Leonard’s War, episode 8: Delivery of a better aircraft changes the game

(For earlier episodes, scroll down)

No 22 Squadron’s pilots were still flying the FE2bs, but having also to learn to operate the newly delivered F.2B Bristol Fighters. These were two-seater strike fighters.

The “Brisfit”, or “Biff”, was not just faster, it was a tractor – rather than a pusher like the Fee, which made it handle very differently. Its armament gave it a formidable field of fire. There was an awful lot for the crews to learn.

The still-flying Bristol Fighter of the Shuttleworth Trust at Old Warden museum and aerodrome, Bedfordshire

The pilots – in the forward cockpit – had a machine gun with interrupter gear, enabling it to fire ahead through the propeller. The observer/gunner’s cockpit, immediately behind the pilot’s, had dual flying controls, and a Lewis gun mounted on a rotating “scarff” ring that gave it a field of fire rearward through a 180deg arc. The Brisfit was powered by a V12 Rolls-Royce Falcon engine, had an airspeed of 126mph (40mph faster than the Fee), had a better rate of climb and altitude capability, plus greater range.

This is an illustration from “Hell in the Heavens”, Whitehouse’s book about life on No. 22 Squadron, RFC. Major Learmount continued to command the Squadron until mid-March 1918.

Whitehouse caught the buzz that arrived with the new fighter: “From that day on we went to work on Jerry with the Bristol Fighters, and within two weeks the General Staff and royalty were visiting the squadron, and our pictures were being splashed over every paper in the Empire”.

One new role enabled by the Bristol Fighters’ higher performance was dreaded by the crews. This was operating as an escort for British bombers – de Havilland DH.4s – tasked to fly deep into enemy territory, their bombs targeting the new German airfield at Gontrode, East Flanders. From there, German Gotha heavy bombers were known to be taking off every day, aiming for London.

Observer/gunner Archie Whitehouse scripted a particularly lyrical account of a six-ship Brisfit formation taking-off for Gontrode: “They stand throbbing, wing-tip to wing-tip, their propellers glistening in the sunshine. The leader’s hand goes up, and the pilots take the alert with hands on throttles. The leader’s hand goes down and the machines seem to stiffen for the spring as the motors open up. The rudders waggle and the colours flash. The observers in their brown leather helmets snuggle down inside the scarff-ring and flick friendly salutes to each other. Then they are away in a swirl of dust, and suddenly all climb together.”

Once airborne, the Brisfits headed for Ypres, where they rendezvoused with the DH.4s, and set course for Gontrode.

Meanwhile, evident on both sides of the Front were preparations for what became the Third Battle of Ypres, the huge slugging match between the end of July and early November 1917 also known as the Battle of Passchendaele. Casualty numbers at Passchendaele, about 8km north-east of Ypres, eventually matched those at Verdun and the Somme.

The action moved to the Ypres area in summer, and then to Cambrai in November

Casualty numbers at 22 Sqn also went up at that time. Despite the successes in the air the Biff was bringing, the intense activity on the ground and in the air on both sides of the Line as the anticipated clash in Flanders approached meant a higher loss rate, and that continued once the battle itself was raging. More empty chairs in the mess was bad for morale among the exhausted fliers.

For the crews, after the relentlessness of flying under fire from air and ground, precious off-duty time at Estrée Blanche fostered friendships with the local people that would spawn a lifetime of memories for those few fated to survive – military men and civilians alike. Madame Beaussart’s was a village estaminet, and Marie and Annette who worked there knew the squadron aircraft, their markings and who flew them. Just like the men on the aerodrome, the girls watched the aircraft go, and they counted them back again. 

On 19 August, Captain Clement’s Brisfit didn’t return. “A” Flight had lost its leader, and Clement had stepped in to take a mix of A and B Flight ships out on a mission. It was his last. This was awful for the Squadron, and C Flight in particular. Clement’s younger brother Ward Clement had recently joined the Squadron as a gunner, and he and Whitehouse had become firm friends. Clement the younger was distraught and refused to believe Carl wouldn’t return. Hours later he persuaded himself his elder brother had force-landed and would make his way back. But that wasn’t true.

Whitehouse wrote: “When we went back to Madame Beaussart’s, Marie and Annette knew that ‘N’ had not come back, but they said nothing. The coffee and rum were good. I think we drank an awful lot of it.”

After an appallingly wet August, September brought drier weather and good visibility, making the RFC’s close air support in this war-torn region of Flanders highly effective. For five days from 20 September 1917, at the Battle of Menin Road Ridge, the 22 Sqn Biffs were used effectively for ground attack, air superiority, and reconnaissance. Rapid reporting of German counter-attack manoeuvres allowed Allied artillery to be directed accurately. This clash was one of many on the periphery of the Passchendaele campaign

In November came the end of the Battle of Passchendaele and the beginning of the Battle of Cambrai, an attempt by the British to break through the Hindenburg Line in a massive attack combining artillery, tanks, infantry and air power.

Whitehouse described 22 Sqn’s role: “We had the unenviable job of blowing up the enemy balloons, strafing road transport, and making a general nuisance of ourselves. We were down low, flying through our own shell-fire to hammer Cooper bombs on the German anti-tank gun emplacements. We strafed the roads and chased horse-drawn transport all over open fields, and generally played merry hell…

“We fired hundreds of rounds of ammunition and burned out our gun barrels. We returned again and again for fuel, bombs and the reviving encouragement of Major Learmount. Thank God for the Major during those days!”

This, it seems, was about the time when the air gunner and the squadron commander reached an unspoken awareness that they had become the only two remaining aircrew from what Whitehouse called “the Chipilly mob” who were still flying on 22 Sqn.

It left them with a feeling of emptiness, against which the only antidote was the adrenaline summoned up by the next sortie. Whitehouse wrote: “We flew, slept, flew, slept and flew some more. We staggered back and forth to our machines, too tired to eat. No-one spoke, no-one laughed, no-one argued. Faces were lined with weariness, pitted with cordite, and daubed with whale-oil.”

Tomorrow: Episode 9, in which the winter weather gets very difficult, the Squadron puts on a Christmas show, Whitehouse goes back to England to train as a pilot, and Major Learmount gets his blighty.

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