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 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