1st April 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 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 had combined their resources to defeat Germany in the air under very hostile conditions. Later during WW2, The French air services operated in great harmony with the British RAF to achieve victory in the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain. Both of these encounters ultimately helped 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 that war.
France has not forgotten about its friendship with the Royal Air Force during much of the twentieth century. She has marked the centenary year of its birth in Northern France in grand style.
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 had used French forced labour in the most brutal way to construct this almost indestructible bunker. Most of the massive concrete structures will remain almost for all time. 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 French people have really gone the full course to demonstrate the spirit, courage and tenacity of the British air fighters from those days. They were all fighting a new type of war in a country that was not their own.
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 arguably 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. This, for so many people today, remains within living memory.
The other exhibition only lasts until the end of 2018 but is absolutely stunning in its style for anyone interested in this period. It can be visited at the Jesuit chapel in St. Omer City itself.
Locate the chapel, not far from the Cathedral, and take in a visit. The exhibition is generally about the aerial warfare of WW1 and concentrates on the British effort. Here too, there are many, almost unique photographs depicting aircraft and the pilots from the time. There are historic documents dealing with events that occurred during WW1. There is even displayed the official document declaring the establishment of the RAF in 1918. It declares the aims that the British Government had for the new service.
There are also many intricate artefacts that were collected from the fields at the time. Some of them are sensationally fascinating and of enormous historical importance. They will intensely concentrate the attention of anyone who is interested in this period of history.
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.
Study the 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 that very period engaged in aircraft repair work. 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. ‘Pilots’ can shoot down enemy aircraft, get shot down themselves and crash their aircraft amongst the trees of Nord, pas de Calais. A private pilot friend of mine who owned his own aircraft had to be dragged away from them. They are all free to ‘fly’ and imagine as long as you like.
This exhibition in St. Omer is quite the most wondrous, profound and historic presentation of anything that I have seen before. It clearly demonstrated the admiration and gratitude that the French people continue to hold for British air fighters during the Great War.
Visit also the aerodrome at Longuenesse near St. Omer. It is still there and still actively flying. The cemetery nearby contains the graves of many famous Great War pilots from Britain, France and Germany. It is historic too and is impeccably maintained by the British War graves Commission.
Aerial wartime activity in both of the World Wars will always generate mutual admiration and trust extended by all visitors towards France and Britain equally. The monuments will always be there and will always be remembered.