Biggles in the Baltic by Captain W.E. Johns (1940)

I can’t believe I’m writing a review of a Biggles’ book. In spite of scouring secondhand shops and Lifeline sales for at least two decades with my offspring as they built up their collection of Captain W.E. John’s books, this is the first of his books that I’ve ever read. It’s surprising how many grown men have hung on to their beloved Biggles’ books. Hilary Mantel’s husband is one of them. About one hundred and two of John’s books feature Squadron Leader James Bigglesworth and were published between 1932 and 1985. We have about ninety-two of them. 🙄

Captain W. E. Johns was a member of the Royal Flying Corps (the forerunner of the RAF) and a fighter pilot in WWI, so his knowledge of warplanes and warfare is technically accurate for the time. His books capture the derring-do of young pilots, their comradeship with each other, their ability to make do with what they had if things didn’t go according to plan, their sense of humour, and their sense of decency.

Biggles in the Baltic was written in the very early years of WWII and for this reason, if nothing else, it’s a window into a world and time that has passed. My kids loved the adventure and action and having so many of these types of books to choose from when you’re just starting to get into reading is good motivation.

Biggles, his two pilot friends, Algy and Ginger, a flight sergeant and his eighteen year-old son who worked on decoding, plus an old Navy pensioner, who went along as their cook, are given a top secret mission which is only revealed when they arrive at an isolated island on the Baltic Coast in an area held by the Germans. Biggles wasn’t told at he start of his mission that they weren’t even expected to hold out in their secret hideout longer than twenty-four hours.

Biggles and Co. often refer to the Germans as Huns, the descendants of Barbarian  tribes that invaded Europe around the time of the fall of Rome. It was a pejorative term used mostly by the Allies in WWI but it also reappeared during the Second World War. The Boche is another term that is often used. See here for more details.

Peering forwards and downwards, Biggles soon made out a vague land mass which he knew was land, a vast black shadow that spread away until it was lost in the distance. Not a light showed anywhere. Turning to the right, he followed the coastline for a while, and then, after a glance at his compass and the moon, he headed straight towards it, losing height all the time, probing the darkness with his eyes, seeking the unmistakable landmark that he knew was there – the famous canal which connects the Baltic with the North Sea. The enemy might curtain their windows, but they could not curtain the moon, which, climbing higher, reflected itself on the water so that the canal lay like a silver ribbon across the sable land.

There were quite a few times when I wondered about the Biggles’ phase. Were they really worth searching out and reading? My knowledge of them was secondhand so I took the word of all the Dads I knew. I had to take my son to the orthodonist over a period of time so his younger sister came long. She was about 9 and totally addicted to Biggles, as her older brother still was, and she would take her current Biggles‘ books along anytime we had to go out. The orthodontist was a very chatty Irish fellow and when he saw that she was reading Biggles he told her that he was a pilot and used to love the Biggles’ books when he was a young lad. He was working on restoring an old vintage plane – one that she’d read about in Biggles. She knew all the specs and what kind fuel tank it was etc. He was very impressed (so was I!) and told her that he could take her up in one when it was finished. It was kind of him but I didn’t think it was great idea at the time. Anyhow, I thought how good it was that reading a book from decades ago allowed two very disparate people in age and everything else to enjoy some banter about something they were both interested in.

Some information on the author.

7 thoughts on “Biggles in the Baltic by Captain W.E. Johns (1940)

  1. Pingback: 1940 Club: All your reviews! #1940Club – Stuck in a Book

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