Posted by: wrmcnutt | February 2, 2011

Douglas Bader – RAF

Captain Douglas Bader

Captain Douglas Bader

Everyone, I’d like you to meet my new friend Douglas Bader, a pilot in the Royal Air Force.  Douglas is actually gone now, but I would have been proud to call him friend, if I could have done so from within the enormous shadow he cast.

Back in 1931, Douglas was one of the early fighter pilots for the fading British Empire.  One day, while showing off doing barrel rolls too close to the ground, he crashed his plane.  In the wreck, both of his legs were sheared off.  His right leg:  above the knee.  His left leg: below the knee.

You know what his flight log reads for the day?  It says: “X-country Reading. Crashed slow rolling near ground.  Bad show.”

They fitted him with metal prostheses and told him he would never walk without them.  His response?  “On the contrary.  I will never blood walk WITH them.”  And he didn’t.  He fell on his face a lot learning to use his new legs, but when World War II broke out, he walked into the enlistment office on his own two artificial feet, re-enlisted, and convinced the RAF to let him fly again, metal legs and all.  And not cargo or bombers either.  He was able to browbeat his way back into active service with two missing legs and fly a fighter plan.  He went on to become a quadruple ace, scoring twenty victories, four shared victories, six probables, one shared probable and eleven damaged.  (He and a wingman shot up a single German plane, hence the “shared victories.”)

But, no matter how good you hard, how much you practice, how high your skill, or how huge your God-given talent, all it takes is one jerk getting lucky to put you down.  So, over France, the tail of his plane shot off, Bader attempted to bail out of his airframe.  One of his artificial legs got caught and he was pinned to the aircraft.  Finally, the belt holding the leg to his body tore free and he was able to parachute to the ground.  A leg short, he was easily captured by the Germans, who imprisoned him.  Being a gentleman, he politely asked his captors if they might dispatch a note to his command, requesting that his spare leg be sent to the prison hospital.

Being gentlemen, they agreed.  And the next bombing run sent to the general vicinity of the prison included Baden’s spare leg, dropped with a nametag.  The leg was duly delivered to Baden, who strapped it on, and casually walked out of the hospital in an effort to escape.  The Germans rounded him up, but he continued to try to escape, and often.  In desperation, his captors took his legs away from him to make him stay put.  The other prisoner’s nearly rioted, and to quell the unrest, the Commandant had Bader’s legs returned to him.

Eventually, they sent him to their house for incorrigables – Colditz Castle.  Throughout his internment, Bader never ceased being a thorn in the side of his captors, and never stopped trying to escape.  He was liberated when the Americans liberated Colditz and returned to England and a hero’s welcome.  He got to lead 300 aircraft in a victory fly-by over London in 1945 and was send to command the Flight Leader’s School.

He mustered out of the RAF in 1946 and went to work for Royal Dutch Shell, today known as Shell Oil and managed Shell Aircraft Ltd through 1969, when he retired to become a dinner speaker. In between, he stood for Parliament in his home district.

When his biography Reach for the Sky was released, he was heard to remark that he was not nearly as dashing as Kenneth More, the actor who played him, and certainly used more cuss-words while on operations. A staunch conservative with Victorian values, Bader never backed down from opinions that were often viewed as politically-incorrect.  Among those views were: “Stop immigration into Britain immediately” and “re-introduce the death penalty.”  He was once invited to a party in Munich and walked into a room full of retired Luftwaffe pilots and immediately said, “My God, I had no idea we left so many of you bastards alive!”

I can only dream of being so ballsy.

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  1. Dang, Netflix doesn’t have Reach for the Sky available. Great story.

  2. Captain Bader’s story is one of the ones that convince you that there is indeed something good and noble in the human race. (despite the mess that most of us make…)

    I had read his story years ago, but had never heard that last quip. As I recall, that was perfectly in character for him and a number of other men like him.

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