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Doncaster News and Features: Famous Doncastrian: Douglas Bader
Few men become legends in their lifetime. Douglas Bader was one of these men. Fighter ace, international sportsman, constant rule-breaker and incorrigible escaper, he spread exasperation and irritation wherever he went. Yet his courage and determination in the face of crippling injuries continue to inspire people all over the world to this day.
Douglas Robert Steuart Bader was born on February 10, 1910, in London, England, son of Frederick Roberts Bader and Jessie Bader. From the start, his life followed no placid pattern. When Douglas was a few months old, his family returned to India, where his father worked as a civil engineer. Young Douglas was left behind because his family thought him too young for India's harsh climate. He did not rejoin them until he was 2 years old, beginning a long life as a loner. The Bader family returned to England in 1913 and settled in North Doncaster, where Frederick became priest at The Old Rectory in Sprotborough.
The following year, when World War I began, Frederick Bader went with the British army into France. It was the last time Douglas saw his father, who died in France of complications from a shrapnel wound in 1922 and was buried near the town of St. Omer. Twenty-one years later, his son would be held prisoner in a hospital not far from where his father was buried. Jessie Bader later married a mild Yorkshire clergyman, Reverend William Hobbs. Throughout his early years, Douglas showed a fierce spirit of independence and nonconformity. He excelled in sports such as rugby football; when he was captain of the rugby team, his natural leadership abilities became apparent.
In 1923, Douglas stayed with his aunt Hazel Bader and her husband, Flight Lieutenant Cyril Burge, who at the time was adjutant at the Royal Air Force (RAF) college in Cranwell. That's when he first became interested in airplanes. In 1927, Douglas decided he wanted to fly in the RAF, despite disapproval of his family. In the summer of 1928 he had won his cadetship. Bader reported to Cranwell in September 1928, and his flight training went satisfactorily. Not all of his flying was regulation and his superiors did not like his rebellious nature. Halfway through the two-year course, when the cadets took progress exams, Bader came out 18th out of 21 cadets. Cranwell's commandant, Air Vice Marshal Halahan , warned him: "You're young, I can understand your trouble, but the air force won't go on understanding. They want men here, not school boys." Bader emerged from Halahan's tirade considerably shaken, knowing the commandant was right. He studied harder, and his flying became better than ever. Bader missed being awarded the sword of honor, which was given to the top graduating cadet, but he came in a close second.
After graduating from Cranwell in 1930, Bader was commissioned a pilot officer and posted to No. 23 Squadron at Kenley Airfield, flying tubby Gloster Gamecock biplane fighters. Soon afterward, 23 Squadron was reequipped with Bristol Bulldog fighters. The Bulldogs were faster than the Gamecocks but heavier and liable to loose height rapidly in low-altitude maneuvers.
On Monday, December 14, 1931, Douglas Bader flew from Kenley to Woodley airfield along with two other pilots from his squadron. In the Woodley clubhouse a young pilot was discussing acrobatics with Bader, the Hendon star, and suggested that he give a demonstration of low flying. Bader refused, citing his inexperience flying acrobatics in a Bulldog. The matter was dropped until Bader and the other pilots were leaving. Someone dared him to do it. In some agitation Bader took off, then turned back toward the field. Flying low and fast across the field, Bader began a slow roll, but in his inexperience with the Bulldog he flew too low. The Bulldog's left wing struck the ground, and the plane cartwheeled quickly into a tangle of wreckage. Both of Bader's legs were crushed, his left leg under the seat, his right tom by the rudder pedal. Bader was pulled from the Bulldog's wreckage by shocked onlookers and taken immediately to the Royal Berkshire Hospital, where he was placed in the care of Dr. Leonard Joyce, one of England's best surgeons. Joyce immediately amputated Bader's right leg above the smashed knee and, several days later, the left leg six inches below the knee. After his second amputation, Bader's condition worsened. None of the doctors expected the 21-year-old pilot to survive. But Bader had great will to live.
After a long, painful recovery, Bader was transferred to the RAF Hospital in Uxbridge in 1932. While there, he became acquainted with the Dessoutter brothers. Marcel Dessoutter had been an aircraft designer until he, too, lost a leg in an air crash. Afterward he started a firm that made artificial legs of light metal alloys like aluminum. Douglas Bader was the first customer to require two artificial legs. Despite the physical impediment, Bader began to remake his life both physically and mentally. After several months of agonizing and determined effort, Bader learned to walk on both "tin" legs. He refused to use a walking stick, saying, "I'm going to start the way I mean to go on." He soon began driving a car again, with the pedals modified to accommodate his tin legs. Bader's thoughts then returned to flying. After a weekend spent with the Under-secretary of State for Air, Sir Phillip Sasson, in June 1932, Bader's desire to fly reached fever pitch. His host, who lived near Lympe airfield, arranged a flight for him in an Avro 504 trainer. Bader's handling of the Avro left nothing to be desired. Later, an RAF medical board found him fit for restricted flying duties. Soon afterward, in April 1933, Bader was informed by the air force that he was to be retired on grounds of ill health, which left him feeling shocked and numb. Within weeks, Bader left the RAF on a total disability pension.
For six years following his retirement from the RAF, Bader worked at a desk job with the Asiatic (now Shell) Petroleum com- pany. His future, at least at the beginning, looked bleak, but he was lucky in his marriage to Thelma Edwards, whom he met while at Uxbridge when she was working as a waitress at a pub called the Pantiles. They married in 1935, and she was devoted to him for 37 years. Once asked how he survived, Bader replied, "I wouldn't have stuck it out without Thelma."
Despite his new life, however, Bader longed to fly again. In September 1939, after the start of World War II, Bader again applied to the RAF for flight duties and was helped in his quest by an old squadron friend, Geoffrey Stephenson, who was posted to the Air Ministry. He attended a selection board headed by his old Cranwell commanding officer, Air Vice Marshal Halahan, who suggested to "give him A1B (flying duties) category and leave it to the Central Flying School to assess his flying abilities." Bader walked out of the Air Ministry feeling that he was picking up life again from the moment he had crashed. Bader's acceptance was conditional on his passing a flying test at the RAF's Central Flying School (CFS) in Upavon.
On November 27, 1939, eight years after his accident, Douglas Bader flew solo again at the controls of Avro Tudor K-3242. Once airborne, he could not resist the temptation to turn the Tudor biplane upside down at 600 feet inside the circuit area. Bader soon moved up into the Fairey Battle, a single-engine, two- seater day bomber, then to the Miles Master, the last step an RAF pilot took before going on to Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes. Two weeks after flying the Master, Bader was delighted to get his chance inside the cockpit of a Hurricane. From the start he felt a part of the Hurricane, which was the most responsive aircraft he had yet flown; after 20 minutes in the air, he made a smooth landing. In February 1940, Bader joined No. 19 Squadron at Duxford. At age 29 he was older than most of the other pilots in the squadron. Two months later he was appointed flight commander in 222 Squadron, another Duxford-based unit, reequipping from Blenheim bombers to Spitfires. Before he took up the appointment, Bader carelessly took off with his section with his Spitfire's propeller set to coarse pitch (used for low rpm cruise) instead of fine pitch that gave high rpm for takeoff power, and he crashed. Bader was uninjured, except for bent legs and a badly dented ego. Shocked by his stupidity, Bader freely admitted his mistake to 12 Group's commander, Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh Mallory, who saw it as a one-time mistake and did not cancel Bader's appointment to 222 Squadron as flight commander, or his promotion to flight lieutenant. Bader immediately began training his 222 flight pilots in his own style of fighting, quick to see that the standard Fighter Command tactics were a waste of time. Afterward came hours of dogfighting practice and convoy patrols. Yet nothing happened at Duxford for 222 Squadron until June 1940. The squadron was sent, along with other RAF squadrons, to cover the British and French evacuation from Dunkirk. On one mission over Dunkirk, while leading his flight after some fleeing Messerschmitt Me-110s, Bader sighted four Me-109s approaching his flight. Bader went after the German fighters. "A 109 shot up in front; his thumb jabbed the firing button and the guns in the wings squirted with a shocking noise," wrote Brickhill, Bader's biographer. The 109 burst into flames and spun into the ground - Bader's first kill.
In June 1940, Bader was given command of 242 Squadron. A Canadian unit, the only one in the RAF at the time, 242 had been badly mauled in France, and its morale was low. When Bader first arrived at the squadron's headquarters at Coltishall airfield, most of the squadron's pilots were skeptical of their new legless squadron leader, who, they thought, would lead them from his desk. Bader quickly dispelled the idea by taking one of 242's Hurricane fighters and performing acrobatics over Coltishall for a half hour, deeply impressing 242's pilots. Bader quickly transformed 242 into a tight, tough squadron through his courage, leadership and uncompromising attitude toward his pilots, ground crews and the RAF high command, with whom he soon had a major brush. After taking charge of 242 Squadron, Bader soon discovered that the unit did not have the spare parts or tools to keep its 18 Hurricane fighters operational. After trying to sort out the problem through official channels, Bader signaled 12th Group Headquarters: "242 Squadron operational as regards pilots but non-operational as regards equipment." And he refused to announce his squadron as operational until its lack of tools and spares was rectified. Within 24 hours, 242 Squadron had all the tools and spares it needed, and Bader signaled 12th Group: "242 Squadron now fully operational."
The squadron, however, took little part in the early stages of the Battle of Britain, flying only convoy patrols and going after occasional high-flying Dornier bombers. Bader shot down one of these on July 11 during a rainstorm that prevented him from getting a section of fighters off the ground. Bader took off alone in a Hurricane, found the Dornier despite the bad weather, and attacked it. He killed its tail gunner and saw it disappear into a cloud. Certain it had gotten away, Bader returned to base. Five minutes after he landed, Bader was informed that a ground observer had seen the Dornier crash into the sea. On August 30, 242 Squadron intercepted a group of 30 German bombers and fighters attacking North Weald airfield. Bader shot down an Me-110, and the rest of his squadron claimed 11 kills. It was a respectable total, but Bader believed that if they had had three or more squadrons attacking the huge German formation, all of the attacking planes would have been shot down. Thus, the "Big Wing" concept was born. Supported by Leigh Mallory, Bader was convinced that launching a large number of fighter squadrons against the Luftwaffe armadas was essential for the RAF's success in the battle. Leigh Mallory decided to try Bader's wing in action. He grouped 242 with two other fighter squadrons - 19 Squadron and the Czech 310 Squadron - at Duxford.
Bader led the wing into action for the first time on September 7, 1940, against a large German formation heading for London. "We had been greatly looking forward to our first formation of 36 fighters going into action together," Bader wrote years later, "but we were unlucky." Having been scrambled late, the wing was underneath the bombers and their fighter escorts when they intercepted them north of the Thames. All 242 and 310 could do was attack as best they could while 19 Squadron's Spitfires tried to hold off the attacking Me-109s. The wing managed to destroy 11 aircraft, with only two Hurricanes shot down. Bader himself got a cockpit full of bullets and the right aileron shot off his Hurricane. After several sorties with three squadrons, two more - the Polish 302 Hurricane Squadron and Auxiliary 601 Spitfire Squadron - were added to the so-called Duxford Wing, giving it five squadrons and 60 fighters. "We thus had three Hurricane Squadrons which flew together at the lower level (20,000 feet if we were called in time) with the Spitfires protecting us 5,000 feet higher," Bader said. "It worked like a charm once or twice, and the arrival of this large formation in support of hard-pressed 11 Group squadrons was highly satisfactory." The tactic really paid off on September 15, 1940, when Bader's Duxford Wing helped 11 Group to break up a massed Luftwaffe attack on London.
When the Battle of Britain ended, Bader was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for gallantry and leadership of the highest order and became commander of the Duxford Wing, which was later credited with destroying 152 German aircraft with the loss of 30 pilots. The Big Wing's effectiveness became controversial - but not Douglas Bader's leadership of it. In March 1941, Bader, now a wing commander, left 242 Squadron and took over the "Tangmere Wing." Consisting of three Spitfire Squadrons - 145, 610 and 616 - plus a Beaufighter squadron, the wing began a series of air attacks against targets in northern France and the Low Countries. While commanding the wing, Bader introduced the so-called "finger four" formation, where the two pairs of fighters flew beside each other, scrapping forever the unwieldy three-aircraft section. Based on the Luftwaffe's Schwarm formation, the finger four later became standard throughout both the British and American air forces. Bader really came into his own commanding the Tangmere Wing. His teamwork with Wing Commander A.G. Woodhall, the ground controller during the wing's raids, was exceptional. Receiving the broad picture from the ground controller, Bader handled his three squadrons with remarkable dexterity, seemingly able to foresee the critical points in an upcoming engagement. He was able to keep track of events around him to a remarkable degree. "Dogsbody" (the call sign for Bader's wing) became an unwelcome and frequent visitor to the other side of the English Channel. Often, coming back across the Channel after a mission, Bader would flip back the canopy of his Spitfire, unclip his oxygen mask and, while holding the stick between his good knee and his tin knee, light up his pipe. Pilots flying alongside Spitfire DB would sheer off, half in jest and half in earnest, in case Bader's plane blew up. For his brilliant and inspiring leadership of the Tangmere Wing - which he christened "The Bee Line Bus Service. The prompt and regular service. Return tickets only" - Bader was awarded a bar to his DSO.
Bader seemed invincible - but he was not. While leading his wing over France on August 9, 1941, he suffered a mid-air collision with a Messerschmitt Me-109 and captured by the Germans. He would spend most of the war in captivity, including time at the castle-prison Colditz for his escape attempts. Finally, in the spring of 1945, the American First Army took Colditz, liberating its prisoners, including Bader. Once released, he rushed to Paris demanding a Spitfire for one last fling before the war ended. Permission was refused; Bader's personal tally would stand at 22.5 German aircraft destroyed. Bader returned to England and took command of the Fighter Leader School at Tangmere, where he was promoted to group captain. Later that year he commanded the Essex sector of 11th Group at North Weald, and on September 15, he personally led the victory flypast of 300 RAF planes over London. The RAF offered him the rank and seniority he would have enjoyed if he had not been shot down, but Bader felt the peacetime air force would be anticlimactic after his wartime experiences. Shell Oil Company offered him a job in its aviation department, with his own airplane. Bader thought about it for four months, then resigned from the Royal Air Force for the last time.
After leaving the RAF in late February 1946, Bader flew all over the world, often with Thelma, touring Europe, Africa and America. He spent many hours visiting veterans hospitals. In 1976 Bader was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his services to amputees, "so many of whom he had helped and inspired by his example and character." After Thelma's death, he married Joan Murray, who shared his interest in public work for the disabled. His workload would have been exhausting for anyone, let alone a legless man with a worsening heart condition, but iron willpower drove him on until August 1982, when he suffered a mild heart attack after a golf tournament in Ayrshire.
Three weeks later, on September 5, 1982, after serving as guest speaker at a London Guildhall dinner honoring the 90th birthday of the Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, Douglas Bader died of a heart attack. He was 72 years old. "He became a legend at first in the personification of RAF heroism during the Second World War," the London Times obituary said.
This piece was adapted from the original book 'Guts and glory in the RAF' by Eric Bogomolny.
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