Friday, October 17, 2008

Biggles Bombs Guernica

In lieu of a review (and you simply MUST check out the reviews at Amazon, here), I give you the highlights from Capt. W. E. Johns's Biggles in Spain (1939):

The houses increased in size and importance as they walked on, and another ten minutes found them in a large open square, on one side of which sparkled the sea. The moon had risen and cast a gleaming track of light across the still water. Silhouetted against it rose a tall column, surmounted by a figure.

“We’re in Barcelona,” announced Biggles. “That’s the famous statue of Christopher Columbus,” he added, indicating the column. “He came here after discovering America. It’s years since I was here, but if I remember right, the station is over there on the far side.”

. . .

They were just abandoning hope of finding any sort of vehicle, when an ancient cab, drawn by an emaciated horse, came round the corner. Biggles held up his hand and the driver stopped. “Hotel Valencia,” he said, and the driver indicated by a wave of his hand that he knew where it was.

The drive that followed seemed interminable, for in spite of the driver’s whip-cracking and exhortations, the wretched animal could only amble at the best. It stumbled often, and one occasion nearly fell. Ginger, incensed by this apparent cruelty to animals, began to expostulate, but Biggles silenced him. “Keep quiet,” he
said. “You’ll see plenty of this in Spain. You’ll do no good by kicking up a row, so just forget about it.”

. . .

But Ginger was barely listening. In a kind of dream he took the rifle that was thrust into his hands, and put some packets of cartridges into the pouch on his belt. But he was still thinking of escape. Twice he tried to break away, but each time the French sergeant, who seemed to suspect his intention, called him back, and he dared not risk it again. For the present, at any rate, he would have to obey orders, that was clear; so he climbed into one of the lorries with his new-found friend. A jabber of foreign languages fell on his ears; the reek of garlic hung in the dust-laden air.

. . .

“The trenches are just round that next hill,” explained Summers. “Things are pretty quiet just at this minute, or you’d ‘ave known all about it. I’ve bin ‘ere before, and it’s a hot shop. There’s a big river called the Ebro just around the corner; that’s where all the fuss is going on. They say Franco is trying to get across.”

. . .

“’Ere we are,” remarked Summers. He might have been announcing their arrival at a London terminus, so dispassionate was his tone of voice.

Ginger wondered what curious urge had induced the little cockney to abandon peace and security for a war, the result of which could make no possible difference to him. The same could be said of nearly all the other members of the International Brigade.

. . .

The next moment, they were both surrounded by a clamouring crowd. Biggles tried to make himself heard, but it was no use. The officer shouted at his men and the noise subsided somewhat.

“We are English,” said Biggles. “Do you speak English?”

The officer eyed Biggles suspiciously. “English,” he repeated, as if he did not understand the word, or if he did, was at a loss what to make of it.

“Does anyone speak English?” shouted Biggles.

Two of the soldiers answered “Yes.” One pushed his way to the front. “I was a waiter in London,” he announced in a tone of voice suggesting that he was proud of his accomplishment.

. . .

How many soldiers there were in the guardroom, or whether they were asleep or awake, he did not know; nor did he know which end of the corridor in the
prisoners’ hut the sentry would be. He could hear no movement, which did not surprise him; having seen something of Spanish sentries, he imagined that the man would be sitting down, for no Spaniard stands when he can sit.

. . .

Biggles smiled, and then stood up to meet the gesticulating frontier guards and customs officers. It took him some minutes to calm them. The discovery that they were British did more in this direction than anything Biggles could say.

. . .

There a car awaited them, and they were taken direct to Whitehall. The others sat in the waiting room while Biggles, as spokesman of the party, was conducted elsewhere. It was an hour before he rejoined them.

“Well, that’s that—thank goodness,” he announced. “And now, what about a bite of real food somewhere?”

“Here! Just a minute,” broke in Ginger. “What did they say?”


“The fellow—or people—you just saw.”

“Oh, nothing.”


“Well, I told them just what happened—and one or two other things which I thought would interest them.”

“And they said nothing?”

“Well, they said, ‘Thanks very much.’ What else did you expect them to say?”

“After all the messes we got in over their perishing letter—by the way, what was in it?”

Biggles shook his head. “I haven’t the remotest idea,” he answered lightly.

“Do you mean to say they didn’t tell you?”

“You bet your life they didn’t. But they’ve agreed to pay our out-of-pocket expenses—and when the British government does that you can reckon that they are very much obliged to you. That’s right, Jock, isn’t it?”

“Ye’re dead right—but they did once gi’ me a tin medal.”

“They once gave me a week in jug for loiterin’ without invisible means of substance,” growled Summers.

Biggles laughed. Then he became serious. “No, chaps,” he said, as they walked slowly toward the exit, “it’s just because any Britisher would do what we’ve done that the old Empire goes on. I’ve done what I set out to do, so what have I got to grumble about, anyway?”

“What was that?” asked Algy. “It’s so long ago that I’ve forgotten.”

“I’ve got rid of my fever,” murmured Biggles, and then whistled a passing taxi. “Cafe Royal,” he told the driver, and crowding in with the others, slammed the door.

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