On 12 June 2015 I visited the old aerodrome of Saint-Omer in far north-eastern France. The date was the 100th anniversary of my grandfather’s arrival there to join No. 7 Squadron Royal Flying Corps as a new pilot.
This aerodrome was chosen by the First World War Aviation Historical Society to be the site of a memorial to all British military aviators, judging Saint Omer to be “the spiritual home of the RFC”.
It’ll be a homage to all lost aircrew called Angel Fleet. If you click on the link above you’ll see this:
My grandfather, Major Leonard Learmount RFC, was lucky. He survived, but many in the Squadron he eventually commanded in 1917-18 didn’t.
Until the First World War Aviation Historical Society decided – in 2004 – to erect the memorial at Saint-Omer, there was no single monument to honour all lost military aviators from all conflicts. Until Tristan makes this film there will be no single silver-screen tribute to them all.
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.
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.”
With two aircraft and crews lost because of fog, the squadron was getting low on resources, so they called it a day.
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.
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.
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.
Click here to go to Episode One of “Leonard’s War” and read it all again!
This man did not die for his country. He just came within a whisker of doing so countless times between June 1915 and March 1918 when he was flying over the hellish battle lines of the Western Front in the Great War.
Leonard Learmount is not listed as an ace, but he was an RFC pilot and squadron commander. When I, as his grandson, began researching his military life, I discovered a man who had been a businessman in the Far East before the war, and returned to the same business after it in 1919. He kept no records of his military flying and never talked of it, but clearly retained a love of flying, because he founded flying clubs that still exist in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
As this entry in the RAF Museum’s blog points out, his dogged persistence as a multi-role aviator for nearly three years over the front line, facing high risk every mission and being wounded in action twice, is as much a representation of the spirit of the RFC and RAF as the stories of the aces.
His story, and that of his squadron – No 22 – are told in more detail in the Summer 2020 edition of Cross & Cockade International, the quarterly journal of the First World War Aviation Historical Society. For anyone interested in the history of aviation – indeed the origins of aviation – and history of the Great War, I cannot recommend the Society highly enough. Membership doesn’t break the bank.
Having researched the detail of a specific low-altitude photo-reconnaissance sortie Learmount flew over the Hindenburg Line on 10 May 1917, I commissioned aviation artist Tim O’Brien to paint the scene of the preparation for departure. The return from the mission was more messy, because the aeroplane had been shot-up and Learmount wounded. To get clear photographs of the enemy lines the pilot had to fly the aircraft so low it was within easy range of small-arms fire, let alone “archie” – anti-aircraft fire. And the flying had to be steady, making the aeroplane a sitting duck. But they got the photos back to base, and their quality was high, rendering vital information about enemy readiness states.