A guided tour on the Douglas Bader Trail in St Omer, France

Douglas Bader was a Royal Air Force fighter pilot during World War Two. While flying a Spitfire over France on 9 August 1941 he was forced to bale out of the aircraft and was taken prisoner by the occupying Nazi Germans. On Saturdays from 7 July until 1 September 2018 guided tours of associated locations are being run in and around St Omer to tell his story. Writes Stuart Forster.

Who was Douglas Bader?

Bader was a fighter ace credited with 22 victories during the Battle of Britain and raids over northern France in 1941. He was a war hero who was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (and bar) and Distinguished Flying Cross (and bar). He was knighted in 1976.

If his flying record and military service was not in itself remarkable, Bader survived a near fatal crash in 1931 that resulted in both of his legs being amputated. Despite being discharged from the RAF, Bader learnt to fly with prosthetic legs. He re-joined the service at the beginning of World War Two and, despite initial rejections, successfully applied to become a fighter pilot.

His story became widely known through the book Reach for the Sky, written by Paul Brickhill.

The book became a best seller and was filmed in the mid-1950s. In the film version of Reach for the Sky, Kenneth Moore stars as Bader.

The Douglas Bader Trail

Philippe Queste is a historian and has been a key figure in researching the story of Douglas Bader in and around St Omer, the town in France’s Pas de Calais department where Bader was taken prisoner.

Guided tours of The Douglas Bader Trail depart from Place Painlevé in St Omer at 2.30pm each Saturday. Up to 30 people can participate in the bilingual tour, which is priced at €8 for adults and €4.50 for children (aged 6 to 18; children under 6 years of age can attend free of charge). Tickets can be booked via St Omer’s tourism information office.

The building in St Omer that formerly housed the Clinique Stérin, from which Bader escaped.

The building in St Omer that formerly housed the Clinique Stérin, from which Bader escaped.

Locations in and around St Omer

The sites of interest on the guided tour include:

The field near Le Mont Dupil, south-east of St Omer, where it is believed that Bader was captured after parachuting from his Spitfire. His right prosthesis was trapped in the cockpit and badly damaged in the crash.

Injured, Bader was taken prisoner by the Germans and transferred to the Clinique Stérin (59 Rue St Bertin) in St Omer for medical treatment. With the aid of a Polish pilot, who spoke English and French, plus a nurse, Lucy de Boracay, Bader soon hatched a plan to escape with the support of local people.

After climbing down knotted bed sheets St Omer resident Gilbert Petit helped Bader along a nearby alley to a hiding place in a house on St Omer’s Le Quai du Haut Pont.

The alley near the Clinique Stérin in St Omer which Gilbert Petit helped Bader escape along.

The alley near the Clinique Stérin in St Omer which Gilbert Petit helped Bader escape along.

He hid at the property of the Hiecques family. Unfortunately for the Hiecques and Bader, a young nurse had heard the family name being mentioned and betrayed them to the Nazis. Bader was recaptured by a search party. (The Hiecques were sentenced to death, a penalty that was commuted to forced labour. Mrs Hiecques was awarded the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest order of merit, in 1965 — 13 years after her husband’s death.)

The hangar at the St. Omer – Wizernes Airfield, at Longuesnesse, we well camouflaged by the Luftwaffe and was not visible from the air, commented Bader.

The hangar at the St. Omer – Wizernes Airfield, at Longuesnesse, was well camouflaged by the Luftwaffe and was not visible from the air, commented Bader.

Adolf Galland, a Luftwaffe officer and German flying ace, met with Bader at a local airfield. The St. Omer – Wizernes Airfield at Longuesnesse, was a key base for Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force aircraft during World War One. A memorial to the British air services stands by the airfield. Gallant secured permission from the head of the Luftwaffe, Herman Göring, for the RAF to drop Bader a replacement prosthesis. (The planes that did so subsequently carried on a bombing mission!)

Longuenesse (St Omer) Souvenir Cemetery, is managed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and is the resting place for around 300 airmen. Bader’s father worked for the commission, then the Imperial War Graves Commission, after World War One. He died, as a result of war wounds, in St Omer during 1922.

Longuenesse (St Omer) Souvenir Cemetery holds the graves of around 300 airmen.

Longuenesse (St Omer) Souvenir Cemetery holds the graves of around 300 airmen.

Bader’s war after St Omer

From St Omer Douglas Bader was transferred to Stalag Luft III Prisoner of War camp at Sagan, in  Lower Silesia (now Poland). He escaped in 1942. After recapture he was sent to Oflag IV-C, the infamous Colditz Castle, where he remained until the prison’s liberation by the US Army on 15 April 1945.

The British Air Services Memorial at St. Omer – Wizernes Airfield.

The British Air Services Memorial at St. Omer – Wizernes Airfield.

How to get to St Omer

St Omer is approximately 40 minutes’ drive south-east of Calais. The Eurotunnel crosses the Channel between Folkstone and Calais. Le Shuttle runs up to four crossings an hour.

Where to stay in St Omer

The Nateji Hotel Chateau Tilques (12 Rue de Chateau, 62500 Tilques; tel. +31 (0)3 2188 9999) is a 52-room luxury hotel five kilometres from St Omer. The chateau was constructed in the 1890s. The hotel offers rooms in the chateau and a modern annex. It has a swimming pool, tennis court and a bar. Les Vert Mesnil, the hotel’s fine-dining restaurant, is in the converted stables of the original 17th century chateau.

Nateji Hotel Chateau Tilques near St Omer. A comfortable base for exploring the many nearby sites of interest for military history enthusiasts.

Nateji Hotel Chateau Tilques near St Omer. A comfortable base for exploring the many nearby sites of interest for military history enthusiasts.

Further information

St Omer‘s tourism office website has suggestions on other attractions and places to stay in the town. The Pas de Calais Tourisme and France websites also have information about things to do in the region.

Information about Sir Douglas Bader

Learn more about the life of Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader via the following books and film:

Bader’s Last Fight written by military historian Andy Saunders:

Douglas Bader: A Biography is authored by Robert Jackson:


Douglas Bader: The Biography is written by John Frayn Turner:

Fight for the Sky: The Story of the Spitfire and the Hurricane is a book by Douglas Bader:

About the author

Stuart Forster is a history graduate and award-winning journalist based in the north-east of England. He specialises in travel and food writing. His work has been published by The Independent, The Mail on Sunday and The Telegraph.

Disclosure: Stuart visited St Omer as a guest of Pas de Calais Tourism and had full editorial freedom in writing this feature. This post includes links to books and films sold via Amazon: if you click on a link and make a purchase we’ll earn a commission, at no additional cost to yourself.

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