BIGGLES IN FRANCE
by W. E. Johns
2. BIGGLES AND THE RUNAWAY TANK (Pages 25 - 40)
(This is ‘One Bomb and Two Pockets’ (Chapter 3) & ‘Stand Clear – I’m Coming’ (Chapter 4) in this book and the first part of the story was “THE CHALLENGE” in “Biggles of 266”. The end of the story became “TAFFY TRUNDES IN” in “Spitfire Parade”).
“At the period when Biggles was just becoming known to other squadrons in France as a splendid fighting pilot, he was often heard to remark that his narrowest escape from being fried alive or from being transformed into ‘roast beef’ – to use the gruesome but picturesque expression then in vogue – occurred not at the time of his adventure in the German balloon over the enemy’s lines, or at any other time in the air, as one might reasonably suppose, but on the ground”. “Quite apart from the dangerous aspect of the matter, it put a blot on his otherwise clean record that took some time to erase, for the authorities do not look kindly on those who destroy Government property, or, as in Biggles’ case, the person through whose instrumentality such destruction occurs. Nevertheless, to his intimate circle of acquaintances, the affair was not without its humour”. One day about the middle of June, Biggles spots a Boche two-seater making for home. He chases it but it lands at its home aerodrome before he can get it. Biggles drops a twenty-pound bomb but it misses its mark. Back at Maranique, not more than an hour later, a dark-green Boche plane drops a letter “the gist of which was to the effect that Biggles’ bomb had hit the carefully constructed private ‘bomb-proof’ wine store of a certain Lieutenant von Balchow, with disastrous results to its highly prized contents. This, it was stated, was a knavish trick, and the officer responsible for dropping the bomb was invited to pay for the wine or meet the owner in single combat at an appointed spot at a certain time”. Old-timers Mahoney and Maclaren tell Biggles it is a trap and Biggles is finally persuaded not to go in response. The following day, Biggles is watching some Chinese workers. “What do those yellow-faced tadpoles think they’re trying to do?” he asked Mahoney, who had seated himself on a chock close by, as a large party of Oriental coolies arrived and began unloading and spreading what appeared to be the brickwork of a house that had got in the way of a big shell. “They’re going to repair the road,” Mahoney told him. “What are those birds, anyway?” asked Biggles curiously. “Chinese, from French Indo-China, I think. The French are using a lot of colonial troops, but most of them simply for fatigue work – road-making and so on – behind the Lines”. “What do they feed them on?” I can smell ‘em from here,” declared Biggles disgustedly. “Garlic, mostly, by the stench”. “Well, for goodness’ sake let’s get on the up-wind side of them!” suggested Biggles. “This place stinks worse than a rotten egg factory. Is that their idea of making a road?” he continued, as the coolies, after spreading a long line of loose broken bricks, climbed back into a lorry and departed. “Looks like it,” grinned Mahoney. “A spot of steam-rollery wouldn’t do any harm,” growled Biggles”. (In the first edition of Biggles of 266, this rather uncomplimentary exchange was amended to “What do those lads think they’re trying to do (rather than “yellow-faced tadpoles”) and what they are fed on was changed to “Onions, mostly, by the aroma”. What is interesting about Norman Wright’s version of ‘Biggles in France’ is that he says in his introduction that the only actual change of wording he did was to remove the expression “yellow-faced” as it may cause offence but it appears that by error it wasn’t omitted from his version of the text. Certainly the text in his book is the same version as the original text from “The Modern Boy” and The Boys’ Friend Library first edition. I note in the Red Fox version of Biggles in France the phrase is “What do those tadpoles think they’re trying to do?” and all reference to what they eat and what they smell like is completely removed). Biggles and Mahoney have to throw themselves flat when the green Boche two-seater dives over their aerodrome and drops another message. Biggles says “That’s another message for little Jimmy, I’ll bet. What does he say?” (Meaning himself, of course, as he is James Bigglesworth). “He says he’s sorry I didn’t turn up, but he didn’t really expect me; can he send me a packet of mustard to warm my feet?” Biggles is so angry that nobody can stop him getting in his plane and giving chase. When he gets to the German aerodrome, the green plane has already landed, but Biggles waits for it to take off and doesn’t attack it while he has an unfair advantage. Other German planes also take off. “Whatever else happened, he was going to get Von Balchow, the man who had suggested that he had cold feet! Afterwards he would deal with the others when the necessity arose”. “He saw Von Balchow’s gunner clamp a drum of ammunition on his mobile Parabellum gun, and the pilot swing round to bring the gun to bear in preference to using his own fixed Spandau gun”. Biggles gets in first and fires a short burst at deadly range and the gunner is no longer standing up. “It was Richthofen, the ace of German air-fighters and the great master of attack, who laid down the famous maxim ‘when attacking two-seaters, kill the gunner first’” Biggles shoots the green machine down, even while under attack from the German pilot’s comrades. “The Roland shot high into the air, somersaulted, and then buried itself in the ground in the most appalling crash that Biggles had ever seen. The victory could not have been more complete, for he had shot down the man on his own aerodrome”. Biggles sees that the remaining Germans are too many to fight and so he flies back to the Lines extremely low. “More than one officer came home in the same way during the Great War; in fact, it was a recognised course of procedure in desperate circumstances”. A shell bursts near his plane and Biggles’ engine is damaged. He gets within sight of his aerodrome but is “finally forced to land, much to his disgust, in a convenient field about half a mile away”. Nearby some Tommies are working on a captured German tank. Biggles asks them for some water and is invited to look inside the tank, which, he is told, smells of oil. “By James, I should think she does stink!” he muttered. “And it’s hotter than hot!” Biggles sits in the driver’s seat and puts his foot on a pedal in the floor and depresses it absent-mindedly. The tanks jumps forward with a jolt and the door slams shut. (The story ‘The Challenge’ in ‘Biggles of 266’ finishes after the soldiers give Biggles some water. “That’s better!” he declared, and whistling, walked home”). Meanwhile, the original version continues as the tank rumbles off down the road. “Hi, Corporal,” he shouted, “come and stop the confounded thing! I can’t!” Biggles sees the throttle control and “forgetting that nearly all German controls worked in the opposite direction to our own, he, as he thought, pulled it back. Immediately, the machine bounded forward with renewed impetus, and the noise, which had been terrible enough before, became almost unbearable”. Soon Biggles is on his own aerodrome heading straight for the sheds. “He snatched at the throttle, but could not move it, for it had slipped into the catch provided for it, and which prevented it from jarring loose with the vibration. But, naturally, he was unaware of this”. Mahoney’s Camel disappears in a cloud of flying fabric and splinters. The tank goes throw the hanger “leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. The hanger looked as if a tornado had struck it”. An air-mechanic having a quiet doze at the back of the hangar has a lucky escape when the tank’s caterpillar wheels misses him by inches. The tanks goes into a concrete gun pit and gets stuck. Biggles gets out with oil and perspiration running down his face. “Facing him was the C.O. Near him was Mahoney, and, close behind, most of the officers of the squadron, who had rushed up from the mess when they heard the crash. Biggles afterwards swore that it was the expressions on their faces that brought about his undoing. No one, he claimed, could look upon such comical amazement and keep a straight face”. Biggles laughter is cut short by a brigade-major from General Headquarters who happens to be there. “Save your explanations for the court. You are under arrest!” Biggles is not actually taken away. He gets to speak with his fellow officers and the corporal from the engineers who was initially with the tank. Biggles says to Mahoney, “I have at least finished the perishing road for you!” “Where the heap of rubble had been ran a broad, flat track, like a well-made road. No steam-roller could have pressed those brickbats into the soft turf more thoroughly than had that runaway German tank!"