In March 1941 Douglas Bader took over the Tangmere Wing of three Spitfire Squadrons and soon after, the Wing commenced ‘Circus’ operations.
In a Circus, the bombers were escorted by Wings of fighter aircraft providing high and close cover – the formation being known as a ‘Beehive’. Other Wings would be tasked by Fighter Command to provide ‘top cover’ for the Beehive, target support whilst the Beehive was over the target area and withdrawal support as the Beehive left the target. When covering a Circus, the Tangmere Wing would normally operate with the three squadrons flying at different levels and depending on the time of day the Wing would cross the French coast at a point where it was best advantaged with regards to the sun. In a morning operation the Wing would aim to cross in both directions near the French town of Gravelines and in the afternoon near the port of Boulogne.
During July and early August the Circus operations continued and Tangmere Wing’s Spifire IIs were replaced with cannon armed Spitfire Vs with their more powerful Merlin 45 engines. However, Bader, not believing in the value of the cannon, usually flew a Mk VA machine gun armed aircraft with his initials DB painted on the fuselage.
On 9 August 1941 the Tangmere Wing was tasked with providing target support for ‘Circus 68’, a bombing raid on Gosnay, near St Omer, northern France. Bader took off as normal from Tangmere’s satellite airfield Westhampnett with No 616 Squadron, but with New Zealander Sgt Jeff West as his No 2, his normal No 2, Sgt Alan Smith, being unavailable. As Nos 616 and No 610 Squadrons set course, the third Tangmere Wing squadron failed to join up. As the two squadrons crossed the French coast Bf 109s were seen to port and below. No 616 Squadron attacked, covered by No 610 above, but was bounced by other Bf 109s before No 610 could intervene. In the ensuing close engagements, Wing Commander Bader was ‘downed’. Exactly what happened to Bader remains a mystery to this day. Bader maintained that he had a mid air collision with a Bf 109. The Luftwaffe’s JG 26’s Kommodore, Oberst Adolf Galland, maintained that Bader had been shot down by one of his pilots. Bader never accepted this theory. Another possibility is that Bader was shot down by ‘friendly fire’ from one of his Wing’s Spitfires in the chaotic aerial battle that day. Bader, after a struggle to get out of his cockpit and leaving one of his metal legs behind, was able to parachute to safety to land near St Omer.
On 14 August the German Authorities notified the British via the Red Cross that Bader was a prisoner. Group Captain Woodhall, Tangmere’s Commanding Officer, broadcast the welcome news over the station tannoy. The Germans also offered free passage for an RAF aircraft to deliver spare legs to Bader to Galland’s JG26 airfield at Audembert. The British did not take up this offer but dropped a spare leg by parachute from a Blenheim on 19 August during a Circus operation to Longuenesse.
A FRANK WOOTTON PRINT (detail shown in the photograph) SHOWING DOUGLAS BADER’S SPITFIRE VA LEADING THE TANGMERE WING IS DISPLAYED IN THE BADER EXHIBITION IN THE MUSEUM’S BATTLE OF BRITAIN HALL