Today in 1910, Sir Douglas Bader was born in London, England. He would become famous as a Royal Air Force fighter pilot during the Second World War, not just because of his performance in the cockpit against German aircraft, but in the way he dealt with a physical disability that would’ve compelled most people to spend their years in a much safer environment.
After a childhood spent moving with his army family, Bader joined the Royal Air Force in 1928. He quickly showed himself to be an excellent pilot and an exceptional athlete. He earned his commission as a pilot officer in 1930 and was soon flying the Bristol Bulldog, a biplane fighter from the 1920’s. At the end of the next year, Bader crashed his fighter while performing low-level aerobatics on a dare from another pilot. Despite efforts to the contrary, the surgeon who operated on him after the accident was forced to amputate both of his legs, one above and one below the knee.
Bader’s recovery took the better part of a year, but at end of that time he could make his way on a pair of artificial legs. He was soon driving again and playing golf, but his ultimate goal was still ahead: proving to the Royal Air Force that he could still fly. In June, 1932, he got his chance when he piloted an RAF trainer successfully. He was then considered fit for duty, but the victory was short-lived: the next year, the RAF reversed its decision on the grounds that no regulation governed the service of a legless pilot. Bader was given a medical discharge from the service, after which he took an office job and got married.
When the Second World War began in 1939, Bader saw his opportunity to return to the Royal Air Force. By using his service connections to fight the RAF’s reluctance to let him fly again, Bader was soon taking a refresher course in modern fighter aircraft. In February, 1940, he was assigned to Number 19 Squadron flying the soon-to-be famous Supermarine Spitfire. His fellow pilots, most of them younger, believed that part of the reason Bader was such an excellent fighter pilot was because his lack of legs meant that the blood rushing from his head during a high ‘g’ turn had nowhere to go, allowing him to maintain consciousness longer than his two-legged opponents during tight-turning dogfights.
By June, 1940, Bader had shot down several German aircraft and was placed in command of Number 242 Squadron, a unit of Canadians who had suffered terrible losses up to that point in the war. It was here that Bader’s personality and management style first came into full view. Initially, the Canadians were resistant to having a British squadron leader, but Bader won the men over by making sure they received new equipment to replace what they had lost in combat. He led from the front and had no concept of what the word “quit” meant. In short order, the squadron was once again combat-ready.
A year later, Bader was promoted to Wing Commander. His Spitfires roamed over northwestern Europe, drawing German fighters to them in the hope that military planners in Berlin would keep squadrons in the west instead of sending them east to fight the beleaguered Russian allies. During the summer of 1941, Bader shot down his 22nd German plane, making him the fifth highest ace in the Royal Air Force. However, his luck ran out on August 9th when it is believed a Messerschmitt Bf 109 shot him down over occupied France. Bader contended for years that he was the victim of a mid-air collision, but historians suggest that he was either shot down by the German aircraft or possibly hit by one of his own pilots by mistake. Either way, the ace found himself floating down over enemy territory minus one artificial leg, which was torn off while he was struggling to escape his plane’s cockpit.
When German forces found Bader, they were shocked that a man with no legs was piloting a fighter aircraft. He was treated with respect by the German officers; General Adolf Galland, the commander of Germany’s entire fighter force, even went so far as to contact the British and allow them to airdrop a new prosthetic leg over a Luftwaffe base in France.
Once back on two legs, Bader wasted no time in trying to escape. Over the next four years, he would attempt escape so many times that the Germans eventually threatened to take his legs away. He constantly taunted his guards and became such a disciplinary problem that he was eventually sent to Colditz Castle, a high-security POW camp that was considered escape-proof. The camp was liberated in early 1945 by the US Army, at which time Bader requested a Spitfire so he could get back in the fight. However, he had to make do with being given the honor of leading a flight of 300 planes over London in June, 1945 to celebrate Germany’s defeat. In addition, he was promoted to Group Captain. He was discharged from the RAF in early 1946.
Douglas Bader was knighted in 1976 for his work for and with the disabled. He died of a heart attack six years later on September 5th, 1982. He was 72.