Sir Douglas Bader, 72, who lost his legs in a flying accident in 1931 yet overcame this handicap to become one of the Royal Air Force's legendary fighter pilots of World War II, died in London Sept. 5. He had a heart ailment.
Police in London said Sir Douglas had complained of chest pains after returning home from a night out with his wife. He was taken to a hospital but was dead on arrival.
His life story was the subject of a best-selling book and a feature film, both titled "Reach for the Sky." During the war, he flew a Spitfire and achieved 22 "confirmed kills" of enemy planes. When he crashed after a collision with enemy aircraft over France in August 1941, the German doctor who examined him exclaimed, "My God, you have lost your leg."
Then the physician realized that his patient was the legendary "flyer with tin legs." There followed an incident harking back to the chivalry of the fighter pilots of World War I. The Germans radioed England they had captured Sir Douglas, he was being held at St. Omer and one of his artificial legs had been destroyed.
The Germans offered safe conduct to an RAF aircraft that would drop a replacement artificial leg. The offer was declined, but the leg was parachuted down during the next bombing raid. A note was attached which read: "To the German flight commander of the Luftwaffe at St. Omer. Please deliver to the undermentioned address this package for Wing Command Bader, RAF prisoner of war, St. Omer, containing artificial leg, bandages, socks, straps."
Four times Sir Douglas escaped from his prison camp, but was always caught. His captors then took his legs away each night. The Germans finally committed him to the top security prisoner-of-war camp at Colditz Castle.
Sir Douglas graduated from Royal Air Force College at Cranwell. On Dec. 14, 1931 he took up a new plane and crashed, losing both legs. He was invalided out of the RAF in 1933. He conducted a ceaseless campaign to be reinstalled and was put back on the roster as a regular flying officer in 1935.
On Nov. 27, 1939, he flew solo again. His first combat action was flying cover for the British evacuation from Dunkirk. He shot down a ME 109 in his first dogfight, and was promoted to Squadron Leader of the 242 Squadron.
Sir Douglas' medals included the Distinguished Service Order and bar, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Legion of Honor, the Croix de Guerre and three mentions in dispatches.
He was a prisoner for three years and eight months before he was rescued by advancing Americans. "I was lucky in the war and got much publicity not because I was better than others but because I was the chap with the tin legs," Sir Douglas said.
"I do not feel conceited or proud. I am just humbly grateful that my story is known because it has enabled me to do the really worthwhile thing in life which is to have helped some others who had the same problem I had in 1931."
Sir Douglas was knighted in 1976 for his services to the disabled. After the war he became managing director of Shell Aircraft till 1970 and a salesman of aircraft equipment thereafter.
His first wife, Thelma Edwards, died in 1971. Survivors include his wife, Joan Murray.