BIGGLES IN FRANCE
by W. E. Johns
4. BIGGLES AND THE MAD HATTER! (Pages 54 - 66)
(First published in the Modern Boy on 28th July 1934 – Issue 338)
(This is ‘The Human Railway’ (Chapter 7) & ‘Orange Fire!’ (Chapter 8) in the book and the story became “CUTHBERT COMES – AND GOES” in “Spitfire Parade”)
“One of the most characteristic features of flying during the Great War was the manner in which humour and tragedy so often went hand in hand. At noon a practical joke might set the officers’ mess rocking with mirth; by sunset, or perhaps within the hour, the perpetrator of it would be gone for ever, fallen to an unmarked grave in the shell-holes of no man’s land. Laughter, spontaneous and unaffected, with Old Man Death watching, waiting, ever ready to strike”. During “a certain summer day” when it was hot, the officers of 266 Squadron are lounging in the ante-room after the return of the morning patrol. Maclaren (first mention of this regular character in this book) is telling a tale about running out of ammunition when he had a German aircraft cold in his sights. “It was a red machine – an Albatross – so it may have been Richthofen himself. He certainly could fly”. All of a sudden a stranger enters. “He did not enter as one would expect a new officer joining a squadron to enter. There was nothing deferential or even in the slightest degree respectful about his manner. Indeed, so unusual was his method of entry upon the scene that the amazed occupants of the room could only stare wonderingly. Actually, what he did was to fling the doors open wide, and, holding them open with outstretched arms, cry in a shrill Cockney voice; “Passing Down Street and Hyde Park Corner!” He then emitted a series of sounds that formed an excellent imitation of a Tube train starting, punctuated with the usual clanging of doors”. This man whistles and then finishes by striking his elbow and knuckles against a table producing a noise which “was precisely the sound made in a railway booking-office used for punching the date on tickets issued”. Next, the audience are treated to an excellent imitation of a Camel starting up, running and landing and then taxying. There is a shout of laughter from the audience. The man introduces himself as “Forbes, Clarence. Born 1894”. “They call me the Mad Hatter”. Forbes is called to see the C.O. and leaves impersonating a motor cycle. Shortly afterwards, the C.O. tells Biggles to show Forbes the Line that afternoon, much to the amusement of the other officers. Biggles arrives at the sheds and discovers that Forbes has been working on his machine and adjusting it. “Come and have a look at my new device for keeping Huns off my tail” Forbes say to Biggles, but Biggles is not interested. Biggles tells Forbes to stick close to him and they take off. “For an hour or more they flew, following a definite course and climbing to a great height above the Lines”. Forbes sees a distant aircraft before Biggles does and they both go after it. It turns out to be a German Aviatik, a two-seater. Biggles engine starts knocking and he realises he will have to fall back. Initially, he can’t get Forbes’ attention as Forbes is ahead of him so he has to turn without him, but Forbes later turns and follows. Things get worse when Biggles sees a formation of German Albatrosses coming down on them. Biggles has a dilemma with his defective engine as he can’t fight. “To wait for Forbes in such circumstances was sheer suicide, and even if he did wait there was little he could do”. Biggles dashes for home and Forbes follows. “Then came the Hun formation, a dozen or more of them, like a pack of hungry wolves”. By this time they may have seen Biggles’ slowly revolving propeller and they had no intention of letting such easy prey escape. “The knowledge that Forbes would think he – Biggles – was running away, leaving him to his fate, bought a scarlet flush to his cheeks. Forbes could not know that his engine had packed up”. The Huns close in behind Forbes who does not roll or turn or dive and then all of a sudden there is an orange streak spurting backwards from Forbes’ Camel. Then there is a second streak. Two German planes collide with each other and go down. Two more streamers of fire come from Forbes machine and the enemy formation scatter and give up the pursuit. Without a working engine, Biggles has to land and Forbes seems to be having engine problems as well. Forbes tries to land first but flattens out too late and crashes. Biggles lands and, with the help of some troops, pulls an unconscious Forbes from the plane. “Where did they get you, laddie?” asks Biggles when Forbes opens his eyes. “Got me through both legs,” he breathed. “That blood on my face is coming from my nose; I think I busted it on the stubs of my guns when I crashed”. Forbes says he wanted to try out his rockets, normally used for balloon strafing. He had made a gadget to hold them on backwards. An ambulance arrives and Forbes brings his elbow and fist on the side of the vehicle. “Two to Waterloo!” grinned Forbes.