Perspective on a century of military aviation history

Defense d'entrer sign

A few days ago, on 12 June 2015, I arrived at St Omer aerodrome near Calais, France.

The date was not accidental: exactly 100 years before – on 12 June 1915 – my grandfather Second Lieutenant Leonard Wright Learmount, reported to St Omer aerodrome for active service on completion of his pilot training for the Royal Flying Corps.

Log book arrival in FranceThe page in my grandfather’s flying log book that records his arrival in France and his first sorties from the St Omer aerodrome. I left a scanned copy of this page with the Aero Club members who welcomed us there.

St Omer has been a continuously active airfield since it became the RFC’s main air base for operations in support of the British military on the Western Front in the 1914-1918 Great War. It is still active today courtesy of the Aero Club de St Omer.

St Omer taxiing for take-off on rwy 09-27Taxiing along runway 27 for take-off on 09. The other runway is grass

Less than two years after his arrival in France with exactly 24h flying time in his log book, Major LW Learmount became commander of No 22 Squadron in 1917. He survived the war. Most aviators didn’t.

It took a long time for the significance in military aviation history of St Omer to be recognised publicly. But now it has been. The aerodrome is the site of the recently created British Air Services Memorial.

Air Services Memorial and aerodromeI take my hat off to those who survived and those who didn’t

Air Services Memorial

In its heyday in 1917 and 1918 St Omer was the biggest RFC aerodrome anywhere. It was the RFC headquarters and main support base for the entire airborne effort over the Western Front. About 5,000 personnel were based there – mechanics, fitters, pilots, and all the support and logistic trades.

Now it is the home of the small but proud Aero Club de St Omer. Its runways are too small to support any form of commercial aviation, but the Club members have a powerful sense of the history of their aerodrome and have set up a mini-museum in the WW2 Luftwaffe-built hangar that houses the Club and its aeroplanes.

In the St Omer hangar

St Omer Aero Club museumThe Aero Club de St Omer historic record on display

St Omer & the RFC

Below: Sqn Ldr LW Learmount RAF ( I have no pictures of him in RFC uniform)

LW Learmount in RAF uniform 2

While he was operating over the Western Front he was clearly asked – or perhaps ordered – to write an account for the folks back home of what it was like to be doing his job. This appeared in a newspaper: I think probably the Daily Mirror during 1916 but no detail was written on the cutting.

RFC at the frontNewspaper cutting (1916?)

Capt WE Johns, author of the Biggles series of adventure books for boys, could not have put it better himself.

LW Learmount was wounded twice, but his account is written in such a casual way that it is difficult to feel the danger, the fear, and to imagine the horrors he saw each day when he flew over battlegrounds like the Somme, Passchendaele and Cambrai.

Air Services Memorial 1914-1918My son Charles and I complete our St Omer pilgrimage

But fear he must have felt. In the citation for his award of the Distinguished Service Order, it says this about a photo-reconnaissance flight on 10 May 1917, on which he was wounded, but managed to fly his machine back to base: “On nearly all the other occasions on which this officer took oblique photographs his machine was literally shot to pieces and his escape from injury really miraculous.”

 (Below) My grandfather after the war. Here he is standing next to a de Havilland Cirrus Moth floatplane at Seletar Creek, Singapore, in about 1930, where he was a founder member of the flying club there.

Poppa with DH MothLeonard Learmount


5 thoughts on “Perspective on a century of military aviation history

  1. When the Memorial was erected we hoped that it would provide a fitting tribute to all those aviation personnel who served in France during WW1 and also offer a focus for public and private commemoration. We are delighted that you had such a successful visit and were well looked after by the Aero Club. The mayor and town of St-Omer are very proud of their RFC links and we have recently provided them with further images for a new exhibition that they are planning on the story of St-Omer and Britain in WW1.

    Peter Dye, President Cross & Cockade


  2. Per Ardua Ad Astra, indeed. A timeless life motto, for a few, never to be an everyman, it can mean something to every man. As Wilde aptly “astra” said, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”. And as Beckett aptly “ardua” said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better”. Both Dubliners, both few Westward from Paris on Nov 30 1900 and Dec 22 1989.


  3. Frère Jacques, le premier commandant de bord sur la A-Latey. He is now sadly late too, having flown west from la belle France on the day of your St. Omer pilgrimage of June 12 2015. Time flies, memory, stands still. And at chronological 66, contemporarily short-changed, sadly and lately.
    From Leonard to Jacques it is worthy and timely to reflect. If only politics in general and religion in particular had advanced as far as far as they pushed their symbiotic tested limits 100 years apart, without comprehending either, as the former could not comprehend the latter trough the flak and the latter could not comprehend the former by simply being too late on landing. We all know that too late feeling in myriad ways. But RIP Leonard and Jacques, time flies, memory stands still.


  4. Now researching the life of George William Bulmer, who was posted to 22 Squadron on 29 December, 1917, when your grandfather was CO.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s