April 1, 2018 marked the first hundred years since the creation of the British Royal Air Force. The combining of the Royal Naval Air Service and the Army’s Royal Flying Corps into a new service took place at St. Omer aerodrome in Nord, pas de Calais as the Great War was approaching its close.
The birth of the RAF
The new chief of this brand-new arm was Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Trenchard. The RAF was vast at this time. It consisted of 23000 aircraft and around 290000 personnel. The British and French military air services combined their resources. Later during WW2, French air services operated in great harmony with the British RAF to achieve victory in the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain, helping to bring the war to an end. The Royal Air Force also worked closely with the French Resistance developing sophisticated undercover activities throughout the later part of the war.
France has not forgotten its connection with the Royal Air Force and has marked the centenary year of its birth in Northern France in grand style.
RAF Exhibition at La Coupole
Two locations have been chosen to exhibit memorabilia from the air battles taking place during both of the World Wars. The first is especially appropriate. The surviving concrete fortifications of the German V2 rocket launch site at La Coupole provide a very poignant setting. This concrete fortress lies about 8 kilometres south west of St. Omer. It was furiously bombed by the Royal Air Force with massive explosive power that caused sufficient damage to prevent the launch pad being used against Allied targets during WW2.
The German military used forced labour to construct this almost indestructible bunker. The exhibition is open to visitors every day until June 2019. It is divided into three sections.
The first part at La Coupole deals with the earliest days of British wartime aircraft of the Great War. There are many photographs, both large and small, documents, articles of the day and a few rare items that come from this time.
The second section of this exhibition deals with the great air raids that took place over war torn northern France during WW2. The ‘Ida Tunnel’ at La Coupole is used to present large photographs covering these attacks that include many against the fortress of La Coupole itself.
The third part of the exhibition is dedicated to the more human aspects of the period between 1914 and 1945. There are documents, testimonies and archival photographs that construct an idea of the associations and relationships that developed between French people and the British aviators.
The exhibition at La Coupole fortress is fascinating, much of it unique and historic. The massive bunker is also an iconic relic standing alone, reminding all European people of the terrible, pointless destruction that occurred during the last war.
The “Centenary of the Royal Air Force”, will be available to view until June 2019, at La Coupole showcasing British aviation’s presence in the skies of northern France between 1914 and 1945.
RAF Exhibition in Saint Omer
The other exhibition only lasts until the end of 2018 but is stunning in its style for anyone interested in this period. It can be visited at the Jesuit chapel in St. Omer.
The exhibition is generally about the aerial warfare of WW1 and concentrates on the British effort. Here too, there are many rare photographs depicting aircraft and the pilots from the time as well as fascinating historic and official documents. There are also many artefacts collected from the fields at the time. Some of them are incredible and of enormous historical importance, if you love this period of history, you will certainly enjoy this presentation.
The centre piece of the exhibition features a genuine Bleriot X1 monoplane. It was not used in combat in the Great War but was a version of the aircraft that Louis Bleriot flew across the English Channel for the first time in 1909. There an aircraft engineering workshop mock up as well. It features British aircraft engineers in exactly the same clothes worn during the Great War and using tools from the period. The only item displayed that is not authentic is a drilling rig mounted on a bench. That was the one used only by the Americans at the time.
Children (and pilots), will be absorbed with the modern, computer generated flight simulators as well. They create lifelike virtual images of WW1 biplane aircraft that can be directed by electronic joy sticks flying across the planes of northern France. A private pilot friend of mine who owned his own aircraft had to be dragged away from them. They are all free to ‘fly’ for as long as you like. This exhibition in St. Omer is profound and historic presentation. It clearly demonstrates the admiration and gratitude that the French people continue to hold for the British air men of the Great War
1918-2018: Royal Air Force, born in Saint-Omer” will be on display until 30 September 2018, at the Chapel of the Jesuits in Saint-Omer.
You can visit the still active aerodrome at Longuenesse near St. Omer. The impeccably maintained Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery opposite contains the graves of many famous Great War pilots from Britain, France and Germany.
By Bob Lyons, ex pilot turned travel writer and total Francophile.
See: The Douglas Bader trail, Saint Omer
Discover more about the history of Pas de Calais: www.history-pas-de-calais.com; More about what to see and do in Pas-de-Calais: www.pas-de-calais-tourisme.com; and more about the centenary of the RAF in Saint Omer: Website: www.tourisme-saintomer.com/en/secteur/centenary-of-the-raf