by Captain W. E. Johns



VI.                   SO THIS IS WAR!  (Pages 97 – 119)


The entire squadron are on standby, waiting for the call that will see them take to the skies.  Squadron Leader Bigglesworth is in full flying kit, looking at the clouds.  Toddy, the Station Adjutant, is by the telephone.  Ten Spitfires are ready to go with the pilots of each of the three flights (consisting of three aircraft) and Biggles’s aircraft being the tenth.  ‘Doc’ Lorton “a war-scarred veteran of many campaigns who had just arrived to take over the duties of Station Medical Officer” says to Biggles that the “Boche” are a bit later than usual this morning.  The telephone rings and Toddy answers it.  “Strong enemy sub-units of bombers, escorted by fighters, approaching the South Foreland” he rapped out.  “Height, twenty-two thousand; course, north-west”.  The pilots run towards their machines and the squadron take off and climb steadily, turning towards the Channel.  Flying through the clouds, Biggles sees “mile after mile of gleaming clouds, like masses of cotton-wool, stretched away to the infinite distance”.  “Below lay home, friends, and safety; above, mystery, enemies and death”.  “Biggles, ever watchful, noted that the towering cloud fell away on one side into what appeared to be a cavity, and he edged towards it.  Looking down over the side of his cockpit, he caught his breath as he found himself gazing into a hole, a pit of incredible size.  Straight down for a sheer ten thousand feet the walls of opaque mist dropped into a vast basin, turning slowly from yellow to brown, from brown to purple, and purple to indigo.  Ledges occurred at intervals in the precipitous sides, cornices that looked so solid, so concrete, that it seemed as if a man might walk on them.  So taken up was he with this phenomenon that for a moment all else was forgotten; then a movement far below caught his eyes and he knew that his quest was at an end.  A number of machines – how many he could not tell – were circling round and round at the bottom of the yawning crater”.  The squadron dives down to the action and Ginger decides there are at least fifty machines fighting.  He attacks a Messerschmitt and sees it roll onto its back and spin down out of sight through the misty floor of the basin.  Ginger chases a Messerschmitt 110 and it twists and turns like a seal with a sea lion at its tail.  “It was the first big dogfight he had been in, and the thought uppermost in his mind was that he must inevitably collide with another machine sooner or later, for aircraft were all around him – Hurricances, Spitfires, Messerschmitts, Junkers, Heinkels, all zooming and diving, banking and rolling in what seemed to be hopeless confusion.  Somewhat to his surprise he was not afraid.  He was conscious only of a strange elation, a burning desire to destroy one of the enemy before he himself was killed – as he never doubted that he would be in the end.  It seemed impossible that any machine could survive such an inferno.  Yet, curiously enough, it did not occur to him to pull out of it”. Ginger’s machine is hit, but the only plane in a position to shoot at him was a British aircraft, a Hurricane. The scene is photographed on his mind and he notes the squadron identification mark painted in white letters on the Hurricane’s nose.  A pilot bails out of a burning Spitfire and Ginger sees it crash into a Heinkel.  (The furnace caught the Heinkel fair and square across the fuselage – is the illustration on page 105).  A Messerschmitt gets on Ginger’s tail but he manages to turn the tables with a clever move and he shoots the Messerschmitt down.  Suddenly, Ginger is alone.  He flies and sees black specks disappearing into the distance.  Low on ammunition he returns home.  On arrival at the airfield, Ginger is scolded by Biggles for remaining when Biggles pulled out.  Ginger says he didn’t see him go.  Biggles asks Ginger if he is alright and they discuss the battle.  Ginger asks if they have lost anybody.  Toddy confirms that everyone is accounted for.  O’Hara bailed out but is on his way home by taxi.  Taffy got his tail shot off but managed to land near Foxted.  Biggles tells the remaining squadron they can stand easy for ten minutes then they will get off again. A Hurricane comes in low and seems about to crash land.  “Look out, Smyth – watch that machine!” calls Biggles.  The Hurricane lands heavily and they run to find a badly wounded pilot.  They lift him to the ground and the man is able to say that he is from 701, Sergeant-Pilot Graves – from Wilkinson’s squadron.  Graves says that he was shot by a Hurricane with the number K-4 on the cowling.  “Why is it – getting dark – so early?” asks the mortally wounded man.  Biggles says he can’t believe that any pilot – even a Nazi – would do something like that.  “It must have been an accident”.  Ginger says it was no accident and explains what happened to him.  Ginger says he saw the squadron identification marks on the engine cowling – K-4.  Biggles asks him if he heard Graves say that. Ginger says he didn’t as he had gone to fetch the M.O. (Medical Officer).  Biggles says they have got to get that machine.  He’ll take responsibility and will do it.  If it has flown out with the bombers, it will fly back with them.  No one is to shoot unless he fails, then Flight Commanders will carry on. They all rush for their machines.  They fly south looking for returning Germans and presently come across four Dornier 17 twin-engine bombers, a Junkers 86, and a Heinkel 112 single-seater fighter. The Hurricane is not with them.  Biggles leads an attack on them and suddenly a Hurricane appears on the scene and pretends to attack the Germans.  The bombers completely ignore him.  Biggles flies towards the Hurricane in an attempt to see the number of its nose, but it constantly changes course, making it hard to read.  Biggles pretends to turn away and the Hurricane gets on his tail.  The Hurricane dives at Biggles and he whirls his plane round in an instant.  He sees the markings on the cowling ‘K-4’.  “Calmly, but very deliberately, Biggles brought his guns to bear, and fired on of the longest burst he had ever fired in his life.  For a full eight seconds he held it, held it while his eight guns poured out their stream of bullets, raking the Hurricane from end to end.  He could see pieces being ripped off the machine under that fearful storm of lead, and the sight filled him with a satisfaction unusual in such circumstances”.  (He could see pieces being ripped off the machine under that fearful storm of lead – is the frontispiece illustration taken from a line on page 118).  The Hurricane spun down and crashed in open country.  Biggles then felt sick to his stomach – what if he had made a mistake?  Biggles lands near the wreckage and sees a number of soldiers running towards the wreckage.  He orders them back and then sees an infantry captain.  The captain is shocked to find the pilot is “in Jerry uniform”.  Biggles says “I imagine there’ll be a Court of Inquiry, so you might let me have your name.  Your evidence will be wanted”.  Deep in thought, Biggles walked back to his machine.  So this is war!” he brooded.  Overhead, seven Spitfires were circling, waiting.  (It is, of course, seven, as O’Hara and Tex are down).


There is a W.E. Johns short story called “So this is War” published in the February 1940 issue of “Air Stories” but that is nothing to do with this story (see my note to Chapter 1 – Biggles Takes Over above).  This story would appear to be an amalgam of old stories.  The basic plot of the Germans using a captured aircraft to surreptitiously shoot down British aircraft is taken from the story “J-9982” first published in the June 1932 issue of Popular Flying and later chapter three of the first ever Biggles book, ‘The Camels are Coming’ published in September 1932.  The story “J-9982” was also published in “The Modern Boy” issue 259, dated 21st January 1933 as a story called “Fighting Mad”.  This is a First World War story where Biggles sees a Sopwith Camel shoot down another Camel.  He dives at it and sees the number on the aircraft – J-9982 – but then loses it in the clouds.  Biggles C.O., Major Mullen says “I can’t believe a German pilot would do such a dastardly thing”.  Biggles arranges for local British Sopwith Camels to have their prop boss, centre-section and fin, painted blue to help him identify the enemy plane.  Biggles then flies around until he finds a lone Camel not so painted.  He sees the number is J-9982.  The enemy aircraft is in fact acting as bait and five Fokker triplanes dive down on Biggles, but not before he pours a double stream of glittering tracer into the false Camel’s cockpit, killing the pilot and seeing it crash.  Biggles gets one of the Fokkers before other Camels come to his aid.  The highly descriptive passage describing the hole in the clouds was originally from a story spread over four pages – with illustrations – from issue number 328 of “The Modern Boy” (week ending 19th May 1934) entitled “Knights of the Sky”.  The story was collected in “Biggles Learns to Fly” and published by the Boys’ Friend Library in issue number 469 dated 7th March 1935.  This particularly story has a very interesting history as it was drastically edited and retitled “The Dawn Patrol” when it was published in both the original Boys’ Friend Library version of ‘Biggles Learns to Fly’ and the 1955 Brockhampton Press reprint.  This was because it was moved to the end of that book and rather than being the sixth of twelve stories it became the twelfth of twelve stories.  However, “Knights of the Sky” was originally set at 169 Squadron and Biggles was flying a two-seater with Mark Way as his rear gunner.  It had to be re-written to become a 266 Squadron story with Biggles flying a single-seater fighter. Why this was done, no one knows.  The excellent original version of the story can only be read in issue 328 of The Modern Boy from 19th May 1934 or Norman Wright’s limited edition of “Biggles in France” which was published in hardback in 2009 (limited to only 300 numbers copies).  The original version of the story had Biggles landing at 266 Squadron and meeting Major Mullen for the first time.  The Major says “I shall have to keep an eye on you with a view to getting you transferred to 266”.  “I wish to goodness you could fix that, sir” replied Biggles earnestly.  “I shall not be happy until I get in a Scout Squadron”.  Anyway, I digress …… there is a passage in “Knights of the Air” which reads “Biggles looked over the side and caught his breath sharply as he found himself looking into a hole in the clouds, a vast cavity that would have been impossible to imagine.  It reminded him vaguely of the crater of a volcano of incredible proportions.  Straight down for a sheer eight thousand feet the walls of opaque mist dropped, turning from yellow to brown, brown to mauve, and mauve to indigo at the basin-like depression in the remote bottom.  The precipitous sides looked so solid that it seemed as if a man might try to climb down them, or rest on one of the shelves that jutted out at intervals.  He was so taken up with this phenomenon that for a brief space of time all else was forgotten.  Then a tiny movement far, far below caught his eye, and he knew he was looking at that which the eagle-eyed flight-commander had seen instantly.  A number of machines – how many he could not tell – were circling round and round at the very bottom of the yawning crater ……”  This highly descriptive passage is clearly re-used here.  The battle details are also very similar finishing with “He felt only a strange elation, a burning desire to go on doing this indefinitely – to down the enemy machines before he himself was killed, as he never doubted, he would be in the end.  There was no thought in his mind of retreat or escape”.