Born on February 21, 1910 in London, Group Captain Sir Douglas Robert Steuart Bader, CBE, DSO, DFC, FRAeS, DL, was a World War Two flying ace with 22 aerial victories, plus 4 shared victories, 6 probables and 11 aircraft damaged. He was a hero and legend in his own lifetime yet all of his considerable achievements in the cockpit were remarkable on several counts.

Sir Douglas Bader - RAF via Wikimedia Commons
Sir Douglas Bader – RAF via Wikimedia Commons

Firstly, Bader had, prior to the War, suffered the amputation of both legs – one above the knee and the other below. Secondly, all of his combat achievements occurred in a brief period between May 1940 in the Battle of Dunkirk and August 1941 when his aircraft was damaged, either in a collision, or more probably shot down by friendly fire.

Douglas Bader – The Legless Legend

At the tender age of 11 Bader had already decided that he wanted to join the Royal Air Force (RAF). He was very much into his sports being a keen shooter and a dab hand at rugby, athletics, cricket and hockey. He was a champion boxer and was known to walk directly up to his opponents in the boxing ring and immediately bring them down with one or two strikes.

He won a scholarship to St. Edwards School in Oxford and then another scholarship to RAF College Cranwell which had been founded in 1916 as the world’s first Air Academy. Bader initially demonstrated a somewhat lazy approach to his studies, but upon being threatened with expulsion he quickly transformed his attitude and was rated at his final examination as “capable, plucky, headstrong” and “above average”.

Bader graduated in 1930, was commissioned as an Air Force officer and was posted to No. 23 squadron at Kenley where he flew the Gloster Gamecock.

Gloster Gamecock in July 1927, fitted with outward leaning struts - Wikimedia Commons
Gloster Gamecock in July 1927, fitted with outward leaning struts – Wikimedia Commons

That fateful day in 1931

The Gloster Gamecocks were replaced by Bristol Bulldogs and it was in one of these that Bader was practising low flying aerobatic manoeuvres after being encouraged by fellow pilots to show off his skills.

He misjudged his proximity to the ground and crashed near Woodley Aerodrome on December 14 1931. He was seriously injured and his right leg was amputated later that day and his left leg shortly after. He was only 21 years old.

Bristol Bulldog - Wikimedia Commons
Bristol Bulldog – Wikimedia Commons

In life it has been said that it is not about whether you get knocked down, but whether you get back up again. Well Bader got right back up. He took up golf and played it to a high level, getting his handicap down to an amazing 2. He then proved to the RAF that he could fly again and meet all of their requirements.

Despite this, the RAF forced him out of the service on medical grounds. So it was in 1933 that Bader left the RAF and joined what would later become the Shell Oil company.

Outbreak of World War Two

In the northern summer of 1939 Bader undertook to rejoin the RAF, with the outbreak of the war imminent. This time they needed everyone they could get and Bader was confident that he would regain his ‘wings’. He passed all the tests required, then did a refresher course before joining No. 19 Squadron at Duxford.

Bader was now flying the Supermarine Spitfire, an altogether more capable aeroplane than the Glosters and Bristols of his earlier years. For several months he flew uneventful convoy patrols before being reassigned to No. 222 Squadron and then becoming involved in the Battle of Dunkirk in May and June 1940.

Supermarine Spitfire - Wikimedia Commons
Supermarine Spitfire – Wikimedia Commons

On June 24th 1940 Bader was promoted to Squadron Leader and given command of No. 242 Squadron at Coltishall. He immediately set about reviving the poor morale at the squadron and worked on improving their teamwork, tactics and confidence.

There are clear parallels with the American Colonel Robin Olds who had a similar maverick attitude, was also a notable sportsman and who also inspired and reinvigorated his own team of men – in this case the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing in Vietnam in 1966. But I digress.

By the end of that year Bader’s men had shot down 67 enemy aircraft for the loss of only 5 of their own men.

The Big Wing

Bader and his mentor (Sir) Trafford Leigh-Mallory were proponents of an air fighting tactic that they termed the “Big Wing”, or the “Balbo” after the Italian airman General Italo Balbo, who first conceived the tactic. The idea was to meet incoming German fighters with numerical strength in the form of between 3 and five squadrons of aircraft. The tactic was a success and Bader led the Duxford Wing on many sorties that used this approach.

In fact, in 15 sorties over a 20 day period commencing on September 7 1940, the Duxford Big Wing claimed 135 German planes destroyed with the loss of only 7 pilots. They had been instrumental in winning the Battle of Britain, thus causing Hitler to indefinitely postpone the planned invasion of Britain.

Bader’s other tactical preference was to meet the enemy from height, ideally out of the sun. In fact Bader embraced three maxims from the German ace Erich Hartmann. They were:

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

The RAF were slow to embrace the latter tactics however, initially preferring their pilots to attack from a conventional line astern posture.

Crash and Capture

Due to his obvious talent and success, in March 1941 Bader was promoted to lead the fighter wing based at Tangmere. Among his missions were bomber escorts, designed to lure German fighters into Battle. By now his tally had risen to 20 confirmed enemy aircraft kills plus 2 shared.

On the 8th of August 1941 Bader’s aircraft disintegrated and crashed near a farm in France. He recorded in his log book that he had shot down with one German plane and collided with another. Intensive examination of records, including eye witness accounts, now suggest that it is more likely that he was in fact brought down by ‘friendly’ fire.

Bader became a Prisoner of War (POW) and remained one, more or less, until the end of the war in 1945. He attempted escape on many occasions with various degrees of success. Eventually the Germans moved Bader to the ‘escape-proof’ Colditz prison where he remained until the prisoners were liberated by the US First Army.

Colditz Prison - Wikimedia Commons
Colditz Prison – Wikimedia Commons

Personality

Bader had a healthy disrespect for following orders and a mild contempt for authority. The famous quote “Rules are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men” is in fact attributed to none other than Douglas Bader himself. He was known to frequently “bend” the rules and regulations.

Equally though, Bader was a highly determined individual, as evidenced by his continuous attempts to escape from imprisonment and his unwillingness to let his disability overcome him or to limit his life in any way at all. About disability he said:

“To my way of thinking, a disabled man who has achieved independence is no longer disabled.”

Post War

After being repatriated to the UK Bader had some time off and then was promoted to Group Captain, commanding the Fighter Leaders School and subsequently the North Weald fighter sector. He flew in and led the very first post-war Battle of Britain commemorative flypast on 15 September 1945.

The RAF of 1945 onwards was however a very different organisation to that which fought the Battle of Britain in earlier years. Bader carefully assessed not only his limited opportunities for promotion, but more importantly his relevance in the post-war RAF. He made the decision to leave the Royal Air Force in March 1946 and rejoined the Shell Oil Company, retiring from the organisation in 1969.

Reach for the Sky movie poster with Kenneth More - Wikimedia Commons
Reach for the Sky movie poster with Kenneth More – Wikimedia Commons

Reach for the Sky

In 1954 Paul Brickhill wrote a biography of Douglas Bader entitled “Reach for the Sky”. It sold in quantity and was made into a major motion picture the following year starring Kenneth More. Bader felt that More presented a sanitised version of himself.

Later Years

Bader was a member of the Civil Aviation Authority from 1972 to 1978 and chaired a committee that investigated the effects of fatigue on pilot performance. He was also a supporter of the RAF Museum, helping to raise funds for the Battle of Britain Museum.

Bader also spent considerable time supporting and encouraging amputees, telling them:

“Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t do this or that. That’s nonsense…..never, never let them persuade you that things are too difficult or impossible.”

He was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1956 and was knighted in 1976. Both of these awards were in recognition of his service to the disabled.

Bader died suddenly of a heart attack in 1982. He was 72 years of age.

The Douglas Bader Foundation

The Foundation was formed in 1982 by Bader’s family and friends. It promotes the welfare of persons who are without one or more limbs. The Foundation administers a Grant Scheme, a National Help Bureau, a Walking School in Kuala Lumpur, provides free legal advice, runs an information centre and facilitates the Amputee Games and Bader Challenges, both designed to encourage and motivate amputees.

Awards

Bader’s awards include:

  • Knight Bachelor
  • Commander of the Order of the British Empire
  • Companion of the Distinguished Service Order and Bar
  • Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar
  • Mentioned in Despatches
  • Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society
Sir Douglas Bader in 1955 - Wikimedia Commons
Sir Douglas Bader in 1955 – Wikimedia Commons

Learn more about the man

You can visit The Douglas Bader Foundation to learn more about Douglas Bader.

Books about Sir Douglas Bader

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