Reach for the Sky - The Story of Douglas Bader by Paul Brickhill

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Douglas Robert Steuart Bader was born on 21st February 1910. He and his older brother, Derick, often argued when they were youngsters, with Douglas constantly leaping at any challenges and dares from his brother.

He excelled at sports at school but did not apply himself with academia until he had to pass a test to enrol at Cranwell Royal Air Force College, with a view to joining the RAF.

His flying rating was described as “above average” in his official report at Cranwell and he was posted to Number 23 squadron to fly Gloster Gamecock fighter aircraft, with a top speed of 156 miles per hour.

He was based in Kenley and in-between flying represented the RAF in rugby and cricket. The squadron were given Bristol Bulldog fighters which flew up to 176mph. Bader was also playing rugby for local team Harlequins and several good performances got him a call up to play for England, earning his cap against the Springboks of South Africa.

A few months later on 14th December 1931, Bader was taking off from Woodley Aerodrome where some younger pilots had dared him to demonstrate some acrobatics in his Bulldog. Whilst doing a roll the left wingtip hit the ground and the aircraft cartwheeled into a crumpled wreck.

Bader drifted in and out of consciousness in the ambulance and was soon on the hospital operating table. The crash had badly damaged his legs. His right leg was amputated above his smashed right knee. They tried to keep the left leg but septicaemia and gangrene set in and it too, was amputated, six inches below the knee.

It was exactly one month and one day after the crash that Bader was able to get up for the first time, heaving himself onto a wheelchair. That day was the 13th January and after another operation to trim the bone near his stumps, he eventually left the hospital for good in April.

He was transferred to an RAF hospital in Uxbridge. He was allowed to venture out and even managed to drive a car by using his one strong leg for the accelerator and brake, and an umbrella to press the clutch when changing gear.

Seven months after the accident, he walked out of a building on his new artificial metal legs. He’d lost about an inch in height but for the first time since the crash, he looked and felt like an ordinary chap.

After passing his disabled drivers test, the next step was to learn to fly again. Bader was convinced he could do it, as it required less legwork than driving.

He passed his RAF medical test and was deemed fit to fly on dual flights with an instructor but flying was so natural to him, he was soon flying solo, albeit whilst not being allowed. However, when he went to see which flying category the medical board would issue for him, he was disappointed to be told by the Wing Commander that they couldn’t pass him fit for flying because there’s nothing in the King’s Regulations which covered his case and he’d have to settle for a ground job.

But Bader did not want a ground job and soon he received a letter from the Air Ministry informing him that he can no longer be employed by the RAF and suggested he retired due to ill health.

He now had no job and nowhere to live but Bader soon rented a room in London and also got an office job there selling aviation spirit to airlines and governments. He didn’t much like the job, but it did give him the money to support his future wife, Thelma, who he’d met soon after his accident, and his spirits were raised when they got engaged. They married soon after.

In 1939 Bader wrote to the Air Ministry asking for a flying refresher course should there be a war. “No” was the response. An old colleague in the RAF also wrote on Bader’s behalf and got a slightly more positive answer, “No” but if war was to break out they’d almost certainly want his services if the doctor agreed.

On the day Prime Minister Chamberlain announced Britain had gone to war, Bader wrote again. He received a telegram asking him to report to the Air Ministry selection board. This time he passed the medical and later after not flying for seven years passed that test too.

Whilst training he got to fly the Hurricane fighter aircraft and his final report described his flying ability as “exceptional”. He was posted to 19 squadron in Duxford. In his new squadron he got to fly the Spitfire for the first time. Soon he became leader of his section and eventually became a flight lieutenant as he was promoted to flight commander of 222 squadron.

After what seemed like a never-ending period of leading the squadron in aerobatics, formation flying and routine patrols, Bader’s first engagement with the enemy in the Second World War came over Dunkirk.

His first kill was a Messerschmitt 109, shooting it down with his Spitfire’s guns. The remaining patrols in Dunkirk were uneventful for Bader. After that he was promoted again and given his own squadron, 242. It was a Canadian squadron, the only one in the RAF, and he was their new squadron leader, flying Hurricanes again.

With his discipline and his tendency to lead from the front, Bader soon had the squadron in tip-top shape and morale was high. He shot down a lone Dornier after being alerted to a suspicious aircraft over England. He’d gone up himself as the weather was so bad. This was soon followed by another Dornier kill near Yarmouth.

Bader’s first major battle was on 30th August 1940. 242 squadron was scrambled and their 18 Hurricanes intercepted over 100 German aircraft, mainly bombers. In the ensuing battle, Bader registered two kills and the squadron had downed 12 aircraft in total, without any damage to a single Hurricane.

Bader discussed and tried out new tactics for the air battle. He came up with a new formation, where five squadrons would fly together, called “12 Group Wing”.

The wing was a success and they managed 52 kills in one day at their peak. Bader was awarded the Distinguished Service Order medal.

When the Battle of Britain was over, the 12 Group Wing had shot down 152 enemies whilst losing 30 of their own pilots. By the end of 1940, 242 squadron had one DSO and nine Distinguished Flying Crosses, one of which was awarded to Bader.

Next Bader was chosen to fly in a secret operation called “First Offensive Sweep”. He was to be part of three fighter squadrons supporting bombers flying into France to bomb German ammunition dumps. The mission was a success and soon Bader was told to leave 242 squadron as he was put in charge of three Spitfire squadrons ready to continue these fighter sweeps into enemy territory. He’d been promoted to Wing Commander.

The sweeps into France continued. Often the three squadrons would fly alone. Sometimes they’d join other fighters in a “beehive” formation, which consisted of 100 or so fighters surrounding and protecting a bomber.

Bader led the wing on every raid and had 20½ confirmed enemy aircraft destroyed. He had a veil of invincibility but then one day the unthinkable happened. Whilst dog fighting with some Messerschmitts, something hit his aircraft. It must have been an enemy fighter as when he turned around the rest of the aircraft was missing. He tried to get out of the cockpit but his metal leg was trapped. Luckily he could unclip it. Having legs would have sent him down with the Spitfire but instead he was parachuting down to France and was knocked unconscious on landing.

He was soon discovered by three German officers and was taken to a nearby hospital in Saint Omer. He asked the Germans to recover his leg, which they did, but the leg was damaged so he asked them to repair it, which they also did.

He knew that once he was transferred to a prison camp in Germany it would be extremely difficult to escape. He enlisted the help of a French nurse at the hospital, who gave him a note from a local French couple, saying their son would be waiting outside the hospital gates between midnight and 2am each night to help him, if he managed to escape. When it was announced he was being transferred to Germany the next day, that evening Bader tied together 15 bed sheets from his ward and descended on them after clambering out the window.

After meeting the couple’s son, he was taken to the nearby French family home but was discovered by the Germans hiding in the shed when they came to search the property.

This time the Germans took no chances. They took Bader’s metal legs and drove him to Brussels, where he was put on a train and guarded whilst it travelled to Germany.

Bader spent the next few months in various prisoner of war camps. One of the largest was Warburg, which consisted of a huge cage that held 3,000 men, a quarter of a mile square. Once in Germany they had given him his legs back, but the living conditions were dire.

Here Bader was part of several plans to escape, including digging tunnels and picking locks, but none of them were successful for him. The most extravagant plan came later at another camp, when he was involved in making a glider to escape, flying from the high castle walls of the camp he was in at the time. They intended to use bed boards to build the frame, with sheets for wings and glue made out of potatoes, but they never got to finish it.

Eventually, after three and a half years in captivity, with a final night consisting of the constant noise of non-stop shelling, he was greeted at dawn by the view of American soldiers entering the camp and German guards handing over their rifles, one by one. He was now free.

He caught a lift with a young American pilot to Versailles where he spoke to his wife on the phone,. From there he was driven to Paris and then flown to London where, after a medical, he drove to Ascot to be reunited with Thelma.
On 15th September 1945, Bader was given the role of organising and leading a victory flypast over London to celebrate peace. Over 300 aircraft took part.

He finished the war with 22½ official kills, two DSOs and two DFCs. He is seen by many as the best fighter leader and tactician from the Second World War.

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