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Once upon a time in the Wapentake b iy Tm Bs ik ewc

He was lucky he had been wearing the heavy flying jacket when he’d been captured, he thought. Even with it on, and every other stitch of clothing he owned also on, he was still cold, but not as cold as some of the other poor beggars in the hut.

Fuel for the stove had run out weeks ago, and now a

freezing November fog blanketed the camp. Food was running out too. Yesterday there was cabbage soup, with hardly a scrap of cabbage in it, the day before potato soup, similarly short on potato. So they were all hungry and all cold. Did it make him

feel any better to know the guards were feeling the cold and the hunger too? Not really. It reminded him that all around them was a Germany that was cold and hungry, that to the East was a defeated Russia, even colder, he imagined, even hungrier, and to the West were the French, and they were cold and hungry too. And back home in England? Was there cold and


hunger, or honey still for tea? Burt, the red haired hooligan Pilot Officer from Teesside, would say, “There’s plenty of them back there, living off the fat of the land, while our folk nibble at bones.” But Burt was fast asleep, up on the top bunk, dreaming perhaps of warm fires and the fat of the land, a temporary gentleman. Back home…back home…and in his hunger and cold

and bone aching weariness, he began to slide into a kind of waking dream of being home. Not to that unimaginable, unreachable land of before the war, but to the place that had been the nearest thing to settling down in the last four years: Number 2 Fighting School, Marske by the Sea. It was cold and foggy there too, and he was looking

impatiently out of the window of his tiny, untidy office. A dozen trainees had gone up before the sea fret came in, and only nine had yet returned. So much could, and often did, go wrong: pilots could get lost, and run out of fuel, far out to sea; engines could fail; aircraft would simply break up, fall apart in the sky. The bitter joke was that you didn’t become a pilot, or air gunner, by qualifying, you became one by surviving. He heard them before he saw them. Three Bristol

Fighters, one after the other, coming into land. Everyone was safe, for the moment. A little later there was a commotion outside the door.

It was the latest batch to complete their training, come to say their farewells, before boarding the Crossley Tender that would take them to the train that would take them off to the boat that would take them off to France and then on to war.

He knew they were talking about him when he heard

one of them refer to “The Old Man”. I suppose, he thought, I am an old man, compared to them; this is a young man’s world, in which very few us get to grow old. And it’s a young man’s service, this new Royal Air Force. He was still finding it hard to adjust to it. When he’d first transferred, it had just been the RFC, a fairly minor part of a great army. And now it’s the RAF, equal to the Army, equal to the Navy, capable, according to Trenchard, of winning wars on its own.

6 He looked out of the window again. Dimly through

the fog he could see the little De Havilland bombers lined up on the grass. Well, they’d need bigger bombers than that to win wars single-handed, bigger bombers and bigger bombs…much bigger bombs. They were on their way, he knew, and if it all came true…perhaps not now…perhaps one day…then they could defeat an enemy without getting bogged down in a wilderness of trenches and having to watch an entire generation marching off to die… Oh, he remembered, I shouldn’t be thinking like

this…we’re winning, aren’t we? Every day there’s news of great victories, of thousands of prisoners taken… trouble is, he’d heard it all before…too many times…and all that’s been gained is a few hundred yards of mud. The newly qualified, surviving airmen came into

the hut, just two at a time, there not being room for more. They all said much the same thing, thanked him, promised to call in to see him next time they were anywhere near Marske. He knew none of them would. When they were gone he sat back in his chair and

thought, “One day I’ll write about this…all of this…just exactly what it feels like to do this…when this war…if this war is ever over…” It came to him in a rush. The book would start with

a young, newly promoted Squadron Leader greeting his men, one by one. And one by one the men are lost… sometimes he sees them go down…sometimes they take off and are never seen again. It will end with the Squadron Leader taking on a new squadron, and greeting them all, one by one... All he needed was a name for his Squadron Leader.

It was almost there. Wrigglesworth? No…too evasive. Gigglesworth? Too facetious. Bigglesworth…Biggles for short…yes that would do. Someone was running across the tarmac, banging

open the door, grabbing him by the arm, shouting. “It’s over! It’s all over! Armistice! Cease Fire!” It was Burt. But Burt wasn’t in Marske. Burt was in

Germany, in the prison camp…and so was he. He was wide-awake now, no longer dreaming, and the war was really over. At long last, it was over. Author’s note: Captain W.E. Johns, the creator of

Biggles, became an instructor at Number 4 Air Gunnery School (later Number 2 Fighting School), Marske in November 1917. There’s a book about it on sale in the library. He wasn’t a Captain, though, there being no such rank in the RAF. Group Captain, yes, but that’s a very different thing, a very much higher rank than an army Captain. Was he a Captain in the RFC, before the RAF was formed? Sadly no. Official records show him with no higher rank than Second Lieutenant. Nevertheless, he was known to all and sundry as Captain W.E. Johns of the RAF.

The first Biggles book, “Biggles of the Camel

Squadron” does develop very much as I have described. W.E. Johns did not set out, initially to write ripping yarns for boys, but to write a realistic account of what war is like, as a warning to us all.

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