The legless legend from World War II

Douglas Bader, RAF pilot and incorrigible escape artist, literally had his leg handed to him by the German army in WWII.


Bader climbs into the cockpit of his Spitfire. Source

Bad Show

Dangling from his damaged plane by his prosthetic left leg, Douglas Bader managed to parachute to safety when its leather strap snapped.

But now he found himself a prisoner of war in German-occupied France with one “good” prosthetic leg.

Bader was a double amputee since 1931, when he crashed while performing aerobatic stunts near Reading, Berks.

His log entry for that day reads: “Crashed slow-rolling near ground. Bad show.”

Strangely, having no legs may have given Bader an advantage over other more able-bodied opponents. Pilots pulling high g-forces often blacked out as the flow of blood from the brain drained to their legs.

Bader could remain conscious longer.

Operation Leg

In a gentlemanly gesture, German General Adolf Galland notified the RAF of Bader’s missing prosthetic leg.

With Hermann Goring’s permission, the RAF was given safe passage to parachute in a replacement prosthetic in a mission called ‘Operation Leg’.


The container in which the Douglas Bader's artificial leg was dropped. RAF Museum.

The container in which the artificial leg was dropped. RAF Museum. Source


Germans with Bader’s artificial leg. RAF Museum.

Germans with Bader’s artificial leg. RAF Museum. Source


Operation Leg included orders for his Bader’s old squadron, Tangmere Wing:

“The leg is to be dropped by a Blenheim when West of ST. OMER. The Wing Leader of the Tangmere Escort Wing is to report by R/T when the parachute has opened ‘LEG GONE’. Tangmere Controller is to report to Group Controller immediately he receives this message.”

The specially built wooden crate that was dropped was clearly marked with a large Red Cross symbol, and landed near the village of Quiestède.

Bader immediately used his new leg to escape from the hospital using the old sheet rope trick. When the “rope” didn’t reach the ground, he liberated a sheet from under the comatose New Zealand pilot, Bill Russell of No. 485 Squadron, a recovering amputee.

Russell’s bed made a perfect anchor at the window. A French maid at the St. Omer hospital attempted to get in touch with British agents to arrange Bader’s escape to Britain. A peasant couple (a Mr. and Mrs. Hiecques), promised to shelter him outside St. Omer in the meantime. Their son would wait outside the hospital every night until there was a chance of escape.

Eventually, Bader did make his escape out of a window. He hobbled to the safe house despite wearing a British uniform. Sadly, he was exposed by another woman at the hospital and recaptured.

Goon Baiting

RAF-officers in Colditz. Bader sits in the center of the front row.

RAF-officers in Colditz. Bader sits in the center of the front row. Source

This was the first of many escapes, as Bader enthusiastically participated in what the RAF called “goon baiting” or causing as much trouble to the enemy as possible.

He annoyed the Germans so much that they began taking away his legs at night.

They eventually shipped him to the impenetrable fortress of Colditz castle in Saxony, a last resort for “escape risks”.

By the end of the war, he was able to return Galland’s favour: when German amputee pilot Hans Rudel was interned in Britain, he was met by Bader who had a new prosthetic fitted for him.

He died in 1982 and his funeral included Adolf Galland, the German general who arranged the return of his leg and with whom he remained friendly for 42 years.


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