Ward's Book of Days.

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What happened on this day in history.


On this day in history in 1982, died Douglas Bader.

Bader was an inspirational fighter pilot of the Second World War, who carried on flying, despite having both legs amputated.

Douglas Robert Steuart Bader was born on 21st February 1910, at London, the son of Major F R Bader, Royal Engineers. His early years were spent with relatives in the Isle of Man, due to his father being posted to India, but he was reunited with the family when his father returned to London in 1913. He was educated at Temple Grove School, and St Edward's School, Oxford, where he excelled at rugby, cricket and boxing. His father died in 1922, from wounds sustained in the First World War, and his mother later married Reverend E W Hobbs, who brought up the Bader children at the rectory of Sprotborough, Yorkshire.

In 1928, Bader joined the RAF as a cadet, where he proved to be a good pilot and an outstanding rugby player, and was close to selection for the national squad, when a devastating accident occurred. In 1931, during an aerobatic display at Reading Aero Club, he was performing a low-flying routine, when a wing-tip touched the ground, bringing down his aircraft. He was taken to the Royal Berkshire Hospital, where he was on the point of death for several days, but was saved by a surgeon who amputated both his legs.

After a long convalescence, Bader was fitted with a pair of artificial legs, which enabled him to walk with the aid of a stick, drive a car well, and play golf with a high handicap. Bader wanted to prove that he could still fly, even with his ‘tin legs’, and asked to take up an Avro 504, which he piloted as skilfully as he could drive a car and better than he could play golf. A medical examination passed him fit for active service, but a technicality in King's Regulations, prevented him continuing as a pilot, and he was invalided out of the RAF. In 1934, he took a job as a clerk with an oil company and in 1935, married his fiancé, Thelma Edwards.

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Bader applied to rejoin the RAF, and despite objections from the establishment, was allowed to take a refresher-course using modern aircraft. Despite his disability, he passed the course and survived a medical examination, and in 1940, was posted to his first operation, with the rank of Flying Officer.

After serving for a year with 19 Squadron at Duxford, he was promoted to Flight Commander with 222 Squadron, where he was introduced to the Spitfire. Soon afterwards, while on a routine patrol of the French coast, he spotted an enemy aircraft on a similar mission, and flying in from the rear, attacked it with several bursts of gunfire and shot it down. A few days later, he had another encounter with the enemy and, after nearly suffering a crash, took out the enemy aircraft.

Bader was a strong opponent of the RAF’s policy of 'husbanding' tactics that is not engaging the enemy for fear of losing men and aircraft. On his reconnaissance missions, he regularly used to seek out enemy aircraft and take them on, successfully destroying numerous enemy fighter planes. He even used to undertake unauthorised expeditions, looking out for German aircraft, which he would fight and usually destroy. His tactics were an embarrassment to RAF high command, but they could not be seen to take action against such a successful pilot.

In 1941, Bader’s luck ran out and he was shot down. As he tried to bail out, one of his tin legs became trapped in the aircraft carriage, and he only escaped when the leg's straps ripped apart. He was captured by German forces, who treated him with great dignity. A German General notified the RAF of his missing leg and offered them safe passage to drop off a replacement. The British responded with Operation Leg, when an RAF bomber parachuted a new prosthetic leg to a Luftwaffe base in occupied France. The Germans were unimpressed when the bomber proceeded on its mission to bomb a power station in the Ruhr.

Bader made several attempts to escape, and on one occasion broke out of the hospital in occupied France, where he was recovering, and walked to a safe farmhouse, several miles away, and would have continued on a journey to the Swiss border, had he not been discovered by German patrols. He was dispatched to the so called escape-proof Colditz Castle, where he remained until 1945, when it was relieved by the American Army. In June 1945, he led a victory flypast of 300 aircraft over London. He left the RAF to take an executive position with an oil company, and resumed golf, improving his handicap considerably.

In civilian life, he campaigned for the disabled and in 1976 was knighted for his services to amputees. He is remembered for his famous quote to fellow amputees: ‘Don't listen to anyone who tells you that you can't do this or that. That's nonsense. Make up your mind, you'll never use crutches or a stick, then have a go at everything.’ Bader died on September 1982, aged 72. His body was cremated and he has no public memorial. His ‘tin legs’ are displayed in a private RAF museum.

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