On August 19, 1941, a British bomber taking part in a raid against Germany flew over a prisoner of war camp in St. Omer, France and dropped its lightest — but possibly most historic — payload of the war: a wooden case filled with bandages, socks, straps, and an artificial leg.
The odd bombing mission was to support a particular pilot on the ground, Douglas Bader, a Battle of Britain hero and double-leg amputee.
Douglas Bader and other members of No. 242 Squadron pose in front of nose art depicting a quick kick to Hitler’s butt.
(Royal Air Force photo by S. A. Devon)
Bader’s heroic story starts in 1931 when he boldly asserted that he could fly a new aircraft but, while attempting a risky maneuver near the ground with it, crashed the plane and lost both of his legs. The Royal Air Force drummed him out as invalid, but he kept pressing to come back.
When World War II broke out, Bader finally got his chance and immediately made the best of it, getting re-certified to fly and an assignment to the No. 19 Squadron. He pushed for sending more planes up against the Germans more of the time, and was sent against the Luftwaffe over Dunkirk in 1940.
Success there led to his involvement in the Battle of France where he was given command of No. 242 Squadron and increasingly large air missions. Bader was credited with 20 confirmed aerial kills and two shared by August, 1941. He became something of a hero to the British public as wartime propaganda related the heroics of “Tin-Legs Bader” and other fliers of No. 242.
A Messerschmitt 109 like the one Bader shot down on the day that he was downed — August 9, 1941.
(Kogo, CC BY-SA 2.0)
But his last kill came at a cost. On August 9, he shot down a Messerschmidt-109F, but his own plane was damaged in the fight. Reports at the time indicated that he had collided with another German plane, but later investigations posit that he might have been a victim of friendly fire.
Either way, Bader bailed out of his plane, losing his right prosthetic in the process, and parachuted to the ground. He was knocked out upon landing, and woke up to German soldiers removing his parachute harness.
The German doctor assigned to check on him thought, at first, that Bader had suffered an amputation in the crash, but quickly realized both his mistake and the fact that he was treating a British war hero.
The Germans, to their credit, immediately tried to make him as comfortable as a full-bodied person in the prisoner of war camp, recovering and repairing his leg as best they could and letting Britain know that he had been captured and needed a replacement right leg.
Bader, to his credit, immediately attempted to use his repaired leg to escape, forcing the Germans to take his legs every night to prevent further escape attempts. Bader would try again three more times over the course of the war.
But, between the first escape attempt and the other three, the RAF put together a plan to get Bader a new leg. Germany made an offer of safe passage and landing for a single plane to deliver it, but Britain worried that the Germans would use it for a burst of positive publicity.
Instead, they put together a fairly genius plan. See, Bader had been shot down during a large bombing raid popular with the RAF at the time. Bombers flew towards their targets escorted by a large number of fighters. The German planes would take off to intercept, but would be forced to dogfight with the fighters.
This created a window where there was little or no real resistance in the air to smaller bomber formations. Typically, this was used to sneak a few bombers in on low-altitude runs against high-priority targets. But on August 19, 1941, the British aviators used this window to fly over the prisoner of war camp at St. Omer, France where Bader was being held.
The plane dropped its single package with the leg and other supplies into the town with a note attached:
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.
Bader was sent to the infamous Colditz Castle after his fourth escape attempt, but survived the war. He advocated for disabled rights the rest of his life, efforts for which he received a knighthood in 1976. He died in 1982 of an apparent heart attack.