World War II flying ace Sir Douglas Bader could have been shot down by his own side, one historian has suggested.
The RAF Wing Commander had been shot down and captured in France on 9 August 1941, while fighter squadrons were escorting bombers raiding flights to the continent.
Sir Douglas, a double amputee, lost both legs in a pre-war flying stunt, but later gained 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 colliding with a German fighter over France, questions have been raised as to whether this was really what happened.
Military historian Andy Saunders, editor of the German military history magazine Iron Cross, wrote in the emphatically: ‘With no legs to propel itself, one of his prosthetic limbs became trapped. It wasn’t until the ties broke that Bader
“And the only Messerschmitt to be brought down that day? The deeply buried wreck was discovered quite recently. His tail was still intact. In the heat of battle, there were frequent incidents of ‘friendly fire’, with pilots under extreme stress.
Sir Douglas Bader with a Remote 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 theater in London in 1969 – he campaigned for the disabled and during the Queen’s Birthday Honors 1976 was made a Knight Bachelor for services to the disabled
Group Captain Douglas Bader views a painting by Reginald Mitchell – designer of the Spitfire – in 1957
“They had nanoseconds to decide: kill or be killed. And against a clear sky, the rear view of a Messerschmitt 109 looks a lot like a Spitfire.”
Mr Saunders wrote that no pilot can be ‘identified as a victor’ in the shooting down of Sir Douglas, despite ‘demanding combat reports’.
And the lonely one Messerschmitt being lost is attributed to another of Bader’s pilots, the conditions and location perfectly matching that pilot’s account 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, then what?” writes Mr Saunders.
The quick hit that put his Spitfire out of action was catastrophic, and if the tail and rear fuselage were hit by cannon shells, it could well be a collision for any pilot.
German fighter Adolf Galland wrote his version of events in the 1953 account, The First And The Last. He said Sir Douglas was shot down in a dogfight over Pas de Calais, but it has never been confirmed who shot him.
He adds that after he was captured, Sir Douglas ‘wanted to know’ in particular who had shot him, and that it was an ‘unacceptable idea’ that he could be defeated by a German NCO.
Mr Saunders writes that while the report in Reach For The Sky ‘cannot be relied upon to historical accuracy’, it does tell of Sir Douglas’ diving attack on a squadron of Messerschmitts, in which one was ‘set ablaze’ and a another was damaged before two fighters turned to attack from the left.
On August 9, 1941, Douglas Bader was shot down over Le Tourquet. He was captured by German troops and sent to Colditz prison. He stayed there until the end of the war (Photo from the 1956 film Reach for the Sky)
He then broke away, but was reportedly hit by something that “grabbed his plane by the tail,” and when he turned in horror to see the entire rear of the plane “torn off,” it looked like the second 109 ‘must have bumped into him and had his propeller cut off’.
As the war drew to a close, Sir Douglas wrote to Flight Lieutenant ‘Buck’ Casson about the events.
Casson replied that he had seen Sir Douglas attack and break, he attacked two 109s flying together but then left them behind for a single aircraft flying only inland.
He wrote that he fired at ‘this boy who eventually came out at about 6000 ft’, after losing most of his tail unit – a description that eerily matched what happened to Sir Douglas.
SIR DOUGLAS BADER: THE WAR HERO AND THORN BY THE SIDE OF GERMANY
Group Captain Douglas Bader
From the moment Sir Douglas Bader’s plane crashed in 1931, it looked like he would be lucky enough to be alive, much less able to fly again.
While attempting low-flying aerobatics, his plane crashed when the tip of the left wing hit the ground and both his legs were amputated – one above and one below the knee.
But he was not 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 given command of 242 Squadron, a Hurricane unit that had suffered heavy losses in the Battle of France.
In 1941 he was shot down and captured in France. German troops treated Bader with great respect.
He lost his prosthetic leg when he jumped out and the Germans allowed a new one to be put in by the British.
From that moment came his series of escapes. He tried so much that the Germans threatened to take his legs.
Bader escaped a hospital by tying some sheets together, but was betrayed by a hospital worker.
After the war, the French authorities sentenced the female informant to 20 years in prison.
In 1942 he escaped from Stalag Luft III with three others only to be found a few days later – the Germans were so concerned about his efforts that they made a poster describing him and how he walked so the public could see him if he were to flee again.
He was eventually sent to Colditz and remained there until the end of the war – but he had tried his best to get away before then.
It was at a German prison camp in Warburg that the officer, who always defended his disability and refused to even use a stick, was involved in a massive outbreak that predated the 1944 break, immortalized 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), which was made into a 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.