What goes up must come down!

About the forum, Captain W.E. Johns and Biggles. Including samples of WEJ writing

What goes up must come down!

Postby OzBiggles1963 » 10 Feb 2014, 07:45

Another fantastic article [in the 2002 EOCL CD] by contributor Philip Howard:

[[What goes up must come down!

Some interesting crashes in the Biggles stories

By Philip Howard

In a series of over 90 books about a pilot it is hardly surprising that a number of crashes occur. When some of the stories take place during the conflicts of the First and Second World Wars and the main hero is a fighter pilot, the prospect of crashes in the story-lines becomes even more likely. However, the ingenuity and invention and experience that W. E. Johns brings to this subject can be really quite stunning.

Let us leave aside the combat victories of the First World War and take a closer look at just how the author used the most cataclysmic moments in any pilot’s life during the many other missions in which Biggles was involved. For a start there are at least five different ways of classifying the sorts of crashes we get in the books.

WHO?

The first thing to consider is actually who is on board when the aeroplane is overtaken by disaster. Naturally, in spite of all their terrific skills, sometimes Biggles, Ginger, Algy and Bertie end up amongst the wreckage. Indeed, on one famous occasion in Biggles Sweeps the Desert, Ginger even succeeds in shooting down Biggles. Admittedly Biggles is flying a Messerschmitt 109 at the time and thus Ginger can hardly be blamed. On other occasions, of course, it is the enemy’s machine that finishes up on the carpet. The remaining personnel to be considered are the innocent victims: a mixture of pilots and passengers that suffer from the wicked attentions of the crooks or the war-time enemies. Thus we have hi-jacked passengers in Sergeant Bigglesworth C.I.D. and poor Bill Reverley in Biggles on the Home Front. More variety is provided by allowing some to live and some to die.

WHY?

It is like a trick question—how many different reasons are there for a plane to fall out of the sky? This is almost as old a chestnut as how many different ways are there to get out in cricket? The list provided here will certainly not be all-inclusive. We all immediately think of being shot down by enemy action or receiving holes in the petrol tank that cause the plane to make a forced or crash landing later. Some aeroplanes are deliberately sabotaged; turnbuckles on wings are loosened and sugar is put into petrol; slits are made in canvas and explosives are attached to exhaust manifolds. To be fair quite often Biggles and his friends manage to avoid disaster such as in Another Job for Biggles where Ginger spots the danger—“There’s a hole in the leading edge, and the fabric’s trying to ‘balloon’…”—and Biggles just manages to get the Proctor down safely.

At times engines seize up or petrol feeds get severed or clogged. The weather can also play a big part in the various disasters. Fog or unbroken cloud, such as in The Cruise of the Condor can create fuel exhaustion and the need to touch down anywhere. Sandstorms and blizzards and hurricanes all figure as a means of sending aircraft earthbound (or seabound!). Take-offs and landings are sometimes complicated by frozen surfaces, melting surfaces, surfaces which are too choppy and surfaces which are too calm. The weather is not the only arm of nature to take a hand in the fate of the aircraft. Birds fly into propellers, windscreens and intakes. Snakes get into cabins and planes on the ground are assaulted by rhinos or natives with sharp and poisoned spears.

“SHE’LL NEVER FLY OUT OF THIS PLACE”—Cruise of the Condor

The extent of the crash can vary according to the author’s needs. The biggest disasters are planes that are a complete write-off, usually bursting into flames. On other occasions there are planes which suffer major damage which are able to limp home and quite a large group of planes that suffer a hair-raising forced landing but which can be repaired or refilled with fuel and take to the skies again. Another article again could be written to describe the ways in which W. E. Johns depicted the destruction of the machine that is defeated in aerial combat with Biggles and his partners. Wings crumple, wings lock with other machines and wings even fall off.
Next , of course, there is the range of machines themselves from small Austers to large Lancasters, from seaplanes and amphibians to land-based planes and carrier launched planes, from war-planes to privately hired planes, from airliners to home-made “nightmares”.

THE RULES OF CRASHES

Lastly there is the terrain over which (or should we say “on which”) the plane actually crashes. In these stories planes crash into forests, into jungles, on top or the sides of mountains, into lakes, on top of frozen lakes, in deserts, in turnip fields and by railway lines.

From this extensive range of possibilities it might seem that W. E. Johns had carte blanche to do what he liked with aircraft and the story would only gain. This simply is not true. There are rules and restrictions that face any writer and certain stories require particular kinds of crash.

War-time stories give the most freedom. For Biggles the government produces an inexhaustible supply of machines that can be supplemented or replaced as needs demand. The most striking example of this comes in Biggles in the Baltic where “Z” squadron is gradually whittled down and the four original machines are all eventually lost. The story is made all the more poignant because each of the machines has been given a pet name. Dingo, Ginger’s machine, is destroyed by Biggles by a flare shot through its petrol tank. Willie-Willie, Didgeree-du and Platypus all suffer interesting fates which you can find out about if you read the book. A similar endless supply of aeroplanes appears to be on tap in Biggles in the Orient and Biggles Delivers the Goods.

DISABLED BUT NOT DESTROYED

Stories set in distant places normally require the plane that the comrades fly to be disabled but never to be destroyed. Think about it – the author can’t abandon his pilots in the middle of nowhere with no chance of escape. Getting out on foot or by car is just too tame. Take Biggles Flies South as an example. The plane, after fighting a sandstorm, runs out of petrol in the middle of a largely unexplored Egyptian desert. In the back of his mind the reader knows that Biggles and Co are going to stumble across the stolen petrol. It just would not make sense if they didn’t.

Nevertheless W. E. Johns managed on many occasions to get round this problem of isolation and the predictable outcome . The answer was simple – use two machines and destroy one during the course of the story. Everyone has to pile into the other in order to get back to civilisation. In Biggles Flies North the enemy first of all forces the Jupiter down by holing its petrol tank. Then, later, the Rockheed is sent smashing to the ice and becomes a write-off. However, almost as important as the fact that Algy and Wilks have survived the crash, is the detail that in their tanks is enough petrol to get the Jupiter flying again. In Biggles in Africa the title of one of the chapters is ‘Crashed by a Rhino’ and the Puss Moth is duly destroyed on the ground by the great horned snout of the maddened beast. A long trek across wild country, mountain passes and crocodile-infested rivers is then needed before Biggles, Algy and Ginger are re-united with the Dragon that they came to Africa with in the first place.

Just when you are beginning to think “if Biggles uses two planes, then one of them will get smashed”, W. E. Johns varies the formula further and you get stories like Biggles Breaks the Silence where two Wellington bombers are used to travel to Antarctica. On this occasion, you see, both machines return safely. Similarly, in Biggles Cuts it Fine, where despite Algy and Bertie having an interesting forced landing and one machine being partly damaged by a magnetic mine, the two Sunderland flying boats return home safely. On the other hand Biggles’ Second Case disposes neatly of one of the two Tarpon aircraft that they take to lonely Kerguelen by the first having a forced landing near an ice-berg and then Algy crashes the second in the middle of a bog. The author keeps you guessing.
Whereabouts in the books does W. E. Johns tend to place the crashes, you might ask. There isn’t an obvious answer, though certain tentative patterns do begin to emerge.

In the collections of short stories the crashes tend to come near the beginning for most of the tales are of the investigations of the Air Police. When Biggles and his men turn detective the investigation of a crash is like the post-mortem on a dead body. ‘The Case of the Submerged Aircraft’ in Biggles Presses On deals with a Gypsy Moth in a Scottish loch. The opening story of Biggles Investigates contains the following typical line of dialogue on the first page: “There’s an aircraft lying on its back in a field near the village of Upgates, in Wiltshire,” stated the Air Commodore. “I’d like you to go down and have a look at it.” In the longer air police novel of Biggles on the Home Front the crash occurs in the middle and Algy is the one who makes some detailed investigations of the wrecked Auster. Missing aircraft like the airliner in Biggles and the Little Green God disappear (and later turn up) in even some of the very late stories in the series.

NATURAL JUSTICE

At the end of the books crooks who have been outwitted and cornered tend to make a run for it and usually come to a disastrous end. Thus many a criminal is not brought to trial but suffers a form of natural justice as his plane falls out of the sky or crashes into the woods. This saves messy explanations though not gruesome descriptions! One villain even manages to stray in the way of a revolving propeller.

A crash or a forced landing in the middle of a book usually leads to Biggles and his friends having to undergo a journey or an ordeal of some kind. Biggles Sees it Through is an ideal example of this sort of story. On the other hand Biggles in the Gobi has Biggles and Bertie knocked out of the sky by collision with a bird and it is Algy and Ginger who have the interesting time whilst the other two pilots repair the Halifax and while away the hours.
Let us end by taking a closer look at how W. E. Johns handles different sorts of crashes. In Biggles Flies West the pilots travel out to the West Indies having bought a Sikorsky amphibian in the United States. This is stolen from them at Marabina and they are forced to replace it with a Pan-American flying boat costing “ten thousand bucks”. With Biggles its first journey is its last. As they head towards the island Biggles and Algy notice a hurricane approaching from the opposite direction.

A MAELSTROM OF EVENTS

It becomes a race to get down in a sheltered anchorage before the storm strikes. W. E. Johns cranks up the excitement by making it a touch-and-go situation. Then suddenly an albatross smashes into the port propeller blade and they realise the odds have now turned against them. The aeroplane’s air speed indicator is at the hundred and forty mark but they are travelling into a hundred mile wind-speed. They creep forward and Algy begins to believe they will make it, when suddenly the starboard engine dies. The story then becomes a maelstrom of events with a three-way split and the reader follows what happens to young Dick Denver, to Algy and Ginger, and finally to Biggles, last seen drifting away on a rapidly sinking wing of the wrecked plane.
Contrast this with the death of Thomas Grafton Morven in Biggles in the Orient. This time Biggles is on the outside of the crash, flying in a Mosquito with Tug Carrington when he sees the Hurricane plunging into the jungle. The horror this time is conveyed by Tug’s reactions:

“Pull out!” yelled Tug – uselessly. He began to mutter incoherently.
“Why doesn’t he bale out?” cried Tug in a strangled voice.
Tug caught his breath at the moment of impact, and then cursed through bloodless lips. His face was pale and distorted with fury; his eyes glittered.

VIKING FUNERAL

The story then takes an unusual twist and later a remarkable tone for Biggles bales out to go down and investigate the dead body. Too many pilots have “failed to return” for no good reason and it is his job to get to the bottom of this unexplained scourge. In the sweltering heat of the jungle Biggles kills two Japanese who mock the dead pilot and then sends the young Britisher to Valhalla by giving him the honour of an impromptu Viking funeral.
…and that was the way chosen by some of the greatest warriors of the past, the way of the Romans, the Vikings, the Indians. All reduced the bodies of their chiefs and warriors to ashes, burning their weapons, their war-horses, and their hounds with them.
There are many more crashes in the book, including one involving the enemy near the end, but nowhere does the author achieve a more sombre and dignified atmosphere.
The forensic approach to a crash is well-illustrated by ‘A Matter of Deduction’, a short story in Biggles of the Interpol. The man found in a crash by the side of the main line south from Paris has a wound in the back of his head. Biggles and his comrade Marcel Brissac work out that he was murdered by a blow from someone sitting behind him. They also work out the exact sequence of events which led to the mystery killer seizing the plane, murdering the occupant of the front seat, and then faking the accident. They then project forward to work out how he made his getaway. This rather cold-blooded approach happens quite a lot in the short stories, though to be fair, when he works on a bigger scale, W. E. Johns always takes time to treat the dead pilots with humanity and respect.

FEELINGS HARDENED BUT NOT DEADENED

As you will know, there are many more forced landings and crashes in the Biggles series, too many to be investigated here. Though they often involve the loss of life, on the whole W. E. Johns gives a rounded picture of what such tragedies must involve. The broad view of the 90 or so books would lead to the conclusion that, though the storyteller often used the drama of these occasions, he dealt with such situations with compassion and dignity. As Peter Berresford Ellis and Piers Williams inform us in By Jove, Biggles, the Life of Captain W. E. Johns when he was learning to fly at Narborough, the author witnessed the death of many of his fellow trainee pilots. The emotion of such moments never left him and, at times, he forces us to share these feelings. In Biggles Air Commodore, Biggles cautions the younger Ginger to stay away from the crash they have just spotted. He and Algy, their feelings hardened but not deadened by conflict in the First World War, move towards the inevitable horror.

At the edge of the clearing made by the falling plane they stopped, glancing furtively at each other, half-fearful of what they knew they would find.

Undoubtedly Biggles becomes more a man we can admire when we see the depth of his feelings.

Biggles took one swift look at the face and then turned away, white and trembling.
“Yes,” he said, “it’s Tom.”

So much for the critics who talk about him always treating death in a light-hearted manner.]]
They've been working together for so long that each seems to know by a sort of telepathy when another is in trouble. One never seems to get them together. Get one & the others come after him. To give the devil his due they make a formidable team.
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Re: What goes up must come down!

Postby OzBiggles1963 » 10 Feb 2014, 07:46

I particularly liked the heading "The Rules Of Crashes". :yay:
They've been working together for so long that each seems to know by a sort of telepathy when another is in trouble. One never seems to get them together. Get one & the others come after him. To give the devil his due they make a formidable team.
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Re: What goes up must come down!

Postby SaintedAunt » 10 Feb 2014, 11:08

OzBiggles1963 wrote:So much for the critics who talk about him always treating death in a light-hearted manner.]]

By chance I am just rereading In The Orient and last night read the very moving account about 'Tommy', as Biggles calls him, Morven. That account is unusual in the books in that it shows Biggles being angry to the point of what is really vindictive murder. To my mind that makes Biggles' personality very true to life, and is yet another example of WEJ's character development and writing skill.
The corners of Biggles' mouth twitched. "It's a sad thing to grow old without learning a thing or two." [Biggles Hunts Big Game]
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Re: What goes up must come down!

Postby kylie_koyote » 10 Feb 2014, 13:05

Tommy Morven's funeral always moves me to tears no matter how many times I read it.
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Re: What goes up must come down!

Postby Fairblue » 10 Feb 2014, 13:14

kylie_koyote wrote:Tommy Morven's funeral always moves me to tears no matter how many times I read it.
Me.too. Little moments like that always do.

Thanks for sharing this, OzB. :D
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Re: What goes up must come down!

Postby OzBiggles1963 » 11 Feb 2014, 08:14

SaintedAunt wrote:
OzBiggles1963 wrote:So much for the critics who talk about him always treating death in a light-hearted manner.]]

By chance I am just rereading In The Orient and last night read the very moving account about 'Tommy', as Biggles calls him, Morven. That account is unusual in the books in that it shows Biggles being angry to the point of what is really vindictive murder. To my mind that makes Biggles' personality very true to life, and is yet another example of WEJ's character development and writing skill.


I must, must read In The Orient again! :D

Although I do have vivid memories of In Borneo, where [is it Biggles?] a very dangerous landing takes place on the "spongy" swamp? [mistaken for a grassy landing field I believe]

Which reminds me [all mixed up in my head, lol], which is the book in which Algy nearly loses his head to the Japanese? [literally!] Delivers The Goods perchance?
They've been working together for so long that each seems to know by a sort of telepathy when another is in trouble. One never seems to get them together. Get one & the others come after him. To give the devil his due they make a formidable team.
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Re: What goes up must come down!

Postby Fairblue » 11 Feb 2014, 08:48

OzBiggles1963 wrote:Which reminds me [all mixed up in my head, lol], which is the book in which Algy nearly loses his head to the Japanese? [literally!] Delivers The Goods perchance?

Correct, OzB, and then runs around in an almost demented manner, clutching a sword and looking for 'that poodle-faking admiral'. :lol:
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Re: What goes up must come down!

Postby OzBiggles1963 » 11 Feb 2014, 09:05

Fairblue wrote:
OzBiggles1963 wrote: Which reminds me [all mixed up in my head, lol], which is the book in which Algy nearly loses his head to the Japanese? [literally!] Delivers The Goods perchance?
Correct, OzB, and then runs around in an almost demented manner, clutching a sword and looking for 'that poodle-faking admiral'. :lol:


Oh my..."Poodle-faking admiral", what a turn of phrase, hilarious! :claphappy: [haven't heard that one before]. And Algy...running around demented? [must have been the shock]
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Re: What goes up must come down!

Postby Spitfire666 » 11 Feb 2014, 09:37

SaintedAunt wrote:
OzBiggles1963 wrote:So much for the critics who talk about him always treating death in a light-hearted manner.

By chance I am just rereading In The Orient and last night read the very moving account about 'Tommy', as Biggles calls him, Morven. That account is unusual in the books in that it shows Biggles being angry to the point of what is really vindictive murder. To my mind that makes Biggles' personality very true to life, and is yet another example of WEJ's character development and writing skill.

It is particularly interesting as it is in direct line from the WW1 story "The Trap" in Biggles of the Camel Squadron, when the result of "150 pounds of high explosive wrapped up in a bag of nails inside a flying suit, cap, goggles, flying boots, and gloves" leaves Algy - and the reader - speechless.
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Re: What goes up must come down!

Postby Tommy Smith » 11 Feb 2014, 10:10

Yup. That one was out of order. Nicking an old crones bag of gemstones after she tried to kill you is one thing, but this?

Bad idea .
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Re: What goes up must come down!

Postby Spitfire666 » 11 Feb 2014, 11:05

Tommy Smith wrote:Yup. That one was out of order. Nicking an old crones bag of gemstones after she tried to kill you is one thing, but this?

Bad idea .

The first time I read it I thought my eyes were deceiving me. I am still shattered each time I read it. Johns also refers to "Biggles, quite beside himself now that the fighting fever was upon him." However: Johns had been there; he knew how it happened. He did not try to pretend that Biggles was not human. And Biggles knew how it happened, and later always tried to hold his men in before they could reach that stage of fury. In the incident in Orient he had reached that stage himself.
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Re: What goes up must come down!

Postby Fairblue » 11 Feb 2014, 12:40

OzBiggles1963 wrote:Which reminds me [all mixed up in my head, lol], which is the book in which Algy nearly loses his head to the Japanese? [literally!] Delivers The Goods perchance?

Fairblue wrote:Correct, OzB, and then runs around in an almost demented manner, clutching a sword and looking for 'that poodle-faking admiral'. :lol:

OzBiggles1963 wrote:Oh my..."Poodle-faking admiral", what a turn of phrase, hilarious! :claphappy: [haven't heard that one before]. And Algy...running around demented? [must have been the shock]

Almost demented, OzB. I'd hate to incur the wrath of Algy fans. :lol: and NOT shock, he was hopping mad! If you've never read the book you're in for a treat. Algy's conversation with the Japanese Admiral is up there with 'snakes and ladders' in Swastika.
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Re: What goes up must come down!

Postby SaintedAunt » 11 Feb 2014, 12:54

Fairblue wrote: If you've never read the book you're in for a treat. Algy's conversation with the Japanese Admiral is up there with 'snakes and ladders' in Swastika.

It most certainly is :D
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Re: What goes up must come down!

Postby OzBiggles1963 » 11 Feb 2014, 14:06

Fairblue wrote:.....Almost demented, OzB. I'd hate to incur the wrath of Algy fans. :lol: and NOT shock, he was hopping mad! If you've never read the book you're in for a treat. Algy's conversation with the Japanese Admiral is up there with 'snakes and ladders' in Swastika.


And we can't stir up any wrath, can we? :devil2: [*] [not that i would]. I haven't read Swastika in such a long time either, that's another one on the list!

Note to self/things to do: Reed 1. Swastika, 2. In The Orient, 3. Delivers the Goods, 4. In Borneo, 5. Fails To Return.....oh, hang it, I must read all the WW2 stories again! :P
They've been working together for so long that each seems to know by a sort of telepathy when another is in trouble. One never seems to get them together. Get one & the others come after him. To give the devil his due they make a formidable team.
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