In the footsteps of Douglas Bader

The French town of Saint Omer in the Pas-de-Calais, is marking its role in the 100th Anniversary of the formation of the RAF, with a guided tour of the local sites linked to the famous WW2 fighter ace and double-amputee, Group Captain Douglas Bader.

The name Douglas Bader is well-known to any Brit over 55 yrs old, not least because of the film Reach for the Sky (1956) about his heroic exploits before and during WW2. In short, he was an RAF pilot who had both his legs amputated after a bad crash in 1931, which forced him to learn to walk with prosthetic legs, leave the RAF and try to adapt to civilian life.

Until… the RAF became desperate for pilots at the start of WW2 and he was able to rejoin and start flying again. Before long he was a Squadron Leader and a fighter ace.

SL Douglas Bader sat on his Hurricane fighter aircraft

On 9th Aug 1941 his Spitfire crashed* in Pas-de-Calais near St Omer. He was able to bail out, losing one of his prosthetic legs, was captured and taken to the Luftwaffe hospital in St. Omer. While there, his missing leg was returned to him (damaged, but repaired by Luftwaffe engineers), and he was entertained at a German airfield by the German ace, Gruppenkommandeur Adolph Galland, commander of the JG 27 fighter group. The next night he climbed down a bedsheet rope from the second floor of the hospital and walked with a guide** from the French resistance for 2km through the deserted streets and back alleys to a ‘safe’ house in the suburbs.

He was recaptured the next morning and sent to a prison camp in Germany. Over the next few years he made several attempts to escape from camps, before eventually being sent to the “escape-proof” Colditz castle.

The new Bader Tour will visit a number of those key places, starting with the site of Bader’s crashed Spitfire (in an unremarkable field. Bader himself was carried under his parachute some distance from the crash site.) The tour then visits the former Clinic Stérin on Rue St Bertin in St Omer, from which he escaped, and then the ‘safe house’ on Quai du Haut Pont where he was re-captured. (Actually two houses belonging to 29 yr old Gilbert Petit, the man who guided him through St. Omer, to his next door neighbours, Mr & Mme Hiecques, who hid him.)

Bader met Adolph Galland and his officers at Audembert airfield, which is near the coast some distance from St Omer and not practical to fit in to the tour itinerary. So the other site is the St. Omer – Wizernes airfield at Longuenesse on the outskirts of St Omer, which was the controlling airfield for the St. Omer group of Luftwaffe fighter airfields (Galland would have been here regularly). Just nearby is another spot on the tour, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Longuenesse, where some of Bader’s RAF colleagues from WW2 are buried (and many from WW1).

The tour will cover some or all of these locations, but others may yet be added or swopped. It is part of St Omer’s #RAF100 programme.


* There is a mystery surrounding Bader’s last flight. Originally the official version was that he was shot down by the enemy. To my mind, the aviation historian, Andy Saunders, has the most detailed and plausible answer: that Bader was shot down by friendly fire. I’ll put Andy’s book Bader’s Last Fight in the Amazon carousel below.

** There is a detailed account of the escape attempt in Saint-Omer and the British Connection by Richard Cumpston Jones, also in the Amazon carousel below.

Image: Squadron Leader Douglas Bader, CO of No. 242 Squadron, seated on his Hawker Hurricane at Duxford, September 1940. (Wikimedia Commons)

Declaration: I was visiting St Omer as a guest of Pas-de-Calais Tourism.

Factbox

The Douglas Bader Tour will run from July 7th to September 1st 2018 – Every Saturday.

Arrangements:
Meet the tour bus (30 max) at 2.30 pm at the Place Painlevé, St. Omer.
The tour lasts 2h/2h 30m maximum.

Price:
Adult: €8
Child: €4,50 (6-18 years old) – free for the under 6 years old

Booking:
Book at the Saint-Omer Region Tourist and Convention Bureau, 7 Place Victor Hugo – 62500 SAINT-OMER
Or online at billetterie.tourisme-saintomer.com

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