08/09/2013

The best known Spitfire pilot

On this day, 9 August 1941, the best known Spitfire pilot, Douglas (later Sir Douglas) Bader was shot down over France.


Douglas Bader was already a legend, because when, in December 1931, he lost both legs in a crash, he learned to fly again with artificial legs. Then, when war broke out, he was accepted back into the RAF as a Spitfire pilot. According to accounts by his fellow pilots, he could fly this aircraft better with his artificial legs than could they with real legs.

During the Battle of Britain in 1940, combats between the RAF and the German Luftwaffe fighter pilots were normally over Britain. This meant that, in some cases, British pilots could bale out of a stricken aircraft, get back to base then fly in a different aircraft the same day.

By 1941 the combats were more often over northern France. On August 9th, while my mother was giving birth to her first and only child, Douglas Bader was shot down over France. He managed to bail out in time, though without one of his legs, and was then captured and became a prisoner of war.

In one of the most exrraordinary events of the war, and one that showed that military personnel can be more understanding than their political masters, Hermann Goering gave permission for a British aircraft to come over St Omer, France, ten days later and drop a replacement artificial leg.

Even with artificial legs, Bader made enough attempts to escape that he was finally sent to the escape-proof Colditz Castle. He was liberated from there by the Americans in April 1945.

His life after the war had its moment of tragedy when his first wife died in 1971 after a long battle against throat cancer. She, like very many people during the war, smoked cigatettes as a way of passing the time and probably relieving stress. My own parents did exactly the same, fortunately without the same consequence.

He was a constant campaigner for the rights of disabled people, for which he received a knighthood in 1976. He would certainly have been very pleased with the way that facilities for disabled people have improved these last few years.

Many older British people, even those who cannot remember his name, would instantly recognise the title of his biography, "Reach for the sky", written in 1954, which was adapted as a film in 1956. I certainly do.

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