BIGGLES LEARNS TO FLY
by W. E. Johns
5. CRASHED FLYERS! (Pages 82 - 98)
(First published in the Modern Boy on 12th May 1934 – Issue 327)
(This was ‘A Daring Stunt’ (Chapter 9) & ‘A Line of Bayonets’ (Chapter 10) in the original “Boy’s Friend Library” first edition and ‘A Daring Stunt’ (Chapter 7) in the 1955 revised edition)
The pilots are all in the mess talking about the new menace of Richthofen grouping three squadrons together and attacking patrols with thirty planes. Biggles is of the opinion that the British will have to do the same. ‘B’ flight has lost two machines that very morning through the menace they were discussing. The officers are called to see Major Paynter who tells them that Wing has decided to launch night raids on the concentrated enemy scout squadrons to try to cripple them on the ground. 169 Squadron will take part in the raid on Douai Aerodrome, the headquarters of the Richthofen group. On the night decided for the first raid, the weather is fine. The planes take off at five minute intervals with Mabs going first, then Marriot, then McAngus then Biggles. As their F.E. aircraft fly over the Lines, “Biggles crouched a little lower in his seat as the first archies began to flash around them”. “It must be remembered that aeroplanes carried no lights during the war and, although the chances of collision were remote, with machines of both sides going to and fro all the time, it was an ever-present possibility. In night raids it was usual for the machines taking part to return by a different route, or at a higher altitude to the one taken on the outward journey, and while machines adhered to this arrangement, collision was impossible”. A shaft of flame in the distance gives Biggles something to head for and on reaching the target, Biggles comes in especially low, braving a hail of defensive fire, and drops his two 112-pounds bombs whilst Mark throws incendiaries overboard. Biggles looks back to see two hangers blazing furiously. Flying away, Biggles notices a change in the note of his engine and a long streamer of flame sweeping from one of the cylinders. Biggles throttles back and when he tries to open the throttle again a long streamer of fire leaps out of the engine and the plane begins to vibrate. He “shook his head at Mark as the only means he had of telling him that he was unable to overcome the trouble”. A violent explosion takes place and Biggles knows he is going to have to go down as he desperately tries to make it back to the British side of the Lines. Further explosions ensure he goes down urgently as “that’s better than being roasted like a joint of meat on the spit”. “Mark, the ever-practical, was calmly preparing for the inevitable end, and even in that desperate moment Biggles wondered if there was anything that could shake Mark out his habitual calmness. He picked up the machine-guns, one after the other, and threw them overboard; the Huns would be welcome to what was left of them after their eight-hundred-foot fall”. Maps are torn up and thrown to the wind. Biggles gets his Very pistol ready to fire into the petrol tank after landing. “The destruction of his machine to prevent it falling into the hands of the enemy is the first duty of an airman who lands in hostile territory”. “Crash! With a crunching, tearing, rendering scream of protest, the machine struck the ground and subsided in a heap of debris. The nacelle, in which the crew sat, buried its nose into the earth, reared up, then turned turtle”. Biggles and Mark are thrown out into a sea of mud and unharmed. Immediately they come under machine gun fire and jump into a shell-hole. In due course, they crawl towards barbed wire but find it is the German trenches and they pretend to be dead when German soldiers pass by. One German actually trips over Biggles but “seeing what he supposed to be a copse, turned and walked quickly after the others”. They then crawl towards the British trenches. “I can’t stand much more of this!” growled Biggles. It’s giving me the creeps. I’ve just crawled over somebody – or something that was somebody”. Calling out at the British trenches they initially come under rifle fire from a man with a Cockney voice but on saying they are British officers, an officer is fetched and comes out with half a dozen ‘Tommies’ to get them. Biggles and Mark are taken into the trenches. “You look a couple of pretty scarecrows, I must say,” said a voice, with a chuckle. “Come into my dugout and have a rest. I’ll send a runner to headquarters with a request that they ring up your squadron and tell them you’re safe. What have you been up to?” “Oh – er night-flying, that’s all. Just night-flying!” said Biggles airily.