The Royal Air Force (RAF) may be British, but the French consider it a dual-citizen since it was born during World War One in the Pas-de-Calais, and they too are celebrating its 100th Anniversary with special exhibitions and a Douglas Bader trail.
The RAF was formed in 1918 from the amalgamated Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). At the time the RFC General Headquarters (GHQ) was based at Château de Bruyères, next to the Longuenesse airfield outside St. Omer in Pas-de-Calais, and it was here under General Hugh Trenchard, that the RAF came into existence.
A week ago (9 June), as part of the RAF centenary, the town of Saint Omer and The Expeditionary Trust opened a special temporary exhibition, 1918 – 2018 St-Omer et la Royal Air Force, in the Jesuit Chapel in St. Omer covering the RFC’s activities in the area since 1914 and its transformation into the RAF.
The exhibition is very impressive – way better than I was anticipating for a temporary exhibition! It draws on unique collections from the local area and in Britain, and presents them in a series of dioramas and displays focusing on particular aspects of the air war in WW1 – eg. Engineering; the expansion of airfields, the development of aerial photography, wireless communications, fighter aircraft & bombing; airfield defence; etc.
The centerpiece is a replica Bleriot X1 – based on the aircraft flown by Louis Bleriot across the Channel in 1909 and the first aeroplane to be supplied to the newly formed RFC in 1912. It was in service with No. 7 Squadron at St Omer in 1915 and was used for reconnaissance and training.
The exhibition also makes clever use of technology to explain the history of the RFC/RAF. You can listen to audio of pilots (actors) and other personnel talking about their experiences by clicking the red button on top of the ceramic drinks flagons dotted around, watch cine footage (inside a squadron briefing room), use interactive maps to see aerial photos of airfields around St. Omer and compare with today’s landscape, and try your hand at flying a British, French or German aircraft in the skies above St. Omer on one of four flight simulators designed by graduates of Kingston University Aerospace Engineering.
In addition to the 1918 – 2018 St-Omer et la Royal Air Force exhibition, the St. Omer Tourist Office will be offering bus tours during the summer, visiting key locations in the (tin) footsteps of WW2 hero Squadron Leader Douglas Bader, the RAF’s famous double-amputee who crashed, was captured and escaped in the area. Also, one of the area’s most famous WW2 sites, La Coupole, has opened a special exhibition to mark the RAF’s 100th Anniversary.
Declaration: I was visiting St Omer as a guest of Pas-de-Calais Tourism.
The 1918 – 2018 St-Omer et la Royal Air Force exhibition is in the Chapelle de Jesuites, Rue de Lycee, St. Omer, Pas-de-Calais, France.
The exhibition is open every afternoon from 14.00 to 18.00, except Mondays.
It will close on 30th Sept 2018.