Written by 11:06 am News

British World War II hero with tin legs shot down 22 German planes

Clue: World War II fighter ace who once had his prosthetic legs stolen by a young Richard Branson

“I can always remember this very strong two-armed man dragging himself across the lawn after me to grab me and grab his legs back,” Branson recounted in the podcast. “(He was) somebody that all of us young people after the war looked up to and respected, and was a great hero of mine.”

British fighter pilot Douglas Bader pictured on his plane in October 1940.

Bader had his legs amputated after a flying accident in late 1931. Already an RAF aerobatics pilot, he crashed his Bristol Bulldog biplane while performing a low-flying stunt, reportedly on dare from a colleague.

Because of his injuries, his right leg was amputated almost immediately, and the left a few days later, according to the RAF Museum website.

His log book, written that day, December 14, 1931, described the crash with two terse phrases, “Crashed slow-rolling near ground. Bad show.” He was 21 years old.

Though he almost died in the days after the crash, the young pilot’s resilience and perseverance were soon on display.

He asked for and was soon fitted with a pair of artificial legs.

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The prosthetics were made of metal, tin in this case. Bader’s 1956 biopic, “Reach for the Sky,” depicts his single-mindedness to function on his new limbs, pushing past the pain they gave him, putting extra therapy sessions with doctors.

Bader was up and about on his tin legs just six months after the horrific crash, driving a car and trying to dance.

He also showed he could capably fly an airplane again, but an RAF medical board ruled he was not fit for service as a pilot, according to the museum’s website.

Bader took a job with the Asiatic Petroleum Company, which would later become Shell Oil, working in the aviation department.

But he always needed to push himself, and soon discovered golf as a way he could do so.

“Reach for the Sky” depicts him taking up the game, first swinging and missing and collapsing on the tee box. But he’d go on to become a four-handicap golfer. Consider that the average golf handicap these days is around 15 — and the lower the number, the better the player — you can see how good Bader got.

A yearning for war

Golf was no substitute for flying, however. As the clouds of war in Europe gathered in 1939, Bader petitioned to get back into the RAF and the cockpit of a fighter plane.

Jill Lewis, Bader’s sister-in-law, said that the pilot was actually eager for war.

“He was very excited, indeed. He was the only person in our household who was absolutely longing for it to come because he said, ‘They’ll have to have me now,'” she told interviewers for the 1996 TV documentary “Secret Lives: Douglas Bader.”

Bader was right. On September 3, 1939, Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. Five months later, Bader was flying the iconic Supermarine Spitfire fighter, according to the RAF Museum.

Squadron Leader Douglas Bader, front center fourth from right,  stands beside his Hawker Hurricane Mk1 with the men of Royal Air Force No. 242 Squadron during the Battle of Britain in early September 1940 at RAF Duxford near Cambridge, England.

He scored his first combat victory in early June, shooting down a German plane over France.

In a few short weeks, he was given command of a squadron, the 242, a group of mostly Canadians who had been deployed to France before it was overrun by the Nazi armies. The ranks of the Canadian squadron were in disarray after their hurried retreat back to Britain, according to a history written for the Royal Canadian Air Force.

When the 242 squadron arrived back in Britain, its commanding officer at the time didn’t even report in to RAF leaders. “No. 242 was in bad odour,” wrote the report’s author, Hugh Halliday.

But getting the 242 back in action was the perfect assignment for Bader, and his relentless drive to be the best.

“Bader immediately transformed his unit, concentrating on improving his pilots’ flying, teamwork and confidence,” the RAF Museum says.

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“Reach for the Sky” shows Bader strong-arming, cajoling, and calling in favors to get the 242 the equipment it needed and the combat he craved.

On a 1982 TV show saluting Bader, “This is Your Life,” ground crew member Tubby Mays recalled Bader’s drive and fearlessness.

Bader’s Hawker Hurricane fighter had taken hits in the cockpit and a round had actually gone through his flight suit, destroying his chewing gum. But the pilot was eager to get back into action, Mays said.

“All he wanted to do was refuel, rearm, replenish chewing gum and up spirits away,” Mays said.

That kind of persistence paid off for Bader and the 242.

Combat successes

“The squadron’s first major success came on 30 August when they claimed 12 enemy aircraft, of which Bader shot down two,” the RAF Museum says.

In a letter dated September 22, pilot William McKnight notes the 242’s success.

Hawker Hurricanes of RAF Fighter Command, flying in formation during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

“The squadron as a whole won itself one of the best reputations in the air force. We’re among the top three high scoring squadrons in the service now and are considered one of the top five real crack squadrons,” McKnight wrote.

McKnight’s letter came in the middle of the historic Battle of Britain, in which the RAF defeated the German air force and made Adolf Hitler’s plans to invade Britain unrealistic without control of the skies. Bader was considered one of the battle’s heroes.

“By the end of 1940 Bader’s squadron had shot down 67 enemy aircraft, for the loss of only five pilots killed in action.”

Bader had also formulated the “Big Wing” formation theory during this time in which multiple squadrons take off, form up and attack the Germans as one unit.

A Hawker Hurricane, left, and  Spitfire, right, are seen over England in April 2020.

The idea had Bader butting heads with others officers in RAF Fighter Command, and remains controversial among military historians to this day, but in battle, it led to substantial RAF victories and helped cement Bader’s newly found status as a national hero.

By the spring of 1941, the RAF was on the offensive in the air war, sending formations of bombers on daylight missions over Europe, with Bader and the fighter planes flying along, ready to pounce on German fighters that came up to challenge the bombers.

On August 8, 1941, Bader was downed over France on one of these missions. Original battle reports said he collided with a German plane, but more recent investigations say he may have been downed by friendly fire.

What is not in dispute is that he bailed out, and his artificial legs may have saved his life.

That’s because his right leg had become trapped in his Spitfire fighter after it was hit.

The RAF Museum gives Bader’s deadpan account:

“My right leg was no longer with me… the leather belt which attached it to my body had broken under the strain, and the leg, the Spitfire and I had all parted company.”

On the ground, the legless pilot fell into the hands of the Germans.

A pain of a POW

Bader’s war in the air was over. Now a captive of his enemies on the ground, the stubborn pilot proved to be all they could handle.

They recovered Bader’s right artificial leg from the wreckage of his Spitfire, repaired it and returned it to him in a POW hospital in occupied France, according to the RAF Museum.

A Spitfire fighter flies over France during D-Day commemorations in 2014.

This was a mistake by the Germans.

Bader quickly concocted an escape attempt, tying bedsheets together to climb down from a hospital window and fleeing into a nearby village with the help of the French resistance.

But the British pilot was a big capture for the Germans, and they hunted him down on the premises of a local family who had given him shelter and helped conceal him.

“Reach for the Sky” depicts the capture, with Bader telling the Germans that the family had nothing to do with his escape and they should not suffer any consequences. Not surprisingly, it didn’t work that way and the French who helped Bader were imprisoned.

They would later provide the most emotional moment of the 1982 “This is Your Life” show, when the woman of that French house delivered a salute to the English pilot, leaving Bader misty-eyed.

Despite the gravity of his situation, there were moments from Bader’s time in German hands that brought laughs.

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Fellow captives told how Bader used his hollow legs to move sand and dirt from escape tunnels out of the barracks. Or how he used them to smuggle in food from sympathetic locals, or how during one escape attempt, a German sentry brought his rifle butt down on Bader’s artificial — and of course nerveless — foot, generating howls of laughter rather than pain from the POW.

Bader may have gotten under the skin of the Germans, but he had their respect. When he needed a new artificial leg, the Germans offered the RAF the chance to drop him a new one by parachute. It was an offer that didn’t quite have the optics the British liked.

“The Germans had offered to guarantee safe passage to an aircraft carrying a spare leg. The offer — which would have given the Germans welcome publicity — was turned down, and the leg was dropped by a Blenheim taking part in a bombing raid,” the RAF Museum recounts.

It was also the time Bader made a lifelong friend from among his enemies, German fighter ace Gen. Adolf Galland. It was Galland who requested that a plane be allowed to drop a replacement leg.

“I made a request through the International Red Cross, and the British were offered safe passage for the plane to drop replacement artificial legs. Well, they dropped them after they bombed my air base,” Galland said in a 1994 interview.

Eventually, the Germans grew weary of Bader’s escape attempts and sent him Colditz, the hilltop castle where the Germans put their most escape-prone captives. He remained there unitl the camp was liberated by American troops in 1945.

A pain for his fellow prisoners, too

Bader’s numerous escape attempts and constant antagonizing of the Germans bought him a certain amount of respect among those in POW camps with him.

But that was tempered by the extra scrutiny he brought and, some say, even craved.

That’s because it wasn’t just Bader who was punished for his actions, but the entire camp. For those POWs, the hardships could be worse than they could for top officers.

“Because he was so remarkable, he himself knew he was remarkable, and so ‘I deserve special treatment,'” Maj. Jack Pringle, who was with Bader at Colditz, told “Secret Lives..” “That attitude obviously is what kept him going under some terrible conditions.

“He’d been made a hero of, and he believed that himself. He didn’t boast about, it but he certainly believed it,” Pringle said.

Colditz Castle in Germany in 2013

At Colditz, Alec Ross was Bader’s batman, essentially his personal servant, who carried Bader up and down stairs, attended to his bathing and hygiene needs and the like.

Bader, Ross said, was unappreciative, or at least didn’t express it.

“I don’t think all the time I knew him he said ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ to me,” Ross told “Secret Lives.”

Ross’ description of Bader was echoed by others who served with him earlier in the RAF, especially among the lower ranking troops, according to “Secret Lives” interviews.

“Never please or thank you — he didn’t know the meaning of the word,” said David Lewis, a ground crew member.

Ground crew member George Redd was even harsher.

“He tried to brutalize people, Bader. He was violent in his manner, violent in his style,” Redd said.

A war hero and beyond

But Bader had become legend in Britain, credited with shooting down 22 German planes — 20 lone victories and two shared — according to the RAF Museum. By the war’s end, he was fifth among RAF pilots in the number of enemy planes downed.

After the war, he was chosen to lead a Battle of Britain aerial commemoration over London, flying his Spitfire in the lead of a formation of 300 planes.

RAF flying ace Douglas Bader  in the garden of his home in Ascot, Berkshire, with his wife, Thelma, after his release from a German prisoner-of-war camp in 1945.

A year later, he left the RAF, returning to Shell Oil to fly its corporate airplanes and eventually managing the company’s aviation unit.

He also used his celebrity status to help and inspire others, working for charities such as Blesma, Britain’s limbless veterans association, of which he became a member and a trustee.

The RAF Museum said Bader would send inspiring letters to those who lost limbs, or even drop by to pay them a visit.

Douglas Bader poses on a new Southern Railway engine at Brighton, England, wearing an engine driver's peaked cap in September 1947.

“A newspaper report of one visit quotes him as saying, ‘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… never, never let them persuade you that things are too difficult or impossible,'” the museum’s website says.

Bader was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1976 for his service to the disabled.

He died of a heart attack in 1982, not long after the “This is Your Life” show was filmed.

Just after his death, friends and family establish the Douglas Bader Foundation to help those who have lost limbs or are otherwise physically disabled. The charity has established schools to help those who have lost legs learn to walk again, including one as far away from Britain as Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The charity’s website quotes the man who inspired its formation.

“A disabled person who fights back is not disabled … but inspired.”

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Former British Prime Minister David Cameron would agree, calling Bader his life hero in a 2016 interview with BBC History Magazine.

“This was a pilot who lost both legs in a flying accident, yet resolved to get back into the RAF. He spent the rest of his life helping disabled people and touring the world to speak about his experiences. He continued working right up until his death,” Cameron said.

“I can’t think of a life story more packed with courage and fortitude — and it should inspire pride in every single Briton,” the former PM said.

But for all the praise and criticism, Bader himself may have summed up his life well before his death, in 1957 in a letter to a photographer who was making pictures of him for Britain’s National Portrait Gallery.

“I was lucky in the war, and got much publicity not because I was any better than the others but because I was the chap with the tin legs.”

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