Legless Superman

The Story of w/c Douglas Bader

by Michael B Drayson

Douglas R S Bader, famous legless pilot of the RAF, has been under German lock and key for a little over two years now. While his unusual accomplishments against great odds are sometimes overlooked in the steady stream of heroes emerging from the battlefields of the Pacific, the North Atlantic and Africa, his story is an outstanding demonstration of a flyer who refused to be grounded.

Born in 1910 at Marylebone, London, and educated at St Edward's School, Oxford, Wing Commander Bader learned to fly at the RAF college, Cranwell. Shortly after receiving his commission, he crashed over his airdrome, woke up from a long period of unconsciousness to find that both his legs had been amputated; one completely, the other at the knee.

After being invalided out of the service, he learned to use his metal legs so skilfully that he was able to play tennis, cricket and squash almost as well as during his college days. When war broke out he argued his way to an RAF volunteer reserve medical board, insisted he was fit for flying. The president of the board was so impressed by his enthusiasm and determination that he persuaded the doctor to send him to a central flying school for a test. Bader passed the test, went into active service with a fighter squadron. He has always claimed that he can get in and out of his machine faster with his artificial legs than other pilots with their real ones.

A few months after reentering the service, his engine failed on a takeoff and he had a mild crash. Both legs were badly bent but a metalsmith straightened them and in half an hour Bader was in the air again. Within six months he was at the controls of a Spitfire, leading the famous Maple Leaf Squadron of Canadian fighter pilots over the beaches of Dunkirk. He fought through the Battle of Britain and on August 15, 1940, helped chase the Luftwaffe from Hammersmith to Beachy Head in the morning, fought over the Thames Estuary in the afternoon. Later that month the Maple Leaf Squadron shot down eight Me-110s, three Heinkel 111s, drove off nearly 100 Nazi planes.

At the head of an RAF fighter sweep over France after the Battle of Britain, Bader collided with a Messerschmitt and bailed out. His squadron stayed with him, circled his parachute to prevent the Nazis gunning him as he floated down. As soon as the Nazi radio revealed that he had been taken prisoner with both legs damaged, his squadron mates flew another pair to him. Bader used the new legs a few weeks later to escape, and despite his handicap, had covered considerable distance before he was recaptured.

He was awarded the DSO on September 21, 1940, for gallantry in fighting operations against the enemy; received the Distinguished Flying Cross in December of that year, and on September 4, 1941, was given a bar to be worn on his DFC medal.

This article was originally published in the September, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 3, no 3, p 44.
The original article includes 4 photos.
Photos credited to British Combine.