Tracy van der Heiden of St Edward’s School presents an exhibition exploring the school's RAF links

From the terrifying image of a young pilot desperately clinging to his overturned aircraft mid-flight, to accounts of the unspeakable horrors faced by young women in the Special Operations Executive, a new exhibition at The North Wall Gallery in South Parade, Oxford, highlights individual tales of daring, ingenuity and bravery to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the RAF.

From the earliest days of flying more than a century ago, across two bitter global conflicts, through to the dawn of the jet age, the show recounts tales of human endeavour and resilience to illustrate the development of the RAF as the UK’s aerial peacekeeping force.

The Dambusters and Beyond brings together for the first time largely unseen private papers from the Imperial War Museum Archive, the St Edward’s School Archive and historical images from the photographic agency TopFoto to tell its stories. Particularly poignant is the fact that many of the featured individuals are former pupils of St Edward’s School, the principal sponsor of the north Oxford arts centre.

Douglas Bader (1910-1982), a former pupil after whom the School sports hall is named, was one of the RAF’s most famous pilots. Having lost his legs in a flying accident in 1931, Bader was set on re-joining the RAF despite its demanding requirements. Overcoming an initial rejection, he proved to be an exceptional pilot in training and went on to flourish as a leader and a fighter ace. His view that “a disabled person who fights back is not disabled but inspired” is vividly brought to life in an image showing him hoisting his prosthetic legs into the cockpit of a Spitfire, ready to take to the skies.

Louis Strange (1891-1966), the young pilot mentioned above and another former pupil of the School, endured a hideous aerial misadventure in 1915. Suffering the unimaginable double horror of his controls jamming and his safety belt snapping, Strange found himself clinging to his overturned aircraft, a Martinsyde G100, as it plummeted rapidly towards the ground. He had the extraordinary presence of mind and physical strength to haul himself back into the cockpit, where his feet miraculously found the joy stick, and he righted the plane. The exhibition features drawings and comic strips illustrating this incredible sequence of events for an admiring public.

Geoffrey de Havilland (1882-1965) was captivated by the Wright brothers’ demonstration of powered flight in 1903. When he left St Edward’s, he trained as engineer, focusing on aviation, and was soon given the role of pilot and designer at Britain’s key aircraft factory. During the First World War, de Havilland’s design skills were particularly valued and he went on to develop many pioneering aircraft, many of which feature in the exhibition. Such innovation came at huge personal cost, however: two of de Havilland’s sons, Geoffrey and John, died testing de Havilland aircraft. Geoffrey was 36 when he died, and John, just 24.

At one time described as ‘the most valuable pilot in the RAF’ Adrian Warburton (1918-1944), another former St Edward’s pupil, was the Second World War’s most successful long-range reconnaissance pilot. Warburton’s bravery and skill in delivering detailed photographs, often flying at very low heights to get them, enabled many successful bombing raids. Despite the immense danger he faced, he was described as a ‘cool and calculating recce pilot who never took unnecessary risks’.

Guy Gibson (1918-1944) left St Edward’s to join the RAF in 1936. He went on to become a highly experienced Bomber Command pilot noted for his dedication and leadership skills. Because of his reputation, Gibson was the perfect choice to form and command No 617 Squadron for a raid against the Ruhr dams in the German industrial heartland. During the night of 16-17 May 1943, Gibson and his men had to fly at very low heights for the daring raid to succeed. Only the very best airmen could master dropping the bombs at the right speed, the right height and the right distance from the target. Photographs of the breached dams feature in the exhibition, along with a letter from Guy Gibson to the School’s then Warden (Headmaster) Henry Kendall, in which he casually mentions; “PS, Was awarded the VC yesterday.”

In drawing so heavily on the archive of a boys’ school, the early part of the exhibition gives prominent attention to the achievements and exploits of young men. Drawing on material from our other partners, the exhibition highlights the indispensable roles played by women in the Women’s Royal Air Force and, later, in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. During the Second World War, women made wide-ranging contributions including taking jobs as electricians and engineers, flying aircraft from factories to front-line squadrons, working with radar and intelligence roles intercepting codes and ciphers.

Violette Szabo (1921-45) was an Anglo-French SOE agent who undertook two missions in France. After training, she was parachuted into France to help the local Resistance movement, returning safely. After D-Day in June 1944, Szabo was again flown to France but this time she was captured. She withstood torture and interrogation, revealing nothing. In early 1945, Szabo was murdered with two other SOE wireless operators, Denise Bloch and Lilian Rolfe. She was 23 years old. One of the most heartbreaking images in the exhibition is of Szabo’s young daughter, Tania, aged four, receiving her mother’s George Cross at a private investiture by King George VI at Buckingham Palace.

Inspiring stories of extraordinary people.

* The Dambusters and Beyond: Celebrating the RAF is at The North Wall Gallery on South Parade OX2 7JN until July 17; admission is free.