ONE of the most colourful characters associated with Mount Vernon Hospital is Douglas Bader, the decorated fighter ace whose extraordinary life was immortalised in the film Reach for the Sky.

The war veteran opened the hospital’s burns unit in 1972 and his never-say-die attitude proved a great inspiration to patients.

Bader shot down more than 20 enemy planes, despite losing both legs in an earlier plane crash that threatened to keep him grounded during World War Two.

Demand for experienced pilots gave Bader the chance he was waiting for as Europe fell to Nazi Germany’s all-conquering armies.

It set the stage for what Winston Churchill described as Britain’s finest hour when a heavily outnumbered Royal Air Force doggedly fought off the German Luftwaffe during the summer of 1940.

Bader shot down his first enemy plane and damaged another in a dogfight over the French coast on June 1.

He preferred firing at close range, arming his plane with heavy low-calibre bullets that could punch fist-shaped holes in the flimsy fuselage of enemy planes.

It called for ice-cool nerves in the confusion of aerial combat, but Douglas Bader lacked neither courage nor faith in his flying ability.

His talent was evident at an early age when he made his first solo flight after just 11 hours flying experience under the terse but experienced tutelage of Flying Officer ‘Pissy’ Pearson.

Bader joined the RAF in 1928 but his maverick streak was already evident.

It proved to be his undoing three years later when, despite prior warning not to perform acrobatics below 500 feet, his wing-tip clipped the ground and he crashed.

He was pulled from the wreckage and surgeons were obliged to amputate one leg above the knee and the other below it. Bader’s only reference to the crash in his logbook was a typically understated: Crashed slow-rolling near ground. Bad show.

His tenacious personality helped on the long and painful road to recovery and, with the aid of artificial legs, he learned to drive a modified car, play golf and dance. He even learned to fly again but was invalided out of the RAF.

It would, in all probability, have been the last anyone heard of Douglas Bader, but fate had one more card to play as the storm clouds of war gathered over Europe.

The 29-year-old had repeated requests to rejoin the RAF turned down until it finally relented in its desperation to find pilots.

He passed his refresher course, turning his bi-plane upside down at 600 feet in defiance of the powers-that-be.

Bader refused to be defined by his disability, but it gave him the unexpected advantage of being able to cope with the effect of G-force when blood rushed to the lower limbs, momentarily disorientating some pilots.

His tenacity and courage was recognised by both sides and, when he was shot down and captured over France, the Germans agreed a prosthetic leg could be air-dropped to replace the one he lost in the crash.

Bader made several escape attempts and his captors, in exasperation, threatened to take away his artificial legs. He was eventually sent to Colditz, which housed the most troublesome prisoners of war.

It was here that he met one of his counterparts and later life-long friend, the German fighter ace Adolf Galland, The two men had a mutual respect for one another, though it didn’t stop Bader later entering a roomful of ex-Luftwaffe pilots and loudly exclaiming: “My God, I had no idea we left so many of you bastards alive.”

Bader was a brash, larger-than-life character whose main criticism of his big screen persona, played by actor Kenneth More, was that he was too polite and never swore.

Bader dedicated his post-war years to helping the less fortunate and disabled. He was knighted in 1976 for services to the disabled.

He never treated his disability as an excuse not to be as good as the next person - and that was a message he instilled in the many amputees he met and inspired.

A colleague later recalled that, if Bader could have attended his own memorial service in 1982, he would have stomped over to his old friend Galland slapped him on the back and bellowed: “Bloody good show, glad you could come.”

Douglas Bader died in 1982.