Fighter Ace Douglas Bader – Determined Dogmatic and Fearless

anil chopra, air power asia, Air Ace

Gp Capt Sir Douglas Robert Bader, CBE, DSO & Bar, DFC&Bar, DL, FRAeS was a Royal Air Force (RAF) flying ace of World War II. He was credited with 22 aerial victories, four shared victories, six probable, one shared probable and 11 enemy aircraft damaged. Bader joined the RAF in 1928, and was commissioned in 1930. In December 1931, while flying aerobatics, he crashed and lost both his legs. He recovered from the brink of death, got artificial legs, retook flight training, passed his check flights and then requested reactivation as a pilot. There were no regulations to allow this and he was retired against his will on medical grounds.

          After the outbreak of the WW II in 1939, however, Douglas Bader returned to the RAF and was accepted as a pilot. He scored his first victories over Dunkirk during the Battle of France in 1940. During Battle of Britain he became a friend and supporter of Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh Mallory and his ‘Big Wing’ experiments. In August 1941, Bader bailed out over German-occupied France and was captured. Soon he met and became friends with Adolf Galland, the already famous German fighter ace. Despite his disability, Bader made a number of escape attempts and was eventually sent to the prisoner of war (POW) camp at Colditz Castle, where he remained until April 1945 when the camp was liberated by the US Army.

Early Years

          Bader was born on 21 February 1910 in London, the second son of a civil engineer father. His first two years were spent with relatives, as his father with rest of the family was in India. At the age of two, Bader joined his parents in India for a year. When his father resigned from his job in 1913 the family moved back to London. Bader’s father saw action in the WW I in the Royal Engineers, and was wounded in action in 1917. He remained in France after the war, where, having attained the rank of Major, he died in 1922 of complications from the war wounds near Saint-Omer, the same area where Bader would bail out and be captured in 1941. Bader’s mother remarried.

          Bader was subsequently brought up in the rectory of the village. Bader’s mild-mannered stepfather did not become the father figure he needed. His mother showed little interest in Bader and sent him to his grandparents on occasion. Without guidance, Bader became unruly. Bader played rugby  and often enjoyed physical battles with bigger and older opponents. Fellow RAF night fighter and bomber pilots Guy Gibson and Adrian Warburton also attended the same school. Bader’s sporting interests continued into his military service. He was selected for the RAF Cricket team. He played cricket in a German POW camp after his capture in 1941, despite his disability.

          In mid-1923, Bader, at the age of 13, was introduced to an Avro 504 during a trip to visit his aunt, Hazel, who was marrying RAF Flight Lieutenant Cyril Burge at RAF Cranwell. Due to his new connection with Cyril Burge, Bader learned of the six annual prize cadetships offered by RAF Cranwell each year. Out of hundreds of applicants, he finished fifth.

Joining the RAF

          In 1928, Bader joined the RAF as an officer cadet at RAF Cranwell. He continued to excel at sports, and added hockey and boxing to his repertoire. Bader was involved in banned high speed motorcycling, and was close to expulsion after being caught too often. He was also coming 19th out of 21 in his class examinations. On 13 September 1928, Bader took his first flight in an Avro 504. After just 11 hours and 15 minutes of flight time, he flew his first solo, on 19 February 1929. Bader competed for the “Sword of Honour” award at the end of his two-year course, but finally came second. On 26 July 1930, Bader was commissioned as a Pilot Officer into No. 23 Squadron RAF. Bader became a daredevil while training, often flying illegal and dangerous stunts. While very fast for its time, the Bulldog aircraft had directional stability problems at low speeds, which made such stunts exceptionally dangerous. Strict orders were issued forbidding unauthorised aerobatics below 2,000 feet. Douglas took this as an unnecessary safety rule rather than an order to be obeyed.

Avro 504 Picture Credit: Flickr

Air Crash and Amputation of Legs

          Bader continued to perform unauthorised low-level aerobatics to show-off his skill. The unit CO gave his pilots more latitude. Under another CO, he would have been court-martialed. No. 23 Squadron had won the Hendon Air Show “pairs” event in 1929 and 1930. In 1931 Bader, teamed with Harry Day, successfully defended the squadron’s title. In late 1931, Bader undertook training for the 1932 Hendon Air Show. Two pilots had been killed attempting aerobatics. The pilots were warned not to practice these manoeuvres under 2,000 feet and to keep above 500 feet at all times. Nevertheless, on 14 December 1931, while visiting Reading Aero Club, Bader attempted some low-flying aerobatics in a Bulldog Mk. IIA. His aircraft crashed when the tip of the left wing touched the ground. Bader was rushed to the hospital, where both his legs were amputated, one above and one below the knee. Bader made the following entry in his logbook after the crash: “Crashed slow-rolling near ground. Bad show”.

Bulldog Mk. IIA. Picture Credit: Pinterest

Invalided From Service

          In 1932, he was given a new pair of artificial legs. His determination paid off, and he was able to drive a specially modified car, play golf, and even dance with his artificial legs. He met and fell in love with Thelma Edwards, a waitress at a tea room. Bader got his chance to prove that he could still fly when, in June 1932, Air Under-Secretary Philip Sassoon arranged for him to take up an Avro 504, which he piloted competently. A subsequent medical examination proved him fit for active service. But it decided that his case was not covered by regulations, and in May, Bader was invalided out of the RAF. He took a job with the Asiatic Petroleum Company (now Shell) and, on 5 October 1933, married Thelma Edwards.

Return to RAF

          In view of the increasing tensions in Europe in 1937–39, Bader repeatedly requested the Air Ministry to accept him back into the RAF. He was initially offered a ground job. But later Air Vice Marshal Halahan, commandant of RAF Cranwell in Bader’s earlier days, personally endorsed him and asked the Central Flying School (CFS) to assess his capabilities. In October 1939 Bader undertook refresher courses. Despite reluctance of the establishment to allow him to apply for full flying category status, his persistent efforts paid off. Bader regained a medical categorisation for operational flying at the end of November 1939 and was sent for conversion on modern types of aircraft. On 27 November, eight years after his accident, Bader flew solo again. Once airborne, he could not resist the temptation to turn the biplane upside down at 600 feet inside the circuit area.

Getting Back into Action

          In January 1940, Bader was posted to No. 19 Squadron, where, at 29, he was older than most of his fellow pilots. Here he got a first glimpse of a Spitfire. It was thought that Bader’s success as a fighter pilot was partly because of his having no legs. Pilots pulling high g-forces 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 longer, and thus had an advantage over more able-bodied opponents. Initial months, Bader practiced formation flying and air tactics, as well as undertaking patrols over convoys out at sea. Bader found opposition to his ideas about aerial combat. He favoured using the sun and altitude to ambush the enemy, but the RAF did not share his opinions. Official orders/doctrine dictated that pilots should fly line-astern and attack singly. Despite this being at odds with his preferred tactics, Bader obeyed orders, and his skill saw him rapidly promoted to section leader. Bader was subsequently promoted from flying officer to flight lieutenant, and appointed as a flight commander of No. 222 Squadron RAF.

Battle of France

          On 10 May German Army invaded Luxembourg, Netherlands, Belgium and France. RAF squadrons were ordered to provide air supremacy to the Royal Navy during Operation Dynamo (evacuation from Dunkirk). While patrolling the coast near Dunkirk, on 1 June 1940, at around 3,000 ft, Bader saw a Messerschmitt Bf 109 in front of him, flying in the same direction and at approximately the same speed. He 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. Bader claimed five victories in that particular dogfight, and damaging a Bf 110. In the next patrol Bader was credited with a Heinkel He 111 damaged.

 Messerschmitt Bf 110

          After flying operations over Dunkirk, on 28 June 1940 Bader was posted to command the No. 242 Squadron, flying Hurricanes, as acting squadron leader. The Squadron was mainly made up of Canadians who had suffered high losses in the Battle of France and was suffering from low morale. Bader’s strong personality and perseverance, especially in cutting through red tape made the squadron operational again.

Hurricane. Picture Credit: Daily Express

Battle of Britain

          After the French campaign, Luftwaffe intended to achieve air supremacy  and then launch Operation Sea Lion, codename for the invasion of Britain. The Battle of Britain officially began on 10 July 1940. On 11 July, Bader scored his first victory with his new squadron. It was over cast and drizzling  with cloud base was down to just 600 ft. Bader was alone on patrol, and was soon directed toward an enemy aircraft flying north up the Norfolk coast. He spotted a Dornier Do 17 at 600 yards. When he closed to 250 yards its rear gunner opened fire. Bader continued his attack and fired two bursts into the bomber before it vanished into cloud. The Dornier, crashed into the sea, and was later confirmed by a member of the Royal Observation Corps. On 21 August, a similar engagement took place. Later in the month, Bader scored a further two victories over Messerschmitt Bf 110s. On 30 August 1940, No. 242 Squadron was moved to Duxford again. On this date, the squadron claimed 10 enemy aircraft, Bader scoring two victories against Bf 110s. On 7 September, two more Bf 110s were shot down, but in the same engagement Bader was badly hit by a Messerschmitt Bf 109. Bader almost bailed out, but recovered the Hurricane. Other pilots witnessed one of Bader’s victims crash. On 7 September, Bader claimed two Bf 109s shot down, followed by a Junkers Ju 88. On 9 September, Bader claimed another Dornier. During the same mission, he attacked a He 111 only to discover he was out of ammunition. On 14 September, Bader was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his combat leadership.

Picture Credit: Wiki Commons

          On 15 September, also known as the Battle of Britain day, Bader damaged a Do 17 and a Ju 88, while destroying another Do 17 in the afternoon. Bader flew several missions that day, which involved heavy air combat. Another Do 17 and a Ju 88 were claimed on 18 September. A Bf 109 was claimed on 27 September. On 24 September, Bader was promoted to the war substantive rank of flight lieutenant.

The “Big Wing” Tactic

          Bader was a supporter of his 12 Group commander, Air Vice Marshal Mallory’s controversial “Big Wing” theory. Bader was an outspoken critic of the careful “husbanding” tactics being used by Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, the commander of 11 Group. 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. Achievements of the Big Wing were hard to quantify, as the large formations often took too long to form up, over claimed victories, and too often did not provide timely support. The claims of the RAF and Big Wings were often exaggerated. RAF ace Johnnie Johnson felt that there was room for both tactics – the Big Wings and the small squadrons. For not only it took longer to gather and get large numbers to their height, but sixty or seventy packed climbing fighters could have been seen for miles and would have been sitting ducks for higher 109s. Also nothing would have pleased Goring more than for his Bf 109s to pounce on large numbers of RAF fighters. Keith Park’s brilliance on the other hand was that by refusing to concentrate his force he preserved it throughout the battle.

Bf 109 Picture Credit: Wikipedia

Bader’s Hawker Hurricanes

          During the Battle of Britain, Bader used three Hawker Hurricanes. The first was P3061, in which he scored six air victories. The second aircraft (number unknown), Bader score one victory and two aircraft damaged on 9 September. The third was V7467, in which he destroyed four more and added one probable and two damaged by the end of September.

Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC)

          On 12 December 1940, Bader was awarded the DFC for his services during the Battle of Britain. His unit, No. 242 Squadron, had claimed 62 aerial victories. Bader became an acting Squadron Leader by 7 January 1941.

Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC)

Wing leader

          On 18 March 1941, Bader was promoted to acting Wing Commander and became one of the first “Wing Leaders” at Tangmere with three squadrons under his command. Bader led his wing of Spitfires on sweeps over north-western 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 his initials marked on his aircraft as personal identification, thus “D-B” was painted on the side of Bader’s Spitfire.

          During 1941 his wing was re-equipped with Spitfire VBs, which had two Hispano 20 mm cannons and four .303 machine guns. Bader preferred to fly flew a Mk VA equipped with eight .303 machine guns, as he insisted that these guns were more effective against fighter opposition. since he believed in a close-in approach, the lower calibre weapons had a more devastating effect. Bader’s combat missions were mainly fought against Bf 109s over France and the Channel.

Supermarine Spitfire. Picture Credit: Wikipedia

Air Encounter with Adolf Galland

          On 7 May 1941 he shot down one Bf 109 and claimed another as a probable victory. The German formation belonged to the JG 26 (Fighter Wing 26), which on that date was led in action by German ace Adolf Galland, and was also when Galland claimed his 68th victory. Bader and Galland met again 94 days later. On 21 June 1941, Bader shot down a Bf 109E off the coast near Desvres. His victory was witnessed by two other pilots who saw a Bf 109 crash and the German pilot bailout. On 25 June 1941 Bader shot down two more Bf 109Fs.

Bar to DSO

          On 2 July 1941 he was awarded the bar to his DSO. Later that day he claimed one Bf 109 destroyed and another damaged. On 4 July, Bader fired on a Bf 109E which slowed down so much that he nearly collided with it. On 6 July another Bf 109 was shot down and the pilot bailed out. This victory was witnessed by Pilot Officers Johnnie Johnson and Alan Smith (Bader’s usual wingman). On 9 July, Bader claimed one probable and one damaged, both trailing coolant or oil. Between 10 and 23 July, Bader claimed another 6 Bf 109 and four probable. Bader had been pushing for more sorties to fly in late 1941 but his Wing was tired, and in near-mutinous state. Mallory, Bader’s immediate superior as OC No. 11 Group, Fighter Command, relented and allowed Bader to continue even though his score of 20 and the accompanying strain was evident.

Last Combat and the Controversy

          Between 24 March and 9 August 1941, Bader flew 62 fighter sweeps over France. On 9 August 1941, Bader was flying a Spitfire Mk VA serial W3185 “D-B” on an offensive patrol over the French coast, without his trusted wingman Alan Smith. Smith, who was described by fellow pilot Johnnie Johnson as “leechlike” and the “perfect number two”, was unable to fly on that day due to a cold. Just after Bader’s section of four aircraft crossed the coast, 12 Bf 109s were spotted flying in formation approximately 2,000 to 3,000 feet below them and travelling in the same direction. Bader dived on them too fast and too steeply to be able to aim and fire his guns, and barely avoided colliding with one of them. He leveled out at 24,000 feet to find that he was now alone, separated from his section, and was considering whether to return home when he spotted three pairs of Bf 109s a couple of miles in front of him. He dropped down below them and closed up before destroying one of them with a short burst of fire from close range. Bader was just opening fire on a second Bf 109, which trailed white smoke and dropped down, when he noticed the two on his left turning towards him. At this point he decided it would be better to return home; however, made a mistake of banking away from them. Bader believed he had a mid-air collision with the second of the two Bf 109s on his right. Bader’s fuselage, tail and fin were gone from behind him, and he lost height rapidly at what he estimated to be 400 mph in a slow spin. He jettisoned the cockpit canopy, released his harness pin, and the air rushing past the open cockpit started to suck him out, but his prosthetic leg was trapped. Part way out of the cockpit and still attached to his aircraft, Bader fell for some time before he released his parachute, at which point the leg’s retaining strap snapped under the strain and he was pulled free. Subsequent research showed no Bf 109 was lost to a collision that day. Max Meyer of JG 26 flying a Bf 109 had claimed him shot down. Furthermore, Meyer mentioned that he had followed the downed Spitfire and watched the pilot bail out. Bader met Max Meyer in Sydney in 1981 during the Schofields Air Show. Adolf Galland, went through every report, even those of German pilots killed in the action, to determine Bader’s victor. Each case was dismissed. In 2003 air historian Andy Saunders wrote a book “Bader’s Last Flight”. Saunders’ research suggests that Bader 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 Flight Lieutenant “Buck” Casson who had claimed a Bf 109 that day. In a letter to Bader on 28 May 1945, Casson explained the action. Saunders stated that this was not absolute proof, and that it would be helpful to find the “Bader Spitfire”.

Combat Credo

          Bader attributed his success to the belief in the three basic rules, shared by the German ace Erich Hartmann. “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.”

Prisoner of War

          The Germans treated Bader with great respect. When Bader was taken prisoner, he was sent to a hospital near Saint-Omer, near the place where Bader’s father’s grave is located. On leaving the hospital, Colonel Adolf Galland and his pilots invited him on to their airfield and they received him as a friend. Bader was cordially invited to sit in the cockpit of Galland’s personal Me109. Bader asked Galland if it was possible to test the 109 by “a flight around the airfield”. Galland refused him – with laughter!

          Bader had lost a prosthetic leg when escaping his disabled aircraft. General Adolf Galland notified the British, and offered them safe passage to drop off a replacement. Hermann Goring himself gave the green light for the operation. The British responded on 19 August 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.

Escape From The Hospital

          Bader escaped from the hospital where he was recovering by tying together sheets. A French maid at the St. Omer hospital attempted to get in touch with British agents to enable Bader to escape to Britain. Eventually, he escaped out of a window. The plan worked initially. Bader completed the long walk to the pre-fixed safe house despite wearing a British uniform. Unfortunately for him, the plan was betrayed by another woman at the hospital. He hid in the garden when a German staff car arrived at the house, but was found later. Bader denied that the couple had known he was there. They, along with the French woman at the hospital, were sent for forced labour in Germany. The couple survived. After the war, French authorities sentenced the woman informer to 20 years in prison.

          Bader made so many escape attempts that the Germans threatened to take away his legs. In August 1942, Bader escaped with Johnny Palmer and three others from the camp in Sagan, but was recaptured. He was finally dispatched to the “escape-proof” Colditz Castle on 18 August 1942, where he remained until 15 April 1945 when it was liberated by the US Army.

Last years in the RAF

          After his return to Britain, Bader was given the honour of leading a victory flypast  of 300 aircraft over London in June 1945. On 1 July, he was promoted to temporary Wing Commander. Soon after, Bader was looking for a post in the RAF. Bader was made Commanding Officer of the Fighter Leader’s School. He received a promotion to war substantive wing commander on 1 December, and soon after was promoted to temporary Group Captain. Unfortunately for Bader, the fighter aircraft’s roles had now expanded significantly and he spent most of his time instructing on ground attack and co-operation with ground forces. Also, Bader did not get on with the newer generation of squadron leaders who considered him to be “out of date”. Bader’s enthusiasm for continued service in the RAF waned. On 21 July 1946, Gp Capt Bader retired from the RAF.

Picture Credit:

Post RAF Career

          Bader considered politics, and standing as a Member of Parliament for his home constituency in the House of Commons. He despised how the three main political parties used war veterans for their own political ends. Instead, he resolved to join Shell Company, who had taken him at age 23, after his accident, though some others offered more money. Joining Shell would allow him to continue flying a company-owned Percival Proctor and  later a Miles Gemini. Bader became Managing Director of Shell Aircraft until he retired in 1969. That same year, he also served as a technical advisor to the film, Battle of Britain. Bader travelled to every major country outside the Communist world becoming internationally famous and a popular after-dinner speaker on aviation matters.

Picture Credit: The Telegraph

Personal Charm and Traits

          When the film “Reach for the Sky” was released, people associated Bader with the quiet and amiable personality of actor Kenneth More. The producers had deleted all those habits he displayed when on operations, particularly his prolific use of bad language. In reality many thought that he was a somewhat ‘difficult’ person. Nevertheless, Bader was viewed as a legendary figure by the wider public. He had a force of his personality. It slightly unsettled him that people indignantly questioned his overbearing personality and then applied normal standards on to a man who had lost both his legs and yet came back to fly in the cockpit of wartime aircraft. Never a person to hide his opinions, Bader also became controversial for his political interventions. Bader was known, at times, to be head-strong, blunt and unsophisticated when he made his opinion known.

Personal life

          Bader’s first wife, Thelma, developed throat cancer in 1967. Thelma was a smoker, and although she stopped smoking, it did not save her. After a long battle, she died on 24 January 1971, aged 64. Bader married Joan Murray on 3 January 1973. Joan was the daughter of a steel tycoon. She had an interest in riding and was a member of the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen’s Association. She also helped associations involved in riding for the disabled. Bader campaigned vigorously for people with disabilities and set an example of how to overcome a disability.

Honours and Awards

          01 October, 1940, Acting Squadron Leader Bader (26151) appointed a Champion of the Distinguished Service Order, for displaying gallantry and leadership of the highest order. Led the squadron with such skills that 33 enemy aircraft were destroyed, six by himself. On 7 January 1941, Acting Squadron Leader Bader, DSO, No.242 Squadron was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for continuing to lead his squadron and wing with utmost gallantry, and by now destroying 10 and damaging many hostile aircraft. On 15 July 1941, acting Wing Commander Bader, DSO, DFC was awarded a bar to the DSO, for consistently successful sorties over enemy territory, and by now destroying 15 hostile aircraft. 9 September 1941, acting Wing Commander Bader, DSO & Bar, DFC was awarded a bar to the DFC in recognition of gallantry displayed in flying operations against the enemy. On 02 January 1956, Group Captain Bader, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar was appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for services to the disabled. On 12 June 1976 – Group Captain Bader, CBE, DSO, DFC is made a Knight Bachelor for services to disabled people. In 1977 he was made a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society. He also received a Doctorate of Science from Queen’s University Belfast.

Last Flight

          Bader’s health was in decline in the 1970s, and he soon gave up flying altogether. On 4 June 1979, Bader flew his Beech 95 Travelair for the last time, the aircraft having being gifted to him on his retirement from Shell. He had recorded 5,744 hours and 25 minutes flying time.

          On 5 September 1982, after a dinner honouring Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris at the Guildhall, at which he spoke, Bader died of a heart attack while being driven on his way home. Among the many dignitaries and personalities at his funeral was Adolf Galland. Galland and Douglas Bader had shared a friendship that spanned more than 42 years since their first meeting in France. On the 60th anniversary of Bader’s last combat sortie, his widow Joan unveiled a 6 ft bronze sculpture statue at Goodwood, the aerodrome from which he took off. The Douglas Bader Foundation was formed in honour of Bader in 1982 by family and friends, and many former RAF pilots who had flown with Bader. One of Bader’s artificial legs is kept by the RAF Museum at their warehouse, and is not on public display. Airfields, roads, institutions, and pubs are named after Bader.

Picture Credit: OwlCation

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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