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Douglas Robert Stuart[N 1] Bader[2] was an English fighter ace during World War II. He scored 22.5 air victories[N 2] and served throughout the Battle of Britain.

Early life

When Bader was born, his thin and persistent cry prompted the doctor to observe that 'the little trouble maker seemed to have a talent for expressing himself forcibly'. [N 3] Bader and his mother Jessie were virtually separated during his early life because, three days after his birth, Bader and his mother caught measles, and then, when they had recovered, Jessie had to have a major operation. Shortly afterwards, the family traveled to India without Douglas, who was left with relatives on the Isle of Man, as he was thought to be too young such a hot climate, and did not join the family in India until he was nearly two years old. Shortly after his arrival in India, Douglas and his brother Derick had began fighting with enough ferocity to require the servants to constantly keep them apart.[5]

In 1913 the family return to England, taking a house in Kew when Bader's father Frederick resigned his job in India to study Law, only to be commissioned in the Royal Engineers at the outbreak of World War I.[6] Shortly afterwards, Douglas joined Derick at Colet Court, a nearby prep school, before going on to Temple Grove. One of the traditions at Temple Grove was for boys to carve their names into the desks. After Douglas made an unsuccessful attempt, Derick suggested he carve his name on the Headmaster's prize marrow instead.[7]

Early Career


In June 1928, Bader received a letter calling him to London for RAF examination, interview and medical. Thanks to the assistance of Mr Yorke and Cyril Burge, Bader completed the examination on time, achieving the seldom approached score of 235 out of 250 in the interview. During the medical, his blood pressure was found to be elevated - a combination of nerves about the selection and the effects of rheumatic fever a couple of years earlier.[8][N 4]

Shortly afterwards, Bader received a letter, informing him that he had come fifth in the examinations. The letter also stated that he had been awarded a prize cadetship, and should report to Cranwell in September.[9]

Under the tuition of Flying Officer Pearson, Bader quickly learnt the basics of flying an aeroplane, flying solo in an Avro 504 in October after 6 1/2 hours dual instruction. As well as flying training, Bader and the other cadets received instruction in areas such as theory of flight, signals and engines. At the start of the rugby season, Bader was selected for the First Fifteen, helping Cranwell to beat both Sandhurst and the Woolwich Military Academy.[10]

Squadron Service

Following his graduation from Cranwell, Bader was posted to 23 Squadron at Kenley, flying Gloster Gamecocks. Bader was eventually selected as one of the pilots chosen to perform an aerobatic display at the Hendon air display. Shortly afterwards, 23 Squadron were re-equipped with Bristol Bulldogs.

On Monday 14 December 1931, Bader tagged along behind two other pilots for a trip to Woodley Aerodrome near Reading. After discussing aerobatics, and the Hendon display, with a group of young pilots, someone suggested Bader perform a demonstration beat up of the airfield in his Bulldog, which Bader refused because the Bulldog was different from the Gamecock used for Hendon, as well as Harry Day's remark about showing off. There the matter was dropped until the RAF pilots were leaving, when the suggestion was repeated. This time, Bader's refusal resulted in a barbed 'joke' about him being windy, and making it sound like a dare.[N 5]

The Crash and Aftermath

As soon as Bader had taken off, he banked steeply, turned back and slanted down for a long run across the field just above the grass. The Bulldog started rocking in the thermals, before sweeping across the boundary fence towards a spot behind the clubhouse. The nose lifted and the aircraft began rolling to the right. Just as Bader was reefing the Bulldog round, he felt the aircraft start to drop, and was attempting to pull up when the left wingtip hit the grass, jerking the nose down. The propeller and cowling exploded into the ground, the engine was torn out, and the Bulldog seemed to crumple. When the noise subsided, Bader was only dimly aware of what was happening outside the cockpit. When he noticed the unusual position of his right leg, and the apparent absence of his left - which was in fact buckled under his seat - his first reaction was the realisation that he would be unable to participate in the Combined Services Rugby match scheduled for the following Saturday.[12]

The extensive damage to the Bulldog meant the wreckage had to be cut away before Bader could be lifted out and transferred to a waiting ambulance. During the journey to the Royal Berkshire Hospital, Bader attempted to get up from the stretcher, only for Jack Cruttenden, the student pilot who had lifted Bader from the wreckage, to restrain him. The resulting struggle ended when Bader thumped Cruttenden on the chin.[13]


Within a minute of his arrival at the Royal Berkshire Hospital, Bader was receiving attention from the duty doctor, who tied off the arteries and swabbed both legs.[13] Noting that the right leg was nearly off at the knee, the left shin was badly splintered and Bader's pulse was weakening, the duty doctor administered a heart stimulant and placed both legs in box splints, before contacting Sister Thornhill with orders to keep Bader warm in bed to ease the shock. After an examination by the surgical officer, Thornhill remembered that expert surgeon Leonard Joyce, whom she had assisted on many occasions, had been operating at the hospital that day. Catching Joyce in the entrance hall, Thornhill brought him to the ward to examine Bader, where he decided to wait and see if Bader would recover from shock enough for them to risk operating.[14]

At 3.30 the following morning, Joyce decided that Bader's breathing and pulse had improved enough for them to attempt to operate, with Bader briefly regaining consciousness before being anesthetised.[14] As Bader was not fit enough for thorough surgery, Joyce quickly severed the right leg, before cleaning and sealing the damage to the left leg.[15]


After receiving his artificial legs, Bader demonstrated that he was still able to fly an aircraft, even passing a flying test at the Central Flying School,[2] only to be grounded because the service was unable to pass him fit for flying, on the grounds that there was nothing in the regulations which covered his case.[N 6] As a result, he was posted to Duxford in November 1932, and placed in charge of the Motor Transport Section.[16] After Christmas, Bader made a number of surreptitious flights in an Armstrong Whitworth Atlas, a biplane used for Army Co-operation duty which had been booked out by Flying Officer Joe Cox, an instructor with the Cambridge University Air Squadron. The flights only stopped when the Wing commander spotted the Atlas landing on the runway with Cox holding his arms high from the rear cockpit, and Bader handling the controls. Both men were rebuked, but no further action was taken.[17] Bader was invalided out of the RAF in 1933,[2] as the Air Council had decided that, following Bader's final medical board report, he could no longer be employed in the General Duties branch of the Royal Air Force, and would therefore be transferred to the retired list on the grounds of ill health.[18]

Civilian life

Following his departure from the RAF, Bader became an employee of the Shell Company.

In his spare time, Bader took up golf, but refused to take lessons because

  1. he couldn't afford them, and
  2. he believed that his artificial legs would require a different style to that taught by instructors.[N 7]

When War was declared in 1939, Bader's boss informed him that he would be based at the Lansbury Club, with his name on the list of indispensable workers debarred from call up. Bader responded by asking for his name to be removed from the indispensable workers list, such was his determination to rejoin the RAF. Bader's name was reluctantly removed from the list shortly afterwards.[20] Bader's persistence paid off when, in early October 1939, he received a telegram ordering him to report for a selection board on the following Thursday, where he was reunited with Air Vice Marshal Halahan. Halahan was only dealing with ground jobs, but agreed to write a note for Bader to give to the medical staff which, Bader later discovered, recommended that Bader be given A1B[N 8] category and sent to the Central Flying School, to allow them to assess his capabilities.[22] On October 14, Bader duly received a telegram from the Central Flying School, suggesting he reported to Upavon on the 18th. Bader drove down on the 15th.[23]

Arriving at Upavon, Bader was met by Rupert Leigh, who he had known at Cranwell. After lunch, Leigh led Bader to a Harvard advanced training aircraft which, to Bader's dismay, was fitted with foot brakes. However, Leigh soon put Bader at ease by revealing he would operate them for this flight, and that the Harvard was the only service type which didn't have a hand brake on the stick.[23] Leigh then explained the cockpit before climbing into the back seat and taking the Harvard up for a single circuit and landing, before allowing Bader to take the controls. After completing the cockpit drill, Bader took off and, after 15 minutes, made the first of three landings, followed by a roll and a loop before completing the test. Following the test, Leigh sent a report recommending that Bader be readmitted to the RAF and posted to Upavon for a full refresher course.[24]

On Friday 24 November, Bader received official notification that the RAF would be willing to re-employ him as a regular officer, complete with his former rank and seniority. His retired pay would cease, but his disability pension would continue. The letter requested that, if he found the terms acceptable, he should reply stating when he was prepared to report to the CFS for duty.[24] Bader wrote back nominating Sunday 26th, and ordered a new uniform from his tailor, to be ready within a week.[25]

Back in the RAF

The morning after his arrival, Bader drew full flying kit,[N 9] before reporting to Leigh at the refresher flight. After lunch, Bader was taken aloft in Tutor K3242 by Flt Lt Christopher Clarkson for a 25-minute flight, which ended with Bader completing two landings, after which Clarkson climbed out for Bader to complete a 25-minute solo flight. During the course of this flight the Chief Flying Instructor, Wing Commander Pringle, spotted Bader flying upside down in the circuit at 600 ft!.[26]

Bader continued to fly the Tutor during the following week, sometimes conducting gyro instrument training with a canvas hood over the cockpit, and sometimes at night. On 4 December Bader made his first flight in a modern operational aircraft - a Fairey Battle two seat single engine bomber - on which he quickly mastered modern refinements such as retractable undercarriage and variable pitch propellers.[27] Within a couple of days, Bader was even using the Battle for aerobatics away from the airfield. At the beginning of 1940, Bader progressed to the Miles Master, followed two weeks later by the Hawker Hurricane. By the end of January, he was informed that the CFS staff were happy for him to join a squadron, noting his excellent all round ability[N 10] made him ideally suited to flying single seat fighters. Bader immediately contacted his old friend Geoffrey Stephenson, now commanding 19 Squadron equipped with Spitfire Mk Is, who set about arranging for Bader to join 19 Squadron at Duxford.[28]

Initial Service

Bader joined 19 Squadron on February 7, arriving a few hours after receiving the telegram informing him of the posting[29] but spent the first couple of days flying a Magister, due to lack if available Spitfires, before making his first Spitfire flight on the 10th. This was followed on the 13th by his first Spitfire formation flight, which ended with the flight commander dipping low next to a wooden hut, resulting in Bader smashing the tail of his aircraft in the hut's roof.[30] This prompted Bader to make a forceful appraisal of the other man's character.[31]

A few days later, Bader made his first operational Spitfire flight as part of a 90-minute convoy patrol. Bader also practiced the official Fighter Command Attacks, despite considering them absurd,[32] and continued to do so upon becoming a section Leader.[33]

On June 1, Bader scored his first victory, shooting down a Bf-109, during the Dunkirk evacuation.[34]

In early July, Bader was promoted to Squadron Leader, and given command of the all Canadian 242 Squadron.[35] After responding to the pilot's less than enthusiastic greeting - most likely caused by the belief that his false legs would make him a 'passenger' - Bader gave an impromptu 3D display in one of the Hurricanes, before getting to grips with the squadron's problems.[36]

Battle of Britain

The Tangmere Wing

Early in 1941 Bader was awarded a DFC, promoted to Wing Commander, and placed in command of the three Spitfire squadrons of the Tangmere wing,[37] which quickly became known as 'Bader's Bus Company'.


Return to Freedom

Shortly after his return from captivity, Bader was contacted by his old 242 Squadron adjutant Peter Macdonald, who asked Bader to stand as Conservative candidate for Blackpool in the forthcoming general election. Bader refused, stating his opinion that all politicians are a lot of lousy so-and-so's, adding that he wouldn't be seen dead in the House. This led to a persistent campaign on the part of the Conservative Party, which only ended when Bader declared that he would probably say yes when they wanted him to say no, say no when they wanted him to say yes, and refuse to follow party lines, with the result that after five years, no party would put him up for re-election.[38]

After a brief stint at The Fighter Leader School at Tangmere, Bader took command of the North Weald Fighter Sector, comprising twelve squadrons over six aerodromes. One of the squadrons had Gloster Meteor jets and Bader, flying one out of desire and duty found that, due to the lack of torque, he did not have to prod the rudder to correct the take off swing, making the Meteor easier to fly than the types he had been used to, even though this was the first time he had ever flown an aircraft which had more than one engine.[39]

On September 1, Bader received a letter from Group, informing him that he was to organise and lead a victory fly past over London on the 15th. The fly past would consist of 300 aircraft. Twelve survivors of the Battle of Britain would be among the pilots.[40]

Later years

Shortly after the end of the war, Bader received an invitation from his old boss at Shell, who revealed the company wanted Douglas to fly around the world on their behalf.

When Bader returned to Shell on July 1, 1946, He was informed that the company had ordered a Percival Proctor, registration G-AHWU, for him to use on business. The following month Bader, accompanied by Jimmy Doolittle - now a Shell vice president in the USA - took the Proctor on a tour of Europe.[41]

In 1947, Doolittle invited Bader to travel to the USA on Shell business, where he also visited several veteran's hospitals, helping men to walk again. In Chicago, Bader spent an hour and a half with a ten-year-old boy who had both legs amputated below the knee after spilling petrol over himself. Afterwards, when the boy's father privately revealed that his son didn't realise how serious the situation was, Bader spent twenty minutes pressing home the point that the boy must never realise it. Bader suggested the boy should turn it into another game he needed to learn, rather than something that will leave him beaten by crippling him with fright.[42]

In 1950, Bader's Proctor was replaced with a twin engined Miles Gemini,[43] which he immediately flew to The Congo.[44] In 1964, Shell replaced the Gemini with a Beech 95 Traveller, which Bader was presented with on his retirement in 1969.[43]

Knighted in 1976,[45] Bader died on 4 September 1982.[43]



  1. Alternatively listed in some sources as Steward.
  2. This is the number of victories confirmed under the official rules. His own private total, including victories which were impossible to confirm, was 30.[3]
  3. The doctor was no longer alive when Reach for the Sky was written, and was thus unable to marvel at the unwitting accuracy of his foresight.[4]
  4. When Bader attended a second medical a few weeks later, his blood pressure was still up, but had gone down enough to allow him to be passed.[9]
  5. In the film version, one of the pilots remarked that RAF pilots only liked to perform when there was a crowd.[11]
  6. This was the main reason for Bader being sent to the CFS in the first place. On being informed of the decision, it became clear to Bader that he had been expected to fail the assessment.
  7. After leaving the RAF the second time, Bader soon realised, mainly due to the ardent practice with Archie Compston at the the Wentworth Golf Club, that he had been completely wrong on the second point. By the end of his three months leave before rejoining Shell, his handicap had dropped from 9 to 4, placing him in the top 1% of golfers.[19]
  8. Full Flying[21]
  9. On being handed a pair of flying boots, Bader pushed them back, remarking to the quarter-master corporal 'No thanks, corporal. You can keep these. I don't get cold feet.' On being told by the puzzled corporal that he had to have them, Bader accepted them, with the intention of passing them to Thelma.[26]
  10. The CO of the refresher squadron described Bader's ability as a pilot to be exceptional, a flying rating so rare to be considered almost mythical.[28]


  1. "
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 World Aircraft Information Files File 390 Sheet 15
  3. Brickhill, Paul. Reach for the Sky - The Story of Douglas Bader (Part of Great World War II Air Stories). Octopus Books. ISBN 0-86273-046-5 Page 659.
  4. 'Brickhill, Paul. Page 395.
  5. Brickhill, Paul. Pages 396-397.
  6. Brickhill, Paul. Page 397.
  7. Brickhill, Paul. Page 399.
  8. Brickhill, Paul. Pages 409-410.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Brickhill, Paul. Page 410.
  10. Brickhill, Paul. Page 411.
  11. IMDB entry tt0049665
  12. Brickhill, Paul. Pages 423-424
  13. 13.0 13.1 Brickhill, Paul. Page 425
  14. 14.0 14.1 Brickhill, Paul. Page 426
  15. Brickhill, Paul. Page 427
  16. Bowman, Martin W. Duxford and the Big Wings 1940-45: RAF and USAAF Fighter Pilots at war. Pen and Sword Aviation. 2009. ISBN 1 84884 029 9 Pages 1-2
  17. Bowman, Martin W. Page 4
  18. Bowman, Martin W. Pages 4-5
  19. Brickhill, Paul. Page 663.
  20. Brickhill, Paul. Pages 497-498.
  21. Brickhill, Paul. Page 498.
  22. Brickhill, Paul. Pages 498-499.
  23. 23.0 23.1 Brickhill, Paul. Page 500.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Brickhill, Paul. Page 501.
  25. Brickhill, Paul. Pages 501-502.
  26. 26.0 26.1 Brickhill, Paul. Page 502.
  27. Brickhill, Paul. Pages 503-504.
  28. 28.0 28.1 Brickhill, Paul. Page 505.
  29. Bowman, Martin W. Page 8
  30. Brickhill, Paul. Page 506-507.
  31. Bowman, Martin W. Page 10
  32. Brickhill, Paul. Page 508.
  33. Brickhill, Paul. Page 510.
  34. Brickhill, Paul. Page 519.
  35. Brickhill, Paul. Page 522.
  36. Brickhill, Paul. Page 525.
  37. Townsend Bickers, Richard. The Battle of Britain - 50th Anniversary. Salamander Books. 1990. CN 1338 Page 186
  38. Brickhill, Paul. Page 660.
  39. Brickhill, Paul. Pages 660-661.
  40. Brickhill, Paul. Pages 661-662.
  41. Brickhill, Paul. Page 664.
  42. Brickhill, Paul. Page 665.
  43. 43.0 43.1 43.2 World Aircraft Information Files File - Aviation Hall Of Fame. File 390 Sheet 15
  44. Brickhill, Paul. Page 667.
  45. McGovern, Una. 2002. Page 93