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 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: 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.

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