Saint Omer in Nord, Hauts de France is a quintessentially French market town. It has a long and illustrious history. Thomas a Becket AKA Saint Thomas Becket took refuge from Henry II of England in there in 1165. Centuries later, three of America’s Founding Fathers, Daniel, Charles and John Carroll, studied at the Jesuit Chapel.
It is also where aviation history was made in several ways, including as the symbolic home of Britain’s RAF.
And, it’s where Douglas Bader, hero of the RAF in WWII was shot down, escaped from his captors and was sheltered in the town where he is remembered and honoured with a Douglas Bader trail tour.
The Birth of the RAF in Saint-Omer
At Longuenesse on the outskirts of Saint Omer, there is a small aerodrome set among the grassy fields of the countryside of Pas de Calais. It was the location of one of the earliest air shows in 1910. For most of World War I, it was a British airfield with a base of 4000 personnel. More flights took off from here than anywhere else in France.
It was also the site of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) HQ which became the RAF, Royal Air Force on 1 April 1918 and it’s this that makes Saint-Omer the spiritual home of the world’s first air force.
Today there is a memorial at the airfield which reads “PER ADUA AD ASTRA”, Latin for “through hardship to the stars”, the motto of the RAF.
Poignantly, opposite the airfield is the immaculately maintained Commonwealth War Graves Longuenesse Cemetery, the last resting place of many air force personnel.
Follow the Douglas Bader Trail
In World War II, the airfield at Longuenesse was once more pressed into action, this time the German forces occupied the land making it a target for the RAF. It was close by that in 1941, Douglas Bader flew over the Saint Omer along with dozens of British aircraft. Bader was already a hero. He had lost both legs in 1931 in a demonstration of aviation acrobatics. It didn’t stop him from enlisting in the RAF and becoming an “Ace” pilot.
On August 9, 1941 during a strike over Saint-Omer, Bader’s plane was hit and he had to bail out, losing one of his tin legs in the process, landing in what is now an agricultural field. Taken prisoner, he was sent to hospital in rue St Bertin, Saint Omer. Such was Bader’s reputation that he managed to persuade his German captors to allow a replacement to be delivered by air and when they agreed to not shoot the delivery plane down, the leg was dropped in a box and handed over.
Bader, with the help of a French nurse, promptly escaped out of a window at the hospital, shimmying down the wall with help of bed sheets knotted together. He was sheltered by the Hiecque family in rue du Haut-Pont in Saint-Omer. Recaptured, and several escape attempts later, he was finally sent to the notorious Colditz Prisoner-of-War camp, where the Germans, weary of the extraordinary British airman’s escapades, confiscated one of his legs until he promised not to try to escape any more. Bader’s story was told in the book and film Reach for the Sky.
The Hiecque family and the nurse who helped Bader were sentenced to execution, commuted to hard labour. Bader returned to Saint-Omer in 1965 to see Madame Hiecque receive the Legion d’Honneur. He himself was given a Knighthood in 1976 to honour his work on behalf of the disabled community, 8 years before his death in 1982. The Times reported in his obituary: “he became a legend by embodying the heroism of the RAF during the World War II”.
Book the Douglas Bader Trail tour, Saint Omer
Discover Saint-Omer and the surrounding stunning countryside in style with www.les-belles-echappees.com who hire out 2CVs and VW vans plus solex bikes and other retro vehicles. The head-turning rides are available with route plans, picnics and more. You can find them at the site of the former Abbaye Clairmarais, where you’ll spot a giant pigeonnaire, reportedly the biggest in northern France.
Take a break at: Le Saint Sebastian, Blendeques. A lovely traditional restaurant with friendly service and delicious dishes with a Flemish touch
Stay at: Chateau Tilques at Tilques, a gorgeous 19th century chateau set in a large park where peacocks roam, the rooms are roomy and elegant, and the gastronomic restaurant delights. www.tilques.najeti.fr
Get there: DFDS ferries to Dunkirk or Calais daily; Eurotunnel to Calais.
More on St Omer
Take a cruise on the UNESCO listed marshes of Saint-Omer – Audomarois. Criss-crossed by canals where wild life thrives and vegetables grow lush, you can stop your boat to buy at the riverside. It’s the only place in France where the postman delivers by boat!
The library of Saint-Omer – from the outside it looks like any municipal library, but inside is a very special room. The Salle Aubin was once part of an ancient Jesuit College and contains books from the 7th century onwards. It’s an astonishing collection, and included a priceless first Edition Shakesspeare only discovered recently!
Best beer in France! The Brasserie de Saint Omer…