No. 452 Spitfire Squadron, Douglas Bader and 'Operation Leg'

The No. 452 Spitfire Squadron plaque at Anzac Square Memorial Galleries (Image: Anzac Square Memorial Galleries)

Visit the World War II Gallery at Anzac Square Memorial Galleries and you'll find this plaque dedicated to No. 452 Spitfire Squadron, notable for being the first Australian squadron to form in Britain during World War II. The Squadron quickly made a name for itself by destroying 62 enemy aircraft in its first year. As well as assisting with the defence of Darwin against the Japanese and participating in actions in Borneo and the Dutch East Indies, 452 Squadron also took part in a somewhat unusual task. Namely, assisting in the delivery of a replacement artificial limb to an allied prisoner of war, a mission that has been dubbed 'Operation Leg'.

Having lost both legs when his plane crashed in 1931, RAF pilot Douglas Bader was fitted with artificial limbs and not only learned to walk again, but was able to dance, play golf and drive a car. Initially discharged on a disability pension, when war broke out, he successfully re-entered the RAF and proved himself to be a brilliant pilot and master tactician, skills that saw him promoted to Wing Commander. In August 1941, Bader was taken prisoner by the Germans, having suffered a mid-air collision over France, bailing out of his Spitfire and leaving one of his artificial legs behind in the process.

After being taken prisoner, Bader met General Adolph Galland, himself a flying ace for the Luftwaffe. Not only did Galland treat Bader with respect due to his flying reputation, he also offered the British safe passage to drop in a replacement leg for Bader to St. Omer, a Luftwaffe base in occupied France, with Hermann Göring himself giving approval for the operation to go ahead. An RAF bomber carried the leg, flying with a fighter escort that included 452 Squadron. Bader communicated the message “Leg thankfully received” to the RAF through the Red Cross. The Germans must have been unimpressed to learn that after completing Operation Leg, the bombers continued straight on to pursue their next objective - bombing a power station!

In the spirit of causing as much bother for the enemy as possible, Bader mounted several escape attempts during his captivity. One such attempt saw him tie bedsheets together to climb out of a hospital window. He was finally recaptured 100 miles away, heading towards the French coast. As a precaution against further escape attempts, the Germans started confiscating one leg each night and returning it in the morning.

On another occasion, Bader’s artificial limbs did inhibit an escape attempt, but perhaps not in the way that you might expect. Australian Flight-Lieutenant Keith Brace Chisholm, himself a decorated pilot in 452 Spitfire Squadron, met Bader upon returning to the German POW camp Stalag 8B following his own escape attempt. The two wasted no time planning their next prison break.

Bader had obtained a photo of the cockpit of a German fighter, the Messerschmitt 110, and directions for how to fly the plane. Bader had heard that there were Messerschmitts at a German training airfield at Gleiwitz, 150 miles away from Stalag 8B, and that a working party of British soldiers was due to be sent to Gleiwitz. Using carefully doctored papers, the two were able to switch places with two other soldiers and successfully make it to Gleiwitz, but they were met with disappointment – they found only Messerschmitt 109s, with insufficient flying range to make an escape practical.

Then, the pair had their second bit of bad luck. Bader had previously sent a letter to a German general complaining about the conditions in Stalag 8B. The general launched an enquiry, and investigators visiting the camp looking for Bader (and finding his substitute instead) were amazed to find that he appeared to have two perfectly good legs. The alarm was raised, and the real Bader was easily identified at Gleiwitz by his artificial legs. Bader was subsequently moved to the ‘escape-proof' Colditz Castle, where he remained until the camp was liberated by the First United States Army in 1945.

After the war, Bader went on to become an active campaigner and received a knighthood for services to people with a disability. Bader and Adolph Galland were friends for more than 40 years, and when Bader passed away at age 72, Galland attended Bader’s funeral.

No. 452 Squadron, remembered for its aggressive fighting ability, was disbanded at Morotai in November 1945, with its members having won six Distinguished Flying Crosses and one bar, one Military Cross, one Distinguished Flying Medal and three Mentions in Despatches.

You can find the No. 452 Spitfire Squadron plaque in our World War II Gallery. Anzac Square Memorial Galleries is open 10am-4pm Sunday - Friday and entry is free.

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