Fullofit, I'm looking forward to seeing you in 70 Squadron. Flying the Strutter in mid-1916 is still fun. 70 had the highest casualty rate in the RFC by year's end, though. I hope I get a promotion and transfer before then.

Carrick, good job getting a kill flying that bathtub!

Alfred Keers joins a new squadron and meets an old friend...

The tender left me at the edge of an orchard just outside a low, drab village with a lovely church. This was my new home. 70 Squadron shared a field with 29 Squadron, flying Martynsides. A half-mile farther out of the village there was a sprawl of hangars and shops the No 2 Aircraft Depot at Candas. This place handled the supply of pilots, parts, and equipment into the more southerly located squadrons along the Somme valley.

I knew nothing about 70 Squadron other than that they had just arrived in France and were flying the new Sopwith two-seater scout, so it was a shock when, still only ten paces from the roadside, I heard a familiar voice.

Keers, you bloody terror, have to come to smash up our new buses? It was Bill Kennedy-Cochrane-Patrick, my flying mentor from the early days at St-Omer (was it really only two months ago). I was embarrassed to discover that I now outranked him. Patrick was embarrassed too, partially because I outranked him, and partially because he was standing absolutely starkers in a canvas bathtub in the middle of the orchard. And a captain? Good God, you must have caught Trenchard sleeping with a duck. How did you manage that?

Patrick, nice to see how much I outrank you, I said with a wink, and he sat back down in the tub.

Once he was dried off and dressed, Patrick showed me around. The squadron was under canvas. Even the mess was a large sectional tent with a wooden floor and a furnished anteroom. I sat down with the CO, Major George Lawrence. He had been in France since September 1915 and had distinguished himself on Farmans. He claimed to hold the RFC record for most Hun bullet holes in a machine in a single mission, something in excess of three hundred! The Major explained that since his squadron had been equipped with the best machine then in service, it was his aim to make it a squadron of committed Hun-getters. He saw me as just the man to lead one of his flights.

I wanted to tell him that my Hun-getting was not the product of any great blood-lust. Rather it was the by-product of flying buses that were too slow to run away. I now relished the idea of flying a machine that could run away at will (and had a rear-firing gun to warn the nasty Huns away while I ran from them). Instead I remained silent. The Major told me to get airborne and enjoy the hunt.

I found my tent and dropped my kit. The other two beds were empty, as A Flights commander had not yet been named, and C Flight was still in England facing delay after delay in getting its aircraft. I wandered over to B Flights hangar and introduced myself to the ack emmas.

The Sopwith 1 Strutter was a wonderful machine. It mounted a powerful Clerget rotary engine and was equipped with a forward-firing Vickers gun. A Vickers-Champion synchronising gear kept it from shooting off its propeller. The AM1 said it seemed to work most of the time. The observer had a Lewis gun. My machines Lewis was mounted on a horrid contraption. The AM1 referred to it as a Jabberwock and told me they were indenting for the far superior Scarff mountings. Several of the other machines already had Scarffs. My instinct for survival said to use my rank to demand an exchange; it would be unpopular, but it was my hide at risk. On the other hand, I needed to make a decent first impression so I suppressed the survival instinct and left the Jabberwock in place until we could raid the Depot for a replacement.

My first impression of the Sopwith was that it was a joy to fly. It was quick and surprisingly nimble for a two-seat machine. Visibility was above average for a tractor despite the broad chord of its wings. Id miss the splendid forward and upwards view from the DH2, but not the bitter cold of its pusher configuration. The Sopwith, being a tractor design, was far warmer and more comfortable once you got used to the misting of castor oil that came with flying any rotary.

That afternoon it began to raid. Other than the first brief familiarization flight, everything was scrubbed for two days. I spent a great deal of time with my observer / gunner, Second Lieut Tallon McAulley. He had fashioned an effective speaking tube made from the rubber tubing used to connect the pitot to the airspeed indicator. One wore an earpiece under ones flying helment
On 7 June 1916 I led a four-craft C.O.P. to the southern sector near Miraumont and Bapaume. We drifted about Hunland-on-the-Somme for an hour and a half before turning for home. We were still three miles from the lines when my engine began to miss on one cylinder and then another. I fired a Very light to let Patrick know to take over and began a long glide westward, landing at an aerodrome southwest of Arras.

I had more success the following day. The morning of 8 June was a write-off marred my driving rain and high winds. We all enjoyed a long sleep-in. The weather cleared before noon, and at one oclock I was dispatched on another offensive patrol along with Patrick and Sergeant Mazzini. We flew north towards Ypres and then turned east to the lines. As we were passing north of Ypres itself I surveyed the sad state of the ancient town. Its famous cloth hall stood out as a square of ruined walls enclosing a jumble of stones and pale grey powder. Would the world ever rebuild, I wondered.

Thats when I noticed movement below. Nearly underneath us three faint shapes were moving westward. I banked for a better look and called to McAulley through the speaking tube. He used his observers binoculars and then signalled to me, holding his gloved hands to his head like horns. This was McAulley-speak for Huns, I assumed, and led our group of three Sopwiths down.
They were Fokkers without a doubt. The crosses were soon visible. Each Sopwith pilot picked a dancing partner and the fight was on. I quickly closed on mine, firing 20 rounds from the Vickers before my speed carried me past the Hun and I zoomed upwards. From then on it was a turning fight. The Sopwith lacked the DH2s tendency to stall without warning, so the low-level minuet over the rooftops (or at least the roof-less walls) of Ypres was not too unnerving. At length I got into firing position and fired a succession of five-round bursts. The Hun wobbled and fell into the streets below.

I looked about and saw Patricks machine. He closed up and motioned to me, a cut-throat sweep across his neck, and then pointed backwards. Hed got his Hun too. Mazzini was gone. Id last seen him heading east in pursuit of a fleeing Fokker. We climbed eastward over the lines. A mile or so in the distance I could make out two flea-like objects swirling slowly in the air over the Hun lines. We closed quickly. The Hun was behind Mazzini, who was now making westward. The Fokker pilot saw Patrick and I approach and turned eastward towards the German balloon line. I closed to about 200 yards and, not wanting to follow the Hun into an Archie-trap, I fired. Im not sure if the sight on the Vickers was that much better than the one I was used to on the DH2s Lewis or if I was just lucky, but in any event the Fokker immediately began to tumble out of control and soon crashed into a field behind the German lines. Patrick and I turned west to escort Mazzini home.

Both kills were confirmed by evening, brining my official bag up to 18 kills. That night I enjoyed my first binge with 70 Squadron.


William Kennedy-Cochrane-Patrick