To call Douglas Bader a badass would be an understatement.
Douglas Bader became an ace after losing his legs.
Douglas Bader (1910-1982) was born in London to a civil engineer and his wife. When he was twelve, his father died in France and his mother remarried soon after. With a stepfather who wasn’t the father figure he needed and a mother who largely neglected him, Bader became an unruly boy, who once even shot his brother at close range with an air rifle at close range. Spending much time in boarding schools, he became an aggressive and competitive young man who enjoyed rough sports like rugby, boxing and hockey.
At the age of 18, he joined the RAF as an officer cadet. His habit for banned motor sports like pillion racing, two riders on a motorbike, and motorcar racing almost got him expelled. He cut back on such activities to be able to stay in the RAF but continued to be a troublemaker even after receiving his officer’s commission in 1930. He had a penchant for stunt flying Bristol Bulldogs fighters. The Bulldog biplane was fast for its time but had stability problems at low speeds. As a result, low-altitude aerobatics were extremely dangerous, forbidden by order and a favorite pastime for Bader.
In December 1931 one of his hijinks, apparently performed on a dare, ended poorly. His wingtip touched the ground, causing the plane to crash. Bader was rushed to a hospital and could only be saved by amputating both of his legs, one above and the other below the knee. His only commentary about the event in his logbook was: “Crashed slow-rolling near ground. Bad show.”
Bader was given a pair of tin prosthetic legs and he threw himself into the task of learning to walk again. He adamantly refused a walking cane and his efforts enabled him to play golf, drive a specially modified car and, in time, even dance. This wasn’t enough for him, however, and he insisted on returning to flying. A medical examination found him able to fly with prosthetic legs but the RAF still declared him invalid on the grounds that this situation was not covered by King’s Regulations.
For a few years Bader worked at the Asiatic Petroleum Company, now Shell, but never gave up on flying. With the help of an acquaintance from his cadet days, he was given a chance to prove his capability and the RAF reluctantly reinstated him to flying status a few weeks after World War II broke out. Flying Hurricanes and Spitfires, he racked up 22 confirmed and 6 probable victories, 4 shared and 1 shared probable kills and 11 enemy aircraft damaged, all before August, 1942. It was speculated that his skill was partially due to his earlier accident: high-G forces during maneuvers cause the blood to drain from the brain to other parts of the body, often the legs, causing a blackout. With much of his legs missing, it was thought that the blood in his body simply didn’t have enough space to flow into and, consequently, some remained in his brain.
Bader was an aggressive pilot: on one occasion, he attacked a Heinkel He 111 bomber from behind, only to find that an earlier attack depleted all his ammo. For a moment, he seriously considered closing the distance and slicing off the target’s rudder with his own propeller but thought better of it. His aggression even made him unpopular with his men after he was made acting Wing commander. By late summer of 1941, his Wing was tired from heavy combat but Bader pushed for more sorties in an attempt to increase his scores, leading to a near-mutiny.
All this came to an end on August 9, 1941. Flying patrol over the coast of France, his section of four Spitfires spotted twelve Messerschmitt Bf 109s below them. Bader dove to attack but he dove too fast and overshot the formation, ending up at a lower altitude. As he was considering returning home, he saw another six targets. Engaging one, he became the target of two others. As he was turning away to retreat, his plane was damaged. At the time he thought he must have collided with a German plane but more recent research suggests he might have been hit by friendly fire.
Be that as it may, Bader was downed. He opened his cockpit to bail but his right prosthetic leg was trapped and only snapped off when he opened his parachute while still partially inside the plane. Incidentally, he went down in the same area where his father died in 1922.
The Germans treated Bader with respect. In fact, German general, ace and future personal friend Adolf Galland arranged for a replacement leg to be flown in by the British, an operation even Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring signed off on. The replacement was supposed to be dropped by British bombers in the area. This happened as arranged, but then the bomber force turned toward a nearby power station, which they only failed to bomb due to bad weather.
Once in possession of his new leg, Bader promptly escaped from the hospital by climbing down a rope made of bedsheets and walking up to a nearby French couple who offered to shelter him, all while still wearing a British uniform. Unfortunately for them, a woman working at the hospital got wind of the escape and reported it to the Germans, who quickly arrested Bader.
Bader had to sit out the rest of the war as a POW. After several escape attempts he was sent to Castle Colditz where he stayed until the end of the war.
It should be noted that as rare as Bader’s accomplishment of flying with prosthetic legs was, it wasn’t wholly unique during the war. Romanian aviator Gheorghe Bănciulescu flew with two amputated feet before Bader did. During World War II, Soviet fighter ace Alexey Maresyev also flew with two amputated legs and German ground attack pilot Hans-Ulrich Rudel did so with one leg missing. British pilot James MacLachlan continued flying even after losing his left arm but he didn’t survive the war.