Leonard’s War episode 2: Fight and flight over Flanders

(If you missed the first episode, scroll down to find it before this one)

It was on 12 June 1915 – almost the height of summer – that 2nd Lieutenant Leonard Learmount joined his first operational unit – No 7 Squadron – at Saint Omer aerodrome, north-eastern France. His flying log book records the weather as almost perfect for flying a wood-and-frabric aeroplane: clear with a 10mph easterly breeze.

Saint Omer aerodrome 12 June 2015, exactly a century after Learmount’s arrival there. Even the weather was identical, with an easterly breeze. It still operates as the home of the Aéro Club de Saint-Omer, and one of its aircraft is backtracking for take-off from the runway’s other end.

Four short trips out of Saint Omer aerodrome on a new aircraft type were deemed sufficient for Learmount to master its peculiarities and to complete local area familiarisation sorties. The machine he was learning to control was the French-built two-seater Voisin “pusher” biplane [engine and propeller behind the cockpit].

His first sortie consisted of 20min flying circuits, but the second trip was a brief affair lasting 10min. His log book explains: “During spirals, five ribs collapsed. Landed safely.” The instructor had taken control and put the aircraft down without delay.

The Voisin, a French two-seater pusher biplane also used by the RFC

“Spirals” were climbing or descending turns, and if the aircraft was not kept in balance by a careful combination of aileron, rudder and elevator, a spin could develop. The Voisin had a level airspeed of about 65mph, but that was only about 40mph above its stalling speed.

After his final familiarisation sortie, Learmount wrote in his log book: “Above clouds, steered by compass.” He had clearly experienced neither of those things before.

In Learmount’s early operational flying with 7 Sqn, he flew the painfully slow Voisin first out of Saint Omer, and then from other aerodromes further east in the “Ypres Salient” region of Flanders, among them Droglandt. At first, he was purely carrying out reconnaissance and artillery spotting for the army, but aviation’s roles quickly developed to include bombing and photography.

Flying with Learmount on his first operational sortie on 19 June 1915, was his observer/gunner 2nd Lieutenant R. Peck. Peck’s handwritten reconnaissance report records take-off from St Omer at dawn (04:30), and describes observed activity behind enemy lines between Courtrai and Ghent, Flanders. The pencilled words, inscribed carefully by cold hands, provide details of train and other surface transport movements, assemblies of troops and equipment and estimated numbers. The aircraft landed at 07:45am, so they had been airborne for 3h 15min.

Copy of the 19 June 1915 reconnaissance report, filed from Learmount’s first operational flight. (National Records Office)

In a 31 July 1915 combat report filed by Learmount describing an inconclusive encounter with an enemy biplane, the Voisin crew’s armament was recorded as: “Lewis gun, rifle and pistol”. The Voisin gunner, 2nd Lieutenant HH Watkins, initiated the hostile exchange with his Lewis gun, but the German machine positioned itself behind the RFC aircraft. Watkins reports: “I fired over the top plane with the pistol, and the enemy immediately turned and disappeared to the east.” The German aircraft was not identified by type, but was described thus: “Tractor biplane with covered-in fuselage. Machine gun firing to rear. Speed about 85mph.” This kind of encounter was common at that stage of the war, but exchanges soon became more dramatic as Germany started to field armed fighters.

(National Records Office)

By early autumn, bombing sorties were more regularly executed – including against German aerodromes. For example a handwritten, undated operation order tasked five 7 Sqn pilots – including Learmount – with carrying out two bombing raids on Gits aerodrome in Flanders, near the Gits railway station just east of the Torhout-Roulers road. The first was to be at 7am, the second at 2pm to disrupt attempts at repair. Each aircraft normally carried two or three 20-pound bombs.

http://www.greatwar.co.uk

There was a difference between the general aviation strategies of the Allies and Germany. Germany frequently had technology and performance advantages, but they had a significantly smaller aircraft fleet and knew it. The Allies wanted to press their numerical advantage by venturing every mission into airspace over German lines to gain intelligence and disrupt operations, whereas the Germans would work to limit their own losses by staying defensively over their lines, except for making brief, organised formation attacks to the west of the Front.

When the Battle of Loos began on 25 September 1915, No. 7 Sqn was heavily involved in providing air support and reconnaissance for the allied troops. This was a British offensive on the Western Front close to Lille, not far north of Arras which included the first use of chlorine gas on the ground. By 8 October the push came to a standstill against staunch German defences.

The original site of Droglandt aerodrome is in the farmer’s field to the right of the telegraph poles

Learmount was now mostly flying the BE2c out of Droglandt, 20km west of Ypres, Flanders. The BE2 series had originally been designed – in 1912 – as a very stable, unarmed reconnaissance machine, and that was fine until the Germans introduced well-armed aircraft like the Fokker Eindecker, the first aircraft in the war to have a machine gun firing forward through the propeller. The interrupter gear enabling this armament was put into service in July 1915, and the Allies did not have an answer to it until early 1916. So the BE2c’s previously desirable characteristics made it a sitting duck (more about this in future episodes). Many were shot down but – fortunately – because they were such stable machines to handle, the crews were often able to control the machine to a forced landing.

Royal Aircraft Factory BE2c at the Imperial War Museum

So many BE2cs had been built, however, that they continued to be used for reconnaissance and bombing into 1917, and crews dreaded them.  

Meanwhile Learmount was recommended for a Military Cross, the citation lauding his general performance since joining 7 Sqn in June, but describing a specific action on the second day of the Battle of Loos: “Consistent good work, done most gallantly and conscientiously from 13.6.15 to present time. This Officer bombed and hit one half of a train on 26.9.15, coming down to 500ft immediately after Lieut DAC Symington had bombed the other half.”

The point about coming down to 500ft is that it puts the aircraft within easy range of machine gun fire, and trains were almost always defended.

Tomorrow: Episode 3, Learmount is seconded to the French Armée de l’Aire to report on their development of night bombing techniques

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