If you’re looking for a fun way to visit northern France, Les Belles Echappees in Saint Omer fits the bill. Located within the peaceful Ferme de L’Abbaye at Clairmarais, this family run organisation hires out restored classic vintage vehicles. Choose from sparkling VW camper vans to prestigious Citroen 2CV cars and VW convertible Beetles. There’s even a three wheel Tuk Tuk and gleaming battery powered bicycles. They’re great for touring the town of Saint Omer and the locality.
For my visit we chose a VW Campervan, big enough to fit in several people. No powered steering, synchromesh gears, soft suspension or firm brakes for us during the next couple of hours. It was a real taste of travel 50 or 60 years ago. Which, as it turned out, was rather appropriate. We headed into the 1940’s world of the legendary legless fighter pilot, Douglas Bader, RAF.
Discovering Douglas Bader in Saint Omer
Group Captain Douglas Bader was born in London on February 21, 1910 and joined the RAF Cadet College at Cranwell to become a pilot in 1928. He was a determined and considered by some to be a somewhat antagonistic man. Shortly after his flying training he indulged in some aerobatic demonstrations. Crashing his aircraft, he was badly injured and lost both of his legs.
It seemed to be the end of a promising career for Bader in Fighter Command. Bader had other ideas though. With the outbreak of WW2 he returned to flying in the air force. He became a squadron Commander and fought tirelessly during the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain in Hurricane and Spitfire aircraft with the aid of artificial tin legs. He became a legend amongst his colleagues and countrymen.
Shot down by accidental friendly fire over northern France in August 1941, he bailed out of his aircraft but had to leave one of his trapped artificial legs behind in the cockpit. He was taken prisoner and sent to a hospital in nearby Saint Omer to recover from his injuries. His German captors treated him with great respect and courtesy, he was quite a legend by then.
The Germans agreed that a replacement prosthetic leg could be dropped for Bader by the British on one of their regular bombing raids. He was reunited with it whilst making preparations for his escape back to England. A French housemaid at the hospital arranged for him to be taken by a Resistance agent to a safe house on the edge of Saint Omer in the suburb of Le Haut Pont. Bader escaped one night from the hospital using knotted sheets. He had to walk two miles and the courageous agent carried Bader on his back at one point due to the intense pain on a cold and dark night but they made it to the refuge.
A neighbour, however, overheard clanking noises from Bader’s metal legs and drew her own conclusion. She reported the matter to the occupying forces and Bader was recaptured. He spent the rest of the war as a POW and ultimately was sent to the grim and secure prison at Colditz castle in Germany.
You can still see the house where in 1941 Bader was offered refuge by the Hiecques family. The house is modest and lies along the side of the main street in front of the canal. The Hiecques couple and the loyal house maid at the hospital spent the remainder of the war in a labour camp in Germany as punishment. They all survived their dreadful experience.
During the early period of Bader’s imprisonment, he was visited by General Adolf Galland, a highly decorated German fighter pilot. They became lifelong friends and met again after the war when Douglas Bader was the subject of the popular TV programme ‘This is your life’ hosted by Eamon Andrews.
Douglas Bader died on 5th September in 1982 at the age of 72. He has become a part of the historical wartime culture of northern France.
You can visit the key spots where Bader was, the field he parachuted into, the hospital where he was taken, the house he hid out in. Visit the tourist office for details or to take a guided tour.
Bob Lyons is an ex pilot turned travel writer in love with France…