10 – Douglas Bader
There are soldiers who are mad because they are brave and others whose eccentricities lead them to appear insane to others. But of all those that we have spoken of here, there is one whose madness was simply to be taking part at all: Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader. Bader was a flying ace with 22 credited aerial victories, a national hero in Britain and one of the most famous soldiers of the war, respected by both enemies and comrades alike. Moreover, he did this all despite having lost both of his legs.
Bader first joined the Royal Air Force in 1928, joining their officer training college, but regularly sailed close to the wind with authority, drawing censure for racing cars and motorbikes while also finishing almost last in his class. His tendency towards thrill-seeking would have drastic consequences: after qualifying as a pilot he was often reprimanded for performing dangerous air acrobatics and in December 1931, he crashed his plane at an air show and lost both of his legs. He was invalided out of the RAF and worked for an oil company for several years, though he would write letters to the Air Ministry asking to be allowed back in. When war came in 1939, he got his wish.
When he returned to the air, Bader proved himself quickly to be an exceptional talent. Many suspected that his amputated legs actually assisted him in the air: when many pilots would blackout because of the g-forces caused by flying, he would not, as the blackouts were caused by blood rushing from the head to the feet and, without feet, he was not affected as much. He was promoted to flying the famed Spitfire planes, the symbol of the Royal Air Force, participating in air cover for the Dunkirk evacuation and the Battle of Britain.
His success was exceptional: his unit, 242 Squadron, was responsible for 62 aerial victories in the Battle of Britain and Bader was given the Distinguished Flying Cross. Disaster, however, was around the corner. Bader was shot down in August 1941 and parachuted to safety, but only after his prosthetic leg had become entangled in his plane. When in captivity, the Germans respected him so much that Göring himself gave permission for a replacement leg to be sent from Britain to Germany.
Bader refused to cave while in a prisoner of war camp. He would continually attempt to escape – despite, of course, being on prosthetic legs – and when unable to, would hurl abuse at the prison guards. He was eventually moved to Colditz Castle, the most secure Stalag in Germany, where he sat out the war. Such was his esteem back home that, when the British organized a flypast to celebrate victory, Bader was chosen to lead it.
After the war, Bader somewhat sullied the great reputation that his flying had built. A movie of his life, Reach for the Sky, was released and furthered his fame, but many came to associate the lead actor of the film with the man himself: where the screen portrayal had been a demure, quiet man, the real Bader was anything but, with a foul mouth and strident opinions. His later political support for Apartheid and white-supremacist governments in Rhodesia did not help his public image, while he would correspond with several of his former adversaries from the Luftwaffe, many of whom were unrepentant Nazis, something which appeared to matter little to Bader. Nevertheless, when he died in 1982, he was feted by the British public as a leader of the gallant resistance of World War Two.