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

(For earlier episodes, scroll down)

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.

Leonard’s War episode 2: Fight and flight over Flanders

(If you missed the first episode, scroll down to find it before this one)

It was on 12 June 1915 – almost the height of summer – that 2nd Lieutenant Leonard Learmount joined his first operational unit – No 7 Squadron – at Saint Omer aerodrome, north-eastern France. His flying log book records the weather as almost perfect for flying a wood-and-frabric aeroplane: clear with a 10mph easterly breeze.

Saint Omer aerodrome 12 June 2015, exactly a century after Learmount’s arrival there. Even the weather was identical, with an easterly breeze. It still operates as the home of the Aéro Club de Saint-Omer, and one of its aircraft is backtracking for take-off from the runway’s other end.

Four short trips out of Saint Omer aerodrome on a new aircraft type were deemed sufficient for Learmount to master its peculiarities and to complete local area familiarisation sorties. The machine he was learning to control was the French-built two-seater Voisin “pusher” biplane [engine and propeller behind the cockpit].

His first sortie consisted of 20min flying circuits, but the second trip was a brief affair lasting 10min. His log book explains: “During spirals, five ribs collapsed. Landed safely.” The instructor had taken control and put the aircraft down without delay.

The Voisin, a French two-seater pusher biplane also used by the RFC

“Spirals” were climbing or descending turns, and if the aircraft was not kept in balance by a careful combination of aileron, rudder and elevator, a spin could develop. The Voisin had a level airspeed of about 65mph, but that was only about 40mph above its stalling speed.

After his final familiarisation sortie, Learmount wrote in his log book: “Above clouds, steered by compass.” He had clearly experienced neither of those things before.

In Learmount’s early operational flying with 7 Sqn, he flew the painfully slow Voisin first out of Saint Omer, and then from other aerodromes further east in the “Ypres Salient” region of Flanders, among them Droglandt. At first, he was purely carrying out reconnaissance and artillery spotting for the army, but aviation’s roles quickly developed to include bombing and photography.

Flying with Learmount on his first operational sortie on 19 June 1915, was his observer/gunner 2nd Lieutenant R. Peck. Peck’s handwritten reconnaissance report records take-off from St Omer at dawn (04:30), and describes observed activity behind enemy lines between Courtrai and Ghent, Flanders. The pencilled words, inscribed carefully by cold hands, provide details of train and other surface transport movements, assemblies of troops and equipment and estimated numbers. The aircraft landed at 07:45am, so they had been airborne for 3h 15min.

Copy of the 19 June 1915 reconnaissance report, filed from Learmount’s first operational flight. (National Records Office)

In a 31 July 1915 combat report filed by Learmount describing an inconclusive encounter with an enemy biplane, the Voisin crew’s armament was recorded as: “Lewis gun, rifle and pistol”. The Voisin gunner, 2nd Lieutenant HH Watkins, initiated the hostile exchange with his Lewis gun, but the German machine positioned itself behind the RFC aircraft. Watkins reports: “I fired over the top plane with the pistol, and the enemy immediately turned and disappeared to the east.” The German aircraft was not identified by type, but was described thus: “Tractor biplane with covered-in fuselage. Machine gun firing to rear. Speed about 85mph.” This kind of encounter was common at that stage of the war, but exchanges soon became more dramatic as Germany started to field armed fighters.

(National Records Office)

By early autumn, bombing sorties were more regularly executed – including against German aerodromes. For example a handwritten, undated operation order tasked five 7 Sqn pilots – including Learmount – with carrying out two bombing raids on Gits aerodrome in Flanders, near the Gits railway station just east of the Torhout-Roulers road. The first was to be at 7am, the second at 2pm to disrupt attempts at repair. Each aircraft normally carried two or three 20-pound bombs.

http://www.greatwar.co.uk

There was a difference between the general aviation strategies of the Allies and Germany. Germany frequently had technology and performance advantages, but they had a significantly smaller aircraft fleet and knew it. The Allies wanted to press their numerical advantage by venturing every mission into airspace over German lines to gain intelligence and disrupt operations, whereas the Germans would work to limit their own losses by staying defensively over their lines, except for making brief, organised formation attacks to the west of the Front.

When the Battle of Loos began on 25 September 1915, No. 7 Sqn was heavily involved in providing air support and reconnaissance for the allied troops. This was a British offensive on the Western Front close to Lille, not far north of Arras which included the first use of chlorine gas on the ground. By 8 October the push came to a standstill against staunch German defences.

The original site of Droglandt aerodrome is in the farmer’s field to the right of the telegraph poles

Learmount was now mostly flying the BE2c out of Droglandt, 20km west of Ypres, Flanders. The BE2 series had originally been designed – in 1912 – as a very stable, unarmed reconnaissance machine, and that was fine until the Germans introduced well-armed aircraft like the Fokker Eindecker, the first aircraft in the war to have a machine gun firing forward through the propeller. The interrupter gear enabling this armament was put into service in July 1915, and the Allies did not have an answer to it until early 1916. So the BE2c’s previously desirable characteristics made it a sitting duck (more about this in future episodes). Many were shot down but – fortunately – because they were such stable machines to handle, the crews were often able to control the machine to a forced landing.

Royal Aircraft Factory BE2c at the Imperial War Museum

So many BE2cs had been built, however, that they continued to be used for reconnaissance and bombing into 1917, and crews dreaded them.  

Meanwhile Learmount was recommended for a Military Cross, the citation lauding his general performance since joining 7 Sqn in June, but describing a specific action on the second day of the Battle of Loos: “Consistent good work, done most gallantly and conscientiously from 13.6.15 to present time. This Officer bombed and hit one half of a train on 26.9.15, coming down to 500ft immediately after Lieut DAC Symington had bombed the other half.”

The point about coming down to 500ft is that it puts the aircraft within easy range of machine gun fire, and trains were almost always defended.

Tomorrow: Episode 3, Learmount is seconded to the French Armée de l’Aire to report on their development of night bombing techniques

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.