OPINION: Our dad admired legendary – and legless – fighter ace

Squadron Leader Douglas Bader seated on his Hawker Hurricane at Duxford, England in September 1940. Imperial War Museums Photo

Phil Egan & Mary-Jane Egan

The British, we know, are famous for maintaining a “stiff upper lip” in even the most trying circumstances.

Consider this entry in the flight log of a British pilot: “Crashed. Slow rolling mid-round. Bad show.”

Those cryptic words were how RAF fighter pilot Douglas Bader described the accident that took both of his legs in 1931.

Excused from further military service, Bader learned to walk on prosthetics and was soon playing golf and even dancing on his artificial legs.

But Bader wanted to fly Spitfires again, and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

But “no” was the British Air Ministry’s recurring reply to Bader’s continuing RAF reapplications, at least until the Second World War broke out. Fearing a German invasion, Britain needed every pilot she could find.

Bader celebrated with a slow aerial barrel-roll over the base.

The same man declared “unfit for duty” by the RAF Medical Board following the 1931 accident soon became the terror of the Luftwaffe, compiling 20 kills, four shared victories and half a dozen ‘probables.’

In August of 1941, Bader was shot down over occupied France, his plane going into a 400 mph tailspin. He managed to bail out and parachute to safety but lost his right prosthetic leg, which caught in the wreckage.

But such was Bader’s fame that, while in prison, he was visited by the Luftwaffe’s celebrated General Adolf Galland (705 combat missions, 104 enemy kills), who ordered that Bader be treated with courtesy and respect.

So deep was that respect that the German general – with the permission of Luftwaffe Air Marshal Hermann Goering – arranged safe passage for a British bomber to drop a replacement prosthetic leg for Bader over his P.O.W. cam

Bader strapped on the new leg and immediately attempted to escape from the prison hospital by climbing out the window and rappelling down a series of tied bedsheets.

Bader remained a P.O.W. until 1945, when he was liberated by the U.S. First Army.

After the war, he became a champion for the disabled – work for which he was knighted in 1976.

Our father, Joe Egan, was a Navy man during the war, but had discovered his own disability in 1941 when attempting to follow older brother, Vince, into the Canadian Air Force. Dad was colour blind, and they wouldn’t accept him.

So, when Sir Douglas Bader visited Canada in early 1977, Dad scoured Sarnia’s second-hand bookstores, buying every copy he could find of Bader’s1954 autobiography, Reach for the Sky.

The crusty old warrior patiently signed them all following a Toronto speech detailing his notorious wartime exploits.

For our father, meeting the amazing war ace was a significant honour.