the dashing invalid in the history of the RAF

Fighter “Bulldog”

Restless child

Young Douglas Bader was distinguished by an overabundance of vitality. And also a passion for adventure. Something was happening to him all the time: motorcycle accidents, regular fights, night AWOL at the flight school in Cranwell. And numerous aerial recklessness.

The latter were common among young pilots – something in between a way to show off and a tribute to fashion. Even the instructors sometimes tacitly encouraged the craving for recklessness, believing that such an experience would be useful to a fighter in a future war. “Do it, but in such a way that you don’t get caught by me.”

For Douglas, risk-taking was nearly fatal. On December 14, 1931, he, already a full-fledged pilot, decided to show the newcomers of the flying club of one of the British cities a striking trick. He only neglected the fact that the Bulldog fighter, in which he tried to do it, was poorly suited for this. There was even a special instruction forbidding him to fly aerobatics at altitudes less than six hundred meters.

The result was not long in coming – “Bulldog” crashed into the ground. The plane turned into a heap of wreckage. It seemed to Bader that he had broken both legs – but in reality everything was much worse. In the hospital, he almost died – the only chance was the amputation of both limbs. The operation was extremely difficult, but the pilot survived.

Learn to live in a new way

Oddly enough, Douglas was not stuck up for the plane crashed out of stupidity. And even left in the ranks of the Air Force. Apparently, they decided that the negligent pilot had punished himself enough, becoming disabled.

Still, Bader was lucky – one of the legs was able to amputate below the knee. This means that he could learn to walk more or less normally. Long months of trying to do it followed – painfully, but steadily, Douglas moved towards the goal. And in the end he achieved his goal – he mastered the prostheses, and was able to move at a leisurely pace in such a way that no one would even suspect him of the absence of limbs. True, in order to accelerate, one had to defiantly hobble – but this was a tremendous victory.

Bader faced two more major victories and one extremely painful defeat. First, he was able to successfully marry a beautiful and flexible girl. Than in no small measure he supported the belief in himself that had been shaken after the loss of his legs. And, secondly, he was able to independently control the plane – the instructor sitting in the next cabin “just in case” did not even touch the controls.

Bader on prosthetics (photo taken later, during the war)

And then defeat followed. The Royal Air Force medics have rested hard – Bader should not and will not fly. And do not care that he is excellent at, despite the lack of legs. It won’t, and that’s it. Even the connections at the service did not help.

They tried to sweeten the pill to Douglas by offering an officer position in the supply of airfields – they thought it would be easier if he could at least see the planes. But they only made him angry – it was unbearable for an active Bader to watch someone fly, but he didn’t. And he retired from the military.

Here Douglas was lucky once again – he managed to find a very good office job at Shell, which, at least, removed the question of livelihood. But this, of course, was far from his vocation – Bader desperately yearned for the sky.


The outbreak of the Second World War helped to satisfy the melancholy. “Now they’ll definitely take me!” – thought leaving the hated office Douglas, and he was perfectly right. Wartime and recommendations from old comrades have removed the once unshakable bureaucratic barriers.

Returning to his native squadron, Bader discovered how much his former friends had managed to overtake him – even those who, back in 1931, seemed completely green. Douglas took it as a challenge and began to catch up. Very soon, he not only became an ace, but also significantly exceeded the minimum number of downed enemy aircraft for this – in total he managed to win 20 aerial victories. And even became an air wing commander.

Everything went as well as possible: Bader was happy, because he was successfully doing the business for which, as he believed, he was created. Unless the wife was worried. But soon she had the opportunity to worry even more.

On August 9, 1941, Douglas’s luck misfired – he was shot down in the skies over northern France and was taken prisoner by Germany.

Galland’s Engine

There he was immediately given a warm welcome. After all, a completely different war was going on between the British and the Germans than on the Eastern Front. Here the prisoners – at least the officers, especially of such noble branches of the military as aviation – could count on more or less courtly treatment of each other.

Fighter pilot Douglas Bader: the dashing invalid in the history of the RAF

Adolph Galland

And Bader was also a kind of celebrity. An ace without legs – the history of aviation has never known such a thing. And so the Germans showed not anger, but friendliness and interest.

So, for example, Douglas is an unprecedented business! – arranged an excursion to a German fighter airfield, based not far from the place of his capture. He was met by one of the most famous aces of Germany – Adolf Galland. He happily launched a model of the railway in front of Bader. Douglas was also allowed to sit in the cockpit of the Messerschmitt – of course, pointing a pistol at him.

Three escapes

That the pistol was not such a bad idea was proved to the Germans a few days later by Bader. While awaiting distribution to a prisoner of war camp, he was held in a French hospital a couple of tens of kilometers from the coast of the English Channel. Deciding that there was no better opportunity to run, Douglas decided to act now.

To begin with, he, using a comrade in the ward as an interpreter, got to the bottom of the French nurse – demanding that she be brought down to the Resistance. A few days later, she did indeed bring a note from a partisan who said he would wait for Bader nearby at night.

Encouraged, Douglas tied a rope out of the sheets at the first opportunity and fled. The Resistance member turned out to be real. But the nurse let her down – she reported everything to the Germans for fear of punishment. Soon the fugitive was caught.

He was sent to the Warburg camp in Germany. Bader tried to escape from there too – and not alone, but with a small group of comrades. The plan was complicated – to sit “hares” on some freight train, get to France, and find the Resistance. But it all ended even earlier – the fugitives were noticed by a German guard who came out at the wrong time to urinate. The punishment cell, transfer to another camp, is no longer an officer’s, but a soldier’s.

Colditz Castle today

But Bader would not be himself if he had not tried to escape from there. This time, the idea was even more tricky – to try to hijack the plane. But here, too, Douglas was in for a failure – at first he successfully crept into a group of workers who were sent to the airfield. But the camp soon learned about the disappearance of the pilot, a famous lover of escapes, put two and two, and brought Bader back.

Shooting down German planes without legs was clearly better than running – although of course it was difficult to blame Douglas for not trying.

Happy end

He was eventually transferred to the gloomy Castle Colditz, a place where the “incorrigible runners” were exiled. It was difficult to say that Bader suffered incredibly there – there were no particularly terrible conditions of detention there.

He was even allowed to walk in the surrounding fields under escort. After all, it was unbearable to move on prostheses along the courtyard of the castle paved with medieval cobblestones.

It was in this place that Bader met the end of the war – he was liberated by the advancing Allied troops. This was followed by a reunion with his wife crying with joy. Back in Britain, Bader discovered that he was now a folk hero – people were clearly inspired by the numerous attempts to escape the legless man.

Soon, he was approached by a former employer who had arrived from the right side: Bader was offered a traveling job around the world, which implied the conclusion of contracts. For which a personal small plane without a pilot was allocated. How can you resist?

The joyful Douglas agreed – and no longer parted with the helm almost all his life.

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