Leonards’ War episode 6: The chaos of airborne encounters

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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 4: Surviving the Somme, the BE2c, and writing propaganda for the Allies

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By mid-May 1916 2nd Lieutenant Leonard Learmount had been posted from N.7 Squadron to No 15 Squadron and promoted to Lieutenant, just 6 weeks before the beginning of the massive and deadly Somme offensive by the British army 4th Corps, allied with Canadian and Australian troops.

A general view of the Western Front 1915-16, with battle locations indicated

15 Sqn flew BE2c two-seater “tractor” biplanes in support of that five-month offensive, in which the RFC lost 600 aircraft and 252 crew. The Germans at that time were gradually introducing better-armed machines while the RFC was forced to rely on existing machinery.

BE2c (Imperial War Museum)

In 1916, No. 15 Sqn – operating out of airfields in the vicinity of Arras – was mostly using the BE2c for reconnaissance and as a light bomber, although it could be fitted with underwing-mounted rockets for attacking balloons. And unlike its unarmed BE predecessors, the BE2c observer/gunner was given a pivot-mounted Lewis gun, but more for self-defence than attack. Unfortunately, because the observer’s cockpit was forward of the pilot’s, he was positioned more or less in line with the leading edges of the wings, which limited his field of fire considerably, with the propeller just ahead and the struts either side.

Whatever the aircraft’s mission, essential on every sortie was to engage enemy aircraft to maintain as much control as possible of the skies above the battlefield. The combined aircraft fleets the Allies could field exceeded significantly the numbers of German aircraft, even if their effectiveness didn’t match that of the newer German machines. 15 Sqn also had a pair of Bristol Scouts which could escort the BE2cs in their reconnaissance role. By the end of autumn Learmount – still alive despite flying the BE2c – had been promoted to Lieutenant and made a flight commander.

Propaganda is perceived as information disseminated by the enemy, but it seems the British wanted the people at home to be told about “our boys defending our skies”, because Zeppelins were succeeding in bombing civilian targets in British cities – a development that had deeply shocked the public.

At about this time, Learmount was clearly chosen as the “right stuff” to provide the British people with a word-picture of what it was like to be an RFC pilot. So he duly wrote a story, published in the Daily Mirror, headlined “Mr Learmount at the Front – Experiences in the Royal Flying Corps”, claiming to be “extracts from a letter received from Lieut LW Learmount of the Royal Flying Corps from ‘Somewhere in France’”. When interpreted in the light of history, this “letter” seems to contain a compendium of experiences over quite a wide period.

Press cutting from the Daily Mirror in Autumn 1916, from Learmount’s family records

This is what the “letter” says:

“We are having a very strenuous time here. I suppose I put in about 5 hours every day. Not all of it is over the enemy’s lines, of course. A new duty is patrolling the town where we are stationed, as some time ago a few Huns came over and dropped bombs on us and were off again before we could get up to them, so we go up every morning and cruise around at about 10,000ft so that should any more of them venture an attack we are prepared for them.

“I had a most exciting time the other day. I was going to Ostend and just after crossing the Lines a German machine came up and attacked us with a machine gun. We soon brought ours into play, but owing to his vastly superior speed we were not altogether having things all our own way, when a little British Scout which had been patrolling somewhere near us [probably a fighter escort for the reconnaissance type] dropped from the skies and opened fire and, between us, we downed the Hun pretty successfully.

“After this we went on with our reconnaissance and on the way back we met another Hun, but on this occasion we managed to do him in ourselves, and proceeded gaily on our way, somewhat badly damaged it is true, but still we got home all right.

“These air duels are very thrilling, the sky is thick with bursting shells [“Archie”- or anti-aircraft fire] and amidst the roar of our machine guns you can hear the zip of the Hun’s bullets when they get pretty close, and all the time the two machines are circling about, dropping and climbing, each trying to get the other at a disadvantage.

“Aerial warfare becomes more and more like a sea fight as machines are improved, but unfortunately the Huns have usually got better machines than we have. I have so far flown a rather an antiquated type, a French make, but am now the proud possessor of the very latest British machine, a real beauty [BE2c?]

“We have got a most splendid lot of fellows in the RFC, and I am serenely happy among them, although I get depressed at times the way one after another of them disappears. It is so rotten to see a vacant chair at the Mess table every now and then, and to have to go and pack up some unfortunate chap’s belongings is positively horrible. It make one sick at heart to witness the slaughter, for it amounts to nothing less, of all these fine men.”

Tomorrow, Episode 5: Learmount is promoted directly from Lieutenant to Acting Major, and given command of No. 22 Squadron at Chipilly, equipped with FE2b two-seater pushers, and gets increasingly involved in aerial photography over the heavily fortified German Hindenberg Line.