World War 2 History: Douglas Bader, Legless RAF Pilot
Fighter Pilot Career Cut Short
Douglas Bader (1910 – 1982) was a fighter pilot in Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War Two. Despite the fact that he'd lost both legs before the war, he became an ace and, after being shot down over France and then captured by the Germans, he made several attempts to escape captivity.
Bader (pronounced Bah'-der) joined the RAF in 1928 when he was eighteen years old and was commissioned as a fighter pilot in 1930. While training for an air show in December 1931, he attempted to perform some forbidden acrobatics on a dare and, as a consequence, his left wingtip brushed the surface, cartwheeling his plane into the ground. Both his legs had to be amputated, one above and one below the knee and he was fitted with artificial legs. Bader recorded the following entry in his log:
“Crashed slow-rolling near ground. Bad show.”
The RAF invalided him out in May 1933 and he took a job with what would become the Royal Dutch Shell company, his piloting days apparently behind him.
Bristol Bulldog Fighter
Fighter Pilot Career Reinstated
As the situation in Europe deteriorated, Bader made several attempts to rejoin the RAF as a pilot, but the only positions open to him were office jobs. Nevertheless, he continued to pester the authorities and, probably hoping he'd fail and go away, they finally allowed him to take a series of flight tests, which he proceeded to pass without problem, artificial limbs and all. He rejoined the RAF as a fighter pilot in November 1939.
During the eight-month “Phoney War”, when Britain and France patiently waited for Hitler to attack, RAF pilots continued to practice their maneuvers. Bader's first time in a Spitfire did not go well-- he crashed on takeoff, walked away with a slight head wound and climbed into another Spitfire, which he managed not to crash.
Bader Becomes an Ace and Gets Shot Down
On July 17, 1940, during the Battle of Britain (when Goering's Luftwaffe attempted to bomb the British into submission), Bader made his first confirmed kill, a Dornier Do 17 light bomber. By August 9, 1941, Bader had racked up 20 confirmed kills and six probables, but on that day, his luck ran out. He was flying a Spitfire over the French coast, separated from the other three Spitfires in his section, when he spotted six German Bf 109s. He turned to attack them and may have shot one or two of them down, but suddenly his tail disintegrated. He thought one of the Bf 109s had collided with him, but there is speculation that his Spitfire was mistaken for the enemy and Bader might have been a victim of friendly fire. In any case, his plane spiraled down and he prepared to bail out, but the straps on one of his artificial legs got tangled in the cockpit. He opened his parachute and the sudden force broke the strap, freeing him to drift safely to earth minus one prosthetic limb, where he was quickly captured by the Germans.
German General Adolf Galland
Safe Passage for a Leg
Such was the respect the Germans had for this British pilot without legs, that German General Adolf Galland, an ace in his own right, asked Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering for permission to arrange safe passage for the British to drop a replacement limb. Goering, himself a veteran pilot of World War 1, agreed to this and soon six British bombers with their fighter escort flew over the French coast and dropped a new leg for Bader (in a somewhat less-than-cricket spirit, the British bombers then tried to bomb a power station thirteen miles farther on).
Despite having surely earned a rest, which nobody would have begrudged him, Bader confounded his admiring hosts by tying bedsheets together and escaping out the window of the hospital where he was recuperating. He evaded capture for a short while, sheltered by sympathetic French peasants until they were betrayed and he was recaptured.
Over the course of the next year, Bader tried numerous escape attempts. In fact, he tried so many times, the Germans threatened him with the ultimate punishment-- they threatened to take away his legs. Instead, in August 1942, they transferred him to Colditz Castle, where “incorrigible” Allied airmen were sent. He spent the rest of the war there until the prison was liberated by the First United States Army on April 15, 1945.
After the War
Douglas Bader stayed in the RAF until 1946, but, what with the war being over and him being a bit of a dinosaur among the younger set, he retired from service. He had many offers of employment, but he chose to rejoin Shell, who had hired him in 1933 after he lost his legs, and who allowed him to fly his own aircraft. He continued working for Shell up until September 5, 1982 when, after attending a dinner honoring Arthur “Bomber” Harris, Bader died of a heart attack. Among the many attending Bader's funeral was retired German General Adolph Galland.
1966 Interview With Douglas Bader
Questions & Answers
© 2013 David Hunt