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

(For previous episodes scroll down)

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!

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

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.