Douglas Bader was a British military hero, renowned for his daring RAF raids during World War Two and his repeated escape attempts from Nazi captivity later in the conflict.
After overcoming the loss of both legs in a flight crash aged 21, Bader stayed in the military, making a name for himself as a fearsome and effective fighter pilot. Bader’s combat career was cut short when he was forced to bail out of his badly damaged Spitfire over the coast of France in 1941. He would remain in a Nazi POW camp until the end of the war.
Though he was outspoken and often controversial in his post-RAF career, Bader was awarded a Knight Bachelor in 1976 for his campaigning for people with disabilities.
Here are 10 facts about Douglas Bader.
1. Bader lost both legs in a misjudged plane manoeuvre
Just 18 months into his RAF career, in 1931, Bader lost both legs while training to defend his Hendon Air Show ‘Pairs’ title. Despite warnings not to attempt acrobatics below 500 feet, Bader performed a slow roll at low altitude and caught the tip of his Bristol Bulldog’s left wing on the ground.
Bader’s wry log of the incident read: “Crashed. Slow-rolled near the ground. Bad show”.
2. He worked in the oil industry
Following his devastating crash, Bader was discharged from the RAF and, aged 23, found employment at the Asiatic Petroleum Company, a joint venture between Shell and Royal Dutch.
Though Bader would rejoin the RAF and serve during World War Two, he returned to Shell after the war. He worked there until 1969, when he joined the Civil Aviation Authority.
3. Bader was a hugely successful air fighter
Throughout his military career, Bader was credited with 22 aerial victories, 4 shared victories, 6 probables, 1 shared probable and 11 enemy aircraft damaged.
Bader’s heroism is unquestioned. But it is hard to precisely quantify his aerial success due to the unreliability of his favoured ‘Big Wing’ approach; this was the tactic of uniting multiple squadrons to outnumber enemy aircraft, the results of which were often embellished to convince others of its effectiveness.
4. He may have been the victim of friendly fire
On 9 August 1941, while on a raid over the French coast, the fuselage, tail and fin of Bader’s Spitfire were destroyed, forcing Bader to bail out into enemy territory, where he was captured.
Bader himself believed he collided with a Bf 109, however German records state no Bf 109 was lost that day. Neither of the 2 Luftwaffe pilots who claimed victories on 9 August, Wolfgang Kosse and Max Meyer, asserted they shot down Bader.
However, RAF Flight Lieutenant “Buck” Kasson did claim to have hit a Bf 109’s tail that day, forcing the pilot to bail out. It has been suggested that this could have been Bader’s Spitfire, rather than a German Bf 109, hinting that friendly fire may have ultimately destroyed Bader’s plane.
5. Bader was captured in France near his father’s grave
In 1922, Bader’s father, Frederick, a Major in the British Army, was buried in Saint-Omer having stayed in France after being wounded during World War One.
19 years later, when Bader was forced to bail out of his destroyed Spitfire, he was captured by 3 German officers and taken to the nearest hospital. This just happened to be in Saint-Omer.
6. German officers allowed the British to send a new prosthetic leg for Bader
During Bader’s bailout in 1941, his right prosthetic leg was trapped and ultimately lost when he deployed his parachute. Such was the high regard in which German officers held Bader, they arranged for British officials to send him a new prosthetic leg.
With Reichsmarschall Goering’s approval, the Luftwaffe provided unrestricted access over Saint-Omer, allowing the RAF to deliver the leg along with socks, powder, tobacco and chocolate.
7. Bader repeatedly attempted to escape captivity
While held prisoner, Bader saw it as his mission to frustrate the Germans as much as possible (a practice called ‘goon-baiting’). This frequently involved planning and attempting escapes. Bader’s initial attempt involved tying bedsheets together and fleeing out of the window of the Saint-Omer hospital he was originally treated at – a plan foiled by a hospital worker’s betrayal.
In 1942, Bader escaped from the camp at Stalag Luft III in Sagan before eventually being transferred to the ‘escape-proof’ facility of Colditz, where he remained until liberation in 1945.
8. Bader led the RAF’s victory flypast in June 1945
After his release from Colditz, Bader was promoted to Group Captain and given the honour of leading a victory flypast of 300 aircraft over London in June 1945.
This befitted the reputation he had developed both within the RAF and with the general public for his heroism during World War Two, particularly the Battle of Britain.
9. He wrote the foreword to a Nazi pilot’s biography
In the 1950s, Bader wrote the foreword to the biography of Hans-Ulrich Rudel, the most decorated German pilot of World War Two. In Stuka Pilot, Rudel defended Nazi policy, criticised the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht for “failing Hitler” and prepared the ground for his subsequent Neo-Nazi activism.
Bader did not know the extent of Rudel’s views when he wrote the foreword but claimed prior knowledge would not have deterred him from contributing.
10. Bader became a prominent campaigner for people with disabilities
In later life, Bader used his position to campaign for people with disabilities, particularly in employment settings. He famously said, “a disabled person who fights back is not disabled, but inspired”.
In recognition of his commitment to the cause, Bader was awarded a Knight Bachelor (a rank in the British honours system typically awarded for public service) in 1976. Shortly after his death in 1982, The Douglas Bader Foundation was formed in his honour by family and friends, several of whom had flown alongside him in World War Two.