World War II: Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader

Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader. Photograph Courtesy of the Royal Air Force

Early Life

Douglas Bader was born in London, England on February 21, 1910. The son of civil engineer Frederick Bader and his wife Jessie, Douglas spent his first two years with relatives on the Isle of Man as his father had to return to work in India. Joining his parents at age two, the family returned to Britain a year later and settled in London. With the outbreak of World War I, Bader's father left for military service. Though he survived the war, he was wounded in 1917 and died of complications in 1922. Re-marrying, Bader's mother had little time for him and he was sent to Saint Edward's School.

Excelling at sports, Bader proved an unruly student. In 1923, he was introduced to aviation while visiting his aunt who was engaged to Royal Air Force Flight Lieutenant Cyril Burge. Interested in flying, he returned to school and improved his grades. This resulted in an offer of admission to Cambridge, but he was unable to attend when his mother claimed she lacked the money to pay tuition. At this time, Burge also informed Bader of six annual prize cadetships offered by RAF Cranwell. Applying, he placed fifth and was admitted to the Royal Air Force College Cranwell in 1928.

Early Career

During his time at Cranwell, Bader flirted with expulsion as his love of sports had branched into banned activities such as auto racing. Warned about his behavior by Air Vice-Marshal Frederick Halahan, he placed 19th out of 21 in his class examinations. Flying came easier to Bader than studying and flew his first solo on February 19, 1929, after just 11 hours and 15 minutes of flight time. Commissioned as a pilot officer on July 26, 1930, he received an assignment to No. 23 Squadron at Kenley. Flying Bristol Bulldogs, the squadron was under orders to avoid aerobatics and stunts at less than 2,000 ft. of altitude.

Bader, as well as other pilots in the squadron, repeated flaunted this regulation. On December 14, 1931, while at the Reading Aero Club, he attempted a series of low altitude stunts over Woodley Field. In the course of these, his left wing hit the ground causing a severe crash. Immediately taken to Royal Berkshire Hospital, Bader survived but had both his legs amputated, one above the knee, the other below. Recovering through 1932, he met his future wife, Thelma Edwards, and was fitted with artificial legs. That June, Bader returned to service and passed the required flight tests.

Civilian Life

His return to RAF flying proved short-lived when he was medically discharged in April 1933. Leaving the service, he took a job with the Asiatic Petroleum Company (now Shell) and married Edwards. As the political situation in Europe deteriorated in the late 1930s, Bader continually requested positions with the Air Ministry. With the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, he was finally asked to a selection board meeting at Adastral House. Though he was initially only offered ground positions, intervention from Hallahan secured him an assessment at the Central Flying School.

Returning to the RAF

Quickly proving his skill, he was permitted to move through refresher training later that fall. In January 1940, Bader was assigned to No. 19 Squadron and began flying the Supermarine Spitfire. Through the spring, he flew with the squadron learning formations and fighting tactics. Impressing Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, commander No. 12 Group, he was moved to No. 222 Squadron and promoted to flight lieutenant. That May, with Allied defeat in France looming, Bader flew in support of the Dunkirk Evacuation. On June 1, he scored his first kill, a Messerschmitt Bf 109, over Dunkirk.

Battle of Britain

With the conclusion of these operations, Bader was promoted to Squadron Leader and given command of No. 232 Squadron. Largely composed of Canadians and flying the Hawker Hurricane, it had taken heavy losses during the Battle of France. Quickly earning his men's trust, Bader rebuilt the squadron and it re-entered operations on July 9, just in time for the Battle of Britain. Two days later, he scored his first kill with the squadron when he downed a Dornier Do 17 of the Norfolk coast. As the battle intensified, he continued to add to his total as No. 232 engaged the Germans.

On September 14, Bader received the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his performance through the late summer. As the fighting progressed, he became an outspoken advocate for Leigh-Mallory's "Big Wing" tactics which called for massed attacks by at least three squadrons. Flying from farther north, Bader often found himself leading large groups fighters into battles over southeastern Britain. This approach was countered by Air Vice Marshal Keith Park's 11 Group in the southeast which generally committed squadrons individually in an effort to conserve strength.

Fighter Sweeps

On December 12, Bader was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his efforts during the Battle of Britain. In the course of the fighting, No. 262 Squadron downed 62 enemy aircraft. Assigned to Tangmere in March 1941, he was promoted to wing commander and given Nos. 145, 610, and 616 Squadrons. Returning to the Spitfire, Bader began conducting offensive fighter sweeps and escort missions over the Continent. Flying through the summer, Bader continued to add to his tally with his primary prey being Bf 109s. Awarded a bar for his DSO on July 2, he pushed for additional sorties over occupied Europe.

Though his wing was tired, Leigh-Mallory allowed Bader a free hand rather than anger his star ace. On August 9, Bader engaged a group of Bf 109s over northern France. In the engagement, his Spitfire was hit with the rear of the aircraft breaking away. Though he believed it was the result of a mid-air collision, more recent scholarship indicates that his downing may have been at German hands or due to friendly fire. In the course of exiting the aircraft, Bader lost one of his artificial legs. Captured by German forces, he was treated with the great respect due to his accomplishments. At the time of his capture, Bader's score stood at 22 kills and six probably.

After his capture, Bader was entertained by noted German ace Adolf Galland. In a sign of respect, Galland arranged to have the British airdrop a replacement leg for Bader. Hospitalized in St. Omer after his capture, Bader attempted to escape and nearly did so until a French informer alerted the Germans. Believing it his duty to cause trouble for the enemy even as a POW, Bader attempted several escapes during the course of his imprisonment. These led to one German commandant threatening to take his legs and ultimately to his transfer to the famous Oflag IV-C at Colditz Castle.

Later Life

Bader remained at Colditz until liberated by the US First Army in April 1945. Returning to Britain, he was given the honor of leading a victory flyover of London in June. Returning to active duty, he briefly oversaw the Fighter Leader's School before taking an assignment to lead the North Weald sector of No. 11 Group. Considered out of date by many of the younger officers, he was never comfortable and elected to leave the RAF in June 1946 for a job with Royal Dutch Shell.

Named Chairman of Shell Aircraft Ltd., Bader was free to keep flying and traveled extensively. A popular speaker, he continued advocating for aviation even after his retirement in 1969. Somewhat controversial in his older age for his outspoken conservative political positions, he remained friendly with former foes such as Galland. A tireless advocate for the disabled, he was knighted for his services in this area in 1976. Though in declining health, he continued to pursue an exhausting schedule. Bader died of a heart attack on September 5, 1982, after a dinner in honor of Air Marshal Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris.

Selected Sources

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). World War II: Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).