"He was a marvelous leader, a brilliant pilot, a dead shot and everything you relished… he didn't just save my life, he saved a hell of a lot of lives."
Tuesday September 15th was the 75th anniversary of Battle of Britain Day – the high point in an epic five-month campaign that ripped apart the skies above England during the early stages of World War II. With Hitler noscope teabagging all of Europe in 1939 and 1940 and celebrating like he’d just blindsided a QB and was busting out the most epic sack dance ever, the bloodied-but-not-defeated pilots and ground crews of Great Britain’s Royal Air Force were all that stood between civilization as we know it and one of those fucked-up dystopian Young Adult fictional Hunger Games dystopia. If the outnumbered fighter pilots of the RAF couldn’t pry air superiority from the cold, dead hands of Fascism, then there would be nothing the UK to do to prevent Hitler from sailing across the Channel on an inner tube and sticking his dick in the mashed potatoes at Buckingham Palace.
There are countless tales of brave, heroic pilots the UK sent forth to do battle with Nazis at 348 miles per hour, upside-down, at 10,000 feet above the earth, but none have been more enduring, more celebrated, or more fucking completely gonzo insane in the membrane than the story of Flight Commander Douglas Bader – the badass, pipe-smoking, cool-as-hell humanitarian/gunslinger who found a way to repeatedly kick the crap out of the Germans even though he didn’t have the lower half of his legs.
Anyway, here’s a fucking Battle of Britain Iron Maiden video that’s going to pump you up so hard you either pop a boner or hit someone in the face with a shovel, or possibly do both at the same time.
Douglas Bader was born in London in 1910, the son of a civil engineer dude who traveled to the furthest reaches of the British Empire building all kinds of cool stuff, but then ended up being mortally wounded fighting the Germans in the First World War. Bader didn’t have the money to go to Cambridge University (even though he had been accepted), but did manage to get a scholarship to attend the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell on scholarship. While at school, he captained the Rugby team, was a champion boxer, and almost got expelled a couple times because he kept racing cars even though he totally wasn’t supposed to. Basically this guy’s entire life is like Fast and the Furious UK with the soundtrack from Straight Outta Compton.
Bader graduated RAF College Cranwell in 1930, and was assigned to a squadron flying Bristol Bulldogs, which are cool old biplanes that look like they might have tangoed with the Red Baron from those Snoopy cartoons. Unfortunately, after just a year in the flight service Bader’s life motto, “Pedicabo vigilum”, finally got the better of him – while defying direct orders not to fly below 2,000 feet and not to do any aerial acrobatics, Bader went for a badass zero-altitude barrel roll and ended up clipping his left wing on the tarmac, sending the aircraft and Douglas Bader crumpling into a twisting ball of canvas, wood, steel, and explosions.
The 21 year-old RAF pilot miraculously survived the high-speed faceplant, but his legs got crushed underneath the dash of the plane (I have no idea what the hell you call a dashboard on a plane, but you get the idea), and after they jaws of life’d him out of there, it was quickly apparent there was no way to save his legs. He had them both amputated, one above the knee and the other below the knee, was fitted with a custom pair of aluminum alloy artificial legs. He would have to learn to walk all over again.
He didn’t just learn to walk. He re-learned how to be a race car driver. Then he re-learned how to be a fucking fighter pilot.
While he was rehabbing, he also became an expert golfer, a decent tennis player, and he hooked up with the woman that would become his wife a few years later. Fuck disability, not having legs doesn’t mean you can’t kick some serious ass.
More like Douglas Baller if you ask me.
Bader passed the flight test to get back in the cockpit, but was medically discharged anyways (against his wishes) in 1932. He spent a couple years working a shitty desk job for Shell Oil, making like $400 a year, all the while continually requesting return to active flight duty.
In 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland and kicked off World War II, the RAF reconsidered his request. Hey, maybe having an RAF Academy-trained fighter pilot might not be so bad after all?
He was put back into service and assigned to Number 19 Squadron, Royal Air Force.
The first thing he did when he got into the cockpit of his brand-new Supermarine Spitfire?
A zero-altitude barrel roll. Face your fucking fears. Never run from them.
Bader was eventually transferred to 222 Squadron, and was first called into action in the skies above Dunkirk in June of 1940. The Allies had just had their asses pounded by a meat tenderizer of Nazi panzertruppen up and down the hedgerows of France, and now basically everyone left alive was holed up in Dunkirk trying to load onto ships and escape back to England. The Nazis sent fighters and bombers to hammer the transports and the crews as they assembled, and it was up to motherfuckers like 222 Squadron to try and keep the Luftwaffe from strafing the last remnants of the British Army into something that looked like it came out of Satan’s paper shredder.
Coming in hard in the skies above Dunkirk, Bader’s Spitfire hurtled forward, cranking rounds from eight Browning .303-caliber heavy machine guns embedded in the wings. He quickly learned he was able to make insanely-tight turns without suffering too badly from the effects of the g-force – g-force pushes your blood from your head to your feet, and having his legs amputated actually made him less likely to black out from g-force – and this helped him get in behind a Nazi Messerschmitt and pump it with enough shells to sent it careening into the English Channel. After scoring his first kill, he landed, refueled, then took off and shot down a Heinkel bomber on its way to attack the harbor.
This is a P-40 test-firing its .50 cal, but you get the idea
Returning to England, Bader was placed in charge of 242 Squadron – a crew of mostly Canadians, and one that had been hit hard by the Luftwaffe in France. 242 Squadron had over half its pilots killed in action with the Nazis, and these guys weren’t too excited about having to go out and face them once again. Well, Bader showed his skills as a leader as he quickly went to work to rebuild morale in his unit. He impressed them with his balls-out flying style, got to know the crew, fired a couple useless team leaders, cracked down on discipline, and gained the respect of the pilots because Bader would practically fucking fistfight RAF ground crew to make sure his guys always had working, functional, top-of-the-line equipment for their Hawker Hurricane attack planes.
When the Germans came knocking in the later days of June 1940, you can be damn sure that Douglas Bader was at the head of the 242 Squadron formation, leading the charge with his aluminum legs and his gigantic brass nutsack.
He scored the first kill for his unit, downing a German Dornier-17 heavy bomber during his squadron’s first combat engagement.
242 Squadron’s logo was a boot kicking Hitler in the ass. This is a true story.
Bader and 242 Squadron had some great success, but they were positioned in Number 12 Group, which was supposed to defend the midlands of England, while the group to the south, Number 11 Group, was the one that was getting fucking hammered non stop by the Germans. Since Number 11 was always shorthanded, they would throw squadrons up one by one at the enemy bomber formations, but Douglas Bader developed another tactic – the Big Wing.
Basically, since Bader’s airfields weren’t constantly being bombed to shit, he had the opportunity to amass a large group of planes all together – maybe three or four squadrons, depending on how many pilots were ready. Then he’d get this whole big group and personally lead it on a mass haymaker punch at the Luftwaffe.
The Big Wing is something that a lot of armchair historians and other obsessive-compulsive maniacs like to argue about, but basically here’s the deal: This thing was like the Ryan Howard of aircraft formations. Yeah, it was going to bat .223, strike out 200 times, and show up two hours late for the battle occasionally, but if it hit – like it did on August 30 and September 15, 1940 – it was going to crush that shit out of the fucking park.
Exactly 75 years ago this month, during Battle of Britain Day, Bader’s Big Wing crashed into a formation as it was dropping bombs on London, and they tore through it with more machine gun bullets than Arnold Schwarzenegger has fired in his entire professional film career. Throughout the Battle of Britain (which refers to the entire period between June and like October 1940), Bader and the rest of 242 Squadron claimed 67 aerial kills. They lost just five men KIA. By the time the war was over, Bader himself personally accounted for 22 smashed German airplanes, with another six probable kills. He’s one of the most successful fighter pilot aces in RAF history.
After defending his homeland from the fucking Nazis, Douglas Bader was promoted to a Wing Commander and started launching raids against enemy aircraft over France. He did pretty well for a while, until one day he was engaged with a bunch of Messerschmitts at close range, and a piece of a blown-up aircraft smashed into Bader’s Spitfire, ripping it apart pretty good. With smoke and flames trailing behind him, the Wing Commander popped the ejection, parachuting down into enemy territory. One of his legs had come off during the ejection, though, so he wasn’t able to evade, and was captured by the Germans and brought to a field hospital to regroup. While he was there, he met Adolf Galland, one of the most badass German pilots of the war (this 70-kill uber-ace was so fucking cool he had a custom ash tray installed in his cockpit so he could smoke cigars while he was smoking Spitfires). Galland arranged for Britain to air-drop a replacement leg in for Bader so he wouldn’t be stuck with bullshit crutches while he was in German custody.
Bader thanked Galland for his hospitality, reattached his leg, and promptly tried to escape. They caught him. He tried again. They caught him again, and then put him here:
Bader’s flight log from the day he was shot down: "Shot down 1 Me 109F & collided with another. POW"
That Dracula Castle shit is called Colditz Castle, and it’s pretty much inescapable. He spent the rest of the war there, until the Allies captured it in 1945 and freed him. He returned home in time to fly the lead Spitfire in parade commemorating the Allied victory in World War II.
After the war, Bader continued flying and serving as a flight instructor. After he retired from the RAF, he became a public speaker, and he also created the Douglas Bader Foundation, a group that to this day continues to work with providing opportunities for disabled athletes to, in Bader’s words, “get on with your life.” He was knighted for this epic humanitarian service in 1976.
Bader passed away in 1982 at the age of 72.
“To my way of thinking, a disabled man who has achieved independence is no longer disabled”