BIGGLES IN FRANCE
by (Flying Officer) W. E. Johns
First published November 1935
This guide is to the first hardback edition published by Norman Wright in 2009 and not the original ‘Boys’ Friend Library’ version, issue 501, dated 7th November 1935
INTRODUCTION (by Norman Wright) (Pages 6 – 8)
1. BIGGLES GOES BALLOONING (Pages 9 - 25)
(First published in the Modern Boy on 7th July 1934 – Issue 335)
(This is ‘Down to Earth’ (Chapter 1) & ‘A Desperate Chance’ (Chapter 2) in this book and was “A RIDE TO REMEMBER” in Biggles of 266).
Second-Lieut. Bigglesworth of No. 266 Squadron, R.F.C., stationed at Maranique, France is relaxing on the veranda of the mess, with a group of pilots and talking with Mahoney and a Canadian pilot called Wells about the perils of volunteering for things. Wells is a pilot with a good deal of experience who has recently joined the squadron. Major Mullen and Colonel Raymond (he appears to have now been promoted from Major) approach and before Mullen can even ask for a volunteer, a number of the officers volunteer, including the three already named. Bigglesworth and Mahoney are turned down and Wells is chosen to speak with Raymond about a mission. Biggles goes to test his plane which was “flying a bit left-wing low” and has been re-rigged. He then flies over the Lines for “a prowl round”. He finds a lone Camel fighting against a staffel of Albatross scouts. “It was Wells, being forced down by ten or a dozen Huns”. “A sheet of flame leapt back over the cockpit of the stricken Camel as it stalled at the top of its zoom. The pilot, with his arm over his face, climbed out onto the fuselage, stood poised for an instant, then jumped clear into space”. “The Hun pilot, fascinated by the slowly somersaulting leather-jacketed figure, raised his hand in salute, and at that moment Biggles’ tracer bullets bored a group of neat round holes between the shoulders of the Hun’s grey jacket. The Hun, without knowing what had hit him, lurched forward across his control-stick, and the Albatross buried itself deep in the ground not a hundred feet from the smoking remains of its victim”. Biggles takes on the leader of the staffel but his propeller is hit and as his height is less than five hundred feet he knows a crash is inevitable. Biggles does a ‘pancake’ landing at the top of some trees and he is able to climb down safely. (On 13th August 2009, the Daily Mail reported the story of pilot Vince Hagedorn who crashed into tree tops with an unorthodox 'pancake' maneuver to land at Dundee's Caird Park Golf Course the day before, after running out of fuel. Mr Hagedorn, 63, from Chelmsford, Essex, said: “Captain W E Johns saved my life. As a boy, I remember reading a Biggles story where he was shot down while flying over a wooded area”. He managed to "pancake" the plane sideways into a tree, which minimised the impact, and he walked away unscathed. This is that story!). There is a steady rain of petrol from his aircraft, which Biggles lights to destroy his machine. He then sets off on foot back towards the Lines. On the way, Biggles finds a two acre clearing with four enormous concrete beds laid down in a rough line. He continues his journey to the Lines. As the sun starts to sink he gets to the German balloon line and the nearest German balloon is being winched down due to the presence of a Camel flown by Mahoney. Biggles recognised his streamers and guesses that Mahoney is looking for him. “They’ll be drinking a final cup to the memory of poor old Wells and myself presently!” Biggles creeps into the coppice that borders the Boche balloon noticing that it “had been released from its cable and was straining in the freshening breeze, which, by an unusual chance, was blowing towards the British Lines”. Mahoney returns and strafes the balloon and crew and this leaves the balloon in the grip of a few courageous Germans. Biggles runs and pulls one of these men back and kicks another out of the way. The balloon shoots up in the air as Biggles clings to the side “and the next moment he was jerked upwards with such force that he lost his grip with his right hand, and felt sure his left arm would be torn from its socket”. (This is the picture on the cover illustration of the first edition of ‘Biggles of 266’). Biggles manages to climb up and get into the basket. Biggles has a shock when he looks over the side of the basket. “That the balloon, freed from its anchor, could shoot up to seven or eight thousand feet in two or three minutes was outside his knowledge of aeronautics. Yet such was the case”. “Golly!” he gasped and the sound of his voice in the eerie silence made him jump” (interestingly this line is omitted from all book editions of ‘Biggles of 266’! Perhaps Johns thought it was too unrealistic for any expression of surprise that an airman might really say in such circumstances! ). The wind blows him slowly over no-man’s land and Biggles puts on the harness that connects whoever is in the balloon to a parachute fastened on the outside of the basket. There is an explosion and black smoke. Biggles “recognised his old enemy, archie, and wondered why the burst made so much noise – until he remembered that he was accustomed to hearing it above the roar of an aero engine; in the deathly silence the sound was infinitely more disturbing”. The shelling gets worse and Biggles wonders how to release gas from the bag to cause the balloon to sink. Next, Biggles is attacked by a Camel, with its guns blazing. Biggles sees “a tiny tongue of flame lick up the side of the bellying fabric”. “Now, there are moments in dire peril when fear ceases to exist and one acts with the deadly deliberation that is the product of final despair. For Biggles this was one of them. All was lost so nothing mattered. “Well, here goes; I’m not going to be fried alive!” he said recklessly, and climbing up on to the edge of the basket, he dived outwards”. The parachute opens and Biggles sees the Camel is Mahoney’s. Biggles lands behind the British Lines. “An hour later, the car he had hired at the nearest village pulled up at Maranique, and after paying the driver, Biggles walked briskly towards the mess”. Colonel Raymond is talking with Major Mullen and both are surprised to see him, thinking he was dead. Biggles reports that Wells “has gone West”. Biggles tells them what has happened and when he mentions the concrete emplacements he has seen in the forest. Colonel Raymond says that was the mission that Wells was on. “We heard that the Boche were bringing up some new long-range guns, and to try to locate them was the mission poor Wells undertook this afternoon! And it’s you that’s found them – by sheer accident! If you will mark them down on the map I’ll get back to headquarters right away!” (I strongly suspect that this story was inspired by the true story of Captain C. M. Down in the April 1935 issue of ‘Popular Flying’. In an article entitled “My Most Thrilling Flight”, Captain Down tells of how his balloon broke loose in high winds and he was nearly killed as a result. Charles Maurice Down went on to become a senior member of staff at Amalgamated press dealing with their juvenile department. The editor of “Modern Boy” was Charles Boff and Charles Down was his superior. W. E. Johns would have known Down as he had been submitting artwork to “Modern Boy” and then articles as their ‘Air Expert’. When Johns was the editor of “Popular Flying” magazine, he commissioned Down to write an article in the series “My Most Thrilling Flight” and although the article appeared in the April 1935 edition, it was never collected in the June 1936 book “Thrilling Flights”, presumably because it was about balloon, rather than aircraft, flight. I speculate that C. M. Down may very well have been the person who decided to allow W. E. Johns’ Biggles stories from “Popular Flying”, originally published in “Popular Flying” magazine, and subsequently gathered and expanded with other stories in “The Camels are Coming” to be published in “Modern Boy”. Certainly, these Biggles stories were first published in “Modern Boy” in issue 257, dated 7th January 1933. It so happens that I have a first edition book of “The Camels are Coming” dedicated to “C. M. Down” and signed by W. E. Johns. This book, the first ever Biggles book, was published on 7th September 1933. If Johns gave a copy of the book to C. M. Down, it may very well have been my very book that Down read and decided that – with suitable amendments – the Biggles stories could appear in “Modern Boy”. Of course, the Biggles stories were initially written for an adult audience and contain swearing and the drinking of hard liquor; All these references are removed when the Biggles stories appeared in “Modern Boy”).