by Captain W. E. Johns



V.            AFRICAN ASSIGNMENT  (Pages 95 – 123)

I believe that this story was originally published in THE DAILY MAIL between Saturday 27th May 1950 and Saturday 5th August 1950.  In a letter dated 13th May 1950, Johns agent informed Johns that the Daily Mail were suggesting some cuts to the story.  They were told that no cutting would be permissible without the author’s approval but if the paper wished to suggest cuts and sent their version to Johns, he would consider them.  Having never seen the Daily Mail version, I am unable to say what cuts, if any, took place.


Biggles goes to see Air Commodore Raymond, Assistant Commissioner of Police at Scotland Yard, who greets him cheerfully with “Morning Bigglesworth”.  Raymond asks him if he would like “a run out to Central Africa”.  Raymond explains that there is a small native reserve just inside our territory near the boundaries of Kenya, French Equatorial Africa and the Belgian Congo.  It is known as the Ubeni Reserve and it is occupied by a tribe of that name who live mostly in a village of that name on the shore of Lake Kulu.  “These people apparently, have always been a bit backward”.  There has been no serious trouble there apart from a little poaching.  “Most natives are poachers by nature, but we don’t mind as long as the thing is kept within reasonable limits.  On the whole the Ubeni are a surly lot, for which reason they seldom have visitors – I mean white men”.  There has been a report from Captain Callingham, the Assistant Game Ranger, who visits once a year, that he detected an atmosphere of definite hostility with the Ubeni.  No violence has occurred, but Callingham withdrew.  “Something, or someone, was responsible, and Callingham, wise in such matters, suspected the influence of a white man”.  There was a white man in the district at the time, but Raymond says that he can be ruled out as he was “thoroughly trustworthy”.  His name was Angus Soutar, known by the natives as Sootoo and he had a son aged 16 called Thomas, who had been educated in England.  Soutar had visited the Ubeni as a trader and had disappeared.  His son turned up at Juba two months ago to say that he had been on his first trading trip with his father to the Ubeni Reserve “where they found the natives off-hand to the point of being insolent”.  Some of the natives appeared to be drunk and empty gin bottles were seen.  Soutar, fearing he might be robbed, decided to move on.  They went for ten miles and stopped at a lake edge to water their oxen.  An Ubeni native appeared and Soutar gave him a considerable weight of tobacco for a small oblong tin with a blue lid.  Soutar told his son, Tommy “There’s dirty work going on at Ubeni and I’m going to get to the bottom of it.  Wait here till I come back.  If I don’t come back go to the District Officer”.  He set off in the direction of Ubeni and Tommy never saw him again.  Tommy did go to look for him and found the native who had been given the tobacco, speared to death.  Tommy tried to drive the wagon to get help but lions attacked the oxen.  “Those that weren’t killed, stampeded”.  As a result, Tommy had to walk to Juba.  He does remember seeing an aeroplane flying over the lake, from Ubeni and heading north and that is why Raymond is asking Biggles to become involved.  Biggles asks about the Steiners.  They are a husband and wife team who have a flying boat and have recently shown a wild animal film at the Poly Cinema called “The Heart of Africa”.  Biggles wonders where they filmed it as it may have been their aircraft that Tommy saw.  Biggles flies out to Juba with Ginger in a police Saro amphibian aircraft and meet with Tommy Soutar.  Biggles flies Tommy to the lake to find his abandoned wagon.  (This is the pen and ink illustration at the beginning of the story on page 96).    The wagon is empty, having been looted by the natives but Tommy knows his father’s secret hiding place where he kept his money.  In it, they find the money and the metal box with the blue-painted lid.  Inside the tin are uncut diamonds.  Biggles concludes the Ubeni have found diamonds.  They know it is illegal to buy and sell diamonds.  They must be selling them to a white man for gin and other items.  Tommy’s father, must have gone back to locate the crook handing out the gin.  The native who swapped diamonds for tobacco must have been killed for divulging their secret and Angus Soutar probably ran into the same crowd.  Biggles notes the metal box with the blue painted lid is a particular brand of cigarettes (we are not told what) and suspects that it came from the white man who bought the diamonds.  Returning to their aircraft, Biggles shows Tommy some photographs of animals and asks him if he recognises the scenery.  Tommy recognises one where a large of number of hippos are gathered.  He remembers walking out on the fallen tree shown in the photograph.  Biggles tells Ginger he got the photographs from the publicity agent for the film “The Heart of Africa”.  Biggles knows the Steiner’s are planning to return to Africa to make another film.  Biggles tells Ginger to fly to R.A.F. Headquarters in Egypt and get in contact with Raymond via radio to get his instructions.  Ginger thinks he will be away about three days.  Biggles and Tommy unload stores and prepare to wait.  On the third day, Biggles hears, then sees a Cornell flying boat, which is the Steiner’s machine.  Biggles decides to walk to Ubeni, leaving Tommy to continue to wait for Ginger.  Biggles takes no rifle, having just his automatic in his pocket.  Biggles sees a lion but it leaves him alone.  Arriving at Ubeni under a brilliant African moon, Biggles sees gravel thrown into heaps besides a trickling water course and thinks this is where the diamonds have been found.  Biggles sees the Steiner’s aircraft on the lake and hears activity in the village “mostly of a boisterous nature, as if the natives were in good humour”.  “A frown knitted Biggles’ forehead as he listened, for such unusual behaviour at such an hour, he suspected, was the result of hard liquor”.  Biggles sees a tent and hears the voices of a man and a woman.  He uses his knife to cut a small hole in the canvas and look in.  Biggles then goes to the aircraft and settles down in the cockpit to rest.  The next morning, Biggles walks up to the tent and greets the man and woman with a “Good morning”.  He introduces himself as a police inspector from Scotland Yard and tells the couple they are under arrest for illicit diamond buying.  Biggles asks for a cigarette and is offered a tin with a blue lid, the same as the one Angus had.  Mrs. Steiner pulls a revolver on Biggles but lowers it when Biggles says violence won’t help them.  Biggles says he knows where the diamonds are as he watched them sort them last night.  Mrs. Steiner says to her husband Karl, in German, “I told you we should have finished off that old man right away.  He’s responsible for this”.  Biggles answers in the same language that it will be a good thing for them if Angus Soutar is alive otherwise they will find themselves involved in a charge of murder.  The Chief of the village arrives with his men.  Mrs. Steiner suggests to Karl they fly to Belgian territory.  Biggles says he has immobilised their aircraft.  Mrs. Steiner snatches a small bag from the table and throws the contents into the long grass.  She then tells the Chief that Biggles is a policeman come to put him in jail and orders him to kill him.  “Shut up Hilda!” says her husband.  “The Chief blinked, as if things were going too fast for his primitive brain”.  The Chief raises his spear and Biggles draws his automatic.  Mrs. Steiner fires her revolver at Biggles but hits the Chief by mistake.  Biggles takes the revolver off her.  Native unrest is prevented by the arrival of two aircraft, Ginger and Tommy in the Saro and a four-engined flying boat wearing R.A.F. insignia.  The Chief is not dead and an R.A.F. doctor tends to him.  In the village they find Tommy’s father still alive.  In due course, Angus Soutar is able to return to his old occupation.  The Chief survives, “although he was not allowed to return to his people for some time”.  By then a guard had been put over the diamond diggings.  Karl Steiner made a clean breast of the whole affair.  Whilst filming at Ubeni, they had been offered diamonds and they succumbed to temptation, bartering gin and other stores for them.  He still had the original parcel in his London house, which was taken over by the police.  He escaped with a heavy fine.  Mrs. Steiner spent the next year of her life in prison on a charge of attempted murder.