No obstacle is too big to overcome for someone dedicated and determined to do whatever they want to achieve. That exactly was what Douglas Bader of Royal Air Force did when he proved himself to be an excellent pilot during World War II despite lacking something: a pair of legs. Bader was a double-amputee, but that was not the only remarkable thing about him.
The Unruly Child
Douglas Bader was born in St. John’s Wood in London on February 21, 1910, to a civil engineer dad named Frederick Roberts Bader and his wife, Jessie Scott MacKenzie. When World War I broke, his father saw action as part of the Royal Engineers, where he both earned the rank of major and injuries from combat. These wounds caused complications that resulted in his father’s death.
His mother was remarried to the Reverend Ernest William Hobbs, who, despite being mild-mannered, did not become the father that Bader needed. His mom did not care that much either and would always send him to his grandparents. As a result, Bader grew to be a headache, unruly child. One time, he accidentally shot a local lady through a bathroom window with his air gun. Another one was when he was shot in the shoulder at point-blank range by his brother Derick after an argument about how painful a pellet shot would be.
When he was sent to St. Edward’s School for his secondary education, he found a channel to release his aggressive energy by playing rugby. He turned out to be really good at it as he enjoyed the physical battles with bigger and older opponents. His sports interests, unbeknownst to him yet, would also be used during his time in the military service later in his life, as he would play for the Royal Air Force (RAF) cricket team against the Army, and then cricket in a German POW when he was captured in 1941, regardless of his disability.
He, Who Dared The Devil
His interest in aviation began when at the age of 13, his aunt Hazel’s fiance, who was an RAF Flight Lieutenant, introduced him to an Avro 504. Later, he would study and get accepted as a cadet at RAF Cranwell.
In 1928, Douglas Bader joined the RAF as an officer cadet at the Royal Air Force College Cranwell. His love for sports and extremes continued, as he became fond of hockey, boxing, and motorcycle racing which was prohibited. He was caught participating in such activities that he was almost expelled, apart from his poor class examinations performance, coming in 19th out of 21 in his class.
In 1930, Bader was commissioned into No. 23 Squadron Royal Air Force as a pilot officer, and that’s where he even became more of a daredevil than he already was, flying dangerous stunts that were obviously unauthorized. Specifically, there was a strict order not to perform aerobatics below 610 meters. To Bader, it was a rule that was unnecessary.
And so, on December 14, 1931, in Reading Aero Club, Bader attempted to do some low-flying aerobatics at Woodley Airfield while riding a Bulldog Mk. IIA, K1676. He flew too low, and the tip of the left-wing touched the ground, resulting in his aircraft cartwheeling and being smashed to pieces. The doctors who attended him, despite being top-notch, had no choice but to amputate both of his legs— one above and one below his knees.
In his logbook, he wrote:
Crashed slow-rolling near ground. Bad show.
After the accident, Bader was eager to return to his previous life. With the help of morphine and the sheer amount of determination, he learned how to use his artificial legs to walk again. By 1932, he was already driving a modified car, playing golf, dancing, and even flying a plane to prove that he was competent for active service. Regardless, RAF still chose to decommission him, and so he ended up working with an oil company, unhappily so.
Undeterred still, he attempted to rejoin RAF multiple times, and he was finally accepted back, but only being offered work on the ground. With the help of his friend from RAF Cranwell during training days, he was able to earn his wings back and did a refresher course just a month after Britain declared war on Germany, when Britain needed pilots desperately.
In January 1940, Bader was in RAF Duxford as part of No. 19 Squadron. At 29, he was older than most of the pilots that he was with, with Geoffrey Stephenson as his Squadron Leader, who was his close friend back in their training days.
As it turned out, his disability gave him an advantage in aviation. Pilots pulling high g-forces in combat could blackout as the flow of blood from their brains drain to their body parts, most commonly to the legs. But Bader had no legs, so he could remain conscious longer. Bader had opposing ideas about aerial combat, but he chose to obey orders this time. That, and his skills helped him climb up the ranks and be promoted to section leader.
He was in the Battle of France and was credited with a Messerschmitt Bf 110 damage and another one with Heinkel He 111. In the Battle of Britain, when the Germans attempted to launch Operation Sea Lion on July 10, 1940, Bader and his new squadron scored their first victory by taking down a Dornier Do 17. In that same month, he scored two further victories over Messerschmitt Bf 110s.
On August 9, 1941, he was flying a Spitfire Mk VA while patrolling over France when 12 Bf 109s flew in formation about 2,000 to 3,000 feet below, so Bader dived on them but did so too fast that he almost collided with one of them. He managed to destroy one of them with a short burst of fire. As he was turning to return back home, thinking discretion the better part of valor, he had a mid-air collision with one of the two Bf 109s that resulted in his fuselage, tail, and fin all detaching. He tried to release his harness pin, but his prosthetic leg was trapped, although he still managed to release his parachute when the strap of his prosthetic snapped, and he was set free. He lost consciousness and was taken by the Germans as a prisoner, where he was treated with respect. The Germans went as far as even informing the British that they needed new legs for Bader, which they dropped through a bomber to what was called the “Leg Operation.”
He proved a constant headache to the Germans for the next few years as a POW with escape attempts so often that his exasperated captors threatened to take away his legs. Instead, they sent him to the escape-proof Colditz Castle, where he remained until he was freed by the First US Army advancing into Germany in April 1945.
Bader, the unruly flying officer missing his legs, finished the war with 22 aerial victories and returned to England a major war hero. It is important to remember that Bader’s scored all his air victories by August of 1941 when the Luftwaffe was still, “The Luftwaffe” and its pilots had not been thinned out by combat losses. His biography was the best-selling book of the early post-war period at home and he remained in the RAF until 1946.