BIGGLES LEARNS TO FLY
by W. E. Johns
2. BIGGLES’ FIRST FLIGHT! (Pages 32 - 48)
(First published in the Modern Boy on 21st April 1934 – Issue 324)
(This was ‘The Boat for France’ (Chapter 3) and ‘Battle’ (Chapter 4) in the original “Boy’s Friend Library” first edition and in the 1955 revised edition)
Biggles waits at the railway terminus at Newhaven Quay (“the most dismal spot on the face of the earth”) for the cross-Channel boat. He gets into conversation with another man who introduces himself as Mahoney, returning from his first leave after doing six months at the front. (Mahoney is a Flight Commander at 266 Squadron and features in numerous Biggles RFC stories). “Mahoney asks Biggles how much flying he has done. “Fifteen hours”. Mahoney shook his head. “Not enough” he said. “Never mind, if you get to Two-six-six, I’ll give you a tip or two”. “You can give me them on the journey, in case I don’t”, suggested Biggles”. Two days later at a poplar-lined road to the north of St. Omer, Biggles arrives at 169 Squadron. Getting out of the tender he says goodbye to Mahoney who says that 266 Squadron is only seven or eight miles farther on, so they would be seeing something of each other. Second-Lieutenant Bigglesworth introduces himself to Todd – more often known as Toddy – the Recording Officer and is told the C.O., Major Paynter, is in the air. Biggles is asked how many hours solo he has done. The answer is nine hours. He is asked if he has ever flown an F.E. and says not solo. He had a flight at Frensham in one but with an instructor in the other seat. A German L.V.G. aircraft arrives and bombs and shoots up the aerodrome. Biggles is flung violently to the ground. A little crowd of officers run toward him and banter with him. Biggles meets the officers of ‘A’ flight; Mapleton, Marriot, Lutters, Way, McAngus. Two British planes return causing a sudden hush to fall upon the group. A pilot gets out. “One glance at his face and Biggles knew he was in the presence of tragedy”. The man is 25 or 26, his plane has around two hundred bullet holes in. The pilot is referred to as “The Old Man” and Biggles realises that he is the C.O. The pilot of the second plane is mortally wounded but still alive. His observer, Forrester, is dead. Another plane comes in to land containing a pilot called Allen and an observer called Thompson. Thompson says “The sky’s fairly raining Huns. The old man got a couple – did he tell you? Poor Jimmy’s gone, I’m afraid, and Lucas”. Biggles feels strangely subdued. “For the first time he had looked upon death, and although he was not afraid, something inside him seemed to have changed. Hitherto he had regarded the War as ‘fun’. But he now perceived that he had been mistaken”. The C.O. sees Biggles and posts him to ‘A’ flight where Captain Mapleton will be his flight-commander. Biggles is assigned an observer called Mark Way, who is a New Zealander. He had been flying with a pilot called Lane; “He’s gone topsides,” he said slowly. “He died in hospital last week – bullet through the lungs”. Mark says Biggles will like Mapleton, who is known as Mabs. His observer is called Mardell but is known as Marble; “He’s as cold as ice in a dog-fight”. Biggles is told that Allen is O.C. of ‘B’ flight (“he’s a bad-tempered brute”) and Rayner has ‘C’ flight (he’s all right, but a bit of a snob”). Marriot and McAngus are the other pilots of ‘A’ flight and Conway and Lutters are their observers, respectively. Mabs comes over and asks Biggles if he wants to go out on a Line patrol that evening. He thinks it will be pretty quiet. Biggles says “Certainly I’ll come” and is told to be on the tarmac at 2.45 pm for a 3.00 pm take off.
After lunch, Biggles has a short flight over the aerodrome in a F.E.2b to accustom himself to the new machine. Biggles is then ready for the afternoon flight, with Mark Way, his observer in the front seat. Mapleton leads and Marriot and Conway are in the third plane. They take off and remain over the aerodrome until they are at seven thousand feet. Biggles struggles to keep up when they fly off to the East. Mark fires his gun as they cross the lines and Biggles “looked down and saw an expanse of brown earth, perhaps a mile in width, merging gradually into dull green on either side. Tiny zigzag lines ran in all directions. Must be the Lines, he thought, with a quiver of excitement, not unmixed with apprehension, and he continued to look down with interest and awe”. Mark yells at him as he drifts a good hundred yards from his companions; but Mark is pointing at black blobs in the distance, five, six, then eight, then there is a dull explosion near his wing-tip. “For a moment he nearly panicked, but Mark’s casual nod in the direction of his right wing restored his confidence”. Mark grabs his gun. Biggles sees Conway shooting too. Mark stands up pointing his gun down and Biggles wonders what all the excitement is about. He looks below and sees a green German aircraft not fifty yards away, with “two enormous black Maltese crosses”. A man in the back of the German craft is pointing something at him, then the man falls over, the wings fold up like tissue paper and the man falls out. The other two British machines turn and dive for home. Biggles dives with them and has difficulty restraining a yell of delight, completely unaware of the danger they are in. They land and Biggles discovers that Conway got the green German aircraft whilst Mark got a blue-and-yellow one that Biggles didn’t even see! Biggles is shocked to learn there were seven German planes. Between them, three were shot down, but Biggles only saw the one. Mark laughed. “Don’t worry, you’ll soon get the hang of spotting ‘em”. Biggles is asked if he saw the dozen planes dive down on them at the end but he didn’t. They go to get some tea.