by Captain W. E. Johns



III.           IN THE NICK OF TIME  (Pages 48 – 67)


Three weeks later, Biggles is sitting at the primitive harbour at Tavoy, Lower Burma, gazing at native craft in the Bay of Bengal.  A subsequent meeting had taken place after Biggles first meeting.  “Algy and Ginger attended in a secondary capacity in order that they might hear the plan unfolded in its entirety.  The others present, beside those who had taken part in the preliminary debate in Lottison House, were: Air Marshal Sir Dugan Wales, Liaison Officer with the Air Ministry; Commander Michael Sullivan, R.N., Captain of H.M.S. Seafret, the destroyer detailed to act as a floating supply ship; Lieutenant Rupert Lovell, his Navigating Officer; Captain Angus McFarlane, of the Bengal Star, an old tramp streamer which had been selected as the decoy ship; and Chief Petty Officer Turrell, R.N., who was to act as the wireless operator on it”.  Notification of Biggles’ rank of Air Commodore had appeared in the Gazette under the broad heading of ‘Special Duty’; “naturally, the commission was to be relinquished at the end of the affair.  He had abandoned his request for naval rank on the assurance of Admiral Hardy that Commander Sullivan would accept orders from him in his capacity of an Air Officer, the matter being made easier by the Admiralty ‘loaning’ the Seafret to the Air Ministry.  The Bengal Star had put to sea with Welsh coal onboard but a notice was issued to the press to say she was loaded with crated aeroplanes.  The Seafret put to sea two days later.  As to the aeroplane Biggles and his team had chosen it “was a ‘Storm’ amphibian, aptly named “Nemesis”, fitting with two Rolls-Royce ‘Kestrel’ engines (the Kestrel had various horsepower, but there was a V model with a 695 hp engine and in 1934 they cost £2051 each! – that would be around £125,000 adjusted for inflation some seventy years later), and special tanks giving an endurance range of nearly three thousand miles”.  “Altitude, Biggles claimed, was of paramount importance, for not only did it increase their range of vision, but it reduced their chances of being heard by the enemy; for although the special silencers had been fitted to the engines, there was no means of silencing the ‘whip’ of the propeller, or the vibrant hum of wires – both largely responsible for the noise made by aircraft in flight”.  Biggles is complaining to Ginger that “this cruising about all day and half the night gets pretty monotonous” and that he is scared something will happen to the Star at night when it is too dark to see what is going on.  All three airmen take off in the Nemesis and Biggles is alarmed that Ginger can’t get the Bengal Star on the wireless.  Biggles tells Ginger to get the Star’s last known position from the Seafret and then tell Commander Sullivan to proceed there at full speed.  They fly to the position where the Star should be and scan the seas for her but there is no sign.  “She’s gone,” says Biggles, “in a curiously expressionless voice”.  Spotting some wreckage, a man is seen waving on it.  As they land on the sea, the man, disappears under the water.  Algy dives in to pull him out only for both men to be menaced by a shark.  Biggles fires his automatic at the shark.  (He opened rapid fire on the swiftly moving target - is the illustration on page 59).  When the unknown man is pulled to safety aboard the floating aircraft, they find that a shark has bitten off the man’s right foot, clean above the ankle.  Biggles’s manner became peremptory.  “Ginger, go into the cabin; make it snappy,” he said curtly.  “Get out the medicine box.  I want lint iodine, a roll bandage and a piece of cord.  We shall have to get a tourniquet round that leg pretty sharp or he’ll bleed to death”.  Algy flies to the Seafret and lands nearby.  The man is transferred the sick-bay.  Biggles tells Sullivan “The Star’s gone – sunk – sent to Davy Jones; a few sticks and this poor fellow are all that remain”. (‘Davy Jones’s Locker’ is an idiom for the bottom of the sea).  “Algy and Ginger looked at Biggles askance as they came up the steps that had been lowered and joined him on the quarter-deck.  For the first time they saw him really agitated.  His face was pale, his manner almost distraught, and his hands were clenched.  “What a tragedy!  What a tragedy!” he muttered, pacing up and down.  “It’s my fault; I should have foreseen it”.  The doctor tells Biggles that the man is conscious but he better come right away.  “He hasn’t long, I’m afraid”.  The man has a bullet through the stomach.  Biggles goes to see him and notices “he was little more than a boy”.  He is able to say his name is Ladgrove and he explains that the Star was sunk by a submarine.  Ladgrove says that the wireless aerial of the Star “was a mass of sparks, blue sparks” and “I could ‘ear the skipper blindin’ the submarine to all eternity and shouting orders”.  The submarine opened fire on the survivors with a machine gun.  “Then for about twenty minutes they cruised round and round shooting at every one they saw in the water”.  Ladgrove escaped by sinking under an oar and holding his breath.  He was able to wave at the aircraft but then a shark pulled him under and that’s all he remembered.  Biggles asks if he knew the attackers nationality or recognised their language.  “No, sir, except that they seemed to be little fellows and rattled away like they might have been Japs, or Chinks”.  Ladbroke is able to say the submarine went off due south-east.  “I hope you’re going ter get these blighters, sir”.  “Yes, we’ll get them,” smiled Biggles, and then, making his way to the deck, he stared with unseeing eyes at the blue water.  Ginger watched him curiously for a moment, and then nudged Algy in the side.  “Don’t tell me the skipper’s crying,” he whispered.  Algy glanced up.  “Shouldn’t be surprised,” he said moodily.  “I saw him do that once before, in France.  Heaven help these skunks who sunk the Star if ever he gets his hands on them; they’ll get little mercy from him now.  Better not speak to him for a bit”.  The doctor joins them on deck.  “I suppose there’s no hope for him?” asked Biggles quietly.  “He’s dead,” answered the doctor shortly.