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Friday, May 31, 2013

D.B. (the first one)

This is the first of what might become a series.    When I was a child, and even today, many of my heroes were pilots.  Since I was born in the late 1950s, pilot stories of my youth were dominated by World War II, which to me seemed ancient history - but with the advantage of experience and histrical context I now realize it had only recently ended and shaped much of the world I grew up in.  In many ways the history of the 20th century can be seen as one long struggle between the rising powers of Russia, Germany, Japan and the USA, with the declining powers France and the British and Ottoman Empires, starting in 1870 with the newly unified Germany defeating France, and not ending until the fall of the Soviet Union and collapse of the Warsaw Pact in 1989 and 1990.

I spent my childhood and got my education in England, and have spent nearly all my adult years in America.  Initially my flying heroes flew for the RAF and RCAF, and only later did I learn much about America's flying heroes Dick Bong, Hub Zemke and others.  By the way, for my American readers, did you know Charles Lindbergh was the 27th person to fly across the Atlantic?  He wasn't even the first to do it non-stop?  He just had better PR.  Later still I learned about Luftwaffe aces Macky Steinhoff, Adolf Galland and Eric Hartmann, and Japanese aces like Subaro Sakai.  It took years to realize that they weren't necessarily better men, or even better pilots - they were better warriors.

So I'm going to introduce you to a British ace who was a better pilot, and a great leader and fighter.  As a man he had his flaws, but sometime history rises to meet the person and shows his or her greatness.  British and Canadians know him, but most Americans do not.

Douglas Bader was born in 1910 in England, although his parents, like many of the time, lived in India, where they returned almost immediately after his birth, leaving him with relatives.  Only after two years did he rejoin his mother and father in India.  Shortly before World War 1, the family returned to England, and soon afterwards Douglas' father was wounded in the trenches and later died.  His mother re-married to a church of England clergyman, and Douglas was sent off to boarding school.  There he neglected his studies, but became a well regarded sportsman, playing Cricket, Boxing and Rugby with fervor.

When it came time to leave, he determined to join the Royal Air Force (RAF) as cadet at Cranwell, the RAF officer training school.  He had to take extra lessons to pass all the academic criteria, but succeeded and won a full scholarship.  At Cranwell he learned to fly and to pass the technical ground school, and again excelled at sports - stubborn, arrogant and cocky, he was selected for fighters and was posted to 23 squadron in 1930, flying Gloster Gamecocks - a slow but agile biplane little different from World War I fighters like the Sopwith Camel.

In those days squadrons were also training schools, and his flying training continued - and Bader excelled at that too.  By the next year he was selected to fly in the RAF's precision flying display at the Hendon Air Day - a precourser to the Red Arrows formation flying displays at Farnborough.  He was also selected to play cricket and to box for the RAF teams, and to play rugby on the England national team.  Before that game could take place however, his cockiness and unwillingness to back down from challenge caught up with him.  Challenged to do low level aerobatics at Woodley Aerodrome near Reading England, he initially declined, and when accused of being "windy" he angrily took up the challenge and crashed performing a low level roll.

The wreck pushed the rudder pedals through his lower legs.  At Reading hospital, both legs were amputated - one above the knee and one below.  When ready, he was fitted with two artificial legs - but stubbornly he refused to walk with a cane.  The RAF sent him to Central Flying School to see if he could still fly, which he succeeded at brilliantly, despite having no feeling in his (artificial) legs.  Because the RAF had no regulation permitting a legless man to fly, he was re-assigned to ground duties, and finally left the service with a pension, 100% disabled.

Bader got a job in the City of London working for Shell Oil, in their aviation fuels office. While recovering from his accident, he had met his future wife Thelma, and they married.  His competitive drive undimmed, he took up golf (and became good enough to play in pro-am tournaments) and unbelievably, squash - a game played with racquets and a bouncy ball in a small room, very similar to racquetball.  In 1938, the RAF started rapid expansion, and Bader got confirmation that they would take him back if war made it necessary - he started praying for war with Germany.  It came on September 3rd, 1939.

Bader rejoined the RAF and was sent to flying school, and passed rated as "exceptional".  He passed his medical, but retained his disability pension - officially 100% fit and 100% disabled - at the same time.  He was posted to 19 squadron as a very elderly Pilot Officer (2nd Lieutenant), flying Mark 1 Spitfires.  He was rapidly promoted to Flying Officer, and was sent to 222 squadron as flight commander, also flying Spitfires, just in time to cover the British Armies evacuation at Dunkirk.  There he shot down his first aircraft, a bf109 and probably shot down a Heinkel 111.  Or probably not - over-claiming was rampant in the RAF, especially over enemy held territory.  The RAF over-claimed about 3 to 1, about the same at the US Army Air Corp fighter pilots. 

File:Douglas Bader.jpg

RAF 242, a Hurricane squadron was withdrawn from France soon after, and its Canadian pilots lacked a squadron leader, the last being killed in France.  Placed in 12 Group it needed a strong leader, and Bader was transferred as acting Squadron Leader (Major).  The role of 12 Group was to guard the English industrial midlands from air attack, and to back up 11 group in the south.  Flying alone in bad weather, Bader soon shot down a Dornier 17 bomber off the coast of East Anglia.  Finally, in August 1940, 242 squadron was thrown into the Battle of Britain, asked to cover the North London sector.
 The squadron did well - the experienced Canadian pilots experience and skill worked together with the calm, confident leadership of Bader to become extremely effective, and Bader was given operational command over first three, then five squadrons, which he operated as the "12 Group Big Wing".  12 Group had the luxury of time to gather a big wing, being further from the French coast, while 11 Group operated their squadrons singly, or in pairs.  Even so, 12 Group was often late arriving, hitting the bombers after they had bombed their targets.  Since many of these targets were 11 Group airfields, some bad feeling arose between the group leaders, Leigh-Mallory of 12 Group and Park of 11 Group.  The 12 Group fighters way over-claimed, but being hit by up to 60 British fighters at once demoralized the German pilots.  Finally Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to attack London, bringing the bulk of the fighting within range of Bader's squadrons, who feasted on the often unescorted medium bombers.

By the end of October, the Battle of Britain was winding down, and the Chief of Fighter Command, Sir Hugh Dowding, retired. Leigh-Mallory was chosen to replace Keith Park as head of 11 Group, and he brought Bader with him.  Douglas was promoted to Wing Commander (Colonel), and given command of the three squadrons based at Tangmere, on the South coast.  In the spring of 1941, the RAF began offensive operations, the daylight bombing of occupied French facilities and airfields near the coast (the RAF was also night bombing Germany, rather ineffectually).  The Tangmere wing was called on to escort them, and to perform fighter sweeps over Northern France.

At this point, Bader introduced his most important innovation, the "Finger Four" formation.  It was derived from a German formation, but was modified for the British way of operating.  The Finger Four was flexible, suited for both offensive and defensive maneuvering. This formation replaced the line astern and 3-plane "vic" formations used by the RAF before, and was later adopted by the US Air Force and used all way into the Vietnam era, before being replaced by the "loose deuce" and "fighting wing" 2-plane formations used today.

Tired and overdue for a rest, in August 1941 Bader allowed himself to become separated from the rest of his wing, and was shot down (he always claimed a Messerschmidt 109 collided with him, but the evidence is that he was shot down, possibly by one of his own pilots).  One of his legs got stuck inside his Spitfire, and he bailed out with only one leg attached.  The Germans placed him in a hospital under guard, and the RAF dropped him a spare leg.  Mobile again, he escaped by climbing down knotted bed sheets from his 3rd floor window, but was recaptured the next morning, and sent to Germany and a POW camp.

He became an incorrigible annoyance to the German guards, baiting them and attempting to escape several more times.  He was transferred frequently, and narrowly avoided being part of the the "Great Escape", in which 50 POWs were murdered by the Gestapo.  With his record, he would likely have been one of those killed.  Finally, in exasperation, he was sent to "Colditz", an escape proof prison in a castle in a hill.  Several more escape attempts failed, and eventually he and his co-prisoners were freed by the US Army in 1945.

Returned to England, he was promoted to Group Captain, commanded the RAF's tactics school, and flew the first jets.  But the thrill of combat was gone, and Shell Oil recruited him back with the offer of a Vice President's title and his own private aircraft (his last one was a Beechcraft Bonanza).  He flew all over the world in his airplane, was knighted by the new Queen, and played golf against the very best.  In 1982, Sir Douglas Bader died after speaking at a dinner in the London Guildhall (where I had just received my bachelors degree in aeronautical engineering 17 months earlier, before moving permanently to the USA).  For more details, see the Wikipedia page here:

Bader was immortalized by Paul Brickhill in his book "Reach for the Sky".  As a teenager I read that book over and over.  I liked the flying parts the best, but now, having found a copy on Amazon, I am more taken with how brave, determined and stubborn he was, and how that was both an aid (he used them to learn how to walk on his "tin legs") and a hindrance (he refused to admit it if he was wrong).  The book became a movie starring British actor Kenneth Moore, and Bader himself authored a book on World War 2 fighter tactics, called "Fight For the Sky" (in my collection).

I also have a poster depicting his Spitfire Mk 5a and a bf-109F in combat in the spring on 1941, signed by Bader himself and his great war time enemy and post-war friend, General Adolf Galland.  It is hanging in the front hall.  I saw him once, from a great distance, at an airshow in Nottinghamshire.  But I recall being more interested in the Spitfire and Hurricane aircraft parked near him - I was 15.

By the way, my English Springer Spaniel is named Douglas - after this man.

1 comment:

Karlene Petitt said...

DB... this is wonderful. I hope you continue this as a series. We all need to remember the heroes that paved the way for aviation. Thank you!