by Jenny Minard
Of all the Battle of Britain pilots, the name that is still the most famous is Sir Douglas Bader.
He destroyed 22 enemy aircraft and was a larger than life character – which alone made him a well-known name.
But that he overcame losing his legs in a flying accident in 1931 to achieve all that he did has made him a flying legend.
His accident happened at Woodley aerodrome – you may well have driven past the spot just off Bader Way.
But his Berkshire connections go deeper than that. After the war he settled at a farm house in West Berkshire with his now widow, Joan, and step-daughter Wendy.
Lady Bader told BBC Berkshire how one evening she found herself hosting the German pilot Adolf Galland, who was responsible for destroying more than 100 Allied planes.
“They were sitting opposite me at the dinner and they were rattling away and I started to laugh and said; “Look at you, you’ve spent that last five years trying to kill each other and now you’re biggest of buddies.
“He said; ‘That’s where you’re wrong, I was trying to kill the enemy.”
Bader’s step-daughter Wendy McCleave also spoke about him and how she had tried to coax him to talk.
“One thing we all remember is when he used to invite his friends for dinner, and they would all sit around the dining table pretending to shoot each other down with bread rolls and things like that.
“But talking about it, one to one, he wasn’t so keen on. I think he just wanted to move on and do what he could to help people in the same situation as him after that.
“I do remember him saying that because people who hadn’t been through it couldn’t begin to understand what it would have been like, that it was very hard to try to talk about it.
“Not so much that it diminished the experience but because there was an inability for people who hadn’t faced death every day of their life to have an inkling of what that would have been like.”
Bader suffered a double amputation in 1931 following a crash when he was flying as part of the aerobatics team at Hendon. In response he increasingly turned his attention to charitable activities on behalf of the disabled.
Bader, who was born in February 1910, walked with a pair of artificial legs within six months of the crash. The RAF decided that Bader could not resume his career as a pilot.
But he was promised that he could return to flying duties once war had been declared and, after completing a refresher course at Cranwell, he reported for duty at RAF Duxford in February 1940.
Seven days later he took to the skies in a Spitfire for the first time, a machine he later described as ‘the aeroplane of one’s dreams’.
Following promotion in 1940 he took part in the patrol in support of the evacuation from Dunkirk.
Bader and his commanding officer, Trafford Leigh-Mallory conceived the plan to deploy five squadrons in a wing formation to attack the German bombers and accompany fighter planes.
The Big Wing strategy was put into place in what was to become the Battle of Britain.
Two days later, Hitler switched to a plan of night time raids and effectively abandoned any plans to launch an invasion that year. The Battle of Britain had been won.
Bader was promoted to Wing Commander in March 1941 – becoming one of the force’s first Wing Leaders.
By August 1941, Bader could claim that he had shot down twenty-three enemy aircraft, making him the fifth most deadly fighter pilot in the RAF.
However, on 9 August, Bader collided with a German aeroplane over Bethune and bailed out – leaving one of his prosthetic legs in the cockpit.
He was captured by the Germans and after spending a brief spell in hospital, was taken to a prisoner of war camp at Sagan.
Bader’s reputation preceded him, and he initially won respect from his captors and they arranged for a replacement leg to be parachuted over.
Yet Bader’s persistent non co-operation with the Germans and numerous attempts to escape saw him sent to the prison camp at Colditz.
There Bader remained until liberation by American troops in 1945.
Historian Jon Cooksey explained why Wednesday, 15 September is such an important date in the Battle of Britain.
“On this day 70 years ago, it was the turning point. Germany for the first time hadn’t rampaged around Europe and crucially we were able to supply Russia when they were teetering on the edge of destruction for the first 18 months of the German offensive.
“Then of course it became a staging post for the American build up, American supplies and staging post for the re-invasion of Europe in 1944.
“It’s important for Britain as a bastion, but also crucially as a saviour of Europe and probably directed the outcome of the war.”
Bader was awarded numerous honours for his wartime service, including the Distinguished Service Order and bar, the Distinguished Flying Cross and bar, and the Légion d’honneur.
He was awarded the CBE in 1956. He married Joan, Lady Bader, in 1974, inheriting three step children. He was knighted for his services to amputees in 1976.
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