The Story of Douglas Bader, the WW2 fighter ace without legs - History Key

The Story of Douglas Bader, the WW2 fighter ace without legs

This is one of those incredible stories, the ones you hear or see in a movie, but you have serious doubts in believe them. All started with passion, passion for flying and for the sky. This is the story of Douglas Robert Stewart Bader, or “Dougie”, how he was nicknamed. Born in 21 February 1910, he was an Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot and a flying ace during WW2. In his name, a serious resume was attributed, including 22 aerial victories, 4 shared victories and 11 damaged enemy aircrafts. No doubt he wasn’t an ordinary pilot.


Beside his pilot skills, ”Dougie” was unique for another reason. He enlisted in the RAF in 1928, and licensed in 1930. Unfortunately, in December 1931 he suffered an accident while performing some aerobatics with his plane. He crashed and survived, but lost both his legs. He managed to overcome the near-death experience, recovering and resuming the flight training. He performed surprisingly well, being able to obtain his check flights, willing to receive a reactivation order for being a pilot. He was the only known case of a pilot without legs, willing to fly again. There was no clear regulation to apply for such case, but his request was denied and he was retired for medical reasons. However, Douglas was stubborn, so he did not give up the idea to fly again. The occasion came together with WW2, when he asked again to join the RAF in order to be an active fighter pilot. This time his request was accepted.

He fought in the Battle of France in 1940 (he had his first victories over Dunkirk), in the Battle of Britain and flanked Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory in the “Big Wings” tests.


Dougie entering his plane; note how he had to handle the prosthetic legs
Dougie entering his plane; note how he had to handle the prosthetic legs © Imperial War Museum/ Image Source:

During his entire life, Douglas Bader always had a sense of hazard and that was an aspect that accompanied him also during the risky WW2 situations. In 1941, while flying over the German-occupied France, he spotted a formation of German planes. They were between 15 and 20, but Dougie faced them by his own, almost colliding with some of them, in his crazy process to take them down. This tactic separated Douglas from the other RAF pilots from his squadron. Then he became an easy target, vulnerable in the German’s sight, so he was shot down and captured. When the Germans reached the site of his crash, they found him alive, but their surprise was finding that he had no legs. Especially that fact, that he had no legs, somehow softened the German, who looked at him in a mixture of curiosity and respect. Anyway, from that moment, he spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of war.

Adolf Galland
Adolf Galland © Hoffmann Heinrich/ Bundesarchiv, Bild /Image Source: Wikipedia

Bader was truly sympathized by the Germans, considering that they gave him a fruit basket and they let him sit in a German BF 109 plane. Bader asked if he could take it for a spin, but the request was refused. During his captivity, Bader became friend with Adolf Galland, a well-known German fighter ace, who felt sympathy for him.


Another incredible detail is related to Bader’s prosthetic legs. Considering that he had lost them in the plane crash, the Germans went to the crash site, recovering one of the legs, which they have fixed it for him. In order to get the second leg, the Germans somehow contacted the British army, so a replacement prosthetic was air dropped on August 19 1941, in what is known as “The Leg Operation”. The fun fact is that the British used the temporary safe passage attributed for the leg delivery, in order to complete a bombing mission.

Having his legs back, Dougie began producing all kind of problems against the Germans. While he was in hospital, he managed to climb out on a window using a rope made from blankets and walked around 100 miles before being recaptured. During the following years, he practiced what was known by the RAF pilots as “goon-baiting”, meaning to cause as many troubles to the enemy as possible. He tried to escape several times, but the Germans threatened to take his legs away. One of his escaping plan was almost successful. After escaping together with few other POW’s from Stalag Luft III, he was betrayed by his own popularity. A German soldier willing to get an autograph from “Dougie”, went to his cell, but the cell was empty. The German soldier launched the alarm which led the group to be recaptured shortly after.

In an attempt to appease him, the German moved Douglas in a more secure prison, which was literally a castle, the Colditz Castle, where he remained until his liberation on 15 April 1945. When the First United States Army liberated the castle, Dougie asked them to be taken to the American airfield, because he wanted to  “have one last crack at the Germans”.

Douglas in 1982
Douglas in 1982 © Image Source: Daily Mail


After the war, Dougie became Managing Director of the Shell Aircraft Company, where he worked until his retirement in 1969. He died on September 1982, from heart attack

(Article written with references from: Wikipedia, The Great Indian Escape)

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