War hero, Douglas Bader, lost both his legs in a plane crash.  His false leg is about to be auctioned together with other Bader memorabilia including a single wooden crutch inscribed “to DRSB from Long John” and a Red Cross parcel box dated May 1944 addressed to Bader at Colditz, Leipzig where he was imprisoned. 

Douglas Bader’s father died of shrapnel wounds received in World War I when Bader was just twelve.  Determined from a very young age to become a fighter pilot,  Bader joined the RAF in 1928 after leaving school in Oxford.  He was boxing champion at the RAF college, Cranwell, and captain of the rugby team.  He was even tipped to play for England. 

He became part of the elite RAF aerobatics team but was frequently reprimanded for flying lower than was allowed.  In 1932 he crashed his plane while attempting low flying aerobatics as a dare.    He attempted his speciality, a low flying roll, at below 30 feet – the official limit was 1000 feet.  One wing clipped the ground.  “Bad show” he recorded in his log book.

Both his legs were amputated, one below and the other above the knee.  Nevertheless, with determination, he continued to play golf, to dance, and for a while to fly again for the RAF until he was invalided out in 1935. 

But when war broke out, he used his connections to re-join the RAF, with able-bodied status, and he learnt to fly Spitfires.  The absence of legs even, it seemed, advantaged him:

“It was thought that Bader’s success as a fighter pilot was partly due to having no legs; pilots pulling high “G” in combat turns often “blacked out” as the flow of blood from the brain drained to other parts of the body – usually the legs. As Bader had no legs he could remain conscious that much longer and thus had an advantage over more able-bodied opponents.”

By August 1941 Bader had shot down 22 German planes.  Only four RAF pilots had shot down more.  But his luck took a dive on 9th August 1941 when his own plane was shot down, possibly by friendly fire, and he had to bale out.  His artificial leg got caught on the plane and it was only when the leather straps attaching it snapped that he was able to escape. 

He was captured by the Germans who treated him with great respect, recognising his valour.  General Adolf Galland, a German flying ace, notified the British of Bader’s damaged leg and offered them safe passage to drop off a replacement. The British responded on 19th August 1941 with the ‘Leg Operation’– an RAF bomber was allowed to drop a new false leg by parachute to a Luftwaffe base in occupied France.  Having dropped off the leg, the six bombers and a sizeable fighter escort flew on to bomb targets in Northern France, only the weather put them off.

Bader showed his gratitude by persistently trying to escape from German captivity so that his legs had to be taken away in the end, and he found himself in the impregnable Colditz castle from where he was liberated by the US Army in 1945.

In June 1945 he led the victory fly past of 300 planes over London.

After his death, a fellow pilot summed him up thus:

“He was a not particularly pleasant man, by turns arrogant, obstreperous and egotistical, but [he] made use of those qualities to do things which lesser men didn’t have a hope of doing. He was certainly not an angel, but he was remarkable.”

Others are kinder to his memory, seeing him as a complicated man who was rarely understood.  After his war time experiences, Bader raised funds relentlessly for disabled people while working at Shell.  After his death, friends and family set up the Douglas Bader Foundation to continue his work with disabled people, especially those who have had a limb amputated.

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