Celebrating Douglas Bader

As I am currently re-reading Reach for the Sky, I happen to know that yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Douglas Bader, a inspirational man who lost both legs (one above the knee) in an air crash while a trainee RAF pilot. A sporting hero and natural pilot, he used his immense self-will to overcome this setback and mount several other obstacles placed in his path.

Retired from the RAF as 100% disabled, he relearned how to walk on tin legs (never using a stick), drive a car (he needed the clutch pedal moved), play squash (with much falling, crashing and banging) and golf (to a very high standard). When World War II started, he used the force of his personality and his old contacts to overcome official resistance and become a pilot again. He was passed as 100% fit (while simultaneously being classed as 100% disabled) and took to Hurricanes and Spitfires alongside the mostly younger men who became The Few. He and his colleagues protected his nation from an unspeakable evil.

Following many airborne successes in the Battle of Britain and more crashes (one of which would have probably cost him his legs if they had not already been lost), he had a meteoric rise through the ranks. In 1941 Wing Commander Bader was either shot down by, or collided with, a German fighter over France. Unable to extricate himself from his plummeting tail-less aircraft, he only survived because the straps that were holding on his trapped leg broke free. Captured, taken to hospital and reunited with his leg (repaired by respectful German airmen), he escaped out of an upper-storey window on knotted sheets!

Although recaptured and deprived of his legs for a while, Bader made it his business to make life as difficult as possible for his captors. After several other escapes and attempts, he ended up in Colditz castle where he continued to make life difficult for the Germans until the inmates were freed by American forces in 1945. He immediately tried to get hold of a Spitfire to join in the ongoing fight, but was not allowed to do this. He did, however, get to lead the fly-past of 300 aircraft following the victory in Europe.

Douglas Bader continued to be an inspiration after the war, and was knighted for fighting on behalf of disabled people, often against the same kind of officialdom that he had to overcome in order to get back in the air. He was always especially supportive of disabled children, writing to one little boy who had lost his legs in an accident:

Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t do this or that. That’s nonsense. Make up your mind, you’ll never use crutches or a stick, then have a go at everything. Go to school, join in all the games you can. Go anywhere you want to. But never, never let them persuade you that things are too difficult or impossible.

The internal demons that drove Douglas Bader would have driven him to greatness with or without his legs. Not always a likeable man, often rude, always strident in his opinions (right or wrong), and holding some political views with which I would not agree, he nevertheless deserves great respect. At a time when Britain, and ultimately the whole free world, needed people of great strength and bravery, he was there. I am profoundly grateful to him and his colleagues for that, and to him personally for his example. If ever circumstances knock you down and you need inspiration to get back up again, look to Douglas Bader.

3 comments to Celebrating Douglas Bader

  • I sent this press release out wide and far on friday ! Glad you saw it was Douglas’s 100th by reading the book !

    LET US REMEMBER A GREAT BRITAIN ON HIS 100TH ANNIVERSARY
    The 21st February 2010 is the 100th Anniversary of the birth of Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader, for many of us, a Great Britain. Douglas’ courage over adversity, fighting for his Country, a leader by example, a global campaigner for the disadvantaged, a gentleman, made him part of a genre that could claim to be in the eyes of the general public a True Brit.

    His life, immortalised in the book and film of the same name “Reach for the Sky” and once again highlighted in later years in the TV programme “This is Your Life” revealed a person whose instinctive and extraordinarily spirited contribution to rebutting German air attacks during the Battle of Britain, his subsequent capture and attempts to escape, and his post war life dedicated to advancing the plight of others before himself, were made all the more remarkable given that he suffered a double amputation in 1931 following a horrendous crash.

    In response to his accident, Bader committed a typically laconic reflection to his log book, recalling: ‘crashed slow-rolling near ground ‘Bad show’. In peace time, Bader increasingly turned his attention to charitable activities on behalf of the disabled. Always sympathetic about the plight of others who had lost limbs, he offered both inspiration and practical advice to those living with disabilities. He was awarded the CBE in 1956 and knighted for his services to amputees in 1976.

    His ‘Inspiration’ continues in the form of a charity established in Douglas’s name immediately following his death in 1982, by family and friends, many of whom had flown side by side with Douglas during World War 2. The Foundation exists to advance and promote the physical, mental and spiritual welfare of persons who are without one or more limbs, or otherwise physically disabled.
    ‘A disabled person who fights back is not disabled…but inspired.’ It is this maxim that the charitable foundation seeks to continue and by doing so remind and educate people of a Great Britain.

    DAVID BICKERS – CHAIRMAN OF THE DOUGLAS BADER FOUNDATION AND DOUGLAS’ STEP SON IN LAW.

    CONTACT: douglasbaderfdn@btinternet.com keith.delderfield@btinternet.com davidbickers@hotmail.com
    David Bickers 07836 552536 (m) http://www.douglasbaderfoundation.com http://www.limblossinformationcentre.com

  • David, it’s nice to hear from you, but to be picky (my speciality), it should be “A Great Briton” when referring to a person. However, I can only agree with the sentiments you have expressed and wish you well in furthering the Bader legacy.

  • Absolutely ! My missus picked me up on that – I offered enthusiasm ans a rush to get the release out quickly as an excuse -didnt’ work !

    We had a very successful launch of a new initiative for children with limb impairment Bader Braves – both David Gardner (7/7 victim) and Major Phil Packer ( BBC Sports Personality of the year -Helen Rollason Award) said a few words.

    Below is a brief 2 minute piece done by the British Forces TV channel – explains it well !

    The link to BFBS for the Bader Braves launch is below.
    When you click on it scroll to bootom of their page to see and click to view
    Douglas Bader – Dur 2.19 10/02/2010

    Douglas Bader was one of the RAF’s greatest heroes. He lost his legs at the age of twenty-two, but went on to fight in the Battle of Britain, and survived time as a PoW in Colditz. This year the Douglas Bader Foundation is launching a series of activity days, to motivate and inspire children who’ve lost limbs. And a new exhibition in his memory has been unveiled at, where else… the RAF Museum.

    http://www.bfbs.com/reports/watch_bfbs_reports_ext.php?date=10-02-2010#

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