by Captain W. E. Johns



II.                    A ROVING COMMISSION  (Pages 22 – 32)


“The weeks following the conference in the Air-Commodore’s office were some of the most tedious ever for those taking part in the operation.  Biggles did not say so, but the others did, with increasing frankness as time wore on.  To Ginger it became a period of what he described as sheer drudgery, aviation brought to a state of such weary monotony that he could not have imagined.  It would, he asserted, have been miserable enough had it produced any result, but for all they achieved they might as well have stayed at home.  He prayed that something new, requiring investigation, might arise, to give them a respite from their long and fruitless hours in the cockpit over bleak, desolate seas, looking for scraps of land in the pitiless distances south of the fortieth parallel.  Flying often through fog, bitter cold, and once in a howling blizzard, the long sorties were a matter of physical endurance, while the ever present possibility of engine failure, with its inevitable consequences if the sea was rough, had the usual irritating effect on the nerves.  Based mostly in South Africa, but for a little while in Western Australia, using marine aircraft fitted with special long range tanks, they had flown out day after day over grey seas, the surface of which was broken only by an occasional whaler or iceberg, looking for the islands that the Air-Commodore had named”.  “To narrate in detail the many flights made would be wearisome repetition”.  They had made three landings, the first at the French island of St. Paul.  The second was a risky one.  “Flying low over Amsterdam Island there was a moment of excitement when they had seen a flag fluttering in the wind.  It turned out to be the rags of a shirt fastened to an oar planted in the ground.  (“It turned out to be the rags of a shirt fastened to an oar” is the frontispiece illustration of the book).  “What wretched castaway had put it there remained a mystery, for he couldn’t be found.  The rusty bones of a ship, which they supposed to be the Meridian, knowing it to have been wrecked there, did nothing to dispel an atmosphere of tragic melancholy”.  The third landing was at Kerguelen, “which they had cause to remember” and where they stayed overnight, but they saw no signs of human occupation.  Twice they had searched for the Crozets, but found the area shrouded in fog and had to turn back.  The stage was reached when Biggles promised that as soon as they had seen the Crozets, they would return home and put in a negative report.  They flew in two machines so that if one was forced down the other could land and pick up the crew or report where they were.  The aircraft were four-engined Sunderlands, which could fly on two engines if need be.  (The Short S.25 Sunderland was a British flying boat patrol bomber named after the city.  Around 750 were made and it first flew in October 1937).  “Biggles flew one machine with Ginger as second pilot and navigator.  Algy had charge of the other, with Bertie and Marcel Brissac for crew.  Marcel it should be said, had accepted Biggles invitation to accompany the expedition, to watch French interests”.  They fly out to the Crozets, which are extremely remote southern islands.  “As far as they knew, the last time a steamer had passed close was in 1901 and it had seen not sign of life”.  The Crozets consist of islands called Possession, Hog, Penguin, East and the Twelve Apostles, comprising two islands with ten pinnacle rocks nearby.  There wasn’t a single beach in the entire group.  As they fly over Possession Island, Ginger sees smoke and then a solitary figure scrambling over the rocks.  Although it is risky, Biggles decides to land as he thinks there is a castaway down there who can’t be left behind.  Biggles lands on the sea and tells Ginger to use a dinghy to get to the castaway, which Ginger does.  “By the time the cumbersome dinghy was on the water he could see a wild, ragged, bearded figure, leaping from rock to rock towards them”.  (This is the scene illustrated on the cover of the book).  The man is whooping like a maniac, to such an extent that Ginger’s first words to him are “Take it easy!”.  The man leaps into the dinghy, almost capsizing it.  “Sit down and sit still, you fool!” shouts Ginger furiously.  They ascertain that the man is alone.  He says he did have a companion who has died.  “He was a Jerry – you know, German”.  After a difficult take off, they fly to Hog Island to see if any other ship-wrecked mariners are on that island there.  They radio Algy and both planes land in Deliverance Bay, Hog Island to hear the rescued man’s story.