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.

Out of the ordinary

Major Leonard Learmount DSO, MC, RFC, Squadron Commander of No 22 Squadron January 1917-March 1918, and one of his mounts, a FE2b “Fee”

This man did not die for his country. He just came within a whisker of doing so countless times between June 1915 and March 1918 when he was flying over the hellish battle lines of the Western Front in the Great War.

Leonard Learmount is not listed as an ace, but he was an RFC pilot and squadron commander. When I, as his grandson, began researching his military life, I discovered a man who had been a businessman in the Far East before the war, and returned to the same business after it in 1919. He kept no records of his military flying and never talked of it, but clearly retained a love of flying, because he founded flying clubs that still exist in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

As this entry in the RAF Museum’s blog points out, his dogged persistence as a multi-role aviator for nearly three years over the front line, facing high risk every mission and being wounded in action twice, is as much a representation of the spirit of the RFC and RAF as the stories of the aces.

His story, and that of his squadron – No 22 – are told in more detail in the Summer 2020 edition of Cross & Cockade International, the quarterly journal of the First World War Aviation Historical Society. For anyone interested in the history of aviation – indeed the origins of aviation – and history of the Great War, I cannot recommend the Society highly enough. Membership doesn’t break the bank.

Having researched the detail of a specific low-altitude photo-reconnaissance sortie Learmount flew over the Hindenburg Line on 10 May 1917, I commissioned aviation artist Tim O’Brien to paint the scene of the preparation for departure. The return from the mission was more messy, because the aeroplane had been shot-up and Learmount wounded. To get clear photographs of the enemy lines the pilot had to fly the aircraft so low it was within easy range of small-arms fire, let alone “archie” – anti-aircraft fire. And the flying had to be steady, making the aeroplane a sitting duck. But they got the photos back to base, and their quality was high, rendering vital information about enemy readiness states.

 

Perspective on a century of military aviation history

Defense d'entrer sign

A few days ago, on 12 June 2015, I arrived at St Omer aerodrome near Calais, France.

The date was not accidental: exactly 100 years before – on 12 June 1915 – my grandfather Second Lieutenant Leonard Wright Learmount, reported to St Omer aerodrome for active service on completion of his pilot training for the Royal Flying Corps.

Log book arrival in FranceThe page in my grandfather’s flying log book that records his arrival in France and his first sorties from the St Omer aerodrome. I left a scanned copy of this page with the Aero Club members who welcomed us there.

St Omer has been a continuously active airfield since it became the RFC’s main air base for operations in support of the British military on the Western Front in the 1914-1918 Great War. It is still active today courtesy of the Aero Club de St Omer.

St Omer taxiing for take-off on rwy 09-27Taxiing along runway 27 for take-off on 09. The other runway is grass

Less than two years after his arrival in France with exactly 24h flying time in his log book, Major LW Learmount became commander of No 22 Squadron in 1917. He survived the war. Most aviators didn’t.

It took a long time for the significance in military aviation history of St Omer to be recognised publicly. But now it has been. The aerodrome is the site of the recently created British Air Services Memorial.

Air Services Memorial and aerodromeI take my hat off to those who survived and those who didn’t

Air Services Memorial

In its heyday in 1917 and 1918 St Omer was the biggest RFC aerodrome anywhere. It was the RFC headquarters and main support base for the entire airborne effort over the Western Front. About 5,000 personnel were based there – mechanics, fitters, pilots, and all the support and logistic trades.

Now it is the home of the small but proud Aero Club de St Omer. Its runways are too small to support any form of commercial aviation, but the Club members have a powerful sense of the history of their aerodrome and have set up a mini-museum in the WW2 Luftwaffe-built hangar that houses the Club and its aeroplanes.

In the St Omer hangar

St Omer Aero Club museumThe Aero Club de St Omer historic record on display

St Omer & the RFC

Below: Sqn Ldr LW Learmount RAF ( I have no pictures of him in RFC uniform)

LW Learmount in RAF uniform 2

While he was operating over the Western Front he was clearly asked – or perhaps ordered – to write an account for the folks back home of what it was like to be doing his job. This appeared in a newspaper: I think probably the Daily Mirror during 1916 but no detail was written on the cutting.

RFC at the frontNewspaper cutting (1916?)

Capt WE Johns, author of the Biggles series of adventure books for boys, could not have put it better himself.

LW Learmount was wounded twice, but his account is written in such a casual way that it is difficult to feel the danger, the fear, and to imagine the horrors he saw each day when he flew over battlegrounds like the Somme, Passchendaele and Cambrai.

Air Services Memorial 1914-1918My son Charles and I complete our St Omer pilgrimage

But fear he must have felt. In the citation for his award of the Distinguished Service Order, it says this about a photo-reconnaissance flight on 10 May 1917, on which he was wounded, but managed to fly his machine back to base: “On nearly all the other occasions on which this officer took oblique photographs his machine was literally shot to pieces and his escape from injury really miraculous.”

 (Below) My grandfather after the war. Here he is standing next to a de Havilland Cirrus Moth floatplane at Seletar Creek, Singapore, in about 1930, where he was a founder member of the flying club there.

Poppa with DH MothLeonard Learmount