by Captain W. E. Johns



XIII.                 BERTIE PICKS THE LOCK  (Pages 232 – 256)


Biggles was in conference with his three Flight Commanders when he hears the sound of an approaching Tiger-Moth.  The plane lands and the pilot stays with the machine.  The passenger goes to the Squadron Office – it’s Air Commodore Raymond.  He notices that Biggles is not pleased to see him.  Biggles knows what it means when Raymond turns up.  “That’s the penalty for being so efficient, Bigglesworth” Raymond tells him.  Biggles asks if he should dismiss his Flight Commanders but Raymond says they can stay.  Raymond wants a volunteer to go to France for a mission.  A convoy of no fewer than twenty barges, loaded with bombs, are proceeding along the Arras to Abbeville canal.  They are due to reach the lock near the village of Bonner at nine o’clock that night.  Raymond wants to send an agent over to blow up the lock, not only destroying the barges, the bombs and the lock, but also flooding an enemy aerodrome referred to as Number 14.  Raymond wants a man who has done this sort of thing before.  Biggles says “If you think I am the man for the job I’ll have a shot at it”.  Raymond says he will need to fly their agent over in a two seater, hence the arrival of the Tiger-Moth.  Raymond and the pilot will return by train.  When Raymond has gone, Bertie’s dog Towser comes rushing into the office and Biggles trips over it, injuring his wrist.  “By Jove!  I say, you know, I’m most frightfully sorry, sir,” stammered Bertie, dropping his monocle in his agitation.  “Biggles regarded him reflectively.  “You know, Bertie, there are times when I find myself wondering if you’re a bigger fool than you look, or look a bigger fool than you are”.  Biggles has sprained his wrist and the M.O. (Medical Officer) binds up Biggles wrist and puts his arm in a sling.  He then tells Biggles that he can’t fly for a fortnight.  All the Flight Commanders offer to go in Biggles place, but Bertie says it should be him as Towser was his dog and he knows the area.  At eight fifteen, Bertie is waiting with Biggles on the tarmac when the agent arrives.  A car arrives bringing a small, middle-aged, nervous looking man dressed in the blue dungarees of a French peasant.  Biggles can smell brandy on the man’s breathe and suspects the man has “been fortifying himself for his ordeal”.  The man has with him explosives set with a fifteen minute fuse.  Bertie takes off with the agent on board, but the agent is scared by the searchlights and flak over the French coasts and tells Bertie to “Go back!”  Bertie ignores him and lands in a field.  Bertie sends the agent off in the right direction, north, to do his work, but the agent is clearly terrified.  He goes, but quickly returns.  Bertie tries to encourage the agent “You’re as brave as a lion – anyone can see that”.  But the agent won’t go.  Bertie is conscious of the fact that time is running out.  He decides to go himself and tells the agent “If you’re not here with this aircraft when I come back, the next time I see you I’ll cut off your legs, sharpen the stumps, and drive you into the ground with a mallet - by Jove, I will!”  Bertie soon discovers there are soldiers on or about the lock and it is hard to get near it as in every direction the country is open.  Bertie, carrying the explosives, goes towards the canal some distance above the lock and soon finds an elevated, flimsy, wooden footbridge over the lock.  He also hears the approaching barges.  Bertie hides on the footbridge and jumps into an approaching barge.  Bertie then has to fight with a man on the barge, who he eventually knocks overboard.  The boatman swims to the banks and starts running and shouting at the top of his voice.  Bertie hides the explosive in the cargo, with the timer running.  Soldiers, alerted, come running but are reluctant to fire on a barge filled with bombs.  A second man, who must have been asleep, comes up from below the barge and Bertie leaps to the bank and throws himself over the embankment just as a bullet whistles past his ear.  Bertie runs to hide in a wood as he is now on the wrong bank, the one opposite where he left the Tiger-Moth and soldiers are running along that bank heading for the bridge.  It is at this stage that his explosive goes off and detonates the bombs on the barge, the blast of air so violent that Bertie is thrown to the ground even at that distance – and he loses his monocle.  Then there is the sound of rushing water.  Bertie looks at the devastation.  “Where the lock had been, the bank of the canal had completely disappeared.  So had the lock.  The water, millions of gallons of it, had poured through the breach, with the result that the canal was practically empty”.  The water has flowed towards where Bertie left his aircraft.  It was in the middle of a lake.  There are no signs of the soldiers, so Bertie crosses the bridge back to the correct side of the bank for the aircraft and finds the water is only ankle-deep in most places.  A hail from the agent brings Bertie to the Tiger-Moth, where the agent is standing in a seat, muttering incoherently.  The plane has been swept by flood water into a hedge, but has suffer no structural damage.  When the agent won’t come out of the aircraft to help straighten it up, Bertie drags him out bodily. They get the machine clear of the hedge and facing the open water.  The take-off is a nightmare, raising loads of spray, but eventually Bertie is able to take off and fly back home.  The entire squadron is waiting for him when he lands.  Biggles asks if it all went to plan.  “No jolly fear it didn’t” declared Bertie soberly.  “I lost my beastly eyeglass in the dark”.


This chapter was originally a Biggles story written for “The Modern Boy’s Annual 1937” called “Biggles’ Exciting Night”.  It was spread over seven pages – with illustrations.   The story was an uncollected story until May 1999 when Norman Wright published his limited edition book “Biggles Air Ace: The Uncollected Stories”.  The differences in the original story are these.  Firstly, the original story was a First World War story rather than a Second World War story and secondly, it is Biggles who is the hero and not Bertie.  It starts with Biggles returning from having shot down a red and silver Fokker Triplane and in high spirits, Biggles lands and banters with an elderly man in a rather dilapidated trench coat.  Biggles is rather uncharacteristically boastful, saying things like “Listen, old whelk, if every hour of flying in my log-book was a brick, they’d be able to build a row of permeant hangers from Maranique to Paris”.  He laughed heartily and slapped the other on the back.  When the stranger unbuttons his trench coat to get his cigarettes from his tunic pocket, Biggles sees that he is a General with a blaze of medal ribbons.  Biggles is told “You are just the fellow I was hoping to find” and then taken to the C.O. Major Mullen.  Biggles is shown a photograph of Dunville Canal, running from Lille through Tournai towards Ath.  The spot in the photograph is near the village of Lignes.  Fourteen barges are making their way towards Lille loaded with heavy artillery shells.  Biggles is asked to take a Belgian agent over in a two-seater.  Biggles agrees to go, but says these things seldom work out according to plan.  Biggles selects a Bristol Fighter for the job.  The General says he will have a new one sent over.  Biggles meets the agent at eight thirty – “a peasant of the lowest class, if his clothes were anything to judge by”.  The story then continues along similar lines as the re-write, although the conversation between Biggles and the agent differs in places.  When Bertie sees how open the country is around the lock, he says to himself “This is awkward – deuced awkward” whereas Biggles says to himself “This isn’t going to be easy”.  Biggles dialogue is rewritten for Bertie in various places.  “These Intelligence blokes don’t live up to their name.  I’ll bet they made a mistake in their sums” becomes “These Intelligence chappies don’t live up to their name.  It looks as if they’ve made a mistake in their beastly calculations” for Bertie.  “Suffering rattlesnakes, that’s done it” for Biggles becomes “By Jove, I’m afraid that’s done it” for Bertie.  The story is however, identical and in due course, Biggles flies back to Maranique with the agent.  The General is waiting for Biggles when he lands.  “It all went off according to plan, eh?” he asks.  “Of course, sir” grinned Biggles.  “These jobs always do”.