by W. E. Johns




(First published in the Modern Boy on 1st December 1934 – Issue 356)

(This is ‘The Camera’ (Chapter 11) & ‘Thumbs to Noses!’ (Chapter 12) & ‘What a Bullet Did’ (Chapter 13) in the book and the story became “THE CAMERA” in “Biggles of 266”.  This story is NOT to be confused with the story “Biggles Buys the Sky!” published in the Modern Boy and later published in “Biggles Learns to Fly” with the chapter title “The Camera” – Chapter 10 in the revised version of that book)


Biggles lands and tells Smyth, his flight-sergeant that “She’s inclined to be a bit left wing low”.  In the mess Biggles is told by Mahoney that Mac is talking about narrow escapes.  “Narrow escapes?  What are they?” asks Biggles.  “Why, don’t you have any?” inquired Algy Lacey, who had joined the squadron not long before”.  The C.O. comes in and tells Biggles that Major Raymond from Wing wants a word (Raymond’s rank constantly varies in these stories between Major and Colonel).  Biggles is shown an exceptionally clear aerial photograph.  Raymond tells him that the Germans had a camera with an exceptional lens, that took years and years to make, and the British captured it when the plane carrying it was shot down.  The British then had it fitted to a special D.H.4 (Johns used to fly the D.H.4, a bomber, in the Great War and was shot down in one) and now the two officers who were in the D.H.4 are prisoners of war and the Germans have the camera back again.  The Germans now have it on a special machine operating over the Lines at enormous altitude, estimated at twenty-four thousand feet.  Biggles knows that if the plane is shot down, or if the crew get a chance to destroy the camera rather than see it captured by the British, they will.  Biggles is asked to solve the problem as to how to get the camera back.  The next morning, Biggles is awoken by an orderly-room clerk and given a message from Major Raymond.  “High altitude reconnaissance biplane crossed the Lines at seven-twenty-three near Bethune”.  Biggles then rushes to his Camel and takes off to go after it.  Biggles climbs to seventeen thousand feet and can see the German aircraft.  “That ‘plane came out of the Halberstadt works, I’ll bet my shirt!” he mused.  Although Biggles can get to twenty thousand feet, the German is still a good two thousand feet above him.  Biggles tries to point his Camel upwards and fire at the Germans but “as one man, pilot and observer raised their thumbs to their noses and extended their fingers”.  “Biggles’ face grew crimson with mortification, but he had no time to dwell on the insult, for his Camel stalls and he has to pull out of a spin.  Back at Maranique, Biggles instructs Smyth to do what he had to in order to reduce weight to get him the extra height he needs.  Putting in a ten gallon petrol tank, rather than the usual twenty-six gallon one, reducing ammunition to two belts of fifty rounds each and stripping out everything unnecessary are amongst the measures suggested.  The machine is also polished to reduce skin friction and extensions are added to the wing-tips.  Smyth wants two or three days to do this but Biggles says it must be by tomorrow morning.  “I shall be along at sparrow-chirp tomorrow morning, and if that kite isn’t ready to fly, and, what is more, fly to twenty-three thousand feet up, someone will get it in the neck!”.  Next morning, Biggles is again informed the high-flying German photographic machine is crossing the Lines within striking distance of Maranique.  “A party of weary mechanics, who had evidently been up all night, were just putting the finishing touches” to his machine.  Biggles takes off and is able to fly to nineteen thousand feet in effortless style, although his altimeter had been removed with other instruments.  Biggles estimates he gets up to between twenty-two and twenty-three thousand feet and goes after the German.  He gets beneath it and plans to shoot its propeller to make it land.  Biggles shoots and gets the pilot, he “saw the pilot hanging limply forward on his safety-belt”.  The plane goes down as the observer struggles to control and land it.  At a thousand feet, the observer struggles with something on the floor of the cockpit and guessing that he was endeavouring to release the camera, Biggles fires warning shots at him.    The observer springs up and tries to land in a field too small for such a big machine and crashes into the trees on the far side.  Biggles tries to land quickly but crashes his Camel on top of the wreckage of his victim.  The observer has bolted but Biggles calls him back to help get the German pilot out of the wreckage.  Major Raymond arrives, having been watching from the ground and asks about the camera.  Biggles has forgotten about it in all the excitement.  On checking, Major Raymond finds that the lens has been smashed by a bullet.  “Biggles stared at the hole as if fascinated.  “Well, now, would you believe that?”  he muttered disgustedly.  “And they took five years to make it!”