Saint-Omer in France, the First Home of the RAF

By Valery Collins | May 21, 2020

The first biography I read as a child was Reach for the Sky.  So, I was thrilled when I was invited to visit Saint-Omer where Douglas Bader, the subject of this biography, engineered a daring escape during the Second World War.

Douglas Bader in Saint-Omer

The Old Hospital Building in Saint-Omer, France Credit: Valery Collins

When Douglas Bader lost both legs in a flying accident, it seemed his career as a pilot was over.  But he overcame his disability to become an Ace RAF pilot during the Second World War.  He had claimed twenty-two victories when he was shot down over Northern France.  Hs captors took him to the hospital in Saint-Omer, a small French town in the region of Pas de Calais.  When he bailed out of his plane he lost one of his artificial legs.  The leg was found and repaired and he was able to escape from the hospital using knotted sheets.  Some local people sheltered him, but he was soon re-captured.  He ended up in Colditz, where he spent the rest of the war.  The family that had assisted him were found and sentenced to execution.  This was later reduced to hard labour.

There is a strong connection between the UK and Saint Omer as the RAF came into existence at its aerodrome.

Longuenesse Aerodrome at Saint-Omer in France

Longuenesse Aerodrome in Saint-Omer in France Credit: Valery Collins

In 1910 one of the earliest air shows was held at Longuenesse on the outskirts of Saint-Omer.  The British used this small, grass-covered aerodrome as an airbase during the First World War.  More flights took off from here than anywhere else in France.  The Royal Flying Corps had its headquarters here.  It became the Royal Air Force (RAF) on 1 April 1918 which was the world’s first air force.  A memorial at the airfield reads “PER ADUA AD ASTRA” which is the Latin for “through hardship to the stars”, the motto of the RAF.  The Longuenesse Cemetery, opposite the aerodrome, includes some Commonwealth War Graves – the last resting place of many air force personnel.

A reminder that the Germans occupied France during the Second World War is La Coupole at Wizernes, just outside Saint-Omer.

Entrance to La Coupole near Saint Omer in France Credit: Valery Collins

La Coupole near Saint-Omer in France

La Coupole, a secret installation for the manufacture of the V2 bombs has been restored and turned into an excellent History and Memory Centre which opened in1997.  Visitors can wander through its extensive tunnels to a permanent exhibition space.  Films and exhibits relate the story of this massive underground bunker where deportees from concentration camps assembled the V2s to launch on London.  They also built the bunker itself.  After the war, the inventors of the V2 moved to the United States, where they worked on the rocket development programme.   There were no prosecutions related to their war crimes.

Article by Valery Collins the Experienced Traveller – you may also like to read about Tartu and its Secret Airfrield

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