The Second World War is remembered for the immense suffering and destruction that it brought to millions all over the world. But it is also remembered for countless tales of incredible heroism in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Most of these brave men and women have long since left this world but their stories remain etched in our collective consciousness for eternity and serve as an inspiration to live life to the fullest fearlessly, never losing our grip on our principles and ideals.
One such incredible man was Douglas Bader. He became a legend in his lifetime, as an ace pilot and an inspiration to the physically disabled. Bader was one of the shining stars of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and was idealised and hero worshipped. He had a great future in the RAF.
He was a dashing airman, a brilliant rugger player and cricketer, handsome and much sought after by the ladies. But life had some unpleasant surprises in store for him. In 1931, Douglas lost both his legs in an air crash and was discharged from the RAF.
Anyone would have thought that his career was over and he would retire to a quiet life, resigned to his fate as a double amputee, picking up whatever crumbs life offered on the way. But Douglas was no ordinary man. He was determined that life’s unexpected adversities would never break his spirit.
He was told he could never walk again without a stick. He not only taught himself to walk again without a stick, but also to dance, swim and play golf and tennis. He was told that he could never fly again. Not only did he get back to flying, he went on to become one of the greatest heroes of the Battle of Britain.
Bader was the son of a soldier who died from wounds suffered in the First World War and was born in London in 1910. Bader’s heart was not really into academics but into sports. However, he did try his best to apply his mind to his studies and managed to win a scholarship to St Edward’s School in Oxford.
He was always an excellent sportsman and went on to win a place in the RAF College in Cranwell where he captained the rugby team and was a champion boxer. He was commissioned as an officer in the RAF in 1930 but unfortunately, 18 months later his aeroplane crashed.
His determination to get back to flying led him to fight the authorities as ruthlessly as he eventually fought the enemy. He not only managed to return to the frontline, but he became a top scoring ace.
Since his early days in the RAF, Douglas had been known for his amazing skills in synchronised aerobatics. Bader became famous for his magnificent spectacles of exhibition flying, synchronised to a fraction of a second. These skills came in handy during the war and he developed innovative tactics such as the ‘The Big Wing’, which ensured his promotion and he led a key group of squadrons during the dark days of the Battle of Britain.
‘The Big Wing’ strategy involved
large formations of fighter aircraft deployed in mass sweeps against the Luftwaffe over the English Channel and northern Europe.
Bader’s strategy proved effective and during the summer of 1941 he got 12 kills. His 23 victories made him the fifth highest ace in the RAF. On August 9, 1941, he suffered a mid-air collision near Le Touquet, France. He managed to escape his burning fighter by cutting off one of his artificial legs.
He parachuted to the ground but both his artificial legs were badly damaged. He was taken to a hospital from where he managed to flee with the help of a French nurse. He made it to the home of a local farmer but was soon arrested and sent to a prison camp.
After several attempts to escape he was sent to Colditz. Freed at the end of the Second World War, he returned to Britain and was promoted to group captain. He left the RAF in 1946.
Douglas was knighted in 1976 and died in 1982.
Reach for the Sky by Paul Brickhill