BIGGLES – AIR ACE
by Captain W. E. Johns
(Page references are for the paperback first edition, followed by the hardback second).
VII. BIGGLES’ EXCITING NIGHT! (Pages 113 – 129/109 – 124)
This story was originally published in “The Modern Boy’s Annual for 1937”
Biggles is returning from a combat with a red and silver Fokker Triplane, that had been repeatedly attacking the British balloon line. Biggles had caught him on the way home and hence somewhat off his guard. “The fight had been short, but bitter …… and in the end Biggles had succeeded in forcing his gaily coloured opponent into the ground”. As Biggles lands, he is in high spirits and banters with an officer he doesn’t recognise. Asked if he has done a lot of flying, “Biggles became confidential. “Listen old whelk,” he whispered. “If every hour of flying in my log-book was a brick, they’d be able to (the word “to” is missed out in the Norman Wright editions but it is in the original story) build a row of permanent hangers from Maranique to Paris”. He laughed heartily and slapped the other on the back”. The man he is talking too says “Excellent, you’re the very fellow I’ve been looking for”. He then unbuttons his trench coat in order to get his cigarettes and Biggles sees the uniform of a General. Biggles is taken to see Major Mullen and shown a photograph of the Dunville Canal that runs from Lille through Tournai towards Ath. “This particular spot is near the village of Lignes”. Fourteen power barges are making their way towards Lille and they are loaded with heavy artillery shells. The General wants the lock blown up as the barges pass through as it will “not only destroy the barges and the lock but the resultant flood would inundate enemy aerodrome No. 14, several rest camps, and generally upset the Boche lines of communication”. Biggles is asked if he will volunteer to take a man over, land, wait for him to do the job and then bring him back. Biggles says he will and he asks for a two seater Bristol Fighter for the mission. At 8.30 pm that evening, with a Webley revolver in addition to his usual kit, Biggles meets an unnamed Belgian, who is carrying a package of explosive. Biggles is concerned to note he smells of whisky. Biggles flies to his objective which is a dry marshland near the target and lands. “All was silent as the grave”. However, the Belgian, his teeth chattering, appears reluctant to do the job and after leaving, he is back within minutes saying, (in his Belgian accent), that it is impossible as there are too many soldiers at the lock. It is clear the man is not going to do the job and Biggles will have to do it himself. Biggles realises that he will not be able to get near the lock without being seen so he goes down the canal and finds a footbridge. From here he can hear the approach of the barges. Biggles has an idea. “If it comes off it’s a winner,” he told himself. “If he doesn’t, I’m afraid young Bertie from Belgium will have to walk home”. (This is an interesting remark as Johns later re-wrote this story as “Bertie Picks the Lock” and it was published in August 1941 as the last story in ‘Spitfire Parade’. In that version, Biggles trips over Bertie’s dog ‘Towser’ and sprains his wrist, so Bertie has to take the man over to France and do the job for him. In the latter version this line then becomes “that silly ass I bought here will have to walk home”). Worming his way onto the footbridge, Biggles sets off the 15 minute timer on the explosive and then jumps into the first barge attacking “a burly fellow leaning idly against the heavy rudder”. They fight and the German falls into the canal. The German swims to the bank and then starts yelling at the top of his voice. Leaving the explosive on board, Biggles steers over towards the opposite bank and then jumps onto it. On the other side of the bank, German soldiers have now been alerted and start firing at him. Biggles gets to higher ground. The bomb goes off and the explosion is followed by the noise of rushing water. “Where the lock had been, the bank of the canal had entirely disappeared. The water, millions of gallons of it, had poured through the breach with the result that the canal was empty. But it was not that which upset him, it was the direction in which most of the water had overflowed. From where he stood he could not see the Bristol, but if it was still where he had left it – which he was beginning to doubt – then it was in the middle of a lake”. With no sign of the soldiers, Biggles crosses over the footbridge and finds the water only ankle deep. Biggles finds that his Bristol aircraft has been swept alone by the water until a hedge had arrested its progress. “The fabric was torn in several places, but a close examination showed no signs of structural damage”. The Belgian is still in the back seat. They both get the machine clear and face the water. “The take-off was a nightmare, no seaplane would have raised so much spray. But the Bristol unstuck at last, and with a prayer of thankfulness Biggles headed towards the Lines”. The General is waiting for Biggles on his return. “It all went off according to plan, eh?” he asks. “Of course, sir,” grinned Biggles. “These jobs always do”.