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An unlikely Yorkshireman: Douglas Bader

Douglas Robert Steuart Bader was born in St John’s Wood, London on 21st February 1910. He was the son of Frederick Roberts and Jessie Bader. When Douglas was a few months old, his family returned to India, where his father worked as a civil engineer and Douglas was left behind because his family thought him too young for India’s harsh climate. He did not rejoin them until he was two years old. The family returned to England in 1913 and the following year, at the outbreak of World War One, Frederick joined the Army and served in France where he was to die after complications from a shrapnel wound. After his father’s death his mother remarried – Ernest William Hobbs was the Vicar of Sprotborough near Doncaster – and it was through residence that Douglas later qualified to play rugby for Yorkshire. 

Coincidentally, Hobbs had previously been the vicar of All Saints Twickenham, a church close to Harlequins, a club that Douglas later represented for two years. He was educated at St Edwards School in Oxford, where he excelled in sport, but struggled in the classroom.  In addition to captaining the school rugby team, he also played cricket and it is reported that he was once beaten up by an older boy, the future film star Laurence Olivier, after he had bowled him out during a cricket match!

Whilst at St Edwards, he was selected to captain Yorkshire Schoolboys against their Welsh counterparts in January 1927. He played alongside future Yorkshire and RFU President Dicky Kingswell and future England international Dick Auty. Yorkshire lost the game by two tries to one (6-3) at Cardiff Arms Park. The Yorkshire Post reported “Time after time the backs made heroic attempts to play the real open game of rugby, but were thwarted by the heavy Cardiff Arms Park ground, which, after five minutes play, was reduced to a quagmire.”  The paper continued, “The forwards, led by Howcroft and Corden, gave the Welsh defence many anxious moments. Kingswell and Auty gave them plenty of support, but unfortunately the three-quarters could not hold their passes sufficiently well to put on the finishing touches, although there were praiseworthy efforts. On at least two occasions, Auty, who was quick off the mark, created perfect openings for the centres, only to see them frittered away, though it would be unfair to blame Bader and Jones for failing to hold the greasy ball on such a day. “After going two tries behind, “Howcroft’s quick reply gave Yorkshire encouragement. The try came after half a dozen had handled, but the passing was not of the spectacular kind, all taking place within a yard or so of the Welsh lines. Kingswell was a bundle of energy and often beat his rival for possession, Auty…shone more in defence than in attack, getting through any amount of solid work when he did get opportunities to open up the game. He showed fine speed and straight running, but on occasion slung the ball too sharply. On the whole, however his play was commendable. ”

A visit to his Aunt Hazel, whose husband, Flight Lieutenant Cyril Burge, was adjutant at the Royal Air Force (RAF) College in Cranwell, ignited an interest in aeroplanes and a desire to join the RAF. He won a cadetship to Cranwell in September 1928 where he represented the College at rugby, shooting, hockey, athletics, boxing and cricket. The College Journal reported a boxing match in which “Bader in his usual “’no-time-to-spare’ manner went straight at his opponent and knocked him out with two very hard rights. He took about the same time as he did last year and is a very dangerous man to meet.”

Whilst at Cranwell he joined Harlequins. Philip Warne, In his book “The Harlequins; 125 Years of Rugby Football”, explains how former Sandal player Gerry Loader, whilst playing for the Harlequins ‘A’ side, “had an interesting experience of being told how to do his job as a hooker by a fly half who happened to be Douglas Bader.”

He was called up for a Yorkshire trial in October 1931, the Yorkshire Post explaining “[He] has been playing brilliantly for the Harlequins” but he was unable to make the journey to Yorkshire.  Due to the travelling he transferred his allegiance and played for Surrey in the County Championship. He also played for a Combined Services XV against the touring South African team in November 1931.

He had played for Harlequins on the Saturday prior to the plane crash in December 1931 which led to the loss of his legs. P.W Adams, the secretary of Harlequins explained, “He was a fine player and one of the most popular members of the team. I think the game at Teddington on Saturday was the best of his career. He played magnificently. He seems to have a genius for everything he takes up.  He is one of the most brilliant officers in the R.A.F and I have heard him described as the finest stunt pilot in the Service.”

The story of the crash, his recovery and determination to fly again and his combat endeavours during World War 2,which resulted in him being imprisoned in Colditz, is recounted in Paul Brickhill’s book ‘Reach for the Sky’, which was later adapted as a movie of the same name featuring Kenneth More.

Bader died suddenly in 1982 at the age of 72.