Reach­ing for the sky: re­trac­ing the path through France of a hero pi­lot

In a year of cen­te­nary com­mem­o­ra­tions for the RAF, Chris Wilt­shire looks back at the life of Dou­glas Bader, one of the Se­cond World War’s most re­mark­able pi­lots

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - TRAVEL -

My stom­ach is churn­ing and my heart thump­ing as I re­flect on one of Se­cond World War pi­lot Dou­glas Bader’s dark­est days.

The spirit of my late fa­ther is with me as I strap my­self into the back of a tiny four-seater Robin air­craft on the very run­way that launched the Royal Air Force 100 years ago this year, on the out­skirts of Saint-Omer in north­ern France.

We used to share many an en­joy­able evening watch­ing re­runs of Reach For The Sky, the 1956 black and white biopic of Bader’s bat­tle to re­cover from hav­ing both legs am­pu­tated when an ac­ro­batic air stunt went trag­i­cally wrong, and his jour­ney to be­come a crack Spit­fire fighter pi­lot.

A short burst of speed and we rum­ble along the pock-marked Tar­mac, past an im­pos­ing air­craft han­gar built by the Ger­mans after British crews had been forced to give up the site. Then we are up, soar­ing into cloud­less skies on a crisp au­tumn evening, the sun dis­ap­pear­ing over the dis­tant white cliffs of Dover.

Head­phones muf­fle the noisy sound of the sin­gle pro­pel­ler, and our French pi­lot Fran­cois Mobailly of­fers re­as­sur­ing words over the in­ter­com to re­place the pound­ing from my heart.

“It is a beau­ti­ful night, oui?” he says, tilt­ing the air­craft to the left so we can take in the beauty of the Au­do­marois marshes, the spi­der’s web of wet­lands that were sculpted by monks in the sev­enth cen­tury.

Then we cross over pretty Saint-Omer, the red tiles of the an­cient houses glow­ing in the fad­ing light that sur­round its Gothic Notre-Dame Cathe­dral.

Mo­ments later, Fran­cois breaks into ex­cited chat­ter. “There it is,” he says, nod­ding ahead and tip­ping the nose of the air­craft down. “That’s where Bader came down. See, down in those fields.”

My fel­low pas­sen­gers strain for a view of the patch­work of green fields and golden trees be­low.

The calm­ness of the mo­ment gives lit­tle hint of the sheer ter­ror Wing Com­man­der Bader must have been feel­ing that bleak Au­gust day back in 1941.

Al­ready hand­i­capped by the loss of both legs, Bader was forced to bail out of his stricken Spit­fire after be­ing caught in cross­fire dur­ing a fierce dog­fight with Ger­man Messer­schmitts.

Bader strug­gled to re­lease one of his ar­ti­fi­cial legs from the cock­pit and had to leave it in situ be­fore the air­craft plunged to the ground.

He was able to re­lease his para­chute just in time, but the im­pact when his re­main­ing pros­thetic leg hit the ground caused such dam­age that he was knocked un­con­scious and very nearly died.

His story of re­cov­ery in a Luft­waffe hospi­tal, es­cape us­ing tied bed sheets from the top floor of the hospi­tal to a Saint-Omer safe house, re­ar­rest and even­tual in­car­cer­a­tion at the no­to­ri­ous Colditz Cas­tle in Ger­many, is scarcely be­liev­able. It prompted the good folk of Sain­tOmer to launch The Dou­glas Bader Trail, a fas­ci­nat­ing two-hour trip down mem­ory lane, laced with anec­dotes and visits to the most sig­nif­i­cant venues fea­tured in his life.

Saint-Omer is eas­ily reached in a lit­tle over an hour-and-a-half from Lon­don by train and car via the Eurostar.

First stop is the aero­drome at Longue­nesse on the out­skirts of the town, which gave birth to the RAF when the Royal Fly­ing Corps and Royal Naval Air Ser­vice merged on April 1, 1918, mak­ing it the old­est in­de­pen­dent air force in the world.

There was much pomp and cer­e­mony to mark the 100th an­niver­sary ear­lier this year, ac­knowl­edg­ing the role the air­field played in host­ing more than 50 RAF squadrons over the years.

Now, only a stone memo­rial, built in the shape of a han­gar and car­ry­ing the RAF slo­gan, ‘Per ar­dua ad as­tra’ — ‘Through ad­ver­sity to the stars’ — re­mains, although plenty of old pic­tures adorn the Ae­ro­club de Saint-Omer club­house.

The RAF’s motto could have been writ­ten specif­i­cally for Bader. “Don’t lis­ten to any­one who tells you that you can’t do this or that,” he once said. “Make up your mind you’ll never use crutches or a stick, then have a go at ev­ery­thing. Never let them per­suade you that things are too dif­fi­cult or im­pos­si­ble.”

An ex­hi­bi­tion of the RAF’s work in France dur­ing the two world wars, in­clud­ing a spe­cial trib­ute to Bader, can be found close by at La Coupole (The Dome), one of the most im­pres­sive bunker rem­nants in Europe, where the Nazis planned to launch dozens of V2 rocket-pro­pelled bombs a day.

Walk­ing through its maze of dark and fore­bod­ing tun­nels feels like be­ing on the set of a James Bond movie. I can just pic­ture gad­gets ex­pert Q ex­plain­ing to Bond how he could use one of his de­vices to stop the 46ft 15-ton V2 bombs from rain­ing on Lon­don.

In fact, it was a ground-pen­e­trat­ing 12,000lb tall­boy bomb that brought the project to an end. The bomb fell on the fringes of the bunker, caus­ing so much struc­tural dam­age to the walls and en­trances that the bunker had to be aban­doned. With­out it, the course of his­tory could have changed, although the rock­ets at least pro­vided sci­en­tists with the tools to make space travel pos­si­ble in later years.

A sim­i­lar fate met the nearby Block­haus d’Eper­lec­ques, which is ar­guably even more im­pres­sive in its size and ca­pac­ity to bring de­struc­tion through V2 bombs, Adolf Hitler’s Wun­der­waffe (won­der weapon). Now part of a pri­vately-owned mu­seum, the site boasts a trove of wartime arte­facts with fas­ci­nat­ing his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives.

It gives my party plenty to re­flect on over a hearty meal of chicken, cheese sauce and fresh veg­eta­bles at the small, quirky and yet highly rec­om­mended Chez Tante Fau­vette restau­rant in the shadow of the Cathe­dral of Saint-Omer.

A three-day help­ing of war sto­ries and mem­o­ra­bilia may not ap­peal to ev­ery­one’s taste, but to ig­nore the his­tor­i­cal trea­sures so close to our shores would be a trav­esty.

In such a volatile world, we owe it to likes of Bader and many more to look and learn.

Chances are, the ex­pe­ri­ence will live long in the mem­ory.

SKY-BOUND: pre­par­ing to board a four-seater light air­craft, the enor­mous La Cou­ple bunker (top right) and Chris Wilt­shire dwarfed by a V1 rocket at the Block­haus d’Eper­lec­ques

MOV­ING TRIB­UTE: a memo­rial to the air­men who served in France in the grounds of the Saint-Omer air­field. In­set: Dou­glas Bader (right) with fel­low crew mem­bers be­side a Hur­ri­cane aero­plane

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