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.

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.