The man behind the film 'Reach for the Sky'

Kenneth More in Reach for the Sky

Did you know the war-time classic “Reach for the Sky” was filmed on location at Kenley airfield in 1955? Let’s take a closer look at one of Kenley’s famous faces: Group Captain Douglas Bader DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar.

Douglas Bader’s father was a major in the British Army in the First World War: badly wounded by shrapnel in 1917 he died from his wounds in 1922.

The loss of his father put a serious financial strain on his family. There were doubts whether Douglas would be able to go on to public school but he won a sports scholarship to St Edward’s School in Oxford. In 1928 he also won a prize cadetship to the RAF (Cadet) College at Cranwell in rural Lincolnshire. Bader showed an aptitude for flying going solo after six and a half hours’ tuition.

Graduating from Cranwell in 1930 he was posted to No 23 Squadron based at RAF Kenley. Headstrong by nature, he could never resist a challenge and in December 1931 he crashed while flying (forbidden) low-level aerobatics at the Reading Aero Club in his Bristol Bulldog fighter. Lucky to be alive, Bader was rushed to hospital where a surgeon amputated his left leg below the knee and his right leg above. He took the loss of his legs well and was determined to live a normal life, even if others were not so sure he could. Although eventually still able to fly with his tin prosthetic legs, he was retired from the RAF in April 1933.

He found a job with the Asiatic Petroleum Company (now Shell), married and excelled at a new sport – golf.

On the outbreak of war in 1939 Bader was allowed to re-join the RAF as a fighter pilot. By the summer of 1941, now promoted to Wing Commander, he had shot down 22 German aircraft which made him the fifth highest scoring pilot in the RAF. However, on 9 August 1941 Bader was forced to bail out over Le Touquet: in the process he lost one of his prosthetic legs. Having made several escape attempts he was eventually sent to the prison camp at Colditz Castle where he remained until the end of the war.

On 15 September 1945, flying a Spitfire, Bader led the 300 aircraft ‘Battle of Britain Day’ Anniversary flypast over London. He left the RAF as a Group Captain early the following year and rejoined Shell Petroleum where he became managing director of Shell Aircraft until his retirement in 1969.

Douglas Bader was knighted in 1976 for services to disabled people and died in 1982.


© 2015 AETN UK

Comments about this page

  • Correction, Bader did not have both legs amputated below the knee, only his left leg with the right leg amputated above the knee.

    By Peter Julian (05/02/2024)
  • Thank you Peter. I will correct this.

    By Linda Duffield (07/02/2024)
  • I drove the Queen Mary aircraft transporter In the convoy scenes and had also delivered several old Spitfires from the dump at RAF Lyneham.

    By Michael Edwards, ex 49MU.Colerne. (14/03/2021)
  • I did a Gliding Course at Kenley as a member of 2157 Sdn ATC and sat in a Spitfire being used during the making
    the making of Reach for the Sky.
    Peter Bodiam

    By Peter Bodiam (03/01/2021)
  • Fascinating reading, I live in whyteleafe and visithe Kenley often. thank you.

    By Amanda Garry (10/03/2018)

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