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World War 2 History: Douglas Bader, Legless RAF Pilot

Updated on October 13, 2013
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

WW2: Bristol Bulldog fighter similar to the type Douglas Bader was flying acrobatics in when he crashed.
WW2: Bristol Bulldog fighter similar to the type Douglas Bader was flying acrobatics in when he crashed. | Source

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.

WW2: Douglas Bader stands on the wing of his Hurricane, as Commanding Officer of No.242 Squadron. 1940.
WW2: Douglas Bader stands on the wing of his Hurricane, as Commanding Officer of No.242 Squadron. 1940. | Source

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.

World War II: General Adolf Galland (center) at a birthday party April 1941 (a few months before Bader was shot down).
World War II: General Adolf Galland (center) at a birthday party April 1941 (a few months before Bader was shot down). | Source

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).

World War 2: Colditz Castle
World War 2: Colditz Castle | Source

He...Just...Won't...Stop

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

© 2013 David Hunt

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    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 3 years ago from England

      I remember watching the film and thinking how amazing he was. My mum was in the Airforce as a WAAF Sergeant, and my uncle Ron was a navigator in a Wellington bomber back then too, so I always loved these films and the history, great read! thanks! Nell

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks, Nell. My father was in the RAF (not a pilot, though) and so I've always been interested in WW2, but I hadn't heard of Douglas Bader until recently. Thanks for reading and commenting!

    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 3 years ago from Singapore

      He was a great man. Nice of you to have highlighted his career. Being a pilot myself I can appreciate his greatness perhaps a little bit more.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for commenting MG Singh. By coincidence, about two hours after I published this article there was an hour-long program on the History Channel about Bader. As I had never heard of him before I started researching, I thought this was quite a coincidence. And I was glad to see I got the facts right.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 3 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Great article again, UH. Bader was an inspirational guy. The relationship between him and Galland was unique. There are so many other stories about the RAF yet to be told. They're endless. Keep up the good work. Thx.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Thanks for the great comment, lions44. I understand that General Galland, like General Rommel, was held in high regard by the Allies as a fair and capable German officer.

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      WhydThatHappen 3 years ago

      "Bad show." Lol!

    • LaThing profile image

      LaThing 3 years ago from From a World Within, USA

      Wonderful history! Love the way you presented the info..... Didn't know about him, quite a fascinating man. Thanks for sharing.... :)

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      WhydThatHappen, right, there's that British stiff upper lip. Reminds of the black knight scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where all his limbs are hacked off and he says it's just a flesh wound.

      LaThing, thank you for your very kind comment. History can be more than a bunch of dates.

    • fpherj48 profile image

      Paula 3 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

      Harald... As always, very interesting and so educational. You add to my cache of History, in areas I would not otherwise be informed of. I appreciate this. You've become one of our TOP writers. Congratulations!......UP+++

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      And once again, Effer, I thank you for reading, commenting and supporting. So nice to hear from you. It's always gratifying to hear that my small efforts to make history interesting without sacrificing the facts may be hitting the mark.

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

      Pavlo Badovskyi 3 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      I am glag you keep writing hubs. You have a gift to write interesting about history. Well done David!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image
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      David Hunt 3 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Pavlo, my friend, it's always great to hear from you and I'm glad you enjoyed reading this and that I may have succeeded in making some part of history interesting.

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