On 12 June 2015 I visited the old aerodrome of Saint-Omer in far north-eastern France. The date was the 100th anniversary of my grandfather’s arrival there to join No. 7 Squadron Royal Flying Corps as a new pilot.
This aerodrome was chosen by the First World War Aviation Historical Society to be the site of a memorial to all British military aviators, judging Saint Omer to be “the spiritual home of the RFC”.
It’ll be a homage to all lost aircrew called Angel Fleet. If you click on the link above you’ll see this:
My grandfather, Major Leonard Learmount RFC, was lucky. He survived, but many in the Squadron he eventually commanded in 1917-18 didn’t.
Until the First World War Aviation Historical Society decided – in 2004 – to erect the memorial at Saint-Omer, there was no single monument to honour all lost military aviators from all conflicts. Until Tristan makes this film there will be no single silver-screen tribute to them all.
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.
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.”
With two aircraft and crews lost because of fog, the squadron was getting low on resources, so they called it a day.
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.
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.
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.
Click here to go to Episode One of “Leonard’s War” and read it all again!
When Observer/Gunner Archie Whitehouse finally took leave back in England, he found himself feeling restless and directionless, despite giving himself plenty to do. And when leave was over, he was strangely grateful to return to 22 Squadron at Estrée Blanche.
But then, as more of his close friends “went west”, he immersed himself in tasks on the aerodrome between sorties “to keep myself from going completely mad”. He did not understand his feelings. “It suddenly dawned on me that the only time I was really content was when I was in the air.”
He talked to – and worked with – the mechanics, the riggers, the armourers, to better understand the machines he worked in and perhaps, by better understanding them, live to tell the tale. He found what solace he could in comradeship, but he had lost so many fellow fliers it felt like a betrayal to make new friends, and he found himself being unaccountably slightly hostile to young aviators just joining the squadron, who looked with admiration at their seniors’ flying brevets and just wanted to learn from them so they, too, could live.
Meanwhile Major Learmount’s wounding seemed to wake somebody at British headquarters in Armentières. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, and the citation for it reveals more about the grind of the RFC’s routine work than a dozen Daily Mirror stories of individual aces’ air-to-air victories. It describes repeated low-level aerial photography sorties by 22 Sqn Fees over the highly fortified Hindenburg Line, which the Germans had been continually engineering since the Somme offensive, and to which they had made a mass tactical withdrawal in March and April 1917.
These new “oblique photography” missions were especially dangerous because they had to be flown low and very steadily, about 600ft above the ground. This made the Fees sitting ducks, putting them within range of small arms and machine gun fire from the ground, let alone archie, and attacks from German fighters. To enable them to do their work without attack from the air, the Fees were escorted by Sopwith Pup fighters of No 54 Squadron flying at a safer height from which they could dive on any attackers.
According to accounts in Peter Hart’s book “Bloody April”, chronicling the period of appalling RFC losses in that month of 1917, Captain BF Crane, a photographic officer attached to 22 Squadron reported on the results obtained on sorties that were mostly led by Major Learmount or Captain Clement: “An average of 2,000 photos daily were being turned over, all from plates exposed by 22 Squadron.”
About two days before the flight on which Learmount was injured, he was flying with a cool-headed young Canadian observer, Lieutenant PHB Ward, whose steady nerve in charge of the camera – aided by Learmount’s rock-steady flying under fire – obtained particularly sharp pictures that converted well to stereoscopic prints, according to Crane, who reported that “about 50 exposures were made and excellent results obtained, the machine returning safely to the aerodrome bearing much evidence of the heavy fire experienced.”
On the 10 May flight – also with Ward – on which Learmount was injured, the purpose was to complete a multi-mission photographic task. This was achieved. Ward was killed nine days later on another mission.
The skies were indifferent to merit and courage.
Part of Learmount’s DSO citation reads: “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.” It concludes: “This officer as a Squadron Commander sets a splendid example to his Squadron, leading them on patrols, bomb raids and reconnaissances [sic] and instilling in them that fearlessness with which he himself is imbued.”
Tomorrow, Episode 8: No. 22 Squadron receives its new Bristol Fighters, and takes the Germans by surprise. But the crews get new and demanding missions made possible by the Brisfits’ extra performance.
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.
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.
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 over the German lines, and reconnaissance. In this vital role it was vulnerable, so a pair of Sopwith Pup fighters were attached to the squadron to fly as escorts above the FE2b formations, able to intervene from above if German fighters attacked. At 27 Learmount 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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. Some BE2cs were given two Lewis guns. 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. The trailing edge of the upper wing, however, was cut away at its centre, allowing fire upwards, which was useful for attacking balloons.
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.
In the last days of the Somme offensive a 15 Squadron BE2c was hit in combat with five Albatros Ds. The pilot, 2nd Lt JC Lees and observer Lt TH Clarke, were both wounded. The pilot brought the stricken aircraft to a crash landing in enemy territory near Miraumont where the two were taken prisoners of war. The German troops who attended the downed aircraft expressed disbelief that the British were still using such an old-fashioned machine. In fact they referred disparagingly to the aircraft as “kaltes Fleische” (cold meat).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
On 10 March next week, here, you’ll find the first episode of a series called “Leonard’s War”.
It’s a history of aviation in the Great War of 1914-1918 through the experiences of one man, a Royal Flying Corps pilot, who survived and didn’t think he’d done anything special. But just by surviving nearly three years in the skies over Flanders, he had.
“Leonard” was Acting Major LW Learmount DSO MC RFC, my grandfather, who took command of No 22 Squadron RFC in France less than two years after his first RFC flying lesson. In war, that, too is unremarkable.
There is information here that has not seen the light of day, because it was routine stuff. But routine is what most aviators do most of the time, in peace and in war, so this is a story of military aviation in its experimental years, where more aircrew died during training than in action.
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.
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.
The 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.
Taxiing 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.
I take my hat off to those who survived and those who didn’t
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.
The Aero Club de St Omer historic record on display
Below: Sqn Ldr LW Learmount RAF ( I have no pictures of him in RFC uniform)
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.
Newspaper 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.
My 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.