Leonards’ War episode 6: The chaos of airborne encounters

(For previous episodes, scroll down)

The No. 22 Squadron duty armourer issues Lewis guns to crews (Imperial War Museum)

Shortly after landing from his maiden flight with Capt Clement, Air Gunner Second Class Archie Whitehouse was called out for another flight, this time with Lt Brooks. It was a patrol with a formation of C Flight Fees. They gained height over the airfield, joined up and headed east over the German lines.

After surviving fierce “archie” [anti-aircraft fire], the flight was bounced by German machines from above. It turned out to be one of those encounters where the two formations pass through each other firing wildly, then disengage.

On the return leg, Whitehouse caught sight of a German aircraft above and behind his own that neither his pilot nor any of the others had seen. He grabbed the aft Lewis gun and let fly over the top wing. Describing the result, he wrote: “I saw a blaze. I heard a low explosion and something went hissing past our wing-tip…I saw struts flickering in the afternoon sunlight, a long, greasy trail of smoke.” Brooks looked at him with disbelief, which Whitehouse interpreted as disapproval. He began – with dread – to believe he had shot down one of the C Flight Fees by mistake. He huddled into his tub, and waited fearfully for the landing.

Once on the ground, Capt Clement grabbed him exclaiming: “Best damned gunner on the Front! He’s mine! Got a Hun first time up…Judas!”

Within minutes Whitehouse was airborne again, but with Clement. This time C Flight bounced three German machines from above, encircled them, and destroyed two. But then: “The archie barrage increased in venom. There was a tremendous crash and I saw one of our planes disintegrate. The planes fluttered away lightly, the nose and the engine seemed to hover for a few seconds and then plunged forward, the bamboo tail-booms fluttering like silly sticks.” He then described how horror became catastrophe: “I watched it and saw a man fall away, all arms and legs. The wreckage gathered speed and hurtled down – smack on top of the ship nearest to us.”

Clement and Whitehouse watched helplessly as the remains of the two Fees spun earthward in a death embrace. Seconds later Clement pointed ahead at a German Albatros, and Whitehouse went to work. “It twisted and jerked and I heard [Clement] yell…[then] we dove on it with a fierce hatred. I gave it the rest of my drum, and saw it start a tight spin.” Then, incredibly, another disaster: the wreckage of the Albatros collided with another of the Fees, and down it spiralled too.

By the time Whitehouse got back to No. 22 Squadron’s Chipilly base at the end of his first day as an aviator, he had logged eight hours airborne and shot down two German aircraft.  

In that single day he had also seen a fatal aircraft structural failure over his new base before he even got airborne; witnessed a rare but catastrophic “archie” [anti-aircraft fire] hit on his formation; and seen one of his own kills collide with – and destroy – a C Flight FE.2b and its crew.

There were going to be many more days like that.

Between March and May 1917, 22 Squadron moved base three times in a northerly direction, as the offensive focus for the British-led ground forces moved northward from the Somme toward Ypres and Passchendaele, Flanders.

In late spring they ended up for some months at Estrée Blanche, an aerodrome on a low hill not far south of St Omer, in gentle farmland disfigured by coal mine slag heaps. On 10 May Whitehouse took off with Captain Bush and C Flight for a patrol which got very busy. Having brought down one German machine, Whitehouse copped a load of shrapnel in one of his shoulders and his arm stopped working. Bush realised what had happened and headed for base.

On the ground, Whitehouse carefully extracted himself from his Fee with Bush’s help, and they saw a commotion around one of the other machines. The duty flight sergeant explained that Learmount had been hit. Bush asked him how bad it was, and Whitehouse’s account of the reply is rendered in East London vernacular: “Mostly ‘is feelin’s, sir. One came up through ‘is tank and spoiled ‘is trousers. You ought to ‘ear ‘im aswearin’! The Major carn’t arf say it!”

Watching this scene, Whitehouse remarked: “He just looked just angry, not hurt. I didn’t blame him. You can’t go home with a blighty in the breeches and expect to get any sympathy.”  Actually, Learmount had returned from a low-level “oblique photography” sortie, which explained the nature of his injury. For these missions, the crews have to fly so low above the battle lines that they are within easy range of small arms fire.

This painting by aviation artist Tim O’Brien depicts Learmount’s FE2b at Estrée Blanche aerodrome, preparing to depart on 10 May for a low-level aerial photography using new oblique sighting techniques. The trip was one of a series of missions the objective of which was to obtain images of activity in the Germans’ highly fortified Hindenberg Line. Learmount returned wounded by small arms fire from the ground and with his aircraft extensively damaged.

As it turned out, neither airman had got his “blighty” [a wound that gives the damaged man a ticket home]. They recovered with some attention from the camp medic, and a few days off active duty.

From then on, Learmount and Whitehouse flew together a lot more, but increasingly in the new F2b Bristol Fighters that were just beginning to be delivered to 22 Sqn. Whitehouse explained: “After that, whenever the Major wanted to try any tricks [test new equipment or procedures] he usually came and rousted me out. And I loved it. He was a gallant gentleman!”

Tomorrow’s episode 7: The personal cost of aerial photography, and No. 22 Squadron gets the RFC’s new hot ship, the Bristol Fighter.

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