The fascinating story of Douglas Bader, one of the more colourful characters that whose name is honoured in the streets of Montgomery Place. Sir Douglas Robert Steuart Bader, (Feb. 21, 1910 – Sept. 5, 1982) was a successful fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. Bader is upheld as an inspirational leader and hero of the era, not least because he fought despite having lost both legs in a pre-war flying accident. His brutally forthright, dogmatic and often highly opinionated views (especially against authority) coupled with his boundless energy and enthusiasm inspired adoration and frustration in equal measures with both his subordinates and peers.
Bader joined the RAF as a Cranwell cadet in 1928. He was an above-average pilot and an outstanding sportsman; he played rugby union for Harlequin F.C. coming close to national team selection. Commissioned as a pilot officer in 1930, Bader was posted to Kenley, Surrey, flying Gloster Gamecocks and soon after, Bristol Bulldogs.
On 14 December 1931, while visiting Reading Aero Club, he attempted some low-flying aerobatics at Woodley airfield in a Bulldog, apparently on a dare. His plane crashed when the tip of the left wing touched the ground. Bader was rushed to the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading, where, in the hands of the prominent surgeon Leonard Joyce, both his legs were amputated – one above and one below the knee. In 1932, after a long convalescence throughout which he needed morphine for pain and relief, Bader was transferred to the hospital at RAF Uxbridge and fought hard to regain his former abilities now that he had a new pair of artificial legs. In time, his efforts paid off and was able to drive a specially modified car, play golf and even dance.
Bader got his chance to prove that he could still fly when, in June 1932, Air Under-Secretary Phillip Sasson arranged for him to take up an Avro 504 which he piloted competently. A subsequent medical examination proved him fit for active service. However, in April the following year, he received notification that the RAF had decided to reverse the decision on the grounds that this situation was not covered by the King’s Regulations. In May, Bader was invalided out of the RAF, took an office job with the Asiatic Petroleum Company and, in 1935, married Thelma Edwards.
When war broke out in 1939, Bader used his RAF Cranwell connections to rejoin the RAF. Despite official 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 the same year and was posted to the Central Flying School, Upavon, for a refresher course on modern types of aircraft. Starting with the Avro Tutor, Bader progressed through the Fairey Battle and Miles Master (the last training stage before experiencing Spitfires and Hurricanes). Bader retained the rank of Flying Officer, that which he held on his retirement in May 1933.
Bader’s first operational posting was in February 1940 to No. 19 Squadron based at RAF Duxford, near Cambridge, where a close friend from Cranwell days, Squadron Leader Geoffrey Stephenson, was the Commanding Officer, and it was then that he got his first glimpse of a Spitfire. At 29 years of age, Bader was considerably older than his fellow pilots. It was thought that Bader’s success as a fighter pilot was partly due to having no legs; pilots pulling high “G” 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 that much longer and thus had an advantage over more able-bodied opponents.
The following April, he left 19 Squadron to become a Flight Commander with No. 222 Squadron, also based at Duxford, commanded by another old friend of his, Squadron Leader Tubby Mermagen, and it was during this phase of Bader’s flying career that he had his first taste of combat. While patrolling the coast near Dunkirk in his Spitfire at around 30,000 ft, he came across a Bf 109 in front of him, flying in the same direction and at approximately the same speed. Bader 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. His second encounter was with a Dornier a day or two later, in which he narrowly avoided a collision while silencing the aircraft’s rear gunner during a high-speed pass. Shortly after Bader joined 222 Squadron, it relocated to RAF Kirton-in-Lindsey, just south of the Humber.
After flying operations over Dunkirk, he was posted to command No. 242 squadron as Squadron Leader at the end of June 1940; a Hurricane unit based at 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. Upon the formation of No. 12 Group RAF, No. 242 squadron was assigned to the Group while based at RAF Duxford.
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. Bader was an outspoken critic of the careful “husbanding” tactics being used by 11 Group commander Keith Park, and 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 southeast England. As the battle progressed, Bader often found himself at the head of a composite wing of fighters consisting of up to five squadrons. Achievements of the Big Wing were hard to quantify, as the large formations often overclaimed aircraft shot down, but there is no doubt that Bader and Leigh-Mallory contributed to the departure of both Fighter Command commander Air Marshal Hugh Dowding and Air Vice Marshal Keith Park after the battle was over.
In 1941, Bader was promoted to Wing Commander and become one of the first “Wing Leaders.” Stationed at Tangmere, Bader led his wing of Spitfires on sweeps and “circus” operations over northwestern 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 their initials marked on their 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 20mm cannon and four .303 machine guns. However, Bader flew a Spitfire Va equipped with just eight .303 machine guns, as he insisted that these guns were more effective against fighter opposition.
By August 1941, Bader had claimed 22 German planes shot down, the fifth highest total in the RAF. On August 9, 1941 Bader was shot down and taken prisoner. Although he believed for years that he had collided in mid-air with a Messerschmitt Bf 109 over Le Touquet, recent research shows no “Bf 109 was lost to a collision that day and he may have been shot down by a Bf 109F of II/JG26 flown by Feldwebel Meyer. As he tried to bail out, his right prosthetic leg became trapped in the aircraft, and he only escaped when the leg’s retaining straps snapped.
More recently, in a Channel 4 documentary “Who Downed Douglas Bader?”, aired on August 29, 2008, research by air historian Andy Saunders now suggests that he may have been a victim of ‘friendly fire’, shot down by one of his fellow RAF pilots after becoming detached from his own squadron. RAF combat records indicate Bader may have been shot down by F/L “Buck” Casson of No. 616 Squadron RAF, who claimed a “Bf-109 whose tail came off and the pilot bailed out.” Bader was flying at the rear of the German fighter formation, alone, and his squadron were the opposite side of the Germans. “Buck” only had a few seconds in which he saw Bader and mistook his Spitfire for a Bf 109. Ironically, Casson was also shot down and made prisoner that same day. Whether Bader devised the collision story to cover for a fellow pilot is left unresolved.
Bader was captured by German forces, who treated him with great respect. General Adolf Galland, a German flying ace, notified the British of his damaged leg and offered them safe passage to drop off a replacement. The British responded on August 19, 1941 with the ‘Leg Operation’- an RAF bomber was allowed to drop a new prosthetic leg by parachute to St Omer, a Luftwaffe base in occupied France, as part of Circus 81 involving six Blenheim bombers and a sizeable fighter escort. The Germans were less impressed when, task done, the bombers proceeded onto their bombing mission to Gosnay power station near Bethune, although bad weather prevented the target being attacked.
Bader tried to escape from the hospital where he was recovering, and over the next few years proved as big a thorn in the side of the Germans as he had been to the RAF establishment. He made so many attempts at escape that the Germans threatened to take away his legs. Initially held at Stalag Luft III at Sagan, his “goon-baiting” of the camp guards reached such heights that he was finally dispatched to the “escape-proof” Colditz Castle Oflag IV-C, where he remained until the spring of 1945 when it was relieved by the 1st US Army. When Bader subsequently arrived in Paris, true to form, he requested a Spitfire so that he could rejoin the fighting before the war was over, only to be refused.
After his return to England, Bader was given the honour of leading a victory flypast of 300 aircraft over London in June 1945 and was later promoted to Group Captain. He remained in the RAF until February 1946, when he left to take a job at Royal Dutch/Shell. Bader resumed playing golf, an enthusiasm developed after his amputation, achieving a handicap in the low single figures.
Never a person to hide his opinions, Bader also became controversial for his political interventions. A staunch conservative with traditional Victorian values, his trenchantly-expressed views on such subjects as juvenile delinquency, apartheid and Rhodesia’s defiance of the Commonwealth (he was a staunch supporter of Ian Smith’s white minority regime) attracted much criticism. His association with figures on the radical right fringes of British politics contributed to a perception that he was a closet extremist and racist – an impression that in the case of the politically unsophisticated Bader was almost certainly incorrect.
Following the death of his first wife, Thelma, Bader married Joan Murray.
In 1976 Bader was knighted for his services to amputees and his public work for the disabled. His workload was exhausting for a legless man with a worsening heart condition, and, after a London Guildhall dinner honouring the 90th birthday of the Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, Bader died of a heart attack on September 5, 1982 at the age of 72. Bader had previously suffered a “minor heart attack” three weeks earlier after a golf tournament in Ayrshire.
Bader attributed his success to the belief in the three basic rules that had been tried and tested by earlier fighter pilots:
• 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.
Quote; “Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t do this or that. That’s nonsense. Make up your mind, you’ll never use crutches or a stick, then have a go at everything. Go to school, join in all the games you can. Go anywhere you want to. But never, never let them persuade you that things are too difficult or impossible.”
Quote; “Rules are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools.”
Quote; “I am not one of those who see war as a cricket match where you first give anything to defeat the opponent and then shake hands.”