Douglas Bader: The real story of Battle of Britain poster boy who kept flying after losing his legs

The insufferable hero with legs of tin and feet of clay: To the public, Douglas Bader was a Battle Of Britain poster boy who kept flying despite losing his legs. To fellow inmates and his long-suffering batman in Colditz, he was altogether something else

Yesterday, in the second part of the Mail’s serialisation of historian Ben Macintyre’s gripping new book about Colditz, we told how an Indian doctor was racially abused by his fellow PoWs — yet he never betrayed Britain, even when the Nazis offered him a way out. In today’s final part, we tell the story of the real Douglas Bader. 

Two weeks after being released from Colditz in 1945 and returning home to Scotland, Private Alex Ross was summoned to his local post office to take a long-distance telephone call. He rushed there to discover that on the line was the famed leg-less fighter pilot, Douglas Bader.

Ross, a medical orderly, had been Bader’s batman in the prison camp. Throughout their shared captivity he had been a much put-upon dogsbody, carrying the wing commander up and down stairs on his back, cooking his meals and washing his stump socks.

Ross assumed his boss must be calling now to express his gratitude. Instead, without any introduction, a gruff voice thundered down the phone: ‘Have you got my legs?’

Ross said no, explaining that the American liberators of Colditz had permitted each man to take away only a single suitcase. There had not been room in his bag for the spare tin legs and he had left them behind.

‘You’re a c**t,’ said Bader, and rang off. They never spoke again.

Private Alex Ross rushed to discover that on the line was the famed leg-less fighter pilot, Douglas Bader (pictured)

Private Alex Ross rushed to discover that on the line was the famed leg-less fighter pilot, Douglas Bader (pictured)

This incident is an insight into two things — the true nature of the heroic Bader, Colditz’s most famous prisoner; and also the role of that little-known group of prisoners locked inside the castle with the officers, the orderlies.

Running through the very heart of Colditz was a wide and almost unbridgeable social divide. The officer corps at Colditz was predominantly upper-middle or upper class; the orderlies were almost all working-class men with little formal learning. Inside the walls, Britain’s class war was festering away.

This was a camp exclusively for captured officers and under the Geneva Convention each one had a right to be attended by an orderly, as he would if he were free. An officer was not permitted to work, but a private soldier was required to; one, therefore, served the other.

As a result, Colditz contained a fluctuating population of ordinary soldier-prisoners, brought in from other PoW camps to work as servants for their senior officers: cooking, tidying, cleaning, boot polishing and other chores.

As private soldiers, the lowest rung on the military ladder, the orderlies were required to obey the orders of the Germans as well as their own officers without question. Technically, they were employed and paid by the Germans.

They received the same rations as the officers, including Red Cross supplies, but they ate, slept and lived in separate quarters.

The social divide between officers and their servants was strictly upheld. For recreation, the orderlies played football but were not allowed to participate in stoolball, an officers-only game (played with a bat and ball, similar to cricket).

There was never any doubt about their position in the prison pecking order. Significantly, they were not invited to take part in escape attempts, and were not expected to assist them (though some did). ‘We didn’t even know when the escapes were taking place,’ said one. ‘They’d never involve us.’

None ever tried to escape, and there was probably good reason for this. A recaptured officer would usually be returned to the castle unharmed, whereas ordinary soldiers were liable to be shot.

Yet, today, it seems bizarre and unjust that one prisoner should have to serve another; that one man should be permitted to seek his liberty and another forbidden to do so on the grounds of rank and class.

But in the strictly stratified military hierarchy of the time, an officer was more valuable than a private, and therefore more useful to the war effort if he managed to escape and return to Britain.

This incident is an insight into two things — the true nature of the heroic Bader (left), Colditz’s most famous prisoner; and also the role of that little-known group of prisoners locked inside the castle with the officers, the orderlies

This incident is an insight into two things — the true nature of the heroic Bader (left), Colditz’s most famous prisoner; and also the role of that little-known group of prisoners locked inside the castle with the officers, the orderlies

Some orderlies grumbled about their lot, to the point of directly challenging the traditional master–servant, officer–other ranks relationship.

Fed up with having to clear away after messy, demanding officers, there were mutterings of ‘revolution’ and ‘parasites’. Some even went on strike, but it fizzled out after an officer described it as a mutiny.

Generally, though, most of the orderlies were reasonably content to be in Colditz, where the work was not overly onerous and the food better than in other PoW camps.

Shining an officer’s belt buckle was infinitely preferable to forced labour. ‘After the copper mines, Colditz was a holiday camp,’ one orderly observed.

Even so, there were officers who treated the orderlies with disdain, as if their well-being was of no importance. And none more so than Bader.

He was supremely brave, able to inspire others to feats of courage they never dreamed possible — but he was also arrogant, domineering, selfish and spectacularly rude, particularly to those he considered of lower status.

Not least his own batman, orderly Alex Ross.

Douglas Bader arrived at Colditz in August 1942, his awkward walk on artificial legs and distinctive air of authority sending a ripple of excitement through the camp. He was already the most celebrated fighting man, on either side, of the entire war.

The war had made him into a hero. But it also made him insufferable. Fame had come to him suddenly, after an appalling accident that led to a lifetime of acute pain. He had joined the RAF in 1928 and three years later, on a dare, he attempted to slow roll his Bristol Bulldog biplane over the aerodrome.

Flying in too low, his left wing clipped the ground and the plane somersaulted.

Pulled from the wreckage, Bader would have died at the scene if a civilian had not held on to the severed femoral artery in his right leg.

By another stroke of good fortune he was brought to hospital just in time to catch pioneering surgeon Leonard Joyce before he went home for the day. Joyce amputated both of Bader’s legs, one above and one below the knee.

Bader refused to bow to his disability. With the use of two prosthetic legs (slightly longer than the original ones, to make him taller), he was able to drive a modified car, play golf and cricket, swim and even dance. But, to his fury, the RAF would not let him fly.

Bader never stopped lobbying the RAF to put him back in a cockpit, insisting he could pilot a plane just as effectively with prosthetic legs. With the outbreak of war, the authorities relented and he returned to the air.

During the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain, he distinguished himself as a fighter pilot of reckless skill and supreme courage. Using the call sign ‘Dogsbody’ (from his initials, DB), he shot down 20 enemy planes in two years.

Running through the very heart of Colditz was a wide and almost unbridgeable social divide (pictured: Colditz Castle)

Running through the very heart of Colditz was a wide and almost unbridgeable social divide (pictured: Colditz Castle)

His exploits were seized on by the War Office as a golden propaganda opportunity, and through stories planted in newspapers he was turned into a legend. He became the country’s first officially sanctioned poster boy, photographed alongside his Spitfire, a square-jawed, pugnacious warrior, pipe in fist, the very incarnation of determination to overcome the odds, on earth and in the air.

Bader lapped up the attention but he was deeply resented by colleagues. One of his fellow pilots observed: ‘He was a show-off, the most pompous chap I’ve ever met.’ He treated the ground crew with withering superiority, and they detested him.

He became a prisoner-of-war after being shot down in August 1941 and a year later was sent to Colditz after trying to escape from his first two camps. His prosthetic limbs impeded his escape efforts, but so did his fame. A German poster described his distinctive, stiff-legged gait, in case he should escape again. He was a captive of his own notoriety.

This, then, was the warrior-celebrity who, to salutes from the admiring German sentries, clumped into Colditz in 1942: a man with legs of tin, a heart of oak and feet of clay.

The cobbled slope up from the moat was too steep for Bader’s rigid legs, and so he was pulled along by his batman, Alex Ross, who also carried Bader’s luggage and spare legs.

Ross had been his orderly at their previous camp, and Bader had asked if he would go to Colditz with him. Ross had agreed.

‘What I didn’t realise was that being Bader’s orderly was a 24-hours-a-day job. I soon understood why none of the other orderlies wanted to work for him; you had to be at his beck and call all the time. I know he was a very brave man, but he could also be a monster.’

Ross’s jobs included serving Bader breakfast in bed every morning. He would then carry the officer on his back down two flights of winding stairs for his bath, and back up again afterwards.

‘He was no lightweight. He would have his arms round my neck, hanging on, and would dig the stumps of his legs hard into me in order to hold on. And I did that every day of the week.’

Bader liked to refer to his batman-steed as ‘Das Ross’, an old German word for a horse or charger of the sort a knight might ride into battle.

At Colditz, Bader appointed himself to a number of prominent positions: orchestra conductor, goalie in games of stoolball and goon-baiter-in-chief.

He successfully campaigned to be allowed to take long walks outside the castle walls, insisting there was not enough space in the courtyard to exercise the muscles in what remained of his legs.

Douglas Bader (pictured centre) arrived at Colditz in August 1942, his awkward walk on artificial legs and distinctive air of authority sending a ripple of excitement through the camp

Douglas Bader (pictured centre) arrived at Colditz in August 1942, his awkward walk on artificial legs and distinctive air of authority sending a ripple of excitement through the camp

Twice a week Bader set off on his ‘parole walks’, under guard, and used the opportunity to trade with local farmers, swapping chocolate from Red Cross parcels for fresh eggs and other luxuries. His artificial legs were regularly repaired and serviced by the town blacksmith.

Despite the respect offered to him by the guards, Bader treated his captors with profanity-laden contempt, unmercifully baiting the Germans on every possible occasion.

He blew pipe smoke in the sentries’ faces, led the chorus in anti-German chanting and instituted a system of tuneless whistling whenever the guards were marching past, to throw them out of step.

Once, when Ross was carrying him upstairs, they encountered a German general and two colonels coming the other way. ‘Don’t stop for these bastards,’ Bader shouted, digging his stumps into his orderly.

‘They looked quite shocked but stepped back to let us go by. He just glared at them,’ said Ross.

As ever, Bader provoked contrasting feelings. Many younger officers were inspired and amused by his restless defiance: ‘Douglas provided the fun.’

The more impolite he was to the Germans, the greater their respect. Others found him intensely irritating, pointing out that by goading the Germans he provoked collective punishments that adversely affected everyone in the camp.

His rudeness was legendary. ‘I don’t think all the time I knew him he said “please” or “thank you”,’ recalled Ross. Bader never offered his batman any of the eggs he obtained on his countryside walks. ‘I think if he had handed me one, I would have fainted.’

Bader’s tin legs obviously made him ineligible for escapes requiring physical agility, such as tunnelling or climbing across roofs. Nonetheless, he demanded a place on every escape plan.

When the escape committee refused, he raged: ‘Do you realise that the government at home would rather have me back than all the rest of you put together?’

This assertion, though supremely arrogant, was probably true. At one point, the committee sent a secret message to London suggesting that ‘a splendid propaganda coup could be achieved by landing a light aircraft on the Autobahn near Colditz and so rescuing Douglas Bader’.

MI9 — the military intelligence unit tasked with helping PoWs to escape — did not dismiss this barmy idea out of hand. The government wanted Bader back in Britain, and many in Colditz would have been happy to see him go.

But it was Ross who unexpectedly got the chance to go home early, as part of a prisoner exchange in 1943. He was overjoyed: ‘I was very excited. It also meant I could get as far away as possible from Bader.’

He ran to find the famous flying ace in the courtyard and relayed the news that he would soon be going back to Britain.

Many younger officers were inspired and amused by his restless defiance: ‘Douglas provided the fun’

Many younger officers were inspired and amused by his restless defiance: ‘Douglas provided the fun’

‘No you’re bloody not,’ said Bader. ‘Look here, Ross, you came here as my lackey and you will stay with me as my lackey until we are both liberated. That’s that.’ Then he ‘stomped off’.

Ross said: ‘I couldn’t believe that he was stopping me going home. He only ever thought of himself and I was nothing. Just someone to serve him.’ Ross would spend another two years lugging the leg-less RAF officer up and down stairs for his bath.

Bader was selfish to the end. When liberation finally came, the Senior British Officer gave orders that no officer was to leave the castle without permission. But rules did not apply to Bader. He hitched a ride with an American journalist, climbing into the back of her Jeep alongside the holdall he had got Ross to pack for him.

By the next day he was back in Paris, and a day after that he returned to Britain and a hero’s welcome: the first prisoner to make a ‘home run’ from Colditz after its liberation, several days before anyone else.

Bader’s fame continued to soar after the war. He used his celebrity well. His stubborn and courageous refusal to allow physical impairment to inhibit his freedom became an inspiration to disabled and limbless people everywhere. He raised millions for charity.

He died in 1982: a total hero and, at times, a complete b*****d. Bader was living evidence that it is possible to be courageous, famous, disabled and quite unpleasant, all at the same time.

Adapted from Colditz: Prisoners Of The Castle, by Ben Macintyre, published by Viking at £25. © 2022 Ben Macintyre. To order a copy for £22.50, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 31762 937. Offer valid until October 1, 2022, UK delivery free on orders over £20.

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