By the time of the Battle of Britain Douglas Bader had already fought a major battle, not with a foreign enemy, with adversity. At the age of just 21 Bader lost both his legs in a flying accident when his wing tip hit the ground during a display of aerobatics at the Reading Aerodrome; indeed he was lucky to survive. Despite his horrific injuries Douglas Bader only had one thing on his mind; flying.
Bader’s love for flying stemmed from his boyhood visits to the RAF College at Cranwell to stay with his Aunt Hazel and her husband Flight Lieutenant Cyril Burge who was adjutant at the college. He was fascinated by the cadets doing their takeoffs, circuits, and landings. Bader would join in with the Cadets’ morning runs and games such as Cricket. Douglas himself secured a prized cadetship at Cranwell thanks to the support and generosity of a school master who saw something in Bader and wanted him to reach his full potential.
Surgeon Mr Joyce was finished for the day at the Royal Berkshire Hospital when he was called for by one of the nurses. A young RAF pilot had been brought in with horrific leg injuries following a crash and didn’t look like he was going to survive. Leonard Joyce was regarded as one of the finest orthopaedic surgeons of his day; if anyone could save Bader’s life it was him. The dedicated surgeon cancelled his evening plans and Bader was taken straight into surgery. His right leg was damaged beyond repair and had to be amputated above the knee; there was some hope for the left leg though. Bader’s life hung in the balance; hours in surgery had left Bader weak, but because of his excellent physical fitness he clung to life. When Bader became aware that his legs had both been amputated he fell into a depression that was uncharacteristic of the man, but it wasn’t to last. Thanks to the encouragement and care of the nurses, in particular Dorothy Brace, Bader’s sense of purpose and determination returned.
Once his stumps were sufficiently healed, Bader was sent to see Robert Dessouter, a prosthetics specialist and was fitted with two prosthetic limbs. Despite being told he would never walk without a stick he never walked with one; hours and hours of painstaking practice on his new legs saw to that. Eventually he was sent to the central flying school to see if he could still fly. Bader passed his flying test with, if you will excuse the pun, flying colours as his natural ability as a pilot shone through. His excitement at returning to the cockpit was short lived however, as despite been passed as fit, there was nothing in the regulations that permitted an officer with two prosthetic limbs to fly an aircraft. Bader couldn’t face the prospect of a ground job and was pensioned out of the RAF. He took a job with the Asiatic Petroleum Company working in the Aviation department. The pay was sufficient but the boredom of office life soon got to Bader. He spirits lifted somewhat when he realised that despite his handicap he was quite a talented golfer, and could compete on an equal plane with his able bodied friends.
The outbreak of war was the turning point; Britain was in desperate need of pilots; Bader sensed his chance and grabbed it with both hands. His old friend from Cranwell, now Squadron Leader, Geoffrey Stephenson recommended that he visited Air Vice Marshal Frederick Hallahan, their old training school commander from Cranwell to see if he could find him a job.
Bader, bitterly disappointed that Hallahan was only dealing with ground jobs made an impassioned plea, leading Hallahan to write him a note recommending him for flying duties. Bader subsequently passed both a medical and flying test and was restored to flying duties. Despite being older than his new RAF colleagues, Bader’s natural talent, and forceful personality meant that he was soon respected and began to work his way through the ranks, firstly as a flight commander, then a squadron leader and finally as a wing commander. Bader inspired confidence in those under his command, his relaxed manner in the air, and seeming invincibility made those around him feel invincible.
Bader’s seeming invincibility came to an end when he was finally shot down over enemy occupied France. While bailing out one of his legs became trapped in the cockpit, finally breaking free he was quickly captured by the enemy and taken to a hospital in St Omer. The Germans treated him well, asking the British to drop a new leg for him. He was invited to a nearby Luftwaffe airfield for afternoon tea, where he was treated with the same level of respect as the German pilots and even allowed to sit in the Cockpit of a Messerschmitt ME 109.
Not one to sit out the war, Bader promptly escaped from the hospital with the aid of a nurse and the local resistance, he walked for miles to reach the relative safety of a cottage owned by sympathetic locals were he was captured hiding in a cow shed under a pile of hay. Bader was moved from prison camp to prison camp; he made constant efforts to escape and generally be a thorn in the side of his captors. Eventually he wound up at Colditz Castle and was freed when the castle was liberated by the Americans. His first thoughts were to find a British fighter squadron in order to get back into the war, but he was forced to return home. He never got back into the conflict and his next flight was as a Group Captain in the lead aircraft in a victory parade.
Following the war, Bader did a lot of work with amputees, inspiring a generation of veterans, and ordinary people with amputated limbs to fulfil their ambitions and live full lives. So today we remember Group Captain Douglas Bader CBE, DSO and Bar, DL, FRAeS, the epitome of courage and determination against adversity.