Douglas Bader (1910-1982) was born in St. John’s Wood, London, the second son of Frederick and Jessie Scott MacKenzie. When Douglas was four years old, his father left for the Great War, was seriously wounded in 1917, and eventually died of his wounds while still in France in 1922. Douglas may have grown up with only vague memories of his father. His mother, who was always somewhat detached from her children soon remarried. He never developed a bond with his step father, Reverend Ernest William Hobbs, and the somewhat unruly child spent a good deal of the rest of his youth with other relatives until he was old enough to attend boarding school.
After spending several years at Temple Grove School, a famous preparatory academy known for austerity and strict behavioral standards, Douglas attended secondary school at St. Edwards. There, Douglas involved himself in athletics. On the field, he was known as a particularly aggressive athlete, but the head master was an understanding, tolerant man who was willing to put up with petulant behavior as long as St. Edwards won its various competitions.
Unhappily, Douglas was a better athlete than he was a student, so it was necessary to place him in a tutoring program. Eventually, with an increase in the headmaster’s stern emphasis on academic excellence, Douglas became an accomplished student —at least good enough gain acceptance as an officer cadet at RAF Academy, Cranwell.
Douglas Bader joined the RAF in 1928 continuing to excel in athletics while at Cranwell. Whatever he did, he did with unmatched zeal, even participating in the prohibited pastime of motorcar racing. When discovered, motor racing nearly ended his time at Cranwell. At the end of his first academic year, Douglas placed 19th (of 21 students). This dismal performance earned him a private session with Air Vice Marshal Frederick Halahan, after which Douglas settled down to his studies.
Douglas took his first flight with Flying Officer W. J. “Pissy” Pearson in an AVRO-504. The aircraft was a World War I vintage aircraft intended as a fighter-bomber. One of the finest aircraft of the day, the ‘504’ continued in production until 1932. Douglas completed his first solo flight on 19 February 1929 after only 11 hours of flight time. Competing for the RAF Sword of Honor award, Douglas placed second behind Patrick Coote, who later served as a wing commander with British Air Forces, Greece. Coote was killed on 13 April 1941 while flying as an observer with No. 211 Squadron, Bristol.
Bader received his commission as a pilot officer on 26 July 1930 and was assigned to No. 23 Squadron, Kenley. At Kenley, Bader flew the Gloster Gamecock (of which only 108 were ever produced) and the Bristol Bulldog, one of England’s more famous aircraft in the interwar years. As with most aviators during this period, Bader became somewhat of a daredevil. The Bulldog did have stability issues when flying at low speeds, which meant that stunt flying was somewhat more dangerous than usual. The aircraft’s poor stability at low speeds prompted the Air Service to issue restrictions on aerobatic flying below 2,000 feet. Bader frequently disregarded these restrictions.
After one training flight on the gunnery range, Bader achieved a low 38% on target rate and after taking some heat from fellow pilots, he decided to “show them” by demonstrating his aerobatic skills. His flagrant disregard of safety regulations prompted one senior officer to remark that had Bader been in his squadron, he’d have him court-martialed. But Bader’s CO gave his pilots more latitude; he wanted his pilots to realize their own skill limitations. During the previous year, No. 23 Squadron won the Hendon Air Show “pairs” event. It was a great accomplishment and there was much enthusiasm for defending the squadron’s title during the Air Show in 1931. Bader flew with his CO in the pairs event. Because the squadron had lost two pilots earlier in the year, flight safety was on everyone’s mind. Everyone, that is, except Douglas Bader. On 14 December, Bader attempted some low flying stunts in a Bulldog MK-IIA … on a dare by squadron mates and ended up crashing. Both his legs were amputated—one above the knee, and the other just below. Bader’s log book entry reflected simply “Crashed slow-rolling near ground. Bad show.”
After a long convalescence which involved excessive amounts of morphine, Bader was transferred to the hospital at RAF Uxbridge for post-operative therapies in learning how to walk with artificial legs and weaning himself away from morphine. Despite his significant handicap, Bader wanted to continue flying. In 1932, Air Under-Secretary Philip Sassoon arranged for Bader to take up an AVRO-504, which he piloted properly. A subsequent medical examination proved him “fit for flight duty,” but the RAF later reversed this finding on the grounds that King’s Regulations would not allow him to continue flying and he was invalided out of the RAF in May. He took a job with Asiatic Petroleum (now Shell Oil).
World War II
By 1938, Europe was well down the road toward another world war and Douglas Bader wanted to return to active duty. In 1939, he accepted an invitation to appear before a board of officers whose task it was to evaluate his fitness for active service. At that time, the board was only inclined to offer him a ground assignment. However, with some sympathy for Bader’s situation, Air Vice Marshal Halahan asked the Central Flying School to assess his aeronautical ability. Bader reported for flight competency tests on 18 October. Despite the Air Service’s reluctance to offer him full flight status, a medical board endorsed his return to aeronautical duties, and he was sent for flight training in modern aircraft. He soloed again on 27 November in an AVRO Tutor, and once again throwing caution to the wind, violated air safety regulations by flying his aircraft inverted at 600 feet above ground level. Over time, Bader transitioned to Spitfire and Hurricane aircraft.
Douglas Bader was 29-years old when he reported for duty with No. 19 Squadron at Duxford in January 1940. He was the oldest pilot in the squadron. Between February-May 1940, Bader underwent tactical training, part of which involved aerial screening for convoys at sea. Within a short time, Bader became a flight section leader. It was during this period that pilot error caused him to crash a Spitfire while taking off. Although suffering from a slight head wound, Bader was allowed to take a second Spitfire into the air. He was subsequently advanced to Flight Lieutenant and appointed Flight Commander of No. 222 Squadron, Duxford.
Douglas Bader experienced his first air combat after the Wehrmacht swept into Luxembourg, Holland, Belgium, and France. The defensive campaign was a disaster for the Allied Powers, of course, and the British soon began their evacuation from the European mainland. Bader was one of many RAF pilots participating in Operation Dynamo, which provided air security for the Royal Navy at Dunkirk.
Bader downed his first German aircraft while patrolling the coast near Dunkirk, a Messerschmitt BF-109. On his next combat patrol, he shot down a Heinkel HE-111, and after that a Dornier DO-17, which was in the process of attacking allied shipping. On 28 June, Bader assumed temporary command of No. 242 Squadron, flying Hurricanes from Coltishall. Most of his squadron pilots were Canadians who had suffered high losses during the Battle of France; their morale was low. At first, the Canadians resisted Bader, but his personality won them over and the unit was re-transformed into a fighting unit. No. 242 Squadron joined No. 12 Group RAF at Duxford and became fully operational on 9 July 1940 — the Battle of Britain began the next day.
Everyone knows something about the Battle of Britain, but few people realize that the battle was intended to be the first phase of Operation Sea Lion —the invasion of Great Britain by German land forces. During the Battle of Britain, Squadron leader Bader destroyed eight additional German aircraft. His aggressive flying earned him the first of two Distinguished Service Orders (DSOs).
In early Spring 1941, Bader was appointed “acting” wing commander at Tangmere with operational authority over No. 145, 610, and 616 Squadrons. Bader had his initials “D. B.” painted on the side of his Spitfire, which gave rise to his subsequent callsign: Dogsbody.
Between 24 March and 9 August 1941, Bader flew 62 fighter sweeps over France. On 9 August 1941, Bader led a section of four aircraft over the French coast when he observed twelve MBF 109s flying in formation 2-3000 feet below. Bader dived too fast and too steeply to acquire a target and barely avoided colliding with an enemy aircraft. He leveled out at 24,000 feet to find that he was alone, separated from his section. He was considering whether to return to base when he spotted three pairs of Messerschmitt 109s a few miles to his front. He dropped down below them and closed, destroying one and then, turning away, had a midair collision with another Messerschmitt. At least, that’s what Bader believed, but there was some controversy about what had actually happened. In any case, Bader became a German Prisoner of War. Despite his reliance on prosthetic legs, Bader made several attempts to escape captivity and he was moved to a more secure location.
After his repatriation, Bader served in the RAF until July 1946, when he retired as a Group Captain and rejoined Shell Oil Company. In total, Bader’s combat record included 22 aerial victories, four shared victories, six probable victories, one “shared probable,” and eleven damaged enemy aircraft. His wartime honors included Commander of the British Empire, Distinguished Service Order (2), Distinguished Flying Cross (2), and designation as a Fellow of the Royal Air Force Society. A film about Bader was titled Reach for the Sky.
One of his more famous post-war escapades occurred during a talk at an upmarket school for young ladies. During his talk, he said to the ladies, “So, there were two of the f***ers behind me, three f***ers to my right, another f***ker on my left.”
At that moment, the greatly disturbed head mistress was moved to interject, “Ladies, the Fokker was a German fighter aircraft.”
Sir Douglas then felt equally obliged to reply, “That may be, madam, but these f***ers were Messerschmitt’s.”
Aviators. You can’t take them anywhere.
 See Also Bader’s Last Flight by air historian Andy Saunders.