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For most of the First World War it was a major British airfield – the largest on the Western Front – housing both operational squadrons and support units. It was also the site of Headquarters (HQ) RFC – located in a small chateau at the foot of the hill between the town and the airfield. Over 50 of the RFC’s flying squadrons are recorded as having operated from the airfield, some only briefly, but others for extended periods – including 9 and 16 Squadron that were first formed at St Omer. It was also the centre of a large and complex logistic organisation that sprang up around the airfield to supply the ever-growing number of front line squadrons and to make good the high wastage in aircraft and equipment as the war progressed.
In one of those ironic twists of fate, it was from St Omer in the summer of 1940 that Bf109s and 110s operated over England in support of the Luftwaffe’s attacks during the Battle of Britain. As a result, the airfield was a regular target for RAF fighter/bomber attacks through the early years of the war, while only 2km to the south, Bomber Command attacked the German V2 bunker at Wizernes with over 3000 tons of bombs between March and July 1944.
The place and time appear to have triggered a lyrical spirit in a number of diarists. At the end of an evening flight from St Omer in a BE2c, Cecil Lewis wrote that:
'Slowly the aerodrome rose up through the gauzy swathes of mist spun by the invisible hands of twilight. Above, the cirrus turned copper, faded to pink and mauve, and at last drifted grey and shroudlike in the vast arena of the darkening heaven. Over the sheds at four thousand I went into a vertical bank and rushed earthwards in a tight spiral. At a thousand I pulled out, feeling a bit sick, burst my engine to make sure of the plugs, and then cautiously felt my way in over the hangars and touched with that gentle easy rumble which means a perfect landing, turned, and taxied in.'
In the same month, Maurice Baring recorded the following scene:
'In the afternoon we went up to the Aerodrome … covered in snow. The sun sank to an enormous ball of fire; the sky was dyed with a soft brush. Higher up it was blue; but very cold looking and pure. In that frozen space an RE7 suddenly appeared, and the sunlight caught it, and it glowed and glistened like a fine opal. It looked like a gigantic magical bird.'
Inevitably, not everyone was impressed by what they found. The town itself seems to have brought out mixed reactions. Major Edward (Mick) Mannock, described St Omer as a 'nasty town, mainly composed of estaminets, old women, and dirty – very dirty children', while Lieutenant Harry van Goethem, who arrived with 10 Squadron at St Omer in July 1915, appears to have relished his brief time billeted there describing his visit as ‘historic’. He particularly enjoyed the Café Vincent and 'the wonderful waitress (Jeanne) whose fair coiffe was the admiration of countless thousands of British officers. "Given the number of squadrons for whom a night out in St Omer was a regular social event – being recognised as a meeting place for members of any squadron within a reasonable distance – it may be concluded that for the majority of RFC personnel it was an agreeable destination.
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