BIGGLES TAKES THE CASE
by Captain W. E. Johns
II. THE CASE OF THE UNKNOWN AIRCRAFT (Pages 37 – 56)
This story was originally written in 1949 for the Mark & Spencer book “Biggles – Air Detective” (published May 1950) but it was then sold to the BBC for dramatization. On 12th September 1949, the BBC broadcast this story on the radio and they changed Johns’ original title to “The Case of the Lump of Metal”. As a result, Marks & Spencer didn’t want it for their book, as they only wanted original, unknown Biggles stories in their collection. It was collected in “Biggles Takes the Case” in 1952 and then subsequently published in ADVENTURE STORIES FOR BOYS (1956) by Odhams Books Ltd, where it ran from pages 177 to 195 in that book.
“It was unusual for Air Commodore Raymond to walk unannounced into the Operations’ Room of the Air Police Service; for which reason Biggles, who was at work on his records, raised his eyebrows and stood up when the Air Commodore strode in. Air Constables Ginger Hebblethwaite and Bertie Lissie also sprang to their feet, Bertie dropping his eye-glass in his agitation but catching it deftly”. Raymond tells everyone that he has a job that is top priority. It will be a long walk to where he wants them to go, as there is no aerodrome within 20 miles. The objective is in the Cairngorms, on the slope of Ben Macdhui (which, at 1309 metres or 4294 feet, is the second highest mountain in Britain after Ben Nevis). (At the time, Johns was living only 18 miles away from Ben Macdhui in Scotland. In June 1947, he has taken out a six year lease on Pitchroy Lodge, Grantown-on-Spey, Morayshire and he remained there until 1953). An aircraft has crashed about half way up. The mystery is that no aircraft is missing. Every private aircraft owner has been contacted and accounted for. The plane was a single-seater, so there was only one body in it, “burnt, as usual, beyond recognition”. The plane is of no type known and even the engine has no mark or number on it. In the wreckage has been found a lump of metal, melted by the heat to an irregular mass, which has been identified as uranium. It must have been “stolen from an official source somewhere as it is virtually impossible for a civilian to get hold of any”. The only clue they have is that the pilot was carrying a luger pistol. Biggles asks for Raymond to ensure the newspapers give details of where the crash has taken place and that a body had been removed and the guard at the site withdrawn. Algy is already duty officer on stand-by at their airfield, so Ginger rings him up to tell him to get the Proctor ready for flight, with three parachutes. Biggles has a plan, as he suspects that someone will come looking for the uranium. Flying over “Inverness-shire”, they soon see the blackened heather of the crash site. Biggles, Ginger and Bertie bail out with a fourth parachute holding their large bundle of stores. The site is guarded by air force men and Biggles tells them to pack up and go home. “Ginger stopped to look at the spot where the unknown pilot must have been hurled from life to death in an instant of time without knowing anything about it”. They all move to a bivouac made by the previous party, a flattened pile of heather with a primitive fireplace of stones, to wait. Ginger is awoken by Biggles at half past one in the morning and Biggles says “Ssh! Someone’s coming”. A man arrives and begins searching for something. Biggles, Ginger and Bertie surround him and Biggles tells him to come out. (This is the pen and ink illustration at the beginning of the story on page 38). “We’re security police. Who are you?” The man says his name is Lowenski and that he is Polish. He lives in Perth. Biggles says the man can be sent back to Poland if he doesn’t co-operate. Lowenski says he has a mother and father in Poland, who have been interned on trumped-up political charges and if he doesn’t do what he is told, they’ve had it. He says he thinks the unknown aircraft was travelling from America to Warsaw in Poland. His Polish friend had been sent to fetch the aircraft and his friend had to obey as he was “in the same fix” as Lowenski, “only in his case it's his wife they’ve got in Poland”. That afternoon, Lowenski had received a phone call from London telling him to get to the crash site and collect some bars of heavy metal that he would find in the wreckage. His orders are to take the metal to the big marsh near Nethy at four in the morning, when a plane will land and collect it. He is then to send a telegram to a Box Number at the General Post Office, London, saying the job had been done. Taking Lowenski with them, Biggles uses the Pole’s car to travel to the rendezvous. A black, twin-engined, low-wing monoplane, lands. A man gets out and when Biggles’s party approaches, the man senses danger and draws his automatic and fires twice. The man then runs, but he runs straight into the fast rotating air-screws (propeller). “There was a vicious smack and a shower of splinters as one of the whirling blades struck his skull. He went down as if he had been shot through the heart”. The pilot tries to take off, not realising that his air-screw has been shattered and is unable to clear the trees and he crashes. An examination confirms both men are dead. At a subsequent secret enquiry, it is revealed that the plane that crashed on Ben Macdhui was a new secret prototype. It and its cargo had been stolen in America and the pilot was making a wide sweep north before heading for its destination. A telegram is sent to the Box Number at the General Post Office, London and the police follow the man who collects it back to what turns out to be the London headquarters of a nest of international spies. “A police raid on the building yielded information that had been sought for a long time”. To save any reprisals, Lowenski was officially sent to prison. Unofficially, he was compensation and allowed to emigrate to a British colony, where his parents were able to join him after political negotiation. “As far as Biggles was concerned, it was just another job of work buttoned up”.