Douglas Bader

Douglas Bader

Douglas Bader, the son of a soldier who died as a result of the wounds suffered in the First World War, was born in London ion 21st February, 1910. A good student, Bader won a scholarship to St Edward's School in Oxford. An excellent sportsman, Bader won a place to the RAF College in Cranwell where he captained the Rugby team and was a champion boxer.

Bader was commissioned as an officer in the Royal Air Force in 1930 but after only 18 months he crashed his aircraft and as a result of the accident had to have both legs amputated.

Discharged from the RAF he found work with the Asiatic Petroleum Company. On the outbreak of the Second World War was allowed to rejoin the RAF.

A member of 222 Squadron, Bader, flying a Hawker Hurricane, he took part in the operation over Dunkirk and showed his ability by bringing down a Messerschmitt Bf109 and a Heinkel He111.

Bader was now promoted by Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory and was given command of 242 Squadron, which had suffered 50 per cent casualties in just a couple of weeks. Determined to raise morale, Bader made dramatic changes to the organization. This upset those in authority and was ordered to appear before Hugh Dowding, the head of Fighter Command.

The squadron's first sortie during the Battle of Britain on 30th August, 1940, resulted in the shooting down of 12 German aircraft over the Channel in just over an hour. Bader himself was responsible for downing two Messerschmitt 110.

Douglas Bader in his Hawker Hurricane (1940)
Douglas Bader in his Hawker Hurricane (1940)

Bader had strong ideas on tactics and did not always follow orders. He took the view that RAF fighters should be sent out to meet the German planes before they reached Britain. Hugh Dowding rejected this strategy as he believed it would take too long to organise.

Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, the commander of No. 11 Fighter Group, also complained complained that Bader's squadron should have done more to protect the air bases in his area instead of going off hunting for German aircraft to shoot down.

When William Sholto Douglas became head of Fighter Command, he developed what became known as the Big Wing strategy. This involved large formations of fighter aircraft deployed in mass sweeps against the Luftwaffe over the English Channel and northern Europe. Although RAF pilots were able to bring down a large number of German aircraft, critics claimed that they were not always available during emergencies and prime targets became more vulnerable to bombing attacks.

This strategy suited Bader and during the summer of 1941 he obtained 12 kills. His 23 victories made him the fifth highest ace in the RAF. However, on 9th August 1941, he suffered a mid-air collision down near Le Touquet, France. He parachuted to the ground but both his artificial legs were badly damaged.

Air Marshal Hugh Dowding and Douglas Bader (1945)
Air Marshal Hugh Dowding and Douglas Bader (c. 1940)

Bader was taken to a hospital and with the help of a French nurse managed to escape. He reached the home of a local farmer but was soon arrested and sent to a prison camp. After several attempts to escape he was sent to Colditz.

Bader was freed at the end of the Second World War and when he returned to Britain he was promoted to group captain. He left the Royal Air Force in 1946 and became managing director of Shell Aircraft until 1969 when he left to become a member of the Civil Aviation Authority Board.

Paul Brickhill's book, Reach for the Sky, was published in 1954 and was later made into a movie. Bader's autobiography, Fight for the Sky, appeared in 1973.

Douglas Bader, who was knighted in 1976, died on 5th September, 1982.

Primary Sources

(1) Douglas Bader first flew a Supermarine Spitfire in February, 1940. He wrote about it in his book, Fight for the Sky (1973).

The Spitfire looked good and was good. But my first reaction was that it was bad for handling on the ground; its long straight nose, uptilted when the tail wheel was on the ground; its long straight nose, uptilted when the tail wheel was on the ground, made taxing difficult since it was not easy to see ahead. It was necessary to to swing from side to side to look in front. The view at take-off was restricted in the same way until you were travelling fast enough to lift the tail; only then could you see over the nose.

Once accustomed to these minor inconveniences, they were no longer apparent, and once in the air, you felt in the first few minutes that here was the aeroplane par excellence. The controls were light, positive and synchronized; in fact, the aeroplane of one's dreams. It was stable; it flew hands and feet off; yet you could move it quickly and effortlessly into any attitude. You brought it in to land at 75 mph and touched down at 60-65 mph. Its maximum speed was 367 mph. You thus had a wide speed range which has not been equalled before or since.

It had eight machine guns of .303 calibre each, mounted four in each wing. The guns were spaced one close to the fuselage, two mid-wing, one further out. The eight guns were normally synchronized to 250 yards. In other words the four in each wing were sighted so that the bullets from all eight converged at that distance, in front of the Spitfire. Experienced fighter pilots used to close the pattern to 200 yards. The successful pilots succeeded because they did not open fire until they were close to the target.

(2) Douglas Bader's first combat experience took place at Dunkirk in May, 1940.

We were all flying around up and down the coast near Dunkirk looking for enemy aircraft which seemed also to be milling around with no particular cohesion. The sea from Dunkirk to Dover during these days of the evacuation looked like any coastal road in England on a bank holiday. It was solid with shipping. One felt one could walk across without getting one's feet wet, or that's what it looked like from the air. There were naval escort vessels, sailing dinghies, rowing boats, paddle-steamers, indeed every floating device known in this country. They were all taking British soldiers from Dunkirk back home. The oil-tanks just inside the harbour were ablaze, and you could identify Dunkirk from the Thames estuary by the huge pall of black smoke rising straight up in a windless sky. Our ships were being bombed by enemy areoplanes up to about half-way across the Channel and the troops on the beaches were suffering the same attention. There were also German aircraft inland strafing the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force fighting their way out to the port.

(3) Douglas Bader first began to fly a Hawker Hurricane in June, 1940 when he became squadron leader of 242 Fighter Squadron.

The Hurricane was slower than the Spitfire, with a maximum speed of 335 mph against 367 mph. The Hurricane also was less elegant to the eye, but then there has never been such a beautiful areoplane as the Spitfire. For all that, like other fighters from the Hawker stable, and the result of the design genius of Sydney Camm, the Hurricane was a thoroughbread and looked it. Like the Spitfire it was immensely strong: a pilot had no need to fear the danger of pulling the wings off, no matter how desperate the situation became.

When I first flew the Hurricane in June 1940, I was agreeably surprised at the compact feel of the aeroplane. It had seemed big on the ground in comparison with the Spitfire; in the air it felt nothing of the sort. You could see out of it better and the controls were perfectly harmonized. It climbed steeply and at a lower speed but required a good deal of right rudder in the climb, to counteract the engine torque. I found this a considerable nuisance on a long climb.

Like all pilots who flew and fought in the Hurricane, I grew to love it. It was strong, highly maneuverable, could turn inside the Spitfire and of course the Me 109. Best of all, it was a marvellous gun platform. The sloping nose gave you a splendid forward view, while the eight guns were set in blocks of four in each wing, close to the fuselage. The aeroplane remained rock steady when you fired. Unlike the Spitfire with its lovely elliptical wing which sloped towards the tip, the Hurricane wing was thicker and straight. The Spitfire was less stead when the guns were firing because, I have always thought, they were spread further along the wing, and the recoil effect was noticeable.

(4) Douglas Bader compared the performance of the Spitfire, Hurricane, Messerschmitt Bf109, Focke Wulf Fw 190 and Messerschmitt Me 262 in his autobiography, Fight for the Sky (1974)

The advantage of the Spitfire and the Hurricane in individual combat with the Me 109 was that both British aeroplanes could out-turn the German one which was why, when surprised from behind, the enemy's defensive manoeuvre was to push the stick forward into a dive which, in 1940, we could not follow. If we were surprised, our defence was to turn quickly and keep turning because the Me 109's radius of turn was bigger than that of a Spitfire or Hurricane and thus he could not keep you in his sights. If he was inexperienced enough to try, he would find the British fighter behind him after a couple of circuits.

Nevertheless, the Me 109 was a good fighter in which the pilot and rear-gunner sat in tandem. It took little punishment and was easy to shoot down, because it was lightly built for performance. A burst from eight machine guns destroyed it quickly. It wasn't anything like so manoeuvrable as a single-engined, single-seater fighter and relied entirely on surprise to shoot us down.

The Focke-Wulf 190 certainly gave the British a shock. 1941 had ended with the Me 109 with the Spitfire (two cannons and four machine-guns fighting it out on fairly even terms. Then, without warning from British intelligence sources, this startling aeroplane appeared in March 1942. A radial-engineered fighter, it out-climbed and out-dived the Spitfire. Now for the first time the Germans were out-flying our pilots. Instantly Rolls and Supermarine retaliated with the Spitfire IXa which equalled the 190, followed at the spring of 1942 with the IXa which equalled the 190, followed at the end of 1942 with the IXb which outflew it in all respects. The Spitfire was unchallenged for the rest of the war, except in the last few months by the Messerschmitt 262 jet which arrived too late to make a significant contribution.

(5) Douglas Bader was shot down on 9th August, 1941.

As always, when things like this occur, one's mind remains clear. I pulled the little rubber ball above my head which jettisoned the cockpit canopy and away it went. Immediately things became rough and noisy with the wind roaring past and around the now open cockpit. I was held by my harness and I had no difficulty in moving my hands. I thought I might have difficulty in getting out of the cockpit in this attitude of the aeroplane and at this great speed. I pulled the harness pin, and it was as though I was sucked out by a large vacuum cleaner to the accompaniment of tremendous noise and buffeting. My helmet and goggles were wrenched off my head and then to my final discomfort I found myself attached to my Spitfire, but outside it.

The ground below was the farm and grazing land of northern France. A man wearing a peaked sort of railway porter's cap and a blue smock, carrying on his shoulders a yoke to which were attached two buckets, was opening a gate between two grass fields. A woman with a scarf was with him. As he opened the gate, he noticed me about 800 feet above and in front of him. They both remained motionless, staring. I then realized my appearance was a bit odd. My right leg was no longer with me. It had caught somewhere in the top of the cockpit as I tried to leave my Spitfire.