Bader, Goodwood and another Battle of Britain commemoration

Another of the stories with which the S&G was regaling all and sundry at the 2015 Goodwood Revival surrounded the statue of Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader, one of the Battle of Britain’s best-known heroes, which stands before the Garden of Remembrance and, in its own way, commemorates one of the many historic links between Shell and Goodwood.

In 2015, the Goodwood Revival commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain with a spectacular gathering of wartime aircraft in the Freddie March Spirit of Aviation display and flying programme, supported by Shell as Official Fuel and Lubricants Partner to the event. It was therefore appropriate to look back upon the incredible life of Sir Douglas Bader, the ‘ace’ who later became Managing Director of Shell Aircraft Ltd.

Bader’s statue at Goodwood anchored the military vehicle area at the 2015 Revival

Lord March commissioned the statue in 2001 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Bader’s final operational sortie, on August 9 1941, when he led his wing of Spitfires from Goodwood (then RAF Westhampnett) towards occupied France. Recent research has shown that another Spitfire, in the heat of battle near Le Touquet, accidentally shot down Bader’s aircraft in northern France. Forced to bail out of his stricken machine, the RAF’s celebrated airman was captured and taken as a Prisoner of War.

The German medical officer who examined him exclaimed: “My God, you have lost your leg.” Soon afterwards they realized that this was in fact the famous British pilot who flew with two ‘tin legs’.

Bader had graduated from the RAF College in Cranwell in 1930, where he captained the Rugby team and was a champion boxer. A year later, however, he crashed his Bristol Bulldog fighter and both of his legs were amputated as a result.

Although discharged from the RAF, Bader was determined to keep flying and had artificial legs made, learning to walk again while taking a role working for Shell.

After considerable lobbying by Bader – something for which he was famous –the RAF agreed to take him back as a regular flying officer in 1935. Upon the outbreak of war, Bader was once again tireless in his efforts, this time to get posted to a frontline squadron, and duly arrived at 222 Squadron, flying Spitfires, in time to help provide air cover to the evacuation of Dunkirk.

Bader (centre) and the men of 242 Squadron at Duxford, September 1940

On his first operational sortie, Bader shot down a Messerschmitt Bf109. He was promoted to Squadron Leader during the Battle of Britain and given command of 242 Squadron, flying Hawker Hurricanes in Cambridgeshire – away from the most intense fighting, much to Bader’s chagrin.

Once again, Bader relentlessly lobbied his superiors, demanding that they employ a ‘Big Wing’ tactic, namely a massed formation of up to 70 fighters that Bader believed would hit the German bomber formations harder. Once again, Bader got his way.

This remarkable period of service came to an end in captivity after Bader had been credited with a total of 23 victories – although, in captivity, another chapter then began. Soon after his capture, a parcel was dropped by parachute during an RAF bombing raid with a note attached to it, which read:

“To the German flight commander of the Luftwaffe at St Omer. Please deliver to the undermentioned address this package for Wing Commander Bader, RAF prisoner of war, St Omer, containing artificial leg, bandages, socks, straps.”

Thus restored, Bader set about causing the Germans as much trouble as he had his RAF commanders. He tried repeatedly to escape and was eventually incarcerated in Colditz, where his captors confiscated his legs each night to prevent further escape attempts.

After the war, he rejoined Shell and travelled the world as Managing Director of Shell Aircraft Ltd. providing guidance on air operations and flight standards to Shell group companies worldwide.

Douglas Bader with the Miles Gemini he flew with Shell in the 1950s

Throughout this time, and through his retirement in 1969, Bader also worked tirelessly to establish and raise funds for the Douglas Bader Foundation, which provides help to disabled people who want to achieve seemingly impossible goals.

He was knighted for his work on behalf of the disabled, adding to the Distinguished Service Order that he was awarded twice, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Mentions in Dispatches, the Legion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre.

Interestingly, the Bonhams auction at this year’s Revival was supposed to star Douglas Bader’s personal transport throughout the war years: his black MG Midget. In the end the car was withdrawn from the sale during the week before the event, but it was nevertheless heartening to see this fine motor car looking in such good trim.

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