This article, written by David Coxon, Tangmere Military Aviation Museum’s curator, is the eighth in a series of monthly articles on the people of RAF Tangmere. More information on the museum, including opening times and entry prices, can be found on the website: www.tangmere-museum.org.uk
In 1928, Douglas Bader, aged 18, was accepted into the RAF College at Cranwell, gaining one of six prize cadetships offered each year. Although his flying training went well, Bader was advised at the end of his first year that the RAF wanted men, not schoolboys, and that if he didn’t change his ways, he would be removed. He changed, and showing the competitive nature he exhibited throughout his life, passed out of Cranwell a close second in his course, just missing out on the Sword of Honour.
Commissioned as a pilot officer, he was posted to No 23 Squadron at Kenley to fly Gloster Gamecock fighters. Life was idyllic for Bader; he played cricket and rugby for the RAF and was selected for the squadron’s aerobatic team.
On December 14, 1931, he flew in a Bristol Bulldog to Woodley aerodrome, near Reading where, during a low-level aerobatic display, he crashed and, badly injured, was rushed to hospital. To save him, both his legs were amputated; he made a remarkable recovery, artificial alloy legs were provided and he learnt to walk again. In spite of proving he could still fly, the RAF would not allow him to fly service aircraft and he retired due to ill health in 1933.
Following the outbreak of war, Bader was accepted back into the RAF as a pilot and was posted to No 19 Squadron to fly the new Spitfire fighter. During his time with No 19 Squadron and then with No 222 as a flight commander, he managed to crash two Spitfires. However, his group commander, Trafford Leigh-Mallory, needed a strong leader and chose Bader to take over a demoralised Canadian Hurricane Squadron that had just returned from the Battle of France.
No 242 Squadron, based at Coltishall in No 12 Group, took little part in the Battle of Britain until the end of August, 1940 when it was allowed to fly south and cover No 11 Group airfields. Bader, ignoring orders, went in search of the enemy and the squadron quickly made a name for itself, claiming many enemy aircraft destroyed. Bader believed better results could be achieved with a ‘Big Wing’ of three or even five squadrons. During September and October, Bader led the Duxford Wing, but results were inconclusive.
Bader was posted to RAF Tangmere in March, 1941 as a wing commander to command the Tangmere Wing of three Spitfire squadrons. The wing initially flew fighter sweeps over northern France, but from May onwards supported ‘Circus’ operations – a few bombers protected by a large number of fighters. Bader flew almost every wing sortie during the summer of 1941 and not one to delegate and ever keen to increase his number of victories (20 aircraft destroyed by the end of July), he was becoming desperately tired.
Evidence of this was seen by his increasingly ill temper with ground crews and lapses of judgement in the air. On August 9, flying yet another sortie, Bader was ‘downed’ over St Omer, the reason remaining unclear to this day. Bader always maintained he had a midair collision with a German Bf 109. Following his capture, Bader was flown spare legs (he had left one trapped in his Spitfire when bailing out) and was entertained in the nearby Luftwaffe’s officers’ mess where he met one of his chief adversaries, Adolf ‘Dolfo’ Galland. In captivity, Bader’s restless spirit, dislike of the Germans and determination to escape resulted in him finally being moved to the notorious Colditz Castle.
After the war, he was awarded Bars to both his DSO and DFC and after leaving the RAF in 1946 joined the Shell Aviation Company. He was knighted for services to the disabled and died, aged 72, in September, 1982.