BIGGLES LEARNS TO FLY
by W. E. Johns
10. BIGGLES’ BIG BATTLE! (Pages 161 - 175)
(First published in the Modern Boy on 16th June 1934 – Issue 332)
(This was ‘Ready for the “Show”!’ (Chapter 17) & ‘Share this amongst you!’ (Chapter 18) in the original “Boy’s Friend Library” first edition and ‘The ‘Show’’ (Chapter 11) & ‘Dirty Work’ (Chapter 12) in the 1955 revised edition)
Major Paynter briefs the officers about a big planned British attack along their section of the front line and, from tomorrow, their orders are to fly low and harass the enemy’s troops as much as possible. “Every officer will do three patrols of two and a half hours each, daily, until further notice. Mabs – Captain Mapleton, the commander of ‘A’ Flight – says “Inside three days you’ll be staggering about looking for somewhere to sleep. But there won’t be any sleep. You’re going to know what hard work is for the first time in your life. I was in the big spring offensive last year and the Hun counter-attack that followed it, and by the time it was over I never wanted to see another aeroplane again as long as I lived. You heard what the Old Man said – three shows a day. By this time tomorrow you won’t be able to see the ground for crashes, and those that can still fly will have to do the work of the others as well as their own”. Mabs asks the officers of his flight to go to bed. “Tired or not, I’ve got an appointment with a steak and chips in Rouen to-morrow night,” declared Curtiss, of ‘B’ Flight, yawning, little dreaming that he was going to bed for the last time in his life”. Next morning, nine Bristol Fighters take off and go over the Lines. Biggles looks down. “The ground was dull green, with big bare patches, pockmarked with holes, some of which were still smoking, showing where shells had recently fallen. A clump of shattered trees, blasted into bare, gaunt spectres, marked the site of what had once been a wood. Straight ahead, the green merged into a dull brown sea of mud, flat except for the craters and shell-holes, marked with countless zigzag lines of trenches in which a million men were crouching in readiness for the coming struggle”. The planes split up and select their own targets to attack. Biggles and Mark attack a long column of German infantry and come under heavy fire whilst Biggles bombs them. Biggles “knew that any second might be his last, but the thought did not worry him. Something at the back of his mind seemed to be saying ‘This is war, war, war!’ and he hated it. This was not his idea of flying; it was just a sheer welter of death and destruction”. Firing until they are out of ammunition, Biggles and Mark return to their aerodrome in order to fill up with fuel and ammunition before leaving again in an hour.
“For three days the attack continued. The squadron lost four machines; two others were unserviceable. The remainder were doing four shows a day, and Biggles staggered about almost asleep on his feet. Life had become a nightmare”. On the fourth morning, as Biggles and Mark go to take off, Biggles says “I’ve got a nasty feeling that our turn is about due. Just a hunch that something’s going to happen, that’s all”. “The battle was still raging. It was difficult to distinguish between the British and German troops, they seemed so hopelessly intermingled”. Biggles chases a German staff car until it overturns in a ditch and he attacks other targets, then he heads back for the Lines. “He was still half a mile away when it happened. Just what it was he could not say, although Mark swore it was one of the new ‘chain’ archies – two phosphorus flares joined together by a length of wire that wrapped itself around whatever it struck, and set it on fire. The Bristol lurched sickeningly, and for a moment went out of control”. The plane catches fire and Biggles has to go down. “The flames had burnt through to his tail unit destroying the fabric on his elevators, rendering the fore and aft controls useless. He knew it was the end, and, abandoning hope of reaching the Lines, he concentrated his efforts on saving their lives. He thought and acted with a coolness that surprised him”. Biggles and Mark jump clear as the aircraft strikes the ground, wing tip first and Biggles “had a fleeting vision of what seemed to be a gigantic Catherine Wheel as the machine cart-wheeled over the ground, shedding struts and flaming canvas”. Winded, Biggles is pulled into a near-by trench by Mark. Here they find shelter in a dug-out which is already occupied by a German who surrenders. German troops pass by and they hear the ‘hullabaloo’ outside. Eventually a German N.C.O. joins them in their dug-out but causes no trouble. A British Tommy with an Irish accent arrives and throws in a hand grenade. The occupiers rush out, Biggles just flinging himself clear before the explosion. He looks up to the point of a bayonet. A British officer arrives and “three hours later, weary and smothered with mud, they arrived back at the aerodrome, having got a lift part of the way on a lorry”. Mabs asks Biggles where he is off to. “To bed, laddie,” Biggles told him enthusiastically. “To bed, till you find me another aeroplane”.