Leonard’s War, episode 7: The pressure starts to tell

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When Observer/Gunner Archie Whitehouse finally took leave back in England, he found himself feeling restless and directionless, despite giving himself plenty to do. And when leave was over, he was strangely grateful to return to 22 Squadron at Estrée Blanche.

But then, as more of his close friends “went west”, he immersed himself in tasks on the aerodrome between sorties “to keep myself from going completely mad”. He did not understand his feelings. “It suddenly dawned on me that the only time I was really content was when I was in the air.”

He talked to – and worked with – the mechanics, the riggers, the armourers, to better understand the machines he worked in and perhaps, by better understanding them, live to tell the tale. He found what solace he could in comradeship, but he had lost so many fellow fliers it felt like a betrayal to make new friends, and he found himself being unaccountably slightly hostile to young aviators just joining the squadron, who looked with admiration at their seniors’ flying brevets and just wanted to learn from them so they, too, could live.

C Flight, No 22 Sqn. This was the Flight captained by Carl Clement and with which Archie Whitehouse normally flew. (Author’s note. I have no date nor details about this photograph except the Flight and Squadron. If a reader has more detail, please add a comment after this episode)

Meanwhile Major Learmount’s wounding seemed to wake somebody at British headquarters in Armentières. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, and the citation for it reveals more about the grind of the RFC’s routine work than a dozen Daily Mirror stories of individual aces’ air-to-air victories. It describes repeated low-level aerial photography sorties by 22 Sqn Fees over the highly fortified Hindenburg Line, which the Germans had been continually engineering since the Somme offensive, and to which they had made a mass tactical withdrawal in March and April 1917.

These new “oblique photography” missions were especially dangerous because they had to be flown low and very steadily, about 600ft above the ground. This made the Fees sitting ducks, putting them within range of small arms and machine gun fire from the ground, let alone archie, and attacks from German fighters. To enable them to do their work without attack from the air, the Fees were escorted by Sopwith Pup fighters of No 54 Squadron flying at a safer height from which they could dive on any attackers.

According to accounts in Peter Hart’s book “Bloody April”, chronicling the period of appalling RFC losses in that month of 1917, Captain BF Crane, a photographic officer attached to 22 Squadron reported on the results obtained on sorties that were mostly led by Major Learmount or Captain Clement: “An average of 2,000 photos daily were being turned over, all from plates exposed by 22 Squadron.”

Part of the Hindenberg Line heavily fortified trench system photographed by the RFC (Pinterest).

About two days before the flight on which Learmount was injured, he was flying with a cool-headed young Canadian observer, Lieutenant PHB Ward, whose steady nerve in charge of the camera – aided by Learmount’s rock-steady flying under fire – obtained particularly sharp pictures that converted well to stereoscopic prints, according to Crane, who reported that “about 50 exposures were made and excellent results obtained, the machine returning safely to the aerodrome bearing much evidence of the heavy fire experienced.” 

On the 10 May flight – also with Ward – on which Learmount was injured, the purpose was to complete a multi-mission photographic task. This was achieved. Ward was killed nine days later on another mission.

The skies were indifferent to merit and courage.

Part of Learmount’s DSO citation reads: “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.” It concludes: “This officer as a Squadron Commander sets a splendid example to his Squadron, leading them on patrols, bomb raids and reconnaissances [sic] and instilling in them that fearlessness with which he himself is imbued.”

Tomorrow, Episode 8: No. 22 Squadron receives its new Bristol Fighters, and takes the Germans by surprise. But the crews get new and demanding missions made possible by the Brisfits’ extra performance.

Leonard’s War, episode 5: Learmount takes command of No. 22 Squadron

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Learmount with one of No 22 Squadron’s FE2bs at Chipilly aerodrome, south of Albert, France, near the Somme river.

In the middle of the snowy January of 1917, Leonard Learmount was promoted to Acting Major and given command of No 22 Squadron at Chipilly, close to the Somme river a few kilometres south of Albert. In his promotion from Lieutenant he had leapfrogged the rank of Captain and gone straight to Major. Wars accelerate military procedure.

It was equipped with FE.2b pusher biplanes – dubbed the “Fee” by its fliers and mechanics. The Squadron’s main roles when Learmount joined it were aerial photography and reconnaissance. At 27 he was older than most of his fellow pilots, and equipped with all of 22 months’ experience of military aviation since his first flying lesson at Brooklands.

A farmer’s field near the River Somme, the former site of Chipilly aerodrome. The gentleness of the countryside and the beauty of the River Somme itself belies the horrors perpetrated here.

Meanwhile a new young American volunteer, AGJ (Archie) Whitehouse, who had just transferred from the army to 22 Squadron as an Air Gunner Second Class, brought to his first squadron a useful familiarity with firearms he had won both as a soldier and back at his childhood home in the USA. He was about to put that skill very successfully to use in the air, in charge of a Lewis light machine gun mounted above the front edge of his slipstream-blasted, canoe-like work-space in the nose of the Fee. His “foot-bath”, as he called it, was immediately forward of the pilot’s rather deeper cockpit. About ten years later Whitehouse, who kept a diary at the front, was to publish a memoire of his time on No 22 Sqn called “Hell in the Heavens”. Some of the experiences recorded here are from Whitehouse’s book.

The Fee itself was stable, reliable, could take a lot of damage and still fly, but rather slow. Its strong point was that the pilot and observer/gunner had a completely unobstructed view forward, laterally, above and below, which was excellent for 22 Sqn’s main roles – reconnaissance and aerial photography. Also the field of fire from its two pivoted Lewis guns was excellent in all directions except in its blind spot directly behind and below the tail. The observer’s gun was on the forward lip of his “tub”. The other – on a higher mount just ahead of the pilot – could either be fired forward by the pilot, or used by the observer to fire backward over the upper wing. So the Fee, although not designed as a fighter, could defend itself.

The FE2b “Fee”. This is shown without the guns on their mounts, but it clearly shows the Observer/Gunner’s shallow forward cockpit and the pilot’s deeper aft cockpit. Two Lewis guns were mounted on raised pivots, one on the front lip of the Gunner’s cockpit, the other – behind him on the front lip of the pilot’s station – could be fired forward by the pilot or rearward over the top wing by the Gunner.

The day Whitehouse reported to Chipilly, he was walking between the mess huts and canvas Bessonneau hangars when he heard a wailing sound, looked up and saw the silver fuselage and tailplane of a No. 2 Squadron Nieuport Scout diving toward the ground, its wings torn away and flailing separately to earth. Nieuports were fast, nimble French single-seaters, but if a pilot pulled too hard the wings would come off, and this time they did. 

Unfamiliar with what he was witnessing, it took Whitehouse a moment to realise the Nieuport was coming straight at him, and he began to run for cover between the hangars. The wingless hull smashed into the hardened area just in front of them.  He must have dashed over, because he found himself pulling frantically at the fur coat containing the mangled corpse of the pilot, before somebody swore loudly at him and pulled him away.

They said the pilot was the CO of No 2 Squadron, which was co-located with No 22 at Chipilly, and speculated that he was showing his aircrew what the Nieuport could do. Whitehouse watched while a crew grabbed the corners of the fur coat and pulled the human remains clear of the wreckage so the squadron would have something to bury. Whitehouse himself was told to clear off, so he continued to the orderly room to report for duty.

Whitehouse had received no training for the air. He reported to stores and was issued with his sheepskin flying kit and goggles. An attempt by the stores team to wash away the blood of a former owner had not completely succeeded.  

As soon as the new gunner had carried the kit to his Nissen hut quarters, one of the flight commanders, a Canadian called Capt Carl Clement who was C Flight Commander, put his head around the door and told him to get kitted up for a sortie that would be ideal for “getting his air legs in”.

Whitehouse’s first experience of leaving the earth’s surface was to be on a post-maintenance engine test flight. Once airborne, Clement shouted at him to tell him that, on the way back, they’d pass over the aircraft-shaped practice target on the ground near the aerodrome perimeter so Whitehouse could fire the Lewis gun at it.

To direct the gun properly Whitehouse had to get on his feet, blasted by the slipstream from his knees upward. No harness, no parachute. Standing would enable him to pivot the Lewis gun widely on its mounting. He was understandably reluctant, so Clement reached forward over his cockpit coaming and yanked him by the collar to persuade him to get up. When he finally did, the Lewis gun became both his weapon and his support – the only thing he had to hold on to. “I realised how it feels to be standing on the edge of … nothing.” But then, when Clement dived steeply at the practice target, Whitehouse filled it with lead. Clement was impressed and told him so.

Tomorrow’s episode 6: Whitehouse logs more spectacular airborne time