to the safe house despite wearing a British uniform. Unfortunately for him, the plan was betrayed by another woman at the hospital. He hid in the garden when a German staff car arrived at the house, but was found later. Bader denied that the couple had known he was there. They, along with the French woman at the hospital, were sent for forced labour in Germany. The couple survived. After the war, French authorities sentenced the woman informer to 20 years in prison.

Over the next few years, Bader made himself a thorn in the side of the Germans. He often practised what the RAF personnel called “goon-baiting”. He considered it his duty to cause as much trouble to the enemy as possible, much of which included escape attempts. He made so many escape attempts that the Germans threatened to take away his legs. In August 1942, Bader escaped with Johnny Palmer and three others from the camp at Stalag Luft III B in Sagan. Unluckily, a Luftwaffe officer of Jagdgeschwader 26 was in the area. Keen to meet the Tangmere wing leader, he dropped by to see Bader, but when he knocked on his door, there was no answer. Soon the alarm was raised, and a few days later, Bader was recaptured. During the escape attempt, the Germans produced a poster of Bader and Palmer asking for information. It described Bader’s disability and said he “walks well with stick”. Twenty years later, Bader was sent a copy of it by a Belgian civilian prisoner, who had worked in a Gestapo office in Leipzig. Bader found this amusing, as he had never used a stick.  He was finally dispatched to the “escape-proof” Colditz Castle Oflag IV-C on 18 August 1942, where he remained until 15 April 1945 when it was liberated by the First United States Army.

Last years in the RAF

After his return to Britain, Bader was given the honour of leading a victory flypast of 300 aircraft over London in June 1945. On 1 July, he was promoted to temporary wing commander. Soon after, Bader was looking for a post in the RAF. Air Marshal Richard Atcherley, a former Schneider Trophy pilot, was commanding the Central Fighter Establishment at Tangmere. He and Bader had been junior officers at Kenley in 1930, while serving in No. 23 Squadron RAF. Bader was given the post of the Fighter Leader’s School commanding officer. He received a promotion to war substantive wing commander on 1 December and soon after was promoted to temporary group captain.

Unfortunately for Bader, fighter aircraft’s roles had now grown significantly and he spent most of his time instructing on ground attack and co-operation with ground forces. Also, Bader did not get on with the newer generation of squadron leaders who considered him to be “out of date“. In the end, Air Marshal James Robb offered Bader a role commanding the North Weald sector of No. 11 Group RAF, an organisation steeped in Fighter Command and Battle of Britain history.  It is likely Bader would have stayed in the RAF for some time had his mentor Leigh-Mallory not been killed in an air crash in November 1944, such was the respect and influence he held over Bader, but Bader’s enthusiasm for continued service in the RAF waned.  On 21 July 1946, Bader retired from the RAF with the rank of group captain to take a job at Royal Dutch Shell.

Post-war career

Bader considered politics, and standing as a Member of Parliament for his home constituency in the House of Commons. He despised how the three main political parties used war veterans for their own political ends. Instead, he resolved to join Shell. His decision was not motivated by money, but a willingness to repay a debt. Shell had been ready to take him on, aged 23, after his accident.  He spent most of his time abroad flying around in a company-owned Percival Proctor and later a Miles Gemini. On one mission, between 15 August and 16 September 1946, Bader was sent on a public relations mission for Shell around Europe and North Africa with United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) General James Doolittle.

Bader became Managing Director of Shell Aircraft until he retired in 1969. He travelled to every major country outside the Communist world, becoming internationally famous and a popular after-dinner speaker on aviation matters. In 1975, he spoke at the funeral of Keith Park.

Personality

Bader’s controversial traits were touched upon by Brickhill in the book Reach for the Sky. “He is a somewhat ‘difficult’ person,” Brickhill told (Sir) Billy Collins, head of his publishing house William Collins and Sons, after spending over a year talking to him.  Nevertheless, Bader was received as a legendary figure by the wider public, who closely identified him as a leader of The Few in the Battle of Britain. Bader also wrote the foreword to Hans-Ulrich Rudel’s biography Stuka Pilot. Even when it emerged that Rudel was a fervent supporter of the Nazi Party, Bader said that prior knowledge would not have changed his mind about his contribution.

Personal life

Bader’s first wife, Thelma, developed throat cancer in 1967. Aware that her survival was unlikely, the two spent as much time with each other as possible. Thelma was a smoker, and although she stopped smoking, it did not save her. After a long battle, she died on 24 January 1971.  Bader married Joan Murray (née Hipkiss) on 3 January 1973. They spent the remainder of their lives in the village of Marlston, Berkshire. Joan was the daughter of a steel tycoon.  Bader campaigned vigorously for people with disabilities and set an example of how to overcome a disability. In June 1976, Bader was knighted for his services to disabled people. Actor John Mills and Air Vice-Marshal Neil Cameron attended the ceremony.

Other awards followed. Bader maintained his interest in aviation, and in 1977 he was made a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society. He also received a Doctorate of Science from Queen’s University Belfast. Bader was also busy acting as a consultant to Aircraft Equipment International at Ascot, Berkshire. Bader’s health was in decline in the 1970s, and he soon gave up flying altogether. On 4 June 1979, Bader flew his Beech 95 Travelair for the last time, the aircraft having been gifted to him on his retirement from Shell. He had recorded 5,744 hours and 25 minutes flying time. Bader’s friend Adolf Galland followed Bader into retirement soon afterwards for the same reasons.

His workload was exhausting for a legless man with a worsening heart condition. On 5 September 1982, after a dinner honouring Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris at the Guildhall, at which he spoke, Bader died of a heart attack while being driven through Chiswick, west London, on his way home.

Among the many dignitaries and personalities at his funeral was Adolf Galland. Galland and Douglas Bader had shared a friendship that spanned more than 42 years since their first meeting in France. Although Galland was on a business trip to California, he made sure to attend the memorial service held for Bader at the St Clement Danes Church in the Strand.

Peter Tory wrote in his London Diary newspaper column:
Certainly Bader, had he been present, would have instantly recognised the stranger in the dark raincoat. Stomping over to his side, he would have banged him on the back and bellowed: “Bloody good show, glad you could come!”— Peter Tory

Tributes

Douglas Bader House in Fairford is now the headquarters for the RAF Charitable Trust

A biography about Douglas Bader by Paul Brickhill, Reach for the Sky, was published in 1954. Some 172,000 copies were sold in the first few months alone. The feature film of the same title was released in 1956, starring Kenneth More as Bader, topping the box office in Britain that year.

Honours and awards

  • 1 October 1940 – Acting Squadron Leader Bader (26151) is appointed a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order:
    This officer had displayed, gallantry and leadership of the highest order. During three recent engagements, he has led his squadron with such skill and ability that thirty-three enemy aircraft have been destroyed. During these engagements Squadron Leader Bader had added to his previous successes by destroying six enemy aircraft
  • London Gazette: 7 January 1941 – Acting Squadron Leader Bader, DSO (26151), No. 242 Squadron is awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross:
    Squadron Leader Bader has continued to lead his squadron and wing with the utmost gallantry on all occasions. He has now destroyed a total of ten hostile aircraft and damaged several more.
  • London Gazette: 15 July 1941 – Acting Wing Commander Bader, DSO, DFC (26151) is awarded a bar to the Distinguished Service Order:
    This officer has led his wing on a series of consistently successful sorties over enemy territory during the past three months. His high qualities of leadership and courage have been an inspiration to all. Wing Commander Bader has destroyed 15 hostile aircraft.
  • London Gazette: 9 September 1941 – Acting Wing Commander Bader, DSO, DFC (26151) is awarded a bar to the Distinguished Flying Cross in recognition of gallantry displayed in flying operations against the enemy:
    The fearless pilot has recently added a further four enemy aircraft to his previous successes; in addition he has probably destroyed another four and damaged five hostile aircraft. By his fine leadership and high courage Wing Commander Bader has inspired the wing on every occasion.
  • London Gazette: 2 January 1956 – Group Captain Bader, DSO, DFC is appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for services to the disabled.
  • 12 June 1976 – Group Captain Bader, CBE, DSO, DFC is made a Knight Bachelor for services to disabled people.

Combat credos

Bader attributed his success to the belief in the three basic rules, shared by the German ace Erich Hartmann:

  • If you had the height, you controlled the battle.
  • If you came out of the sun, the enemy could not see you.
  • If you held your fire until you were very close, you seldom missed.

 

DB5
Douglas Bader by Cuthbert Orde, March 1941
  • Nickname(s): Dogsbody
  • Born: 21 February 1910, St John’s Wood, London
  • Died: 5 September 1982 (aged 72) Chiswick, London
  • Allegiance: United Kingdom
  • Service/branch Royal Air Force
  • Years of service 1928–1933; 1939–1946
  • Rank: Group Captain
  • Service number 26151

Commands held

  • Tangmere Wing
  • Duxford Wing
  • 242 Squadron

Battles/wars

  • Second World War
  • Battle of France
  • Battle of Dunkirk
  • Operation Dynamo
  • Battle of Britain
  • Adlertag
  • The Hardest Day
  • Battle of Britain Day
  • The Blitz
  • Channel Front (POW)

Awards

  • Knight Bachelor
  • Commander of the Order of the British Empire
  • Distinguished Service Order & Bar
  • Distinguished Flying Cross & Bar
  • Mentioned in Dispatches

Other work

  • Aviation consultant
  • Disabled activist

Courtesy of Wikipedia.org

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