Was Battle of Britain hero Sir Douglas Bader almost killed by RAF?

Was Douglas Bader shot down by friendly fire? Historians claim double amputee flying ace could have been hit by the RAF because no German pilot has EVER claimed glory for downing

  • Douglas Bader could have been shot down by his own side, historian suggests
  • The RAF Wing Commander had been brought down and taken prisoner in France 
  • Andy Saunders writes that no German pilot could be ‘identified as the victor’
  • Another British pilot gave an account of shooting down an enemy aircraft that describes a similar way to that which saw Sir Douglas Bader taken down  

World War Two flying ace Sir Douglas Bader could have been shot down by his own side, a historian has suggested.  

The RAF Wing Commander had been brought down and taken prisoner in France on August 9, 1941, as fighter squadrons escorted bomber on raiding runs into the continent.  

Sir Douglas, a double amputee, lost both his legs in a pre-war flying stunt, but went on to win fame in the Battle of Britain, earning a Distinguished Service Order and Distinguished Flying Cross.

While the 1856 film Reach For The Sky, based on Paul Brickhill’s best-selling 1954 account of Sir Douglas’ exploits, depicts the pilot clashing with a German fighter over France, questions have been raised over whether this was really what happened. 

Military historian Andy Saunders, editor of German military history magazine Iron Cross, wrote in the Express: ‘With no legs to propel himself, one of his prosthetic limbs became trapped. Only when its straps broke did Bader fall

‘And the only Messerschmitt downed that day? Its deeply buried wreck was discovered quite recently. Its tail was still intact. In the heat of battle, incidents of ”friendly fire” were frequent, with pilots under extreme stress.

Sir Douglas Bader with a remote controlled spitfire in 1982: A hero to most of his men, Bader flew with 222 Squadron ahead of the Dunkirk evacuation

Sir Douglas Bader with his wife at the theatre in London in 1969 – he campaigned for the disabled and in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 1976 was appointed a Knight Bachelor for services to disabled people

Group captain Douglas Bader looks at a painting of Reginald Mitchell – designer of the Spitfire – in 1957

‘They had nanoseconds to decide: kill, or be killed. And against bright skies, the rear view of a Messerschmitt 109 is very similar to a Spitfire.’

Mr Saunders wrote that no pilot could be ‘identified as victor’ in shooting down Sir Douglas, despite ‘fastidious combat reports’.

And the lone Messerschmitt that was lost is attributed to another of Bader’s pilots, with the circumstances and location perfectly aligning with that pilot’s report of events.   

Sir Douglas Bader at Biggin Hill Airshow in 1966

‘But, if Bader didn’t collide with a Messerschmitt, and if the Germans didn’t shoot him down, then what?’ writes Mr Saunders.  

The quick hit that took his Spitfire out of action was catastrophic, and if the tail and rear fuselage had been hit by cannon shells then it could well seem to any pilot to have been a collision. 

The German fighter ace Adolf Galland wrote his version of events in the 1953 account, The First And The Last. He said that Sir Douglas had been shot down in a dogfight over Pas de Calais, but it was ‘never confirmed who shot him down’.

He adds that after he was captured Sir Douglas ‘particularly wanted to know’ who had taken him down, and it was an ‘intolerable idea’ that he could have been bested by a German NCO. 

Mr Saunders writes that while the account in Reach For The Sky ‘cannot be relied upon for historical accuracy’, it does tell of Sir Douglas’s diving attack on a squad of Messerschmitts, setting one ‘well ablaze’ and damaging another before two fighters turns to attack from the left. 

He then broke away but was hit, the account says, with something ‘holding his aeroplane by the tail’, and when he turned around in horror to see the whole rear of the plane ‘sheared off’, it seemed the second 109 ‘must have run into him and sliced it off with his propeller’.

As the war reached its end, Sir Douglas wrote to Flight Lieutenant ‘Buck’ Casson about the events. 

Casson replied that he had watched Sir Douglas attack and break, he attacked two 109s flying together, but then left them for a single aircraft flying inland on its own. 

He wrote that he fired upon ‘this boy who finally baled out at about 6,000ft’, having lost the majority of his tail unit – a description eerily matching what happened to Sir Douglas. 


Group Captain Douglas Bader

From the moment Sir Douglas Bader’s plane crashed in 1931, it appeared he would be lucky to live, let alone fly again.

While trying low-flying aerobatics his aircraft crashed when the tip of the left wing touched the ground and both his legs were amputated – one above and one below the knee. 

But he wouldn’t be deterred and managed to rejoin the RAF in 1939 when war broke out, flying Spitfires with 19 Squadron.

A hero to most of his men, Bader flew with 222 Squadron ahead of the Dunkirk evacuation. 

He was then sent to command 242 Squadron, a Hurricane unit that had suffered heavy casualties in the Battle of France.

In 1941 he was taken down and captured in France. German forces treated Bader with great respect. 

He lost his prosthetic leg when he bailed out and the Germans allowed a new one to be dropped in by the British.

From then came his series of escapes. He tried so many the Germans threatened to take away his legs.

Bader escaped from a hospital by tying together a number of sheets but was betrayed by a hospital worker. 

After the war, the French authorities sentenced the woman informer to 20 years in prison.

In 1942 he escaped with three others from Stalag Luft III only to be found a few days later – the Germans were so concerned by his attempts they produced a poster describing him and how he walked so the public could spot him if he fled again.

Finally he was sent to Colditz staying there until the end of the war – but he had tried his best to get out before then.

It was in a German prison camp in Warburg that the officer, who always made light of his disability and refused to even use a stick, was involved in a mass break-out that pre-dated the break in 1944 immortalised in The Great Escape starring Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough.

His story was also told in Paul Brickell’s book Reach for the Sky (1954), made into a hit film in 1956.

After the war, Bader returned to his career in the oil industry. He was knighted in 1976 and died in 1982, aged 72.

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