BIGGLES LEARNS TO FLY
by W. E. Johns
6. KNIGHTS OF THE SKY! (Pages 99 - 112)
(First published in the Modern Boy on 19th May 1934 – Issue 328)
(This story has an interesting history. When these stories were originally published in “The Modern Boy” magazine back in the 1930’s, they were published in a certain order. The first twelve Biggles stories from “The Modern Boy” were then taken to be published by the “Boys’ Friend Library” as “Biggles Learns to Fly”. For whatever reason, this particularly story was moved out of order to become the last chapter of the original “Boys’ Friend Library” first edition and that remains the case in the 1955 revised edition. In other words it was moved from being the sixth of the twelve stories to become the twelfth of the twelve stories. It was retitled ‘The Dawn Patrol’ (Chapter 16) in the original “Boy’s Friend Library” first edition and remained with that title as Chapter 16 in the 1955 revised edition of ‘Biggles Learns to Fly’. Now this caused significant continuity problems, because “Knights of the Sky” was a story based at 169 Squadron story and features characters from that Squadron. When the story was moved to the end of the book it was out of logical sequence because by then Biggles had transferred to 266 Squadron! That meant that someone, presumably the editor of the original “Boys’ Friend Library” first edition, had to re-write the story and change the characters to make it a 266 Squadron story! This was done by removing significant parts and completely re-writing the ending! This remained the same when the book was re-printed by Brockhampton in 1955, even though that book claimed to have been “personally revised by Captain W. E. Johns for re-issue in this edition”. Here then, is a summary of the correct original version of this story!)
Biggles is awoken by his batman at six o’clock. Biggles tells him to “push off”. Biggles shares a room with Mark Way who has gone back to sleep, Biggles throws a pillow at him and “it swept a row of ornaments from the shelf above his head”. As others in the other rooms are woken, there is banter between the airmen. Mapleton has had to report sick as he is having a tooth drawn so ‘A’ flight are going to be led by Captain Rayner of ‘C’ flight. Rayner will be with Mabs usual gunner, Mardell (who is known as Marble). Rayner takes off and three other machines following him, one of them being Biggles and Mark. The patrol climbs for some time before approaching the Lines. “Biggles could not help admiring the confident manner in which the leader flew. He seemed to know exactly where he was and what he was doing”. They fly into German territory where there are colossal clouds. “The patrol was now flying at nine thousand feet, but the summits of the clouds seemed to tower as far above them as the bases were below. Biggles had no idea that clouds could be so enormous”. As Rayner takes them over the cloud, Biggles suspects enemy aircraft ahead. “It may have been the amazing instinct which he was beginning to develop that warned him. At any rate, something inside him seemed to say that hostile machines were not far away”. (We are then treated to what I think is one of Johns’ best descriptive passages). “Biggles looked over the side and caught his breath sharply as he found himself looking into a hole in the clouds, a vast cavity that would have been impossible to imagine. It reminded him vaguely of the crater of a volcano of incredible proportions. Straight down for a sheer eight thousand feet the walls of opaque mist dropped, turning from yellow to brown, brown to mauve, and mauve to indigo at the basin-like depression in the remote bottom. The precipitous sides looked so solid that it seemed as if a man might try to climb down them, or rest on one of the shelves that jutted out at intervals”. There is a tiny movement far below at the very bottom of the yawing crater and Biggles realises there is a dog-fight going on. “Then Rayner went down, closely followed by the others. Biggles never forgot that dive. There was something awe-inspiring about it. It was like sinking down into the very centre of the earth”. There are at least twenty machines at the bottom. “Soon the dawn patrol was amongst the whirling machines, and it was every man for himself”. Biggles rushes at a group of Triplanes and pursues a blue machine with white wing-tips. Mark pours tracer bullets into it. “The Hun did not burst into flames, as he hoped it would. Instead, it zoomed upwards, turned slowly over on to its back, and then, with the engine still on, spun down out of sight into the misty floor of the basin”. Biggles swerves to award “a whirling bonfire of struts and canvas” and attacks a white machine, a Triplane. Biggles “felt only a strange elation, a burning desire to go on doing this indefinitely – to down the enemy machines before he himself was killed, as he never doubted that he would be in the end. There was no thought in his mind of retreat or escape”. Biggles sees an F.E. go down, “a black figure emerged from the flames with its arm flung over its face, and leapt outwards and downwards”. The F.E. then crashes into the white Triplane which explodes. A yellow Hun gets on Biggles tail but he is able to turn so that it overshoots and the positions become reversed. Mark opens fire at such a short range it is impossible to miss. “The yellow top wing swung back and floated away into space; the fuselage plunged out of sight, a streamer of flame creeping along its side. Suddenly, Biggles and Mark are all alone. All other planes have gone. Biggles sees a Sopwith Pup just disappearing through the floor of the basin and doubting his ability to get home, Biggles follows it. The Pup’s propeller, however, is not turning and it has to land in enemy territory. Biggles lands next to it to rescue the pilot. He is astonished to find it is Mahoney, the pilot from 266 Squadron whom he met on the boat coming over to France. Mahoney gets in the front with Mark, it’s a bit of a squeeze, but possible. Biggles takes off to fly home. He shouts at Mark to ask who was in the burning F.E. and Mark says “Rayner!” “It must have been Marble whom he had seen jump. And Rayner had deliberately rammed the Hun, he was certain of it”. “Biggles pulled himself together and tried to put the matter from his mind, but he could not forget the picture. He knew he would never forget it”. Biggles lands his F.E. at 266 Squadron where he is warmly congratulated for his rescue work. Biggles is told that the other two F.E.’s got home. Biggles is introduced to the C.O. of 266 for the first time. “Pleased to meet you, Bigglesworth,” said Major Mullen, shaking hands. “You seem to be the sort of fellow we want out here. I shall have to keep an eye on you with a view to getting you transferred to 266”. “I wish to goodness you could fix that, sir,” replied Biggles earnestly. “I should not be happy until I get in a scout squadron – although I should be sorry to leave Mark,” he added quickly. “Don’t worry about me,” broke in Mark. “My application’s in for training as a pilot, so I may be leaving you, anyway”. As Biggles plane has a punctured tyre, Mahoney asks the C.O. if Biggles can borrow his car to get back to their aerodrome. They will return later to fly the machine home.
The following is a brief summary of the bastardised version that was rewritten to go at the end of the original 1935 edition of the book, and also remained the same in the 1955 revised edition, where the story was retitled “The Dawn Patrol”.
Biggles is awoken and goes to see Mahoney in the sheds (no mention of Mark and no bantering). Mahoney is flying the lead machine with three other machines taking off to follow him. All the following description is the same only they are following Mahoney (not Rayner). They dive down through the hole in the cloud and the dog-fight takes place. However, Biggles is flying alone (presumably in a single-seater Sopwith Camel as this is re-written as a 266 Squadron story) and there is no mention of Mark at all. Biggles still sees the blazing F.E. and “a black figure emerged from the flames with an arm flung over its face, and leapt outwards and downwards”. The burning F.E. then collides with the white Triplane. It is Biggles shooting at the planes and not Mark. When Biggles can’t see any planes he asks himself “Where were the others? Where were the Camels? He was just in time to see one of them disappear into the side of the cloud, then he was alone”. He then sees a Camel disappearing through the floor of the basin. There is then a continuity error where “he hoped to see the F.E. that had disappeared into the mist come out again, but it did not”. That had been amended to a Camel earlier! Biggles then follows the Camel pilot down and notices that the Camel pilot’s propeller has stopped and so he lands to rescue the pilot, Mahoney, who “clambered aboard, and perched himself close behind Biggles, hanging on for dear life” (because of course, in this version of the story, Biggles is flying a single-seater and not a two-seater!) Biggles flies Mahoney to 266 Squadron but in this re-written version he is not meeting Major Mullen for the first time now. Instead we have “Major Mullen shot a glance at Biggles, noting his white face and trembling hands. He knew the signs. He had seen them too often not to recognise them. The pitcher can go too often to the well, and, as he knew from grim experience, the best of nerves cannot indefinitely stand the strain of air combat”. This new version of the story finishes with Major Mullen sending Biggles on leave. “I promised you a week’s leave to go and see Mark Way. Well, take it, and forget flying for a bit. You’ll come back all the better for it. Cheerio, and the best of luck!” Biggles gripped his commander’s hand, saluted, and went off to pack his things”. (This amended story was used as the last story in the original 1935 and 1955 editions of ‘Biggles Learns to Fly’).