Those magnificent men…
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
World War 2, the Sahara Desert. British planes carrying supplies, dispatches and important officials have been going missing en route over the desert, so Squadron-Leader James Bigglesworth – Biggles to his friends – has been despatched with his squad to an oasis halfway across the desert, partly to protect planes as they pass the danger zone, and partly to get to the root of the mysterious disappearances. Biggles is an ace fighter pilot, having made his name in WW1 and now back fighting the same enemy twenty years later. His old companions are still with him – Ginger and Algy – supplemented by some new faces, all skilled pilots too. They have their trusty Spitfires and endless heroism to carry them through.
I used to love the Biggles books as a child and wondered if the old magic would still be there. I’m happy to say that I thoroughly enjoyed my revisit to these old friends. Although they’re written in rather more simple language than an adult book would be, and occasionally Capt. Johns takes a detour to give a little life lesson – on how to plan things, or the qualities required of a leader, etc. – the story itself is certainly enough to hold the interest of grown-ups as well as children. The edition I read, from the Random House Children’s Publishing range, has a helpful notes section which explains some of the terms and jargon that the characters use, which have since fallen out of common knowledge.
Biggles and the squad soon discover that the planes are being diverted by a nefarious Nazi plot to mess with their compasses, taking them off their route. The squad responsible for this is led by the German fighter ace, von Zoyton, and his team of Messerschmitt pilots. So Biggles’ first task is to destroy the equipment that is sending out dodgy signals, and then to drive the Germans out of this sector of the desert to make the route safe again. This will involve sneaky plots, thrilling dogfights, desert survival and even camel rides! It all happens at a fast pace with no long dull passages, but there’s plenty of description that gives a real feel, if a little sanitised, of what it would have been like out there, far from the main action of war but performing a vital task.
The men are heroes, and all are brave and good. However they do make mistakes and misjudgements sometimes, even Biggles, which keeps them human. Both Brits and Germans show respect for their counterparts – they may be at war and they may be forced to kill each other, but they recognise that the enemy is simply doing his job, as they are doing theirs. First published in 1942 (under the title Biggles Sweeps the Desert), Capt. Johns already differentiates between German servicemen, for whom he has clear respect and no particular ill-will, and Nazi fanatics, who are the baddies. I think this is why the books still feel quite comfortable to read – there is no sense of racialised anti-German hatred, only anti-Nazi, and we can still all get on board with that, I think. There’s also a sense of them simply doing a necessary job – there’s no unseemly celebration over the deaths of enemy pilots on either side, while enemy prisoners are granted respect and decent treatment, by both sides.
I was pleased that Random House have chosen not to update the text as far as I can see. This means there’s an awful lot of smoking, seen as a Good Thing, which I feared they might have felt inclined to edit out. The British also often refer to the Germans as “the Hun”, now seen as somewhat derogatory, but back then, as Capt. Johns himself points out in a short note presumably added years later, “The word Hun used in this book was the generic term for anything belonging to the German enemy. It was used in a familiar sense, rather than derogatory.” By leaving this kind of thing in, the book keeps an air of authenticity and will give young readers a truer picture of the habits and language current at the time.
So a happy reunion with my old heroes for me, and I’d be quite happy to recommend Biggles for a new generation of readers, young or old – they feel more like a glorification of heroism and decency than of war itself, and they are respectful towards the enemy, showing that they too are heroic and decent men (except the Nazis). Plus, and more importantly, the adventures are still thrilling!