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December 06th 2017 print

Tony Thomas

Biggles, No Friend of Reconciliation

Are boys still moved by Group Captain James Bigglesworth? Probably not, as none of WE Johns' titles is available in my municipal library. As the council is infested with Greens, that shouldn't surprise, given the aviator's derring-do in putting down an Aboriginal revolt

biggles mug III grew to maturity on Biggles books. Today the prose of Captain W.E. Johns seems a bit clunky but I never minded this sort of thing:

“I would like a straight answer to a straight question,” he said.

“Have I ever done anything to suggest my answer would not be straight?” asked Biggles evenly.

“No”

“Then why bring that up?”

In the later Biggles books, Captain W.E. Johns began inserting a preface.

“In the First World War, Italy and Japan were our allies. In the Second World War, they fought against us.  And so on. The reader must therefore adjust himself to the period concerned so that when the expression “The War” is used, he will understand which war is meant.”

When I would curl up somewhere with Biggles Defies the Swastika while my mother and sister did the washing up, there was no ambiguity about the allies and enemies. Count Erich von Stalhein was not one of ours. But later the Boche, Touregs and Polynesian cannibals were quite likely to write protest letters to The Times about discrimination and hate speech. Von Stalhein came from East Germany, luckily. Turn now to Biggles Buries the Hatchet, Chapter One, “A Visitor Brings News”.

“Did he give his name?”

“Yes. Fritz Loewenhardt. Does that mean anything to you?”

‘Not a thing except it has a solid German ring about it.”

Biggles: “From East or West?”

“From East Berlin.”

A shadow of disapproval crossed Biggles’ face.

The visitor was Von Stalhein’s emissary. Von Stalhein had decided to join the Free World and had been locked up by the East Germans. Biggles to the rescue…

“Everyone waited, eyes on Von Stalhein.

‘Are you asking me to believe you took the appalling risk of coming here to rescue me purely out of.. shall I say sympathy or affection?’

“To you such a motive must appear strange,” said Biggles slowly. “First, strange though it may seem, it may have been something like that, or I would not have come here. I shall expect you to prove your gratitude by refraining from working against us in the future.”

“That remark was quite unnecessary,” stated Von Stalhein. “Your opinion of me may not be very high but I would hardly be as base as that.”

Biggles most endearing trait was his unflappability.   Biggles and the Gun Runners: “’The great thing in life is to keep your sense of humor,’ said Biggles, though getting his Constellation shot down over Southern Sudan by a trigger happy pilot  of the Congolese Air Force was no laughing matter.”

Biggles in his later years turned his hand to lower-grade detective work, like recovering a gentleman farmers’ disappearing bulls. As Biggles puts it, “This racket is not being run by a few country yokels. The crooks are highly organized – and dangerous.”

Just as dangerous was Biggles’ own drift to sententiousness. That story ends, “Up to a point it had worked but the crooks made the mistake, as often made by criminals emboldened by success, of repeating what may have seemed an easy way of making money.” Although Biggles’ Britain did harbor a few crooks, it was a land where press barons  knew how to behave. In Biggles and the Black Peril he thwarts a Russian plot to raid England with a fleet of 30 giant flying boats landing at nine different bases on the English coast. Johns was probably thinking of something like the humungous Dornier DoX of 1929 in the YouTube clip above. The British Air Ministry  “wasted no time” and destroyed all but two of the fictional Soviet superplanes, but not a word of this triumph of British arms and daring ever made it into the newspapers.

“The Ministry had denied any knowledge of the matter to the press, as it was bound to without running the risk of starting a war…The newspapers have guessed there is a lot more behind it, of course, but in the national interest they are allowing the thing to drop.”

Readers need to be alert for bogus versions of Biggles stories. One example I came across reads,

“Suddenly they were airborne. Algy breathed a sigh of relief and eased himself out of the co-pilot’s seat.

“It’s so hot in here,” Algy declared evenly. He began to unzip his flying jacket and soon stood naked in the faint glow of the altimeter.

Ginger blushed hotly.

Algy returned his blush curtly.

Biggles also turned red and blushed and threw the twin-engined Jupiter into a tight turn over the airfield.

“Does my body offend you?” queried Algy sharply.

Suddenly out of the clouds directly ahead of them, Ginger glimpsed the red flash of the Heinkel fighter.

“Get your clothes on, Algy,” murmured Biggles curtly. But it was too late.

“My God, we’re done for!” screamed Ginger.[1]

we johns flyerIn case you hadn’t guessed, that’s a Monty Python parody, but in terms of cadence, dialogue and aviation lingo it is very nearly indistinguishable from its inspiration.

Captain William earl Johns[2]  penned his more action-packed yarns in the tranquility of a Scottish farm. An interviewer wrote, “After a good breakfast, he spends the rest of the day in the open air, often with a picnic lunch, even in winter.” Less efficient at cheating death than his Biggles, he died in 1968 at 75, mid-way through his final  story, Biggles does some Homework, which shows Biggles at last preparing to retire, and meeting his mixed-race replacement.

Johns was a real warrior (left), not an armchair one. He started with the army in the Great War, including the trenches of Gallipoli and in Macedonia. He transferred while still a teenager to the Royal Flying Corps and flew two-seater DH4s on photographic and bombing raids into Germany. That’s him at left, before being shot down, surviving the crash by a miracle and put in prison camps with a death sentence hanging over his head, according to one biographer. He escaped twice and spent the rest of the war in a punishment camp. Thereafter he was with the RAF till 1927, publishing his first Biggles book in 1932.  He re-enlisted with the RAF in 1939, and served in non-combat roles. Post-war he joined the Air Police Unit at Scotland Yard. He drew on each slice of his career for a torrent of at least 150 Biggles and other titles.

All this is just preamble to my real story, discovering a copy of Biggles in Australia last week while fossicking in the State Library, Latrobe Street. Who knew about such a title?

The ten libraries in my Moonee Valley and Moreland districts — both bastions of the Greens –  don’t have a single Biggles book, let alone this one. Statewide, libraries still have about 200 Biggles titles, but no Biggles in Australia. However, five libraries have it included in an omnibus book Biggles’ Dangerous Missions, that includes three other Biggles titles. The  libraries involved, which are either unwitting or hideously racist – the former, surely — are Bayside, Whitehorse, Goldfields, Mildura and Latrobe Library out Morwell way.  The librarians will be in serious trouble if councillors find out this book is on their shelves.

Biggles in Australia must once have been quite popular, at least outside Australia. Reginald Smythe, in his authoritative 1993 guide for youngsters, rates the book as “Very Good Indeed”.[3]   The National Library also has an Angus & Robertson 1981 copy featuring “music by Patrick Cook”. This had me stumped. Unlike Keating, the Musical, Biggles’ misadventures in Australia have never been converted to a melodic treat. In fact, the Patrick Cook did satirical illustrations for this version.

Another version cited carries the warning, unusually for a kids’ book, For Mature Readers.

biggles tridentSo let’s discover what Biggles in Australia is about. Warnings: (a) This article spoils the plot and (b) includes racist language which I do not endorse in any way and cite only out of literary necessity. The tone is set by the frontispiece illustration, showing an Aboriginal in loincloth hurling a weird spear at Biggles (right). Captain Johns refers in the text to a three-barbed spear and the artist[4] has translated this into a Neptune trident, hardly day-wear for a kangaroo hunter.

Another illustration shows Aborigines dancing around a campfire, “shaking their spears, yelling and stamping”. A third is innocuous but features the author’s curious phrasing: “You’re in a great hurry,” bantered Biggles” [to Von Stalhein, no less].

The book opens conventionally (for the Biggles genre) with Biggles & Co asleep in their Otter amphibian in a lagoon off the Kimberley coast. They come under attack from a school of giant squids on holiday from their deep-sea habitat. One wraps its 20-foot tentacles around the Otter but is fended off with a bullet to the tea-plate-sized eye. This chapter is aptly titled, “An Uncomfortable Night.”

The plot of Biggles in Australia involves a posse of Iron Curtain thugs, led by von Stalhein, setting up a communist fifth column in Australia. The spy ring is centred on a “trouble-making agitator” who is a “red hot Communist of the loud-mouthed type”, namely an electrician from Perth  called Adamsen. This pricked my interest, as most of Perth’s red hot Communist agitators dropped in on my family home in Willagee in  the 1950s and I certainly recall some loud arguments about implementation of the revolutionary struggle.

Von Stalhein’s targets cover a broad field, including the Montebello nuclear tests, uranium deposits, Woomera rocket testing, fomenting strikes and creation of a network of Red spies “against the time when they will be needed”.

But Von Stalhein’s most contentious task is to arm disaffected Aborigines in northern  Australia with rifles and grenades and set them off on a Kenyan Mau-Mau type uprising against white civilisation. In Biggles’ concluding words, after thwarting his arch-enemy:

“The plan was to spread a network of agents and operatives all over the continent  both to spy on secret experimental work with atomic and guided missiles, and undermine the country’s economy by the infiltration of agitators into the native settlements as had been done elsewhere. When the trouble started, certain selected blacks were to be provided with firearms. Behind the background of disorder [foreign] scientists [arriving by lugger] were to explore the outback for minerals useful in nuclear research.”

During the book, more detail has been suggested:

Biggles: [Air Controller] West told me this top corner of Australia used to be called the triangle of death on account of the ferocity of the natives. Even today, with native reserves and all that,  they’re not to be trusted. That goes for the half-civilised blacks who work up the Daly for the white planters…You’ll call me an alarmist, I know, but it occurred to me that this is just how the trouble began in Malaya and Kenya.”

Bill [policeman] was staring. “Do you mean Mau-Mau, and that sort of thing?”

“That’s exactly what I mean.”

Bill: “I still don’t see how it could happen here.”

“Neither, I imagine, could the settlers who took their wives and kids to outlying farms in Kenya, and now never move without a gun in each hand…Last night, after that wop had flung a spear at me, the idea suddenly came to me that the set-up in the sparsely populated areas of Australia is exactly the same as in East Africa…

…It only needs one or two people to walk about telling the natives that white men are a lot of thieves who have swindled them out of their land, and turned them into slaves, and the next thing is murder…This dirty business is all part of the Cold War. It has worked in Malaya, Kenya, Indonesia, Burma and all over the Middle East, so I don’t see why it shouldn’t happen here.”

Bill’s expression had changed. “I never looked at it like that,” he admitted soberly.

The policeman estimates there are 50,000 full-bloods and “a lot of mixed breeds” – enough to “do a lot of mischief”.

Sure enough, the blacks soon after club and spear a prospector to death for his rifle. “Now, perhaps, you see what I mean,” Biggles concludes.

The prospector had been generous to the ungrateful naked warriors.

Biggles: “That cuts no ice with blacks when the savage inside ‘em bursts through the thin skin of friendliness they pick up from contact with whites. More than one doctor has been murdered by the man he’s just cured…If I know anything about natives, that bunch is all keyed up to jump. They themselves, with their animal brains, don’t know yet which way they’ll go.”

Towards the book’s climax, policeman Bill addresses a band:

“What yabber-yabber belong you? You been savvy what happen longa here?”

“The blacks remained like graven images, their brutish eyes, unwinking , on the policeman…While Bill’s eyes were on them, like animals, they hesitated to do anything; but the instant he turned, they acted. With shrill whistles and strange cries they began to fan out.”

biggles booksGinger deals with the threat by revving the great engines of their Halifax bomber transport to send a wall of slipstream dirt  their way.

The northern natives, author Johns says to my mystification, comprise “Peedongs” in the scrub country and “Myalls” in the jungle.  Bill says, “They’re all pretty wild, but the Arnhem Landers are the worst. Until recently, it was almost certain death to go near them.” (The book was published in 1955). After they capture one black and “two half-breeds” at rifle-point, “there were a few critical moments with the blacks outside…they stood their ground, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, as their primitive brains strove to keep pace with these unusual events.”

“No white man in his right mind would trust some of these black fellows behind him,” says the party’s civilian pilot, Cozens. “They don’t know what they’re doing half the time. People who find excuses for them say they act on impulse. The sight of a gun is enough to make ‘em want to shoot somebody and they can’t resist the temptation. They don’t care who they shoot.”

Ginger says, “Didn’t I read something about an expedition going into Arnhem Land to look for a white woman who was supposed to have been captured by the blacks – after a shipwreck on the coast, or something?” [5]

Later, minus Biggles who is in Darwin, the party  flies in to the Daly Flats settlement, finding it liberally strewn with   corpses of whites and their black “houseboys”, all speared or shot. It appeared that a policeman had been shot first, from behind, “and the sight of blood was all that was necessary to send them  crazy. They’re like that.”

biggles books IIGinger’s party at the hut is then ambushed by “scores of the devils” who are in a frenzy and  “mad to kill”. The party responds with bullets in a scenario reminiscent of Rorke’s Drift or your average climax to an old Western movie. The affray gets it own chapter headed, “The Battle of Daly Flats”.

The battle begins with the natives doing a war dance outside. The pilot Cozens tells Ginger, “Shoot at anything that moves.” The natives set Cozen’s plane on fire, cutting off any retreat. Ginger is perplexed by the horror of their predicament, “in a country he had imagined to be as safe as England. But then, he reflected, the people in Kenya must have felt like that before the Mau-Mau trouble started.”  Their suspicions are confirmed on finding a locked room filled with cheap rifles for distribution to the dark insurgents.

Bertie worries that Biggles may arrive unwittingly and “step right into the custard” – this being as close as W.E.Johns gets to use of profanity. But the first visitors to approach the scene are Von Stalhein’s emissaries, including two blacks carrying their parcels, African-style. Ginger, ever gallant, shouts to warn them, using that resounding cliché,  “The blacks are on the warpath!”

W.E. Johns prose gets surprisingly flaccid as the battle rages, as if he’s nodding off after port before bedtime.

“Cozens must have seen something that aroused his suspicions; or it may have been the very absence of movement that told him what was about to happen; at all events, from the open door towards which they had all moved, he suddenly shouted: ‘Look out!’

He was too late. In an instant the air was full of flying spears, thrown by blacks who had appeared from nowhere, as the saying is.”

Ginger’s party lets fly with volleys of bullets,  downing two or three blacks. Von Stalhein’s second in command cops it with a spear in his back through to his heart, but Ginger and two helpers each put a bullet in the assailant. We aren’t told how many others they fell, only that “There’s about a score left”.

The remote Daly River settlement now gets more like Bourke Street Mall at lunchtime, for Biggles is about to turn up with a colonel and three offsiders. Ginger’s party fling tear gas grenades – conveniently found in the house – to enable Biggles to land.

“’The blacks have gone mad,’ Ginger told him tersely. ‘Hark at ‘em! They’ve killed I don’t know how many people.’”

But the blacks “quietly faded away into their jungle retreats” and it turns out Von Stalhein per se was not with his troops, thus living to fight another day in the next Biggles adventure. The list of communist would-be fifth columnists is discovered “and the entire plot exposed, although for security reasons the soft pedal was kept on the story.”

Biggles’ troupe re-board their Halifax and make a leisurely return to London. Their assistant, the pilot Cozens, “soon got another job and is now flying a Quantas [sic] Constellation.”

The book’s last para concludes:

“So, taking things all round, the only people who came to any harm from Biggles’s visit to Australia were those whose sinister conspiracy had taken him there.

Which was as it should be.”

As a libertarian I don’t want libraries burning the book, but maybe they should keep it in a locked cabinet and release it only to adults. The adults might be further limited only to those who have memorized an Acknowledgement to Traditional Owners.

Tony Thomas’ book of essays, That’s Debatable – 60 Years in Print, is available here



[1] Biggles and the Naughty  Things, 1941. Quoted in The Brand New Monty Python Paperbok

[2] His highest rank was only Flying Officer but in a pen-name, you can take any rank you like

3. The maniacs guide to the Biggles books : the readers guide to all 100 Biggles books / by Rowland Smythe; Birmingham: Ventos 1993

[4] The illustrations are attributed to “Studio Stead”. There’s still a Yorkshire architect firm of that name that might have taken on the job.

[5] This seems to derive from Eliza Fraser, from a Queensland shipwreck in 1836, who wrote of being captured by the Badtjala people. Fraser Island is named after her.

Comments [7]

  1. Bran Dee says:

    Thank you Tony Thomas for fanning the embers of my Biggles memory. The books all seemed to disappear from libraries in the 60′s or 70′s as I recall and I have never reread any although I often thought I might. Maybe I tired of there being no female amongst the boys!
    I did try and reread a William book by Richmal —-[?] but could not discover why in my primary school years the books convulsed me in chortling fits.
    During the 50′s I read and collected all the Silver Jacket magazines and my own children enjoyed them in the 80′s. They had jokes, cartoons, history, exploration and stories galore, and were of such good value for boys.

    • Tony Thomas says:

      Richmal Crompton.
      WE Johns prose is a delight. He is also very punctilious about all things aviation, you can trace the flight paths in Biggles in Australia and he is careful to include re-fuelling stations. There is also some excellent descriptions of the landscape. I think he must have seen northern Australia personally because his descriptions are so vivid.

    • padraic says:

      Brought back memories. I never knew about the one about Australia. Our country town library used to keep copies not only of Biggles, but also of Worrals and Gimlet. Worrals was for the girls and Biggles and Gimlet for us boys. I remember Eric von Stalhein as a very resilient character. Each book seemed to end with Eric heading towards the ground in a fireball into some impenetrable jungle and in the next one he would reappear fresh as a daisy in a brand new Messerschmitt itching for another dogfight. Every Tuesday I used to get a copy of “The Champion” from the local newsagent for the princely sum of threepence ha’penny. It was a different time, but we all seemed to survive and never got lathered up about previous generations – that was their business. It would be useful if the current batch would focus on their era and leave us alone.

  2. Macspee says:

    I still enjoy the odd read of the very early Biggles but have never read the later ones. I think that at some time I graduated to Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond along with Edgar Rice Burroughs

  3. Aftermath says:

    Readers may also be interested to get hold of some of G A Henty’s books. Try gutenberg.org. From Wikipedia we read: “George Alfred Henty (8 December 1832 – 16 November 1902) was a prolific English novelist and war correspondent. He is best known for his historical adventure stories that were popular in the late 19th century.” At the end of that articles is a list of his many books.

    Of course they were written in the context of attitudes of the late Victorian era, but I find them to be an interesting form of historical novel for teen readers, including descriptions of the feats of heroes of the British Empire.

  4. Jody says:

    I remember an ABC program for children from the (late) 1950s, “The Air Adventures of Biggles”. It used to come on after the Muddle-Headed Wombat and Jason and the Argonauts. After that I had to practice the piano. That was light years ago; what a brutal and selfish world we have today, much of it courtesy of popular culture. Back on the days of “Leave it to Beaver” on TV my father used to comment on the obnoxious and poorly behaved children in that and other ‘sitcoms’ and the way they’d often talk back to adults without sanction. Sometimes you’d get it, like in “My Three Sons” – but mostly their sharp backchat was seen as childrens’ empowerment.

  5. IainC of The Ponds says:

    Biggles is not the only reading material banned from Greens’ strongholds. Our local library delisted Quadrant several years ago, for reasons not given when I asked where it was. It did cause me to take out a subscription, so clouds and silver linings, I suppose.
    My memory of the Monty Python parody was that it was called “Biggles Flies Undone”, which proved that puns, when done well, are the equal of any type of humour. However, I cede to the Author’s greater research skills.