Leonard’s War, episode 9: the Battle of Cambrai, Christmas, and a blighty for the boss

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The weather at Estrée Blanche worsened as the season dipped into a wintry December (1917), and fog made reconnaissance in the whole area extraordinarily difficult. 22 squadron was tasked with finding out what the enemy was up to around Cambrai, information which headquarters badly needed.

A and B Flights of 22 Squadron with a Bristol Fighter early in 1918.

Reconnaissance sorties were fraught with risk. Crews transited to the Cambrai area at about 3,000ft, then descended gingerly through the fog as low as they dared, hoping to get sight of the ground and evidence of enemy movements without colliding with church spires or rooftops.

One crew failed to return, and the news came back that he had flown smack into a coal slag heap near Lens on his way home. So another Brisfit crew was sent out in an attempt to get the essential intelligence but, as Whitehouse reports, “We never did hear what happened to them.”

This patch of grass was the location of the Estrée Blanche mess buildings in the corner of the aerodrome, looking south west over the village. This was an agricultural and coal-mining area, and the now-grassed-over coal slag heaps are visible in the middle distance. Mounds like them took the lives of low-flying airmen when the weather was foggy.

With two aircraft and crews lost because of fog, the squadron was getting low on resources, so they called it a day.

The Cambrai offensive ground to a halt about 7 December, and there was a lull because the weather was so bad and Christmas was approaching. Whitehouse wrote: “The patrols were dull…compared with the hair-raising experiences of the summer. But I was feeling the strain. I did not sleep well and went off my food completely. It was only when we settled down to put on a show for Christmas Eve that I forgot my troubles.”

Whitehouse described the festive preparations: “We got up a programme that was a honey for wartime humour. Among the mechanics we had a wealth of talent, so we could put on a show worthy of any outfit out there!” They rigged up lights powered from a dynamo lorry and searched out decorations to put up.

Finally, the Christmas dinner: “The officers, led by Major Learmount, came in and served the Christmas Eve dinner, bundled up in aprons and mess jackets and suitably armed with towels and napkins. We sang and gave cheers for everyone we could think of. There never was such a dinner or so much fun!”

Learmount in his RAF uniform. The RFC, a corps of the army during most of the war, became the nation’s autonomous air arm on 1 April 1918.

Then they put on the show, with “the inevitable slightly bawdy female impersonator”, tricks, recitations and plenty of songs accompanied by piano. Marie, Annette, and their mother were guests, along with quite a few other “puzzled-looking” civilians from the village, and they were given seats at the front near the piano. It all ended with God Save the King and the Marseillaise.

Then back to business.

On 20th January 1918 Archie Whitehouse, whose ambition all along had been pilot training and a Commission, was sent back to England to achieve both, wearing the ribbons for his newly-awarded Military Medal and a chest-full of campaign gongs. He reported in his memoire: “I lived to wear pilot’s wings and fly a single-seater fighter. I lived to see the Armistice.” He clearly felt lucky. He definitely was.

The squadron commander who had bid Whitehouse farewell was now the very last of the aircrew left from January 1917, but he had his work to keep him sane. He still had to lead 22 Squadron’s mechanics, armourers, stores-wallahs, cooks and caterers whose names he knew well, and to encourage the new, barely-trained young pilots and observers to believe in their roles and in their ability to carry them out.

Through the remainder of the winter, the war of attrition continued, and reconnaissance never stopped. From March 1918, No. 22 Squadron was going to have to deal with German preparations for the massive, ostensibly successful but short-lived Spring Offensive that eventually began in April. Preparatory raids for this counter-attack forced 22 Sqn north to Treizennes, where losses were high. The Geman air force was venturing more over the Allied lines than they had been accustomed to do, seeking intelligence for planning purposes. The intention of the Spring Offensive was to drive the British to the Channel coast and cut them off from French forces before the newly-arrived Americans were able to put their full weight behind the Allies.

It was on a patrol from Treizennes, on 9 March, in his Bristol Fighter that Learmount got his blighty while attacking a German aircraft that was being far too successful at artillery spotting. Although losing blood fast, his remarkable luck still held, and he got his Biff back to base. He was stretchered away from his mount.

France awarded him the Croix de Guerre avec Palme.

The RFC shipped him back to England, where he was sent to St Bartholomew’s hospital, London. At “Bart’s” he met “Peggy” Ball, a young nursing auxiliary charged with looking after him. Less than two months later he married her in a church in Muswell Hill, north London, where her parents lived.

It was early May, the war was still raging, and victory was certainly not in sight. Nevertheless, the couple took a few days off to honeymoon at a pub on the south bank of the River Thames, near Staines – very rural in those days – and they went rowing together. Wedding photographs show Learmount left the church still using a walking stick.

A cutting from the Daily Mirror. Learmount, leaning on a walking stick, is leaving St James’s Church, Muswell Hill, London with his bride. He was 28 then, but looks much older here. Convalescence would have to continue on honeymoon.

Until his demob in 1919, Learmount continued to serve in the newly-formed RAF on training, tactics and intelligence duties. On discharge, he returned to his trading job in the Far East. His new wife and baby son joined him there a few months later.

The marriage lasted a lifetime.

Author and son at the British Air Services Memorial, Saint Omer aerodrome in June 2015. The memorial was erected by the First World War Aviation Historical Society in 2004. None of the buildings in view were in place during the Great War. The hangar on the left was built by the Germans in the Second World War and today is occupied by the Aéro Club de Saint-Omer. The Club keeps a museum of Great War aviation history at Saint Omer in their hangar, and visitors are welcomed.

Learmount’s decorations. From Left: Distinguished Service Order, Military Cross, 1914-15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal,Colonial Auxiliary Services Long Service and Good Conduct Medal, Croix de Guerre avec Palme
Learmount did keep flying, but for leisure. Here he is – in the late 1920s – with a De Havilland Cirrus Moth float-plane at Seletar Creek, Singapore, where he was one of the founder members of what was then called the Royal Singapore Flying Club. He also founded what was known as the Royal Selangor Flying Club in Malaysia. Both clubs still operate today under different names.

ENDS

Click here to go to Episode One of “Leonard’s War” and read it all again!

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

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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.