World War II Royal Air Force flying ace Group Captain Sir Douglas Robert Steuart Bader, CBE, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar, DL, FRAeS was born 21 February 1910 in St John’s Wood, London. His first two years were spent with McCann relatives in the Isle of Man while his father, accompanied by Bader’s mother and older brother Frederick worked in India. In 1912 Bader joined his parents in India for a year; however, when his father resigned from his job in 1913 the family moved back to London. and settled in Kew.Bader’s father saw action in the First World War 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 those wounds in a hospital in Saint-Omer, the same area where Bader would bail out and be captured in 1941. Bader’s mother remarried shortly thereafter to the Reverend Ernest William Hobbs. Bader was subsequently brought up in the rectory of the village of Sprotborough, near Doncaster, West Riding of Yorkshire. He was first sent as a boarder to Temple Grove School, which gave its boys a Spartan upbringing.
Bader found a new lease of life at St Edward’s School, where he received his secondary education. During his time there, he thrived at sports. Bader played rugby and often enjoyed physical battles with bigger and older opponents. The then Warden (or Headmaster), Henry E. Kendall, tolerated Bader’s aggressive and competitive nature. At one point, he made him a prefect despite what others saw as a strong streak of conceit in the boy. Fellow RAF night fighter and bomber pilots Guy Gibson and Adrian Warburton also attended the school. In later life, Bader was deemed to be so good that he was invited to play a trial (or friendly game) with the Harlequins.
Bader’s sporting interests continued into his military service. He was selected for the Royal Air Force cricket team, to play a first-class match against the Army at the Oval in July 1931. He scored 65 in one innings. In August, he played in a two-day game against the Royal Navy. He played cricket in a German prisoner of war camp after his capture in 1941, despite his later disability. In 1923, Bader, at the age of 13, was introduced to an Avro 504 during a school holiday trip to visit his aunt, Hazel, who was marrying RAF Flight Lieutenant Cyril Burge, adjutant at RAF Cranwell. Although he enjoyed the visit and took an interest in aviation, he showed no signs of becoming a keen pilot. Still very sports minded, an interest which dominated Bader’s formative years, he took less of an interest in his studies. Bader received guidance from Warden Kendall and, with Kendall’s encouragement, he excelled at his studies and was later accepted as a cadet at RAF Cranwell.
Soon afterwards, he was offered a place at Oxford University, but turned it down as he preferred Cambridge University. However His mother refused to allow Bader to attend Cambridge, claiming she could not afford the fees. A master at St. Edwards, a Mr Dingwall, helped pay these fees in part. 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. He left St Edward’s in early 1928, aged 18
In 1928, Bader joined the RAF as an officer cadet at the Royal Air Force College Cranwell in rural Lincolnshire. He continued to excel at sports, and added hockey and boxing to his repertoire. Motorcycling was tolerated at Cranwell, though cadets usually took part in banned activities such as speeding, pillion racing and buying and racing motorcars. Bader was involved in these activities and was close to expulsion after being caught out too often, in addition to coming in 19th out of 21 in his class examinations; however, his commanding officer (CO), Air Vice-Marshal Frederick Halahan gave him a private warning about his conduct.
On 13 September 1928, Bader took his first flight with his instructor Flying Officer W. J. “Pissy” Pearson 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 lost to Patrick Coote, his nearest rival. Coote went on to become the Wing Commander of Western Wing, British Air Forces Greece and was killed on 13 April 1941 while flying as an observer in a No. 211 Squadron Bristol Blenheim, L4819 flown by Flying Officer R. V. Herbert and was one of six of the squadron’s aircraft shot down over Greece by the Luftwaffe ace Unteroffizier, (later Leutnant) Fritz Gromotko.
On 26 July 1930, Bader was commissioned as a pilot officer into No. 23 Squadron RAF based at Kenley, Surrey. Flying Gloster Gamecocks and Bristol Bulldogs, Bader became a daredevil while training there, often flying illegal and dangerous stunts. While very fast for its time, the Bulldog had directional stability problems at low speeds, which made such stunts exceptionally dangerous. Strict orders were issued forbidding unauthorised aerobatics below 2,000 feet (610 m), which Douglas Bader repeatedly ignored in order to perform aerobatics. 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 1931, Bader undertook training for the 1932 Hendon Air Show, hoping to win a second consecutive title. Two pilots had been killed attempting aerobatics. The pilots were warned not to practise these manoeuvres under 2,000 feet (610 m) and to keep above 500 feet (150 m) at all times.
Unfortunately on 14 December 1931, while visiting Reading Aero Club, he pushed his luck (and the plane) a bit too far while doing some low-flying aerobatics at Woodley Airfield in a Bulldog Mk. IIA, K1676, of 23 Squadron, and His aircraft crashed when the tip of the left wing touched the ground. Bader was rushed to the Royal Berkshire Hospital, where, in the hands of the prominent surgeon J. Leonard Joyce (1882–1939), both his legs were amputated. In 1932, Bader was transferred to the hospital at RAF Uxbridge and fought hard to regain his former abilities after he was given a new pair of artificial legs. In time, his agonising and determined efforts paid off, and he was able to drive a specially modified car, play golf, and even dance. During his convalescence there, he met and fell in love with Thelma Edwards, a waitress at a tea room called the Pantiles on the A30 London Road in Bagshot, Surrey. In 1932, Air Under-Secretary Philip Sassoon arranged for Bader to take up an Avro 504, which he piloted competently. A subsequent medical examination proved him fit for active service. However in 1933 The RAF reversed the decision and Bader was invalided out of the RAF, took an office job with the Asiatic Petroleum Company (now Shell) and, on 5 October 1933, married Thelma Edwards.
With increasing tensions in Europe between 1937–1939, Bader repeatedly requested that the Air Ministry give him a posting and he was finally invited to a selection board meeting at Adastral House in Kingsway. His flying abilities were vouched for by Air Vice Marshal Halahan, commandant of RAF Cranwell who asked the Central Flying School, Upavon, to assess his capabilities. So Bader reported for flight tests at the Central Flying School on 18 October 1939. Despite reluctance on the part of the establishment to allow him to apply for an A.1.B. (full flying category status), his persistent efforts paid off and Bader regained a medical categorisation for operational flying and was posted to the Central Flying School for a refresher course. Eight years after his accident, Bader flew solo again in an Avro Tutor; once airborne, he could not resist the temptation to turn the biplane upside down at 600 feet (180 m) inside the circuit area. Bader subsequently progressed through the Fairey Battle and Miles Master (the last training stage before flying Spitfires and Hurricanes).
In January 1940, Bader was posted to No. 19 Squadron based at RAF Duxford near Cambridge, where, at 29, he was older than most of his fellow pilots. His commanding officer, was Squadron Leader Geoffrey Stephenson. 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. During 1940 Bader practised formation flying, air tactics, and undertook flights over sea convoys. 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. Unfortunately Bader crashed a Spitfire on take-off after forgetting to switch the propeller pitch from coarse to fine, and the aircraft careered down the runway at 80 mph, ultimately crashing. Despite a head wound, Bader got into another Spitfire for a second attempt. Leigh-Mallory made Bader a flight commander of No. 222 Squadron RAF advancing from flying officer to flight lieutenant.
Bader had his first taste of combat with No. 222 Squadron RAF, which was based at RAF Duxford commanded by Squadron Leader “Tubby” Mermagen. On 10 May the Wehrmacht invaded Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. The Western Allies had to retreat from Dunkirk during the battle for the port. RAF Squadrons were ordered to provide air supremacy for the Royal Navy during Operation Dynamo. While patrolling the coast near Dunkirk on 1 June 1940 at around 3,000 ft (910 m), Bader engaged a Messerschmitt Bf 109 in front of him, flying in the same direction and at approximately the same speed in aeriel combat. In the next patrol Bader was credited with downing a Heinkel He 111 and a Dornier Do 17, which was attacking Allied shipping.
In 1940 Bader joined 222 Squadron, and was then posted to command No. 242 Squadron RAF which was a Hawker Hurricane unit based at RAF Coltishall, mainly made up of Canadians who had suffered high losses in the Battle of France and had low morale. Despite initial resistance to their new commanding officer, the pilots were soon won over by Bader’s strong personality and perseverance, especially in cutting through red tape to make the squadron operational again. Bader transformed 242 Squadron back into an effective fighting unit. Upon the formation of No. 12 Group RAF, 242 Squadron was assigned to the Group while based at RAF Duxford. No. 242 Squadron only became fully operational in July 1940.
During July 1940 The Luftwaffe tried to achieve air supremacy in order to launch Operation Sea Lion, the codename for an invasion of Britain. Whilst on patrol Bader engaged a Dornier Do 17 on the Norfolk Coast, unfortunately The Dornier, which crashed into the sea off Cromer, was later confirmed by a member of the Royal Observer Corps. On 21 August, a similar engagement took place. This time, a Dornier went into the sea off Great Yarmouth and again the Observer Corps confirmed the claim. There were no survivors. Bader also shot down two Messerschmitt Bf 110s. In 1940, No. 242 Squadron was moved to Duxford again and found itself in the thick of the fighting and Bader brought down two more Messerschmitt BF 110s However Bader’s Hurricane was badly hit by a Bf 109. Later Bader shot down two Bf 109s, a Junkers Ju 88 and a Dornier.Do 17 and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his combat leadership. On 15 September, known as the Battle of Britain Day, Bader flew seven combat missions and damaged two Dornier Do 17’s and a Junkers Ju 88. On 27 September He shot down Another Do 17, a Ju 88 and a Messerschmitt Bf 109. On 24 September, Bader was promoted to the war substantive rank of flight lieutenant.
Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Bader joined him as an active exponent of the controversial “Big Wing” theory which provoked much debate in the RAF during the battle. Bader favoured an aggressive policy of assembling large formations of defensive fighters north of London ready to inflict maximum damage on the massed German bomber formations as they flew over South East England instead of the careful “husbanding” tactics being used by Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, the commander of 11 Group. Park was supported by Fighter Command Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the overall commander. As the Battle progressed, Bader often found himself at the head of a composite wing of fighters consisting of up to five squadrons, known as the “Duxford Wing”.
Sir Keith Park, was replaced with Leigh-Mallory in November 1940. After the war, Bader insisted that both he and Leigh-Mallory wanted the Big Wing tactic enacted in 12 Group only as 11 Group, command was located too close to the enemy and they would not have enough time to assemble. Douglas was all for the Big Wings to counter the German formation. While Park always tried to get his squadrons into “Balbos”, Bader countered that seventy packed fighters would have taken too long to climb and could have been easy targets for Messerschmitt BF 109s, but conceded that two or three Balbos from 10 and 12 Groups, gaining height beyond the range of the 109s, may have played a terrific part in the fighting. During the Battle of Britain, Bader used three Hawker Hurricanes. The first was P3061, in which he scored six air victories. The second aircraft was unknown, but Bader did score one victory and two damaged in it on 9 September. The third was V7467. On 12 December 1940, Bader was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for his services during the Battle of Britain. His unit, No. 242 Squadron, had claimed 62 aerial victories by which he was an acting squadron leader. In 1941, Bader was promoted to acting wing commander and became one of the first “wing leaders” Stationed at Tangmere with 145, 610 and 616 Squadrons under his command, Bader led his wing of Spitfires on sweeps and “Circus” operations (medium bomber escort) over north-western Europe which were 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, giving rise to his radio call-sign “Dogsbody”. During 1941 his wing was re-equipped with Spitfire VBs, which had two Hispano 20 mm cannon and four .303 machine guns. Bader flew a Mk VA equipped with eight .303 machine guns. Bader’s combat missions were mainly fought against Bf 109s over France and the Channel. In May 1941 he shot down a number of Bf 109 ‘s from Jagdgeschwader 26 (Fighter Wing 26), led by German ace Adolf Galland, Who claimed his 68th victory. Bader and Galland met again 94 days later when 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 bail out. During July Bader also shot down more Bf 109Fs and a number of Bf190 E’s and was awarded the bar to his DSO. Bader wished to continue flying Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Bader’s immediate superior as OC No. 11 Group, Fighter Command, relented allowed Bader to continue frequent missions over France even though his score had reached 20
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, looking for Messerschmitt Bf 109s from Abbeville or Wissant without his trusted wingman Alan Smith. 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 (600 to 900 metres). 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 levelled out at 24,000 feet (7,300 metres) to find that he was now alone, separated from his section, when he spotted three pairs of Bf 109s a couple of miles in front of him. He destroyed one of them with a short burst of fire from close range and opened fire on a second Bf 109, when he noticed the two more on his left turning towards him. Bader made a break for it but unfortunately collided with one of the Messerschmitt Bf 109’s so He bailed out, however his prosthetic leg got 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. A Bf 109 flew by some 50 yards away as he neared the ground at around 4,000 feet (1,200 metres).
It is likely that Bader’s Spitfire W3185 came down at Mont Dupil Farm near the French village of Blaringhem, possibly near Desprez sawmill. A French witness, Jacques Taffin, saw the Spitfire disintegrating as it came down. He thought it had been hit by anti-aircraft fire, but none was active in the area. There were also no Spitfire remains in the area. The lack of any remains was not surprising, owing to the Spitfire breaking up on its descent. Historians have also been misled as to the whereabouts of the Spitfire because of a mistake in the book Reach for the Sky, in which Bader stated his leg had been dug out from the wreckage but was damaged, indicating a definite crash site. Bader’s leg had actually been found in an open field. The quest to find Bader’s Spitfire, W3185, shed light on the demise of another famous wartime ace, Wilhelm Balthasar, Geschwaderkommodore of Jagdgeschwader 2, who was killed in action on 3 July 1941 when his Bf 109F crashed into Ferme Goset, Wittes, France.
The Germans treated Bader with great respect. When he bailed out, Bader’s right prosthetic leg became trapped in the aircraft, and he escaped only when the leg’s retaining straps snapped after he pulled the ripcord on his parachute General Adolf Galland notified the British of his damaged leg and offered them safe passage to drop off a replacement. Hermann Göring 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, as part of Circus 81 involving six Bristol Blenheims and a sizeable fighter escort. However The Germans were less impressed when, task done, the bombers proceeded on to their bombing mission to Gosnay Power Station near Bethune, although bad weather prevented it being attacked. Bader also arranged for Hans-Ulrich Rudel, a fellow amputee, to be fitted with an artificial leg.
Bader escaped from the hospital where he was recovering by tying together sheets. Initially the “rope” did not reach the ground; with the help of another patient, he slid the sheet from under the comatose New Zealand pilot, Bill Russell of No. 485 Squadron, who had had his arm amputated the day before. Russell’s bed was then moved to the window to act as an anchor. A French maid at the St. Omer hospital attempted to get in touch with British agents to enable Douglas to escape to Britain and obtained a letter from a peasant couple (a Mr. and Mrs. Hiecques), who promised to shelter him outside St. Omer until he could be passed further down the line. Until then, their son would wait outside the hospital every night until there was a chance of escape. Eventually, he escaped out of a window. The plan worked initially. Bader completed the long walk to the safe house despite wearing a British uniform. However another woman at the hospital betrayed his whereabouts 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. Over the next few years, Bader made himself a thorn in the side of the Germans. He often practised what the RAF personnel called “goon-baiting” and considered it his duty to cause as much trouble to the enemy as possible and 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 at Stalag Luft III B in Sagan. However, a Luftwaffe officer of Jagdgeschwader 26 was in the area. Keen to meet the Tangmere wing leader, he dropped by to see Bader, but when he knocked on his door, there was no answer. Soon the alarm was raised, and a few days later, Bader was recaptured. He was finally dispatched to the “escape-proof” Colditz Castle Oflag IV-C on 18 August 1942, where he remained until 15 April 1945 when it was liberated by the First United States Army.
After returning 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. Bader began looking for a post in the RAF. Air Marshal Richard Atcherley, a former Schneider Trophy pilot, was commanding the Central Fighter Establishment at Tangmere. He and Bader had been junior officers at Kenley in 1930, while serving in No. 23 Squadron RAF. Bader was given the post of the Fighter Leader’s School commanding officer. He received a promotion to war substantive wing commander on 1 December and was promoted to temporary group captain.
After the War fighter aircraft’s roles grew significantly and Bader now spent most of his time instructing on ground attack and co-operation with ground forces. Bader did not get on with the newer generation of squadron leaders who considered him to be “out of date”. Air Marshal James Robb offered Bader a role commanding the North Weald sector of No. 11 Group RAF, an organisation steeped in Fighter Command and Battle of Britain history. Bader would have stayed in the RAF has his mentor Leigh-Mallory not been killed in an air crash in November 1944, after which Bader’s enthusiasm waned.
Bader left the RAF permanently in February 1946 with the rank of Group Captain. 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 Royal Dutch Shell became Managing Director of Shell Aircraft until he retired in 1969. During the 1950s, a book and a film, Reach for the Sky, chronicled his life and RAF career to the end of the Second World War he also served as a technical advisor to the film, Battle of Britain. Bader also campaigned for the disabled and in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 1976 was appointed a Knight Bachelor “for services to disabled people” and continued to fly until ill health forced him to stop in 1979. He also read a eulogy at the funeral of Air Chief Marshal Keith Park. Bader died on 5 September 1982, at the age of 72, following a heart attack.