by Captain W. E. Johns


First published May 1937





List of illustrations – Page 7 (Frontispiece by Howard Leigh and six illustrations by Alfred Sindall on pages 27, 59, 101, 137, 227 and 241.  There is also a map of Elephant Island on page 163)


I.              AN UNUSUAL “WHETHER” REPORT  (Pages 9 – 25)


The book opens with Algy offering Biggles a penny for his thoughts.  “A penny for ‘em”.  Captain Algernon Lacey, late of the Royal Flying Corps, looked across the room at his friend, Major James Bigglesworth – more often known as ‘Biggles’ – with a twinkle in his eye”.  Biggles is pondering a mystery.  Ginger, “their protégé, who was passing a wet afternoon usefully by pasting up some photographs in an album” is also interested in what it is, so Biggles tells them.  When he went to the bank that morning, Biggles happened to meet Tom Lowery.  “You remember Tom, Algy?  He came to 266 Squadron just before the Armistice”.  Now a squadron leader at Singapore, they both went to Simpson’s for lunch.  (Simpsons-in-the-Strand is a famous London restaurant opened in 1828 as a chess club and coffee house.  It went on to serve meals and is still operating today).  Tom was telling Biggles a tale about Ramsay “who, you may remember, was an ack-emma (a footnote tells us this is service jargon for air mechanic) in 266.  He is now a wireless operator mechanic – still in the service, or course”.  The story is interrupted by the arrival of “Jerry Laidshaw, who is now in charge of “sparks” at the Air Ministry.  Naturally, Jerry joined us …” and Tom continues his story.  While Tom and Ramsay were in the air, Ramsay picked up a message from the steam-ship Queen of Olati which concluded with “weather fine, sea slight”.  “Ramsay, in taking down the message – which came through, of course, in Morse – had spelt it w-h-e-t-h-e-r”.  Tom pointed out Ramsay had spelt “weather” wrong and Ramsay said that was the way it came through.  It all “ended with Ramsay losing his head and saying things which in turn resulted in his losing one of his stripes for insubordination”.  Jerry then said “But Ramsay was right!  I picked up the Shanodah’s message at the Air Ministry, and the word weather was spelt w-h-e-t-h-e-r.  I can vouch for it, because I made a particular note of it”.  They then realise they are talking about two different ships lost at sea, in the Bay of Bengal.  Algy says it is strange.  “Strange!” cried Biggles.  “I think it’s more than strange when two mercantile wireless operators, both English, and presumably both educated men, misspell the same word – which, incidentally, is a word they must use more than any other.  But when you add to that fact that both ships foundered with all hands, in the same sea, within a month of each other, I should call it dashed extraordinary – too extraordinary to be either human or natural”.  Biggles has been making enquiries and has discovered that two other ships have been lost with all hands in the Indian Ocean.  Both sent out an S.O.S. that was picked up and Biggles wants to know if the word weather was misspelt again.  Biggles rings a man named Fellowes who was the officer who picked up the S.O.S. from the Alice Clair about three months ago and is told that the word “weather” was spelt incorrectly when transmitted.  Algy says “By the anti-clockwise propeller of Icarus!  That certainly is a most amazing coincidence”.  Biggles is convinced the messages were sent by the same man.  Biggles wants to know what cargo the ships were carrying and so he rings Colonel Raymond at Scotland Yard.  Raymond knows about the sinking’s and Biggles confirms to Algy and Ginger the following.  “The Queen of Olati was outward bound for Melbourne, loaded chock-a-block with military aeroplanes for the Australian government.  With her went down on of our leading aircraft designers and a member of the Air Council.  The Shanodah was bound for Singapore with twenty Rolls-Royce Kestrel engines, spare parts, machine-guns, and small arms ammunition.  The Alice Clair was bound for Shanghai with munitions for the British volunteer forces there; and the other ship – the fourth, which we haven’t investigated – was coming home from Madras with a lot of bar gold.  Raymond is on his way here now”.  Mrs. Symes is asked to let them have tea for four when Raymond arrives.  Biggles explains to Raymond about the spelling mistake that raised his interest.  “Bigglesworth, if you’ll give up this free-lance roving and join our Intelligence staff, I’ll give you any rank you like within reason”.  Biggles shook his head.  “It’s very nice of you, sir, but I should be absolutely useless in an official capacity,” he said slowly.  I have my own way of doing things, and they are seldom the official way.  If I got tangled up with your red tape I should never get anywhere.  It is only because I’ve played a free hand that I’ve sometimes been – well, successful”.  Biggles tells Raymond he suspects some foreign power is operating against our shipping from a base in or near the Indian Ocean.  Raymond says he needs to discuss this with the Admiralty and tells Biggles to stay where he is.  “But I’m not in the army now.  I’m a citizen and a free man,” protested Biggles indignantly.  So you may be, but you’ll jolly well do what you’re told, the same as you used to,” growled the Colonel with a twinkle in his eye.  “I shall rely on you”.  Raymond leaves.  Mrs. Symes arrives with the tea – but too late.  “There now,” was Mrs Symes’s only comment as she went out again.  Biggles thinks they will all find themselves “up to the neck in the custard, or I’m making a big mistake”.