Sir Douglas Bader Fighter Ace – Hero or Villain?

Sir Douglas Bader is a massive figure in the history of British aviation. A powerful man with an amazing story of overcoming difficulties, he is most certainly a war hero.

However, some of his political opinions, which he made very public, raised concern over time, questioning the goodness of his heart.

In this article, we’ll be taking a look at what he did during the Second World War, the controversy around his political affiliations, and see what truly happened in France in 1941.


A Role Model for Amputees

Sir Douglas Bader became a well-known role model for amputees after losing both of his legs in 1931.

During his first stint in the RAF, which lasted from 1928 to 1933, Bader crashed his Bristol Bulldog at Woodley Aerodrome and got gravely injured. His left wing made contact with the ground during a particularly low acrobatic manoeuvre.

The doctors had no other option but to amputate both of his legs.

However, this didn’t put too much of a strain on Bader’s life, it seems, as he quickly learned to walk on his artificial legs and he was eager to return to the pilot’s seat again.

Bader in 1932 at an airshow with a Gloster Gamecock.
Bader in 1932 at an airshow with a Gloster Gamecock.

He was described as a stoic, tough man, always looking for a way to move forward. After the terrible crash and the loss of his legs, Bader made a note in his log, it read “Crashed slow-rolling near ground. Bad show.”

Bader made an attempt to return to flying, but the RAF’s medical board wouldn’t allow it, despite demonstrating that he was still more than capable of manoeuvring an aircraft!

Having no other choice, Bader left the RAF in 1933 to join the aviation department of Shell, the petrol company.

Reenlistment and the Beginning of the Second World War

Even with the imminence of the Second World War looming on the European horizon, the RAF was still unwilling to allow Sir Douglas Bader back into the cockpit.

Despite repeatedly asking for permission to be reenlisted, the RAF would only take him back for ground jobs. That is, until the commander of RAF Cranwell, Air Vice-Marshal Halahan, vouched for him personally and got the Central Flying School to once again test Bader’s readiness.

By November 1939, shortly after the beginning of the Second World War, Bader’s application was finally approved, and he would once again take to the skies.

However, first, he had to acquaint himself with the new aircraft, as it had been a while since he saw the inside of a fighter’s cockpit.

Just after New Year’s Day 1940, Bader was posted to the 19th Squadron of the RAF near Cambridge. At the time, the UK participated in what’s now known as the Phoney War, and Bader flew Spitfires during his missions.

Bader with his Hurricane at Duxford in September 1940.
Bader with his Hurricane at Duxford in September 1940.

It was theorised by other pilots that his loss of legs was actually a significant advantage.

Since he didn’t have any legs, blood wouldn’t travel from his brain to his legs when he was pulling high G-forces. This allowed him to stay focused, and most importantly, stay awake during dogfights.

Because of his skill and experience (he was 29 at the time, making him the oldest member of the squadron), he was quickly promoted to section leader.

Once, he accidentally crashed a Spitfire during take-off. During the crash, his legs were severely damaged by the pedals of the aircraft. Ironically, Bader concluded that if he were not already legless, he would certainly lose his legs now.

Second World War Combat

The 222nd Squadron RAF was Bader’s second command during the Second World War, where he became a flight commander with the rank of flight lieutenant.

With his squadron, he took part in the Evacuation of Dunkirk, where they were supposed to provide overwatch for the evacuating troops.

On June 1st, 1940, Bader took down his first aircraft of the Second World War – a Messerschmitt Bf 109 and damaged a Messerschmitt Bf 110 on the very same day.

Bf 109E "Emil" in London.
Bader managed to splash a Bf 109. Photo credit – Clemens Vasters CC BY-2.0.

During the next few days, he would damage a Heinkel He 111 and engage in a dogfight with a Dornier Do 17.

Soon, he was appointed as squadron leader of the 242nd Squadron, which was mostly made of low-morale Canadian pilots who were already weary of the war and the immense losses they faced during the Battle of France.

Quickly, though, Sir Douglas Bader whipped them into shape and gained the trust of the men, leading them head-on into the Battle of Britain.

On July 11th, 1940, the second day of the Battle of Britain, Bader spotted a Dornier Do 17 flying towards Norfolk. He was patrolling alone, and when he approached the aircraft to take it down, the rear gunner opened fire.

After a few evasion manoeuvres, Bader fired two short bursts and watched the plane disappear into the clouds. It was later found crashed into the sea near Cromer.

During the next three months, Bader would engage several aircraft models in combat: Messerschmitt Bf 110s and Bf 109s, Junkers Ju 88s, Heinkel He 111s, and a few Dorniers.

He engaged several types of aircraft, including the Bf 110.
He engaged several types of aircraft, including the Bf 110.

Because of his combat leadership and the impressive number of enemy aircraft damaged and/or destroyed, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order!

In 1941, Bader conducted regular patrols over the French coast, and on August 8th, he took his final flight.

During the patrol, he spotted 12 enemy aircraft flying directly below him. He separated from the squadron and dived at the aircraft, but the dive was too aggressive and too quick, so he couldn’t shoot. According to Bader, he almost crashed into one of the aircraft.

He was separated from his squad when he saw six Bf 109s in front of him. Dropping below them to get the drop on them, Bader destroyed one and damaged another aircraft before the remaining 109s engaged him.

The pair on his left started turning towards him, so Bader decided to call it a day and return home. After all, he was isolated with no backup, and just destroying one and damaging another aircraft was a massive victory in those circumstances.

As he started turning away, Bader’s Spitfire somehow got damaged and started spiralling towards the sea. He lost his tail and fin, and quickly realised he had to evacuate.

He tried parachuting out of there, but his right prosthetic leg got stuck between the rudders. As he couldn’t get it out, he simply opened his parachute and the force of it caused the leg straps to snap and release him from the crashing wreck.

What Happened to Sir Douglas Bader’s Spitfire?

It is to this day unknown what caused Bader’s Spitfire to crash. He strongly believed that he had accidentally crashed into a German 109 when he started pulling to the right to leave the combat area.

However, newly discovered data doesn’t support this claim. According to German records, no Bf 109 collided that day. Germans were very strict about their records, so it’s highly unlikely that a pilot forgot to report a collision.

Also, no German pilot claimed to have shot down Bader’s Spitfire, so it’s unlikely that he was taken out by the Germans.

A new theory, one of the few that make sense, was proposed by historian Andy Saunders, who has heavily researched the incident. He believes that Sir Douglas Bader may have been a victim of friendly fire.

Bader flew a Spitfire similar to this one.
Bader flew a Spitfire similar to this one.

Given that he was away from his squadron, flying very close to German Bf 109s, it’s possible that an RAF pilot had mistaken his Spitfire for a German aircraft and opened fire.

Since fighters engage in combat at great distances and at great speeds, the idea that a British pilot couldn’t recognize a Spitfire in such circumstances is realistic.

Lieutenant Casson of the 616th Squadron RAF reported that he shot a Bf 109, after which its tail came off and the pilot had to evacuate the aircraft. This is exactly what happened to Bader’s Spitfire, which is why the suspicion was initially raised.

The report also says that the pilot struggled to evacuate, which is another important detail in the story.

There is, however, no definitive proof to this theory as Bader’s Spitfire was never found and hard evidence is necessary to corroborate the story.

Imprisonment and Escape Attempts

Sir Douglas Bader was taken to Colditz Castle by the Germans, where he was treated with great respect. Their medical camp cared for his wounds, and German pilots even took him to the airfield and let him sit in a Bf 109.

The PoW camp Colditz.
The PoW camp Colditz.

Since he had lost his right leg, the Germans were kind enough to contact the British and allow them to come to the camp and bring Bader a replacement, guaranteeing safe passage.

An RAF bomber did indeed parachute a replacement leg into France, after which it was taken to the hospital where Bader was staying.

Colonel Adolf Galland, who had treated Bader as an equal, would become an amputee and a prisoner of war in 1945. Bader would personally arrange for the colonel to be fitted with a prosthetic leg.

Adolf Galland.
Bader was befriended by German fighter ace Adolf Galland. Photo credit – Bundesarchiv-Bild-146-2006-0123-Hoffmann-Heinrich-CC-BY-SA-3.0.

However, the niceties end there. Bader considered it his duty to stir up as much trouble as possible while imprisoned, so he constantly tried escaping.

He even managed to get away on his first attempt, just days after being captured, but his hiding spot, the home of an elderly couple, was discovered by the Germans after a woman from the hospital informed them about Bader’s plans.

The woman was later sentenced to 20 years in prison for being a German informant.

Another escape attempt was foiled by sheer bad luck. Bader escaped with four other men when a Luftwaffe officer was coming by to meet him. He knocked on the door of Bader’s room, just to find it empty.

The Germans found Bader and the rest of the party after a few days.

He would finally be freed on April 15th, 1945, when the United States Army liberated the area.

Bader sat with other prisoners at Culditz.
Bader sat with other prisoners at Culditz.

Homecoming, Civilian Life, and Controversies

Bader returned home just before the end of the Second World War. He wouldn’t stay in the RAF for long as his motivation was low, there was no war to fight, and the new generations of pilots thought his methods were out of date.

He would retire from the Royal Air Force on July 21st, 1946, with the rank of group captain. During his time in the RAF, he recorded 22 aerial victories, six probable victories, four shared victories, and damaged 11 enemy aircraft.

For his services, he was awarded the Order of the British Empire, the Distinguished Service Order, the Distinguished Flying Cross, and the appointment of a deputy lieutenant.

Shell was happy to take Bader back, and he wanted to return to the company that had initially given him a chance when he lost his legs. He would become the managing director of Shell Aircraft and retained that position until his retirement in 1969.

Bader’s statements sparked a lot of controversy in the UK. For a while, he was considering a political career, motivated by his patriotism. He never committed to it though, and some believe it’s for the better.

Reach for the Sky - a movie about Bader's time in the RAF.
Reach for the Sky – a movie about Bader’s time in the RAF.

Among other things, Bader supported the death penalty, the banning of betting shops, and he was a soft supporter (for lack of a better word) of the apartheid. Once, when commenting on the comments made by African countries joining the Commonwealth, Bader said that they could “bloody well climb back up their trees”.

Additionally, Bader was a strong supporter of Hans-Ulrich Rudel, a German Stuka pilot, despite him being a hardcore Nazi. Bader commented that he would still befriend Rudel even if he had known about him being a Nazi beforehand.

Bader also said that Britons supporting nuclear disarmament “should be deported”, and once, when meeting Luftwaffe pilots, he said, “I had no idea we left so many of you bastards alive.”

Many historians note, however, that Bader was a strong personality, careless with his words. Even though he always made his opinions quite clear and had no intention of hiding them, Bader would often overdo it and express himself very aggressively, when in reality his opinion on the topic wasn’t as aggressive.

A lot of what he said was an exaggeration and should be treated as such.

In 1976, Douglas Bader became Sir Douglas Bader because of his services to disabled people. He was a shining light in that regard and devoted a lot of his free time to working with people with disabilities, teaching them how to overcome their difficulties.

On June 4th, 1979, Bader had flown for the last time in his Beech 95 Travelair. His health was declining and he was simply in no condition to fly anymore.

How Did Douglas Bader Get Shot Down?

In 1941, Douglas Bader’s Tangmere Wing was taken out of the sky. There are conflicting reports as to how exactly that happened. Bader claims he went down after colliding with a German Bf 109.

The German side claims one of their pilots shot him down. Another theory is that Sir Douglas Bader died of a heart attack on September 5th, 1982. All we know is that Bader was forced to parachute to the ground.

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