LONDON -- Sir Douglas Bader, the legendary legless British flying ace who shot down 22 enemy planes during World War II despite his 'tin legs,' died Sunday after an apparent heart attack. He was 72.
Sir Douglas, whose courage and determination were immortalized in the book and film 'Reach for the Sky,' lost both legs in a 1931 flying accident. Yet he battled back to become Britain's most famous wartime flyer.
He was renowned not only for his flying prowess, but also for convincing his superiors to throw the entire British air force against the massed German bombers during the crucial Battle of Britain air war.
Although he was captured early in the war by the Germans, Bader was one of the most decorated British flyers with the DSO and bar, DFC, Legion of Honor, Croix de Guerre and three mentions in dispatches.
Despite his handicap, he tried to escape the Germans four times and was finally sent to a top security prisoner of war camp.
Scotland Yard said Sir Douglas and his wife Joan were returning home from a Royal Air Force Association function in London late Saturday when he collapsed in his car from severe chest pains. He was declared dead on arrival at St. Stephen's Hospital early Sunday.
'He died instantly. It was the best possible way for him to go,' his brother-in-law Percy Lucas said Sunday. 'Lady Bader was very upset. She was on her own when it happened.'
Lucas said Sir Douglas had recently suffered from 'heart complaint.' Last month, he was playing with Lee Trevino in a pro-celebrity golf competition in Scotland when he had to be taken from the course because of his heart problems.
Sir Douglas flew for more than a half century and was grounded only in August 1981 because of his heart condition.
When he crashed in August 1941, after a collision with enemy aircraft over Bethune in France, the German doctor who examined him exclaimed: 'My God, you have lost your leg.'
Then he realized his patient was the legendary 'flyer with tin legs.'
The Germans radioed England that they had captured Bader and that one of his artificial legs had been destroyed.
A few days later, a Royal Air Force plane flew over the German airfield and dropped a package by parachute with a note that said:
'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, born Feb. 21, 1910, lost both his legs in 1931 trying to answer a taunt to his aerobatics ability. He took up a type of plane he had not flown before and crashed, suffering the loss of both legs. He was invalided out of the RAF.
It took him eight years, but he came back against all odds and was certified 100 percent fit. The RAF, worried by Adolf Hitler's intentions in Europe, welcomed him back.
During World War II, he shot down an estimated 30 enemy aircraft, with 22 confirmed hits. During the Battle of Britain air war, it was Bader who argued Chief Air Marshal Lord Dowding should not hold his squadron in reserve but should throw more planes and charge into the massed German bombers.
'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,' Bader 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.'
Bader was knighted in 1976 for his services to the disabled. After the war, he entered the private aircraft industry.
He was married in 1933 to Thelma Edwards who died in 1971. In 1973 he married Mrs. Joan Murray. There were no children from either marriage.
Bader loved to tell the story of the Brooklyn-bred American soldier who finally sprang him from German prison after three years and 8 months.
'I suppose you're the American First Army,' Bader said to his rescuer.
'We're not the Foist,' he quoted the Brooklynite, 'We're the Thoid.'