Leonard’s War episode 4: Surviving the Somme, the BE2c, and writing propaganda for the Allies

(For previous episodes, scroll down)

By mid-May 1916 2nd Lieutenant Leonard Learmount had been posted from N.7 Squadron to No 15 Squadron and promoted to Lieutenant, just 6 weeks before the beginning of the massive and deadly Somme offensive by the British army 4th Corps, allied with Canadian and Australian troops.

A general view of the Western Front 1915-16, with battle locations indicated

15 Sqn flew BE2c two-seater “tractor” biplanes in support of that five-month offensive, in which the RFC lost 600 aircraft and 252 crew. The Germans at that time were gradually introducing better-armed machines while the RFC was forced to rely on existing machinery.

BE2c (Imperial War Museum)

In 1916, No. 15 Sqn – operating out of airfields in the vicinity of Arras – was mostly using the BE2c for reconnaissance and as a light bomber, although it could be fitted with underwing-mounted rockets for attacking balloons. And unlike its unarmed BE predecessors, the BE2c observer/gunner was given a pivot-mounted Lewis gun, but more for self-defence than attack. Unfortunately, because the observer’s cockpit was forward of the pilot’s, he was positioned more or less in line with the leading edges of the wings, which limited his field of fire considerably, with the propeller just ahead and the struts either side.

Whatever the aircraft’s mission, essential on every sortie was to engage enemy aircraft to maintain as much control as possible of the skies above the battlefield. The combined aircraft fleets the Allies could field exceeded significantly the numbers of German aircraft, even if their effectiveness didn’t match that of the newer German machines. 15 Sqn also had a pair of Bristol Scouts which could escort the BE2cs in their reconnaissance role. By the end of autumn Learmount – still alive despite flying the BE2c – had been promoted to Lieutenant and made a flight commander.

Propaganda is perceived as information disseminated by the enemy, but it seems the British wanted the people at home to be told about “our boys defending our skies”, because Zeppelins were succeeding in bombing civilian targets in British cities – a development that had deeply shocked the public.

At about this time, Learmount was clearly chosen as the “right stuff” to provide the British people with a word-picture of what it was like to be an RFC pilot. So he duly wrote a story, published in the Daily Mirror, headlined “Mr Learmount at the Front – Experiences in the Royal Flying Corps”, claiming to be “extracts from a letter received from Lieut LW Learmount of the Royal Flying Corps from ‘Somewhere in France’”. When interpreted in the light of history, this “letter” seems to contain a compendium of experiences over quite a wide period.

Press cutting from the Daily Mirror in Autumn 1916, from Learmount’s family records

This is what the “letter” says:

“We are having a very strenuous time here. I suppose I put in about 5 hours every day. Not all of it is over the enemy’s lines, of course. A new duty is patrolling the town where we are stationed, as some time ago a few Huns came over and dropped bombs on us and were off again before we could get up to them, so we go up every morning and cruise around at about 10,000ft so that should any more of them venture an attack we are prepared for them.

“I had a most exciting time the other day. I was going to Ostend and just after crossing the Lines a German machine came up and attacked us with a machine gun. We soon brought ours into play, but owing to his vastly superior speed we were not altogether having things all our own way, when a little British Scout which had been patrolling somewhere near us [probably a fighter escort for the reconnaissance type] dropped from the skies and opened fire and, between us, we downed the Hun pretty successfully.

“After this we went on with our reconnaissance and on the way back we met another Hun, but on this occasion we managed to do him in ourselves, and proceeded gaily on our way, somewhat badly damaged it is true, but still we got home all right.

“These air duels are very thrilling, the sky is thick with bursting shells [“Archie”- or anti-aircraft fire] and amidst the roar of our machine guns you can hear the zip of the Hun’s bullets when they get pretty close, and all the time the two machines are circling about, dropping and climbing, each trying to get the other at a disadvantage.

“Aerial warfare becomes more and more like a sea fight as machines are improved, but unfortunately the Huns have usually got better machines than we have. I have so far flown a rather an antiquated type, a French make, but am now the proud possessor of the very latest British machine, a real beauty [BE2c?]

“We have got a most splendid lot of fellows in the RFC, and I am serenely happy among them, although I get depressed at times the way one after another of them disappears. It is so rotten to see a vacant chair at the Mess table every now and then, and to have to go and pack up some unfortunate chap’s belongings is positively horrible. It make one sick at heart to witness the slaughter, for it amounts to nothing less, of all these fine men.”

Tomorrow: Learmount is promoted directly from Lieutenant to Acting Major, and given command of No. 22 Squadron at Chipilly, equipped with FE2b two-seater pushers, and gets increasingly involved in aerial photography over the heavily fortified German Hindenberg Line.

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