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.