Thanks for the warm welcome, fellows. And Hasse, great to see you working your historical magic in this campaign. Can I ask what is your first language? I understood you to be Finnish, and if English isn't your first language you are right up there with Joseph Conrad as a literary hero!

The continuing journal of Flight-Sergeant Alfred Keers, RFC

My introduction to 20 Squadron began as I dismounted at Clairmarais. A visibly wobbly Lieut Alice cursed at me, saying that I should be court-martialled and shot for doing twirly things in a Fee and that he had been ordered never to try such nonsense and he was certain that if officers received such an order, NCO pilots certainly would have received it too. I honestly hadnt realised until then that he was a pilot too.

I was rescued by the arrival of the disciplinary sergeant-major, and imposing man named Goddard who made up in volume what he lacked in height. He was also something of a seer, for he claimed intimate knowledge of my parentage, my education, my romantic inclinations, and my future. He then ordered me to retrieve my cap from my kit and follow him to the COs office.

I was marched into the office, fortunately with cap on and at the quick time. Id rather expected to be doing the hatless dance at double-quick time. The CO eyed me as though I were a stray dog found digging in a graveyard.

My name is Major Wilson, he began, and you are the bloody fool who looped an FE at low altitude. How did you know you could pull it off, Sergeant?

It seemed possible, sir, I replied weakly.

Sergeant-Major, this man has just agreed to be duty sergeant until the end of the month.

Right, sir, Sergeant-Major Goddard said. But I think I should mention that Mr. Alice, the other new pilot, wants him charged, sir.

And I want him as duty sergeant. That will be all, Sergeant-Major. Sergeant-Major Goddard snapped off a proper guardsmans salute, turned about, and marched out. The CO motioned for me to close the door.

Good to see you have grit, Sergeant, he said. Now, show me your papers.

I gave him my travel papers, but there was a problem. Apparently we were to ferry the Fee to 20 Squadron, but Mr Alice and I were posted only to the pilots pool. The CO said I would be staying here until he sorted it out with HQ. In the meantime I was to get settled in and do some familiarization flying.

I took a Fee up the next day for some circuits of the surrounding countryside. The front seat was occupied by a lieutenant named Whieldon. He made it clear that if I tried looping he would turn the Lewis gun on me, mid-air or not. The morning went well until it was time to put the machine down at Clairmarais. I stalled it five feet off the ground and damaged the right lower plane.

That same afternoon, 8 March, I joined a flight of three other Fees heading 20 miles east to Bailleul, a town near the front lines. They patrolled over the lines, but I was under orders to stay on our side, so I flew south 20 more miles, then back again to rendezvous with the returning patrol. The squadrons senior observer, Captain Dawson, pointed out the sights. He brought with him a small slate and some chalk and held it up to tell me what was going on.

The ground below shocked me. The green fields had given way to a morass of earthworks and trenches mottled with shell craters, in each of which lay a disc of icy water. Grey-yellow eruptions danced in some areas artillery concentrations. In the far distance off to the east, several sausage-like balloons were silhouetted in the morning sunlight. Captain Dawson held up the slate: Turn east.

We crossed over our trenches and within a minute a loud bark startled me. Dawson pointed off to the left and below. A greasy black ball of smoke hung in the air. The Germans were firing at us! Two more balls appeared to our right, one close enough to rattle the aircraft. Dawson signalled to head west. We landed thirty minutes later, and the mechanics pointed out a tear in the vertical fin where a piece of shrapnel had passed through.

As Duty NCO, my secondary job was to be a general dogsbody. I inspected latrines and mess tents, compiled a roster for sick parade, ran errands for the sergeants-major and the duty officer, checked the guard, and wrote a number of tedious reports about stores and equipment for the Recording Officer. I accompanied the Duty Officer on his tours as well. And all this was in addition to my duties as a flight sergeant. I was relieved of my Duty NCO work only when flying or attending lectures or on parade.

Worst of all, I couldnt sleep in my own tent. I was required to remain on call throughout the night, and therefore bedded down on a cot in the guard tent. No that wasnt the worst part. The worst part was that I could have a drink in the Sergeants and Warrant Officers Mess only after I finished my last checks and closed the other ranks mess, and once I was allowed a drink I couldnt get tight.

It could be a long war...

"Captain Dawson held up the slate: 'Turn east.'