Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader, CBE, DSO, DFC, FRAeS, DL, became a hero and was widely acknowledged as a legend in his own lifetime.
On this page you will find:
- Background information about Sir Douglas
- Link to an article by Sir Douglas’s biographer, Paul Brickhill, published by the Daily Mail in March 2018 to commemorate the Centenary of the RAF.
- “Plane Advice” – Sir Douglas Bader’s own thoughts, views and experiences relating to life with a disability (With thanks to Steve McNeice for artistic improvements!)
- Douglas Bader by Steve Platt – An article from the Channel 4 Website
- Douglas Bader, The Man Behind the Legend, by John Behague
Douglas Bader was born in London in 1910. He won a scholarship to St Edward’s School in Oxford. Followed by a place to the RAF College in Cranwell where he captained the Rugby team and was a champion boxer.
Douglas was commissioned as an officer in the Royal Air Force in 1930 but after only 18 months he crashed his aeroplane and became a double amputee caused by “my own fault” in an aeroplane accident in 1931. As a consequence of the accident Douglas was discharged from the RAF. He found work with the Asiatic Petroleum Company.
After the outbreak of the Second World War Douglas rejoined the RAF. He was a member of 222 squadron and was promoted to lead 242 squadron. His skill as an aviator and contribution as an outstanding leader and fighter ace during WW2, along with his continuous attempts to escape prisoner of war camp after he was shot down, was immortalised in the book and film ‘Reach for the Sky‘.
On returning to England, Bader was promoted to Group Captain. He left the RAF in 1946.
Having suffered a double amputation Douglas became an inspiration to disabled and able-bodied alike by demonstrating the ability to “get on with your life”. Post war found him working for Shell, getting his golf handicap down to an extraordinary 2 and fundraising on behalf of many disabled groups and charities.
Douglas was honoured in 1976 with a Knighthood for his contribution to and work on behalf of the disabled community.
A disabled person who fights back is not disabled….but inspired
It is this maxim that our charitable foundation established in Douglas’s name immediately following his death in 1982, seeks to replicate and develop.
The Douglas Bader Foundation was formed by family and friends, many of whom had flown side by side with Douglas during World War 2.
Article on Sir Douglas by his biographer, Paul Brickhill
The following link is a PDF article on Sir Douglas, written by his biographer, Paul Brickhill, published by the Daily Mail in March 2018 to commemorate the Centenary of the RAF.
Almost 30 Years on & Douglas Bader Can Still Offer ‘Plane’ Advice
“To my way of thinking, a disabled man who has achieved independence is no longer disabled”
The following are Sir Douglas Bader’s own thoughts, views and experiences relating to life with a disability. They are not meant as a manual or book of instruction, but merely one man’s view of his disability, albeit a quite remarkable man!
The difficulty of discussing a personal disability such as the loss of an arm or a leg or eyes is that it affects different people differently. That seems such an obvious remark as to be not worth recording. I record it simply to affirm that what I write expresses my personal experience and conviction. Someone else writing about an identical disability would almost certainly react in a totally different way.
The details of how I acquired my disability (the loss of one leg below the knee and the other leg above the knee) are of no consequence in this chapter. The fact remains that I lost my two legs at the age of 21 and went through the same pain and grief in the first few weeks and months that everyone else has experienced under similar conditions.
One phenomenon of interest is that during the time I was convalescing and before I had anything to do with artificial legs, I used to dream more frequently than before or since. Always in my dreams I was whole; in other words I had my legs. The cause of this frequent dreaming was undoubtedly due to the loss of legs being on my mind. The fact that in my dreams I had my flesh and blood legs was, I believe, because my subconscious mind had no knowledge or experience of artificial limbs, and therefore was unaware of them. As soon as I received my artificial legs and they became part of my normal life I ceased to dream of those I had lost and have never done so since.
When we are young, vigorous and healthy it never crosses our mind that a catastrophe may occur to us. It is rather like fighting in wartime. We never envisage our own death – it is always the other chap. When, therefore, a catastrophe occurs it is interesting at a much later date to look back and recollect one’s immediate reaction.
In my own case – and many must have experienced the same thing – the shock of the event was cushioned over several weeks. In other words there was no single instant of impact. During the years that followed my accident, people have said “Wasn’t it an awful shock when you knew that you had lost your legs?”, and the answer quite truthfully was “No”. By the time the weeks had passed and I had appreciated the loss of my legs, the fact had ceased to impress me.
The effort to stand and walk upright on two artificial legs was yet to come. Meanwhile I did not need legs for anything. I was comfortably installed in bed, looked after by kind and sympathetic nurses. The sole requirement was to get physically strong once more.
The biggest disappointment that I had was the initial difficulty of trying to operate the artificial legs when I first got them. Having always been of an athletic nature and knowing nothing about artificial legs I thought during my convalescence that once I got them I should wander around after a day or two quite normally.
When I went for my first fitting of these legs and actually put them on and tried to stand up on them, I never thought that I would ever move them. With a strong man each side of me, having been levered to my feet, I stood there as far as I was concerned nailed to the ground with no conscious balance if I let go of my two supporters. After a certain amount of time, trouble and a great deal of sweat I began to get some inkling of how to operate the artificial knee of the right leg.
The initial fitting of a pair of artificial legs is not easy. The recipient of them has no idea whether they are comfortable or otherwise, because even if they fitted perfectly they would still feel so uncomfortable he wouldn’t know.
After battling away for several days during the course of which I spent a good deal of time on the ground, my mind and my reflexes gradually acquired the method of movement needed, and then as always it suddenly came with a rush and did not seem so difficult.
During those first days I never used a stick or a crutch, partly out of obstinacy but also because I never minded falling down. I have noticed since that the chaps who walk best are those who are not worried by an occasional fall.
I believe that many people use a stick because they think it will help them maintain their balance and prevent them falling. In fact the reverse is the case. A stick may help some people to retain their balance, but, once they have started to fall it certainly won’t stop them, it will merely get in the way. It may even cause them to injure themselves by trying to avoid falling down instead of letting themselves go and then getting up.
Perhaps the real answer whether to use a stick or not can only be a personal one. Some people by nature have a less developed sense of balance than others.
My own point of view is simply this: the use of a stick if you don’t need it provides a negative approach to the problem rather than a positive one. In other words, if you have a stick your mind automatically approaches the problem from the point of view of trying to avoid falling down which is the negative approach.
The positive approach surely is to say “To hell with falling down! I am going to walk! If I fall down it’s in no way different from anybody with both his ordinary legs tripping up and falling down.” And don’t forget plenty of people do.
The chief requirement of anyone disabled is to be independent of outside assistance. It is an awful bore to feel that you cannot do this or that without asking somebody to help you. Strangely enough it is not the apparently difficult things that provide the major problem.
Keeping to the subject of legs, most people think that the difficulty is to walk. Actually that is only the primary difficulty which, having learnt to use the artificial legs, i.e. standing up and walking about a flat open space, represents the initial requirement only. Once you have acquired the method of operating the artificial legs, the walking problem is, to a greater or lesser degree, solved. The normal everyday requirements of life pose more difficult problems to which as usual a simple answer is the best.
When I took delivery of my first pair of artificial legs, all sorts of new, both irritating and interesting, things cropped up. There was the question of dressing and undressing which sounds stupid but in fact presents quite a problem at first.
You cannot fiddle your feet in and out of your trousers, for example, like an ordinary person as they are fixed and remain at right angles to the shin. With someone helping you get into bed, you sit on the bed and take your legs off. Your friend takes them away and leans them up against the wall perhaps out of reach from the bed. Then you find that during the night you want to get up. Either you can get out by using your hands, landing on the floor and then propelling yourself along with the aid of your hands on your backside, or you can shout for someone.
After a few mistakes like this you get yourself organised, and the last thing you do before getting into bed is to take your legs off. In other words in the final preparation for bed you sit on the edge, take your legs off, and lean them up against the wall by the bed in case you want them in a hurry. You may decide if you have got to get out in the middle of the night, and it is not too far away, you won’t bother to put your legs on but you will use your hands and your backside to go where you want.
Different people vary obviously in what they do and I can only say what I have found over the years. You get used to dragging yourself about with your arms and your hands and after a bit you soon realise the possibilities of doing virtually everything except walking without putting your legs on.
My morning routine is to get up, get on to the floor and go along by the hands and backside method to the bathroom where there is a chair or stool beside the bath. With one hand on the edge of the bath and one on the stool you seat yourself on the latter.
With one hand on the stool and one on the edge of the bath you raise yourself and sit on the edge of the bath and then with a hand on each side of the bath you lower yourself into the bath-tub.
Having slipped off the edge once and hurt yourself you remember to put a wet face flannel on the nearest side of the bath-tub on which you are going to sit before getting into the bath. This stops you slipping. You only need to forget it once and you will remember for the rest of your life. The same thing applies to getting out. You seat yourself on the face flannel on the edge of the bath and then on the stool. If you have left your legs in the bathroom the night before, they are there for you to put on and walk away from the bathroom in the morning.
If you are married you can leave your legs in the bedroom at night and your wife can bring them along to the bathroom in the morning. It is in overcoming the ordinary day to day requirements like the above that a disabled person achieves normality. If you cannot wash yourself and have a bath and do all the essential everyday requirements of life without somebody to help you, you are inevitably restricted and the aim of every disabled person is to be completely independent.
If you have achieved that, you have achieved normality. You can travel all over the world, as I do; visit out of the way places and lead a similar life to anyone else without ever being a nuisance to other
people or to yourself. Only on the odd occasion when you suffer a mechanical breakage of an artificial leg are you temporarily stopped and even then it is a great deal easier than when an ordinary person breaks his leg! Several times in my travels overseas when I don’t normally carry a spare leg, I have had breaks and it is surprising how you can get them repaired, if not perfectly at least usefully, by the local blacksmith or better still nowadays in the workshops of any reasonably sized aerodrome.
When I was in hospital convalescing before acquiring artificial legs, I worked out in my own mind how I would need to have my car adjusted so that I could drive it.
At that time I had a small 8 h.p. two-seater sports car which fortunately had a driving position which gave plenty of leg room. I did not like the idea of hand controls so my mind concentrated on an adjustment to the normal foot controls.
In those days these consisted of three pedals, an accelerator, a brake and a clutch. Of these pedals, the accelerator and the brake were operated by the right foot and the clutch alone by the left. My right leg was off above the knee so it was clear (even without knowledge of artificial ones) that my left leg, which was off below the knee, would be the master leg as far as I was concerned. I therefore decided to put the clutch pedal on the right and have the accelerator and brake pedals moved so that they would be operated by my left foot.
A garage chum made this alteration and never have I needed to change it. Every car I have owned since has had the pedals transferred in this way. The sole modification that I needed to make was to put a wedge shaped wooden board in front of the clutch pedal so that my right foot stayed in position and when I depressed my leg my foot slid down the wedge on to the pedal. This was necessary because normally the rubber or leather mat which is in front of the pedals of a motor car stopped my heel from sliding.
With the modern development of the two pedal car with some sort of automatic transmission which eliminates the clutch pedal, the matter is much more simple.
All there is on the floor is an accelerator and a brake pedal and instead of having these pedals up against the right hand side of the car, I have them moved a couple of inches to the left so that I can operate the pedals with my left foot and a normal person can operate them with his right foot.
Some people prefer hand controls. It is a personal matter. Both are equally effective.
So much for the motor car.
Flying an aeroplane presents no difficulty unless it is equipped with foot brakes. Up to the beginning of the war all British aeroplanes were equipped with a rudder control which was either a bar pivoted in the middle (so that pressure by either foot swung the bar) or there were two complete foot pedals which moved up and
down. You pushed with your right foot for right rudder and vice versa. Now, if you place your foot on a bar and push you can do that from your thigh and your shin without actually having to depress your foot in relation to your shin.
The brakes on aeroplanes in those days were operated from the control column or joystick by means of a lever rather like that on the handle bar of a motorcycle. When you depressed the lever and the rudder bar was central, both brakes went on. You obtained differential braking by moving the rudder bar on whichever side you wanted the brake, i.e. right rudder, right brake.
Subsequently American aircraft and some British have adopted foot brakes in the shape of pedals on the rudder bar. It is therefore necessary to depress the pedal by extending your foot, i.e. by using your toes. This is not possible for a man with two artificial feet because that is the one movement which is lacking.
The question of playing games often crops up with disabled people. Now a man without legs can in fact run provided he has two knees. If on the other hand one
leg is off above the knee this is not possible. The nearest one can produce is a sort of ungainly lurch.
Having played all forms of ball games before I lost my legs, I naturally tried to do so afterwards. Cricket I found playable from the batting point of view but impossible for fielding, the difficulty here being that you could not bend down quickly enough to be of any use, nor could you move rapidly to take a ball that was just outside your reach, so I gave it up.
Tennis I found and still find perfectly playable in doubles. If you know a game, you don’t need to move so quickly because you can anticipate, and with an active partner I find playing doubles at tennis congenial and quite effective.
The third game I played until recently was squash rackets. This again was a game I knew very well before I lost my legs, and it is of course played in a confined space which helps.
There is no question of playing competitively. The best thing to do is to play with someone who is good, who will not hit everything out of your reach but will adjust his game to give you plenty to do and himself plenty of exercise.
He will not, for instance, play drop shots when you are at the back of the court. I played this game regularly until the age of 37 and stopped playing because of the non-availability of squash courts and because it was mechanically rough on the legs.
Apart from occasional games of tennis in the summer with my friends, my chief game now is golf, which I play to a handicap of six. Golf, undoubtedly, is the game that a physically handicapped person can play on equal terms with others.
The great thing about golf is that you can play it anywhere. Whether you have one arm or no legs or whatever it is, the handicapping system is such that you can always have a good game and a lot of fun. I would say that it is probably the game that is played most by disabled people in preference to any other. I have met some splendid one-armed players and ones with legs missing.
When I first started this game I used to swing the club very fast and fell over every time, but after a bit I discovered that swinging slowly and gripping the club lightly enabled me to keep my arms clear of my body and therefore avoid upsetting my balance. I still over-balance occasionally but so does everybody else.
Only on rare occasions does one get a stance, for instance, in my case in the left hand corner of a bunker, which is more difficult for a disabled my than the ordinary chap, the reason being that you cannot take weight on your above-knee leg when it is bent.
As life goes on with the disability there are certain things which automatically solve themselves. In the initial stages one is very sensitive to other people offering help. Having got used to a disability and your friends knowing that you have got it, one not only accepts help but asks for it when needed.
This is much the best way of carrying on and saves embarrassment for everybody. For instance, if I am walking up a slope on a golf course I get someone to give me a pull because it helps. If I am walking down I hang on to someone to stop myself running away. In the early days I would never do this, determined to be unnecessarily independent.
Any heavy weight like a suitcase, your friend will carry for you – it is easier. You are carrying yourself on your legs so there is no point in adding weight to them and making it more difficult.
As regards shoes, the lightest shoes you can get are the best for the same reason. You do not want to add any more weight. A lot of nonsense used to be talked years ago about an artificial leg needing to weigh a certain amount, so as not to get blown about in the wind. This is not true. An artificial leg ideally should weigh nothing because everything artificial is dead weight.
The most tiring thing you can do with artificial legs is to stand. Therefore, the obvious thing to do is to sit whenever you can. You can do this unobtrusively by sitting on the edge of a chair arm or a table thereby taking the weight off your feet or, if you are with friends, simply sitting down. They understand.
The little things are the awkward ones like getting out of a chair in a confined space. I once had a letter from a man asking me how to get out of a chair without arms on the sides. This had never been one of my problems. Automatically you raise yourself from an armchair by placing your hands on the arms and pushing. Likewise if there are no arms to the chair you merely push from the seat.
The principle is the same, namely that you have got to get your weight moving forwards before you can stand up. Where you tend to be clumsy is in moving around a confined space like a drawing room with furniture when you are trying to hand a plate of sandwiches or a cup of tea to someone else. Therefore you must avoid doing it. Your hostess would infinitely prefer you to sit still in the knowledge that you are clumsy under such conditions than to knock over a table and break her crockery.
The goal of a disabled person surely is to get back to normal as far as is reasonably possible. Clearly there are some things which you did before you were disabled which are physically impossible to do minus your leg. Therefore you do not try and do them. On the other hand there are plenty of other things which you can continue to do.
If you are athletically inclined you cannot play football, but you can play golf. If you are not athletically inclined and were never a person to play games, there is no reason to suggest that you should start playing them merely because someone else with the same disability does so.
Everyone’s idea of a normal life is different and what you wish to achieve is your idea of a normal life. Whatever it is, one thing above all is essential and that is to decide not to be a burden on your friends and relations. Remember that they know of your disability and will help you physically whenever you may want such help.
“To my way of thinking, a disabled man who has achieved independence is no longer disabled.”
Other Background Information
Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader, CBE, DSO, DFC, FRAeS, DL, became a hero and legend in his own lifetime.
Douglas Bader was born in London in 1910. Douglas won a scholarship to St Edward’s School in Oxford. Followed by a place to the RAF College in Cranwell where he captained the Rugby team and was a champion boxer.
Douglas was commissioned as an officer in the Royal Air Force in 1930 but after only 18 months he crashed his aeroplane and became a double amputee caused by “my own fault” in an aeroplane accident in 1931. As a consequence of the accident Douglas was discharged from the RAF. He found work with the Asiatic Petroleum Company. After the outbreak of the Second World War Douglas rejoined the RAF. Douglas was a member of 222 squadron and was promoted to lead 242 squadron. His skill as an aviator and contribution as an outstanding leader and fighter ace during WW2, along with his continuous attempts to escape prisoner of war camp after he was shot down, was immortalised in the book and film ‘Reach for the Sky’.
On returning to England Douglas was promoted to group captain. He left the RAF in 1946.
Having suffered a double disfigurement Douglas became an inspiration to disabled and able-bodied alike by demonstrating the ability to “get on with your life”. Post war found him working for Shell, getting his golf handicap down to an extraordinary 2 and fund raising on behalf of many disabled groups and charities.
Douglas was honoured in 1976 with a Knighthood for his contribution and work on behalf of the disabled community.
The Douglas Bader Foundation is an Associate Member of the Associate Parliamentary Limb Loss Group
Our thanks to Steve McNeice.
Sir Douglas Bader
An article about Sir Douglas taken from the Channel 4 Website, April 2009
Douglas Bader was a model national hero. At the age of just 21, as a young officer in the Royal Air Force, he had both legs amputated after he crashed his aeroplane, but through sheer guts and determination he learnt to walk again. Then, after being allowed to rejoin the RAF at the outbreak of World War II, he went on to become Britain’s best-known pilot – the most famous of ‘the few’ who helped save their country during the Battle of Britain.
Nor did Bader’s heroism end there. When his plane came down in France on 9 August 1941, he didn’t sit out the rest of the war quietly in a prisoner-of-war camp. Instead, his constant attempts at escape, despite his disabilities, led to his incarceration at Colditz Castle – the special German prison for officers who were repeat escapees, which famously had more guards than prisoners.
Yet Bader was also a controversial character. Loathed as much as loved by those under his command, he was a man of strong ideas who didn’t always follow orders.
You knew you were flying with an ace in every sense of the word, a bloke who knew exactly what he was doing, who was on the ball, was afraid of nothing, and a great leader.
Sir Alan Smith CBE DFC, flight lieutenant
Douglas Robert Steuart Bader was born in London in 1910, the son of a soldier who died in 1922 of shrapnel wounds received in World War I. His childhood heroes were the fighter aces from that war, and from an early age, he was determined to become a pilot himself.
After winning a scholarship to St Edward’s School, Oxford, he gained a place at the RAF training college at Cranwell, where he excelled in sports, becoming a boxing champion and captain of the rugby team. He went on to play rugby as fly half for Harlequins and was widely tipped for an England cap.
In 1930, he graduated from Cranwell as a pilot officer. A year later he was selected to fly in the elite RAF aerobatic team. Its precision stunts and choreographed displays provided one of the greatest spectacles of the age, and in June 1931 at the Hendon air show, Bader’s performance was described in the press as ‘the day’s best event’.
‘Crashed … Bad show’
But while Bader had the talent to be an outstanding aerobatic pilot, he didn’t have the discipline. In particular, he repeatedly disobeyed orders about low flying, for which he received several reprimands. He ignored them, to his lasting cost.
On 14 December 1931, as he approached 500 hours solo flying, he responded to a civilian pilot’s taunt (or, perhaps, dare) by performing one of his specialities – slow rolls at very low altitude – in his British Bulldog fighter. Regulations forbade this manoeuvre below 1,000 feet (305 metres); Bader attempted it below 30ft (9m). His left wing clipped the ground and he crashed.
Miraculously, he was not killed outright. But his right leg was amputated above the knee that night, and his left below the knee a few days later. ‘Crashed slow-rolling near ground,’ he wrote in his log book. ‘Bad show.’
Recovery and return
Taken to Roehampton Hospital, even then famous for its work with amputees, Bader’s sheer guts and determination enabled him to learn to walk again. But, invalided out of the RAF, he became a clerk with the Asiatic Petroleum Company. ‘He was bored stiff,’ says his sister-in-law Jill Lucas. ‘It was absolutely the last thing he wanted to do.’
Fighting both his disability and depression, Bader married Thelma Edwards in 1935. But it was only with the outbreak of World War II that he got the chance to take up his first love – flying – again.
The shortage of experienced pilots and his own determination overcame resistance within the RAF hierarchy. Eventually he was given medical approval to resume flying and was assigned to 222 Squadron. He took part in the operation to evacuate British forces from Dunkirk, during which he made his first kill – a Messerschmitt 109.
The most glamorous job in the war
The fighter pilots of World War II were the football or rock stars of their day. As one of Bader’s comrades, Wing Commander Paddy Barthrop DFC AFC, put it, ‘We were like John Waynes or David Beckhams in those days. Being a fighter pilot … was probably the most glamorous job – and the best job – in any of the three services.’
And Douglas Bader was one of the most glamorous of the lot. According to Jill Lucas, his sister-in-law: ‘There had never been a person with no legs flying, commanding a squadron, shooting down German aeroplanes. [The press] was extremely interested in all the Battle of Britain pilots. There were photographs of them all in the papers. Somehow it was so dramatic, the idea of them taking off every day and defending the country and having these battles and then coming back down again. It just caught people’s imagination. They were treated like gods, the pilots. They never had to pay for a drink. Everybody wanted them.’
Promotion and the ‘Big Wing’
Bader was then promoted to take command of 242 Squadron, a Canadian unit that had suffered heavy casualties in France. He cut through RAF bureaucracy to get the squadron operational, and in its first serious combat operation, on 30 August 1940, it downed 12 German aircraft in just over an hour. Bader himself shot down a Messerschmitt 110.
Later he helped to develop the ‘Big Wing’ strategy, which involved sending large numbers of RAF fighters in mass formation against the Luftwaffe. The strategy was successful in bringing down significant numbers of enemy planes (but often only after they had hit their targets), and it made such an impression on the Germans that they delayed indefinitely the invasion of Britain. However, it was criticised because of the time it took all the aircraft that made up the ‘Big Wing’ to assemble, and because it left targets at home vulnerable to German raiders.
He was awesome, marvellous. I never met anyone with such charisma.
Max Williams, ground crew
Downed in France
By the summer of 1941, Bader was the fifth most successful fighter ace in the RAF, having shot down 23 German aircraft. He had also been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and, promoted to wing commander, had taken over the Tangmere Wing, comprising four squadrons. On 9 August, however, his run of successes came to an end when his Spitfire came down near Le Touquet, in northern France.
In Paul Brickhill’s biography, Reach for the Sky (1954), and in Bader’s own 1973 autobiography, the war ace blamed a mid-air collision with a Messerschmitt 109, which he said had clipped his aircraft’s tail. But his story has always raised questions, and recent research 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.
The advantages of artificial limbs
Ironically, the fact that Douglas Bader had artificial legs probably saved his life. When his Spitfire went down over France, one of his feet became trapped beneath a pedal. If he hadn’t been able to detach his artificial limb and leave it behind, he would not have been able to bail out and parachute to safety.
It is also thought that the loss of his legs gave Bader an advantage over other pilots in combat. The high G-force produced in combat manoeuvres caused many pilots to black out as blood drained away from their brain to other parts of the body. Because he had no legs, Bader could sustain greater G-force without losing consciousness.
Bader parachuted from his falling aeroplane and was captured and taken to hospital. But despite having left behind one artificial leg, trapped in his plummeting aeroplane, and damaging the other in the crash, he managed to escape with the help of a French nurse and a farmer who hid him in his barn. The Germans found him, however, and the farmer and his wife were sent to a concentration camp.
Bader himself was more fortunate. His flying abilities – particularly in view of his lack of legs – had earned him great respect among his captors. Indeed, General Adolf Galland, the German fighter ace, even notified the British about Bader’s missing and damaged prosthetic legs and offered safe passage for an aircraft to drop off replacements. Churchill arranged for them to be supplied – but the aircraft carrying them then continued on its mission to bomb the Germans.
After the war
After several more escape attempts, Bader was sent to the ‘escape-proof’ Colditz Castle, where he was forced to await the end of the war. On his release, he was promoted to group captain, leading a victory flypast of 300 aircraft over London. He left the RAF in 1946 for a job with Shell Aircraft, where he stayed until 1969, then joining the Civil Aviation Authority.
Bader published his autobiography in 1973, and was knighted three years later for the work he had done on behalf of other amputees. He died of a heart attack on 5 September 1982, aged 72, after speaking at the 90th birthday celebrations of Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris at the London Guildhall.
Douglas Bader, The man behind the legend
By John Behague
During the war, who would have thought that someone busily dropping bombs on the Germans would eventually be made a saint? Well, that has seriously been considered for the late Group Captain Lord Leonard Cheshire. There seems no doubt that his work after the war for the sick and dying is worthy of greater recognition. But when I heard about the discussion over Group Captain Cheshire I thought of another man, also a pilot, also a hero, and just as deserving of a higher accolade. His name was Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader, and I was privileged to have met him.
Those who knew Douglas Bader during the Battle of Britain and later in Colditz had mixed feelings about him. He had charisma and charm, but some regarded him as cocky, demanding, outspoken and impatient. A good many of his superiors called him arrogant. To younger pilots he was a living legend, to some older ones a brute.
He was all these things and more, and set a vigorous pace and an example some found impossible to follow. He also possessed enormous guts, and fierce determination. Most of the things he endured and achieved after the war would put some saints to shame, but the last thing he wanted in life was to be placed on a pedestal.
I first met Bader after the war when he was a flying ambassador for Shell and I was working with BBC News. Whenever he returned from some trailblazing trip or other he would immediately go to earth. He tended to shun the Press, but I soon found he had a soft spot for the BBC, and was able to coax one or two stories from him.
He would grimace, suck at his pipe, sway backwards and forwards on his tin legs and say: “Look, old boy, there are far, far better fish in the sea than me, and I can’t tell you anything!” But if you persisted, he would give way and respond in short, staccato sentences, and the resulting interviews made good broadcasts.
At that time I was responsible for a weekly BBC slot called Sentimental Journey in which I would transport prominent people back through time to their moments of great triumph or disaster.
The series became quite popular and I desperately wanted an airman. I wanted to interview Bader, and take him to Kenley Airfield, near Croydon, from where he’d taken off on a fateful day in 1931, and later crashed and lost his legs.
“He won’t do it,” they all told me.
It was a most presumptuous proposition, they said. To question a man about a catastrophe which had seared his life was one thing, but to expect him to return to the scene was another. I phoned Douglas Bader. After I had put the request to him there was a long pause. I heard him draw on his pipe.
Then he spoke: “Well, old boy, since it’s you, and it’s Kenley, I’d love to see the old station again. You fix it. Make it next Monday at ten, and I’ll be there.” That was it.
The date was mid-March, 1966. I’d arrived early at Kenley to meet the WAAF commanding officer, and she was showing me the wall in the mess bearing the signatures of the famous Battle of Britain pilots who had operated from the airfield during the war.
Suddenly there was a squeal of brakes and a sports car pulled up outside. It was spot on ten o’clock and the straight, stocky figure of Douglas Bader appeared.
“What the heck’s all this?” were his opening remarks as he stepped in, scattering a group of WAAF officers. “Who let them in?”
In his day, the mess was a strictly male domain, and when he realised the station was now non-operational and an all-female records establishment, he appeared somewhat bemused.
I took him to the end of the strip, switched on my recorder, and we were soon back in the days when young Bader was flying Bristol Bulldog bi-planes, playing every kind of sport, indulging in wild antics – which on one occasion came close to seeing him kicked out of the air force – and enjoying life to the full.
“It was truly a man’s life,” he told me. “We weren’t allowed to get married until we were 30. We all lived in the mess, dined-in four nights a week and spent the weekends playing sport. There were no women on the station. We all knew each other, went out together, played games together, flew together. Life was great, and flying was what we all loved.”
“Do you mind talking about the accident that changed your life?” I asked.
He bit hard on his pipe. “It was quite simple,” he said. “I did what we all used to do. I flew low. I did an acrobatic very near to the ground, made an error, and the result was I lost my legs. The great thing about this is that I’ve always felt in life that if something happens to you which is your own fault, it makes it much easier. If I’d been knocked down by a car I would have felt differently about it. But I lost my legs flying, and it was entirely my own fault and nobody else’s. So it made a tremendous difference to my mental approach to it.”
But there was more to it than that, surely. Was it just guts or some other quality that kept him going?
“I think it’s a sense of humour more than anything else,” he said. “Some people have great courage. Those I admire tremendously are the paraplegics and polio victims, who often have some inner strength which enables them to go on with life. As for the word ‘guts’, you can use it in the widest possible sense, and I don’t know whether it’s guts or adaptability, but my own belief is that the real thing in life is to have a sense of humour so that you can laugh at yourself.”
What about his bolshie attitude towards some of his superiors during the Battle of Britain when he was a squadron commander? It was all to do with the “battle of bumph”, he said. He firmly believed that if he hadn’t ditched most of the memos and letters that came flooding in to his office, he wouldn’t have had time to take on the Luftwaffe.
He deliberately ignored all the letters from Group HQ or Fighter Command until they sent a signal requesting a reply. Then he would send one. “Only about two per cent of the letters I got were followed up by a signal asking me to reply,” he said. He therefore saved time which he could use to badger his pilots and keep his maintenance teams on top line.
In the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading where he was taken after the crash he began to sink rapidly. It was only when he overheard a remark by a nurse that he was dying, that he decided it was not on, and willed himself to get better.
Would he call himself a religious man?
“I believe that there is something at the end of all this, but what it is I don’t know. I try to act and behave like a Christian in the Christian code, but I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool blind faith Christian. My own belief is that we come back again. I don’t believe we end this life in a blank. I think the word is reincarnation.”
After the interview he took off on another of his trips for Shell and I did not hear from him again for some years. However, unobserved by the public and even most of his friends, Douglas Bader was bringing hope to people all over the world who had suffered disabilities such as his. He would travel hundreds of miles at his own expense to visit men, women and children who had lost limbs. Children still in a state of shock would perk up and take notice of this man with the big smile, cheerful confdence and tin legs, and make excellent recoveries.
If his Air Force acquaintances who had resented his quick tongue and forceful manner, could have seen him at the bedsides of people, showing them how to use their new limbs, they would have changed their opinion of him.
I was still not altogether sure of his philosophy until I came across a book called The Bader Tapes written by John Frayn Turner, one of his closest friends. It includes details of Bader’s work for the limbless, with charming stories of his love for children and how they followed him around like a Pied Piper.
To Douglas Bader everything had to be done now. He lived in a world of the present, always looked forward and never looked back. Positive thinking was his philosophy. He believed people could achieve anything if they had the will and the nerve. He was the first man in the world to lose both legs, and then walk without a stick and lead a normal life. It was a great triumph of mind over matter.
If you had ever suggested to this remarkable man that he had saint-like qualities he would have stuck the stem of his pipe into your chest and exclaimed: “Saint! Don’t be daft, old boy,” and burst into peals of laughter.
Yet someone very close to him once called him “one of the greatest Christians alive”. I hope Leonard Cheshire eventually gets his sainthood. All that Douglas Bader ever wanted was his wings.
Attempt to shoot down Bader
In December, 1996, a TV programme did its best to besmirch Bader. It prompted the following letter from me to a London newspaper:
SIR– Why do we denigrate our dead heroes? No other country in the world does it, but for some reason we delight in digging up the dirt on great men. Churchill’s bones have several times been turned over, T.E. Lawrence is still being hounded; Colonel Spencer Chapman, who bravely carried on the war against the Japanese from the jungles of Malaya, has been called weak and insecure; Guy Gibson VC, leader of the Dam Busters Squadron, whose brilliant book Enemy Coast Ahead became a best seller, has been called a merely average pilot, bumptious and extrovert. Now comes the criticism of legless pilot Douglas Bader as being crass, egotistical and suffering from a personality disorder.
I despair, and so must many other ex-servicemen.
When I worked for the BBC after the war I met Bader several times, and on one occasion took him to the airfield at Kenley, near Croydon, from where he’d taken off on a fateful day in 1931 and met disaster. He was friendly, tough, and was happy to talk about his attitude to life.
He reckoned it was his ability to laugh at himself that kept him going, but you realised that he didn’t treat fools particularly gladly, and at times his tongue could be like steel. He admitted the accident to have been a stupid mistake on his part but there was nothing else for him to do but press on, which he did admirably. He was anything but crass and egotistical, and refused to talk about what he’d done after the war.
What I found out later was that Douglas Bader for many years acted as an angel of mercy, travelling long distances at his own expense to hospitals to visit children who had lost their limbs, and by demonstrating how well he managed on his own tin legs brought new hope into their shattered lives. He became a kind of flying Pied Piper and the youngsters loved him.
Douglas Bader hated publicity and if he were alive to day and heard what was being said, he’d probably puff away at his pipe, laugh a bit, then say “bloody idiots!” And that would be that. It would be like water off an old duck’s back.