Leonards’ War episode 6: The chaos of airborne encounters

(For previous episodes, scroll down)

The No. 22 Squadron duty armourer issues Lewis guns to crews (Imperial War Museum)

Shortly after landing from his maiden flight with Capt Clement, Air Gunner Second Class Archie Whitehouse was called out for another flight, this time with Lt Brooks. It was a patrol with a formation of C Flight Fees. They gained height over the airfield, joined up and headed east over the German lines.

After surviving fierce “archie” [anti-aircraft fire], the flight was bounced by German machines from above. It turned out to be one of those encounters where the two formations pass through each other firing wildly, then disengage.

On the return leg, Whitehouse caught sight of a German aircraft above and behind his own that neither his pilot nor any of the others had seen. He grabbed the aft Lewis gun and let fly over the top wing. Describing the result, he wrote: “I saw a blaze. I heard a low explosion and something went hissing past our wing-tip…I saw struts flickering in the afternoon sunlight, a long, greasy trail of smoke.” Brooks looked at him with disbelief, which Whitehouse interpreted as disapproval. He began – with dread – to believe he had shot down one of the C Flight Fees by mistake. He huddled into his tub, and waited fearfully for the landing.

Once on the ground, Capt Clement grabbed him exclaiming: “Best damned gunner on the Front! He’s mine! Got a Hun first time up…Judas!”

Within minutes Whitehouse was airborne again, but with Clement. This time C Flight bounced three German machines from above, encircled them, and destroyed two. But then: “The archie barrage increased in venom. There was a tremendous crash and I saw one of our planes disintegrate. The planes fluttered away lightly, the nose and the engine seemed to hover for a few seconds and then plunged forward, the bamboo tail-booms fluttering like silly sticks.” He then described how horror became catastrophe: “I watched it and saw a man fall away, all arms and legs. The wreckage gathered speed and hurtled down – smack on top of the ship nearest to us.”

Clement and Whitehouse watched helplessly as the remains of the two Fees spun earthward in a death embrace. Seconds later Clement pointed ahead at a German Albatros, and Whitehouse went to work. “It twisted and jerked and I heard [Clement] yell…[then] we dove on it with a fierce hatred. I gave it the rest of my drum, and saw it start a tight spin.” Then, incredibly, another disaster: the wreckage of the Albatros collided with another of the Fees, and down it spiralled too.

By the time Whitehouse got back to No. 22 Squadron’s Chipilly base at the end of his first day as an aviator, he had logged eight hours airborne and shot down two German aircraft.  

In that single day he had also seen a fatal aircraft structural failure over his new base before he even got airborne; witnessed a rare but catastrophic “archie” [anti-aircraft fire] hit on his formation; and seen one of his own kills collide with – and destroy – a C Flight FE.2b and its crew.

There were going to be many more days like that.

Between March and May 1917, 22 Squadron moved base three times in a northerly direction, as the offensive focus for the British-led ground forces moved northward from the Somme toward Ypres and Passchendaele, Flanders.

In late spring they ended up for some months at Estrée Blanche, an aerodrome on a low hill not far south of St Omer, in gentle farmland disfigured by coal mine slag heaps. On 10 May Whitehouse took off with Captain Bush and C Flight for a patrol which got very busy. Having brought down one German machine, Whitehouse copped a load of shrapnel in one of his shoulders and his arm stopped working. Bush realised what had happened and headed for base.

On the ground, Whitehouse carefully extracted himself from his Fee with Bush’s help, and they saw a commotion around one of the other machines. The duty flight sergeant explained that Learmount had been hit. Bush asked him how bad it was, and Whitehouse’s account of the reply is rendered in East London vernacular: “Mostly ‘is feelin’s, sir. One came up through ‘is tank and spoiled ‘is trousers. You ought to ‘ear ‘im aswearin’! The Major carn’t arf say it!”

Watching this scene, Whitehouse remarked: “He just looked just angry, not hurt. I didn’t blame him. You can’t go home with a blighty in the breeches and expect to get any sympathy.”  Actually, Learmount had returned from a low-level “oblique photography” sortie, which explained the nature of his injury. For these missions, the crews have to fly so low above the battle lines that they are within easy range of small arms fire.

This painting by aviation artist Tim O’Brien depicts Learmount’s FE2b at Estrée Blanche aerodrome, preparing to depart on 10 May for a low-level aerial photography using new oblique sighting techniques. The trip was one of a series of missions the objective of which was to obtain images of activity in the Germans’ highly fortified Hindenberg Line. Learmount returned wounded by small arms fire from the ground and with his aircraft extensively damaged.

As it turned out, neither airman had got his “blighty” [a wound that gives the damaged man a ticket home]. They recovered with some attention from the camp medic, and a few days off active duty.

From then on, Learmount and Whitehouse flew together a lot more, but increasingly in the new F2b Bristol Fighters that were just beginning to be delivered to 22 Sqn. Whitehouse explained: “After that, whenever the Major wanted to try any tricks [test new equipment or procedures] he usually came and rousted me out. And I loved it. He was a gallant gentleman!”

Tomorrow’s episode 7: The personal cost of aerial photography, and No. 22 Squadron gets the RFC’s new hot ship, the Bristol Fighter.

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