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

(For previous episodes, scroll down)

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

Leonard’s War episode 1: if you can walk away from it, you’re ready

When the Great War began, a grammar school boy from Newcastle upon Tyne who had gone into business as a shipper and trader in the far reaches of the British Empire, found himself in the skies above Flanders. Aviation was in its infancy, and every flight had an element of the experimental about it.

When Britain declared war on a Germany already marching through Belgium in early August 1914, one Leonard Learmount, aged 25, was employed in the Straits Settlements (Malaya and Singapore), working for London-headquartered shipping and trading company Paterson Simons.

Learmount (front centre) at his club in Singapore

Life in the British Empire’s warmer climes was good for a young single man then, expat clubs providing social connections and sport.

Learmount had also joined the Malay States Volunteer Rifles (MSVR), a British overseas military reserve unit, as a Private Soldier. Nevertheless, following the outbreak of a war predicted to be “over by Christmas”, that November he took a ship back home to join up.

The local army reserve unit taught him to maintain and ride a motorcycle

It’s not clear why he was chosen for training as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), but given the indicators for other such personnel choices at the time, it’s probably because the MSVR had trained Learmount to ride and maintain a motorcycle. These skills, combined with his maths and physics education at the Royal Newcastle Grammar School, probably swung the decision.

Learmount reported to Brooklands aerodrome, Surrey, on 19 March 1915 for RFC flying training, and his flying log book says he got airborne the next day for his first lesson in a Maurice Farman “Longhorn” biplane, an ungainly French-designed machine with many of the same basic features as the Wright Flyer.

A Maurice Farman Longhorn trainer

His instructor, Sgt Watts, hadn’t been trained as an instructor, he merely had flying experience. The RFC didn’t begin formally training instructors until 1917.

Learmount flew his first solo on 2 April, exactly two weeks later, having flown ten trips within sight of the airfield and logged a total of 3h 10min in the air. The day before – April Fool’s Day – he had flown a sortie lasting 45min, by far the longest duration trip he had flown. In the remarks column of his flying log book he wrote: “First time controlled machine from pilot’s seat. Did several landings. No wind – no bumps.”

Leonard’s entire pilot training lasted 12 weeks to the day he was posted, as a 2nd Lieutenant, to No 7 Squadron at Saint Omer, France, about 25km south-east of Calais. He’d accumulated exactly 24h airborne time, and the entry in the “remarks” column of his log book for his 9 June final training sortie reveals how much the RFC was prepared to forgive to get pilots rapidly to the front line. It says: “Pancaked over sheds, smashed undercarriage and one wing landing.”

Learmount’s flying log book at the end of his training

Estimates of the number of pilot and observer deaths in the Great War have been set as high as 14,000, with 8,000 of them occurring during training. More recent studies, combining fatalities, missing, shot down, and captured suggest 9,000 is closer to the mark for the total, and the number of specific training casualties is uncertain – but it was staggeringly high by today’s standards. A young American aviator training with the RFC at its Montrose, Scotland training base in 1913 wrote home that “there is a crash every day and a funeral every week.” And that was just on his base.

Anyway, the landing at the end of Learmount’s final training sortie was clearly good enough for the RFC, because the next inscription in his log book is: “Arrived in France 12 June 1915.”

Saint Omer aerodrome, about 25km from the Channel coast and a similar distance from the Western Front battle lines, became the largest RFC base in France or the UK. http://www.greatwar.co.uk

Continued tomorrow, Episode 2: Learmount arrives at the RFC aerodrome at Saint Omer, where he learns to fly a new type and to cope with operations in hostile airspace.