No legs – No problem: Tale of a Disabled World War Two Ace

 
 

It made sense that most RAF pilots would be superstitious when one considered how many things could go wrong.  But if Wing Commander Douglas Bader was a superstitious man, given the portents, he likely wouldn’t have gone up the day he went down.  The takeoff from RAF Tangmere in Sussex hadn’t been easy, one of his three squadrons got lost over the Channel, and his Spitfire’s speed indicator malfunctioned.

His squadrons crossed the French coast at 30,000 feet and sneaked up on a dozen Messerschmitt 109’s flying about 2,000 feet below.  Bader radioed his men, picked his target, dove and missed so badly he was in danger of ramming it, forcing him to jerk up on the stick and rudder as his Spitfire dovetailed into the depths.

Angry and alone, he flattened out at 24,000 feet, and was about to climb to rejoin the rest of his squad when he saw six more Messerschmitt’s aimed and angled the other way.  This time he was alone, and his better judgment told him there was too much danger in engaging, but fortune favors the bold, as they say, and he launched himself into combat.  Bader blew two of them out of the sky before the others turned on him.  Rather than turn and run, he steered his Spitfire between the first two, and felt something hit him.  The nose of his plane dipped, and Bader pulled back on the stick so hard it broke off in his hands.  Behind him, his fuselage, tail and fin were gone, courtesy of a Messerschmitt propeller.  He was going down.

Douglas Bader

 

Bader had lost both of his legs in a pre-war flying accident, and one of his prosthetic legs got caught on something in the plane on the way out, and he found himself in the peculiar position of being dragged behind his Spitfire as it plummeted to the earth.  His leg snapped free, and his parachute opened at just enough altitude to ensure he wouldn’t die.  Next, he woke up in a hospital in St. Omer surrounded by astounded German doctors who had never seen a one-legged pilot before.

Bader sitting on his Hurricane, as commanding officer of No.242 Squadron after the Battle of France

Other soldier’s experiences as prisoners of war run from the sanguine to the horrifying, but for Bader, it sounded almost pleasant.  His peculiar complication had drawn the attention of high ranked Nazis.  They found his legs, and then he was invited to have tea with General Adolf Galland, and even to sit in a Messerschmitt.  He thought about escaping in the plane.  He’d have dinner at the mess that night and then go home to his wife, Thelma.  Maybe they would go dancing.  Ultimately, he was glad he didn’t, because what he didn’t know was that he was being covered by a German officer with a loaded pistol.

Colditz Castle in April 1945. Bader was a prisoner here for nearly three years

Finally, Wing Commander Bader got his chance to escape.  He’d made connections during his time at St. Omer and slipped out under the cover of night to rendezvous with a safehouse en route to safety with the Resistance, but it was not to be, and the Nazi’s promptly showed up and hauled him back.  He tried his best to exonerate the people he was staying with, and failed.  They dragged him back to St. Omer and took his legs from him.  The Germans weren’t taking any more chances.  But even without his legs, he proved to be a pain in the side of the Germans.  They bounced him around between prisoner of war camps after repeated escape attempts before finally tiring of his candor and throwing him, alongside other repeated escapees, into the impregnable fortress at Colditz, where he was liberated by the Americans in 1945.

His story was immortalized in Paul Brickell’s 1954 book, Reach for the Sky, and made into a film in 1956.  In comparison, his postwar life was idyllic and charming.  He returned to his job in the oil industry, was knighted in 1976, and died in 1982, at age 72.