Saint-Omer has launched a new trail in honour of war hero Douglas Bader

28th Nov 18 | Lifestyle

In a year of centenary commemorations for the RAF, Chris Wiltshire retraces the life of one of the Second World War's most remarkable pilots.

My stomach is churning and my heart thumping as I reflect on one of Second World War pilot Douglas Bader’s darkest days.

The spirit of my late father is with me as I strap myself into the back of a tiny four-seater Robin aircraft on the very runway that launched the Royal Air Force 100 years ago this year, on the outskirts of Saint-Omer in northern France.

We used to share many an enjoyable evening watching reruns of Reach For The Sky, the 1956 black and white biopic of Bader’s battle to recover from having both legs amputated when an acrobatic air stunt went tragically wrong, and his journey to become a crack Spitfire fighter pilot.

Chris Wiltshire prepares to board a four-seater light aircraft as he looks back at where Douglas Bader was shot down during the Second World War (Chris Wiltshire/PA)
Chris Wiltshire prepares to board a four-seater light aircraft as he looks back at where Douglas Bader was shot down during the Second World War (Chris Wiltshire/PA)

A short burst of speed and we rumble along the pock-marked Tarmac, past an imposing aircraft hangar built by the Germans after British crews had been forced to give up the site. Then we are up, soaring into cloudless skies on a crisp autumn evening, the sun disappearing over the distant white cliffs of Dover.

Headphones muffle the noisy sound of the single propeller, and our French pilot Francois Mobailly offers reassuring words over the intercom to replace the pounding from my heart.

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This is the remarkable true story of Douglas Bader, a pilot in the RAF who overcomes every obstacle to prove his worth. He is a young and ambitious pilot, after a plane crash, is badly injured. Although doctors expect him to die, he survives but loses both his legs. As his colleagues prepare for his horror and devastation, they find instead a determination in him, which refuses to be changed by the accident. He re-enters the RAF where he is determined to continue his career as a pilot. In 1945. When 300 aircraft fly in triumph over London led by a solitary Spitfire, the honour of leading the fly-past goes to Douglas Bader. This is the story of one of the few to whom so many owed so much. 🎥🎥🎥🎥🎥🎥🎥🎥🎥🎥🎥🎥🎥🎥 #reachforthesky #douglasbader #kennethmore #murielpavlow #RAF #fighterpilot #tinlegs #thefew #battleofbritain #lewisgilbert #classicwarmovies #classicwarfilms #classicbritishfilms #classicbritishmovies #classicblackandwhitefilms #blackandwhitefilms #alexanderknox #lyndonbrook #leepatterson #dorothyalison #sundaywarflicks

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“It is a beautiful night, oui?” he says, tilting the aircraft to the left so we can take in the beauty of the Audomarois marshes, the spider’s web of wetlands that were sculpted by monks in the seventh century.

Then we cross over pretty Saint-Omer, the red tiles of the ancient houses glowing in the fading light that surround its Gothic Notre-Dame Cathedral.

Moments later, Francois breaks into excited chatter. “There it is,” he says, nodding ahead and tipping the nose of the aircraft down. “That’s where Bader came down. See, down in those fields.”

Pilot Francois Mobaillyn tilts the aircraft to show where Douglas Bader landed after his stricken Spitfire was severely damaged during a dogfight with Messerschmitt 109s over the town (Chris Wiltshire/PA)
Pilot Francois Mobailly tilts the aircraft to show where Douglas Bader landed after his stricken Spitfire was severely damaged during a dogfight with Messerschmitt Bf 109s over the town (Chris Wiltshire/PA)

My fellow passengers strain for a view of the patchwork of green fields and golden trees below.

The calmness of the moment gives little hint of the sheer terror Wing Commander Bader must have been feeling that bleak August day back in 1941.

Already handicapped by the loss of both legs, Bader was forced to bail out of his stricken Spitfire after being caught in crossfire during a fierce dogfight with German Messerschmitt Bf 109s.

Bader struggled to release one of his artificial legs from the cockpit and had to leave it in situ before the aircraft plunged to the ground.

Former Battle of Britain Group Captain's Sir Douglas Bader (right) and John Cunningham discuss old times in front of a Spitfire when they attended a preview of the new Battle of Britain Museum (PA Archive)
Former Battle of Britain Group Captain’s Sir Douglas Bader (right) and John Cunningham discuss old times in front of a Spitfire at the Battle of Britain Museum (PA Archive)

He was able to release his parachute just in time, but the impact when his remaining prosthetic leg hit the ground caused such damage that he was knocked unconscious and very nearly died.

His story of recovery in a Luftwaffe hospital, escape using tied bed sheets from the top floor of the hospital to a Saint-Omer safe house, rearrest and eventual incarceration at the notorious Colditz Castle in Germany, is scarcely believable.

Douglas Bader, right, with fellow crew members stand beside a Hurricane during a break in hostilities during the Second World War
Douglas Bader (right) with fellow crew members stand beside a Hurricane during a break in hostilities during the Second World War (PA Archive)

It prompted the good folk of Saint-Omer to launch The Douglas Bader Trail, a fascinating two-hour trip down memory lane, laced with anecdotes and visits to the most significant venues featured in his life.

My prized possession as a boy was an autograph book featuring Douglas Bader’s signature, which my father helped secure as a press photographer in the Sixties, so the chance to tag along on the tour was too good to miss.

It also affords me an opportunity to see some of the jaw-dropping remnants of the Second World War that lie on the outskirts of the town, and to visit some of the immaculate war cemeteries in honour of my late great uncle Wesley, who is buried nearby after falling in the Great War at the age of 19.

Saint-Omer is easily reached in a little over an hour-and-a-half from London by train and car via the Eurostar.

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Le moulin de l'aile …

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First stop is the aerodrome at Longuenesse on the outskirts of the town, which gave birth to the RAF when the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service merged on April 1, 1918, making it the oldest independent air force in the world.

There was much pomp and ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary earlier this year, acknowledging the role the airfield played in hosting more than 50 RAF squadrons over the years.

It also provided a base for the Luftwaffe to launch attacks on London during the Battle of Britain after France had been invaded.

Now, only a stone memorial, built in the shape of a hangar and carrying the RAF slogan, ‘Per ardua ad astra’ – ‘Through adversity to the stars’ – remains, although plenty of old pictures adorn the Aeroclub de Saint-Omer clubhouse.

A memorial to the airmen and personnel who served in France during the First World War lies in the grounds of the Saint-Omer airfield, on the outskirts of the town (Chris Wiltshire/PA)
A memorial to the airmen and personnel who served in France during the First World War lies in the grounds of the Saint-Omer airfield, on the outskirts of the town (Chris Wiltshire/PA)

The RAF’s motto could have been written specifically for Bader, whose iron will and bloody-mindedness made him such an inspiration to injured pilots and the disabled at large.

“Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t do this or that,” he once said. “Make up your mind you’ll never use crutches or a stick, then have a go at everything. Never let them persuade you that things are too difficult or impossible.”

An exhibition of the RAF’s work in France during the two world wars, including a special tribute to Bader, can be found close by at La Coupole (The Dome), one of the most impressive bunker remnants in Europe, where the Nazis planned to launch dozens of V2 rocket-propelled bombs a day.

The enormous La Coupole bunker, built in the side of a disused chalk quarry, was designed to launch dozens of V2 rockets a day, but was put out of action when a tallboy bomb fell close by
The enormous La Coupole bunker, built in the side of a disused chalk quarry, was designed to launch dozens of V2 rockets a day, but was put out of action when a tallboy bomb fell close by (Chris Wiltshire/PA)

Walking through its maze of dark and foreboding tunnels feels like being on the set of a James Bond movie. I can just picture gadgets expert Q explaining to Bond how he could use one of his devices to stop the 46ft 15-ton V2 bombs from raining on London.

In fact, it was a ground-penetrating 12,000lb tallboy bomb that brought the project to an end just weeks before it was due to go fully operational. The bomb fell on the fringes of the bunker, causing so much structural damage to the walls and entrances that the bunker had to be abandoned. Without it, the course of history could have changed, although the rockets at least provided scientists with the tools to make space travel possible in later years.

Chris Wiltshire is dwarfed by a V1 rocket at the Blockhaus d’Eperlecques, but it was the feared V2 rockets that were the biggest concern for the Allies
Chris Wiltshire is dwarfed by a V1 rocket at the Blockhaus d’Eperlecques, but it was the feared V2 rockets that were the biggest concern for the Allies (Chris Wiltshire/PA)

A similar fate met the nearby Blockhaus d’Eperlecques, the so-called Watten bunker, which is arguably even more impressive in its size and capacity to bring destruction through V2 bombs, Adolf Hitler’s Wunderwaffe (wonder weapon). Now part of a privately-owned museum, the site boasts a trove of wartime artefacts with fascinating historical narratives.

It gives my party plenty to reflect on over a hearty meal of chicken, cheese sauce and fresh vegetables at the small, quirky and yet highly recommended Chez Tante Fauvette restaurant in the shadow of the Cathedral of Saint-Omer.

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#stomer #nofilter #miam

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A three-day helping of war stories and memorabilia may not appeal to everyone’s taste, but to ignore the historical treasures so close to our shores would be a travesty.

In such a volatile world, we owe it to likes of Bader, my great uncle and many more to look and learn.

Chances are, the experience will live long in the memory.

How to get there

Eurostar (eurostar.com/uk) offers fares from St Pancras International to Calais-Frethun from €33 (£29) one way.

Rooms at the Najeti Hotel du Golf (golf.najeti.fr/en) cost from €88 (£78).

Pleasure flights for two from Saint-Omer airfield cost from €81 (£71) Visit acsto.fr.

The Douglas Bader tour is €8 (£7). Book through mannedup.com.

Entry to La Couple and Blackhaus d’Eperlecques (lacoupole-france.co.uk) is €10 (£8.80).

For more information, visit tourisme-saintomer.com.

© Press Association 2018

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