THE PORCINE AVIATION FILES
PIGGLES OF THE ROYAL PORCINE FLYING CORPS
You might be interested in a little-known piece of literature, by the late, great storyteller, Captain W. E. Johns, concerning a character he was working on before coming up with his most memorable creation, James Bigglesworth, DSO, DFC. I enclose an extract from near the beginning of the novel. Read and enjoy.
Chapter 3: The Photograph
Piggles was awakened by the sound of his batman bringing his morning tea. He watched through narrowed eyes as the soldier placed a jug of hot water on the wash stand, a thin stream of white vapour curling from its brim. Piggles sat up and rubbed the bristles on his unshaven chin.
"What time is it?"
"Half past five, sir," replied the subaltern, laying out Piggles' kit with a crisp efficiency that was borderline annoying. "The colonel's complements, you're to report to the duty office at six o'clock."
Piggles groaned, and sank back onto the bed. The morning air was cold, the blankets were warm and inviting.
"Yes, yes. I'll be right there," replied, Piggles wearily. "Have flight wheel out my kite. It looks like another early start."
* * *
Fifteen minutes later, washed, shaved and with a couple of mugs of strong, sweet tea in him, Piggles stepped out of the barracks and, shrugging into his fleece-lined flying jacket, strode across the assembly ground and up the steps to the flight commander's office. Algy, making notes in his log book, was already in the ante-room. He looked up as Piggles entered.
"Morning, Skip," said Algy, cheerfully, "What's the job?"
"Your guess is as good as mine, old chap," replied Piggles, darkly. The tea had helped, but the unseasonably bitter wind was already biting through his flying jacket. He stared through the office window overlooking the apron, where a pair of Sopwith Saddlebacks, drab and ugly in their camouflage markings, were being coaxed onto the flight line by a small knot of ground crew.
His reverie was interrupted by the arrival of Colonel Raymond.
"Good morning, gentlemen," said Raymond, "Step inside, please, I've got a little job for you."
Piggles and Algy followed Raymond into his office. On the desk was a large, white map. On it was a diagram of the front line just to the East of the airfield. Red pencil marks outlined salient features.
"The hun's up to something," said Raymond, indicating a row of marks a few miles inside German-held territory. "They're moving some kind of equipment along these roads. Looks like some kind of support for a new push against our lines."
"What kind of equipment?" said Piggles, mentally figuring ranges and fuel consumption.
"That's the problem," said Raymond. "The blighters have thrown up a huge curtain of ack-ack around the area. All we've been able to get is a few eye-witness reports. 205 squadron's already lost three aircraft trying to get pictures of it."
Algy rolled his eyes. "So now it's our turn to get shot at?"
Piggles shot him a grim smile. "It's what you're being paid for," he said, then, to Raymond, "When do we leave?"
"Light should be right around six forty-five," said Raymond. "Met boys reckon the early morning mist should clear from the west as you cross the lines. The cameras are already in your planes."
Piggles checked his watch. "Twenty minutes to our lines, another ten to the checkpoint. Take your snaps and then home. We'd be back in time for breakfast." Piggles folded the map and tucked it into his flying jacket, Okay," he said, "Let's do it. See you in a couple of hours, colonel."
Algy, Piggles and Colonel Raymond exchanged salutes, then the two pilots were away. Piggles strode purposefully from the office, the fatigue of the morning banished with the urgency of the job. Algy bundled along beside him, running to keep up.
"I'll make the first run," said Piggles, "You stay upstairs and keep an eye peeled for the Boche. I'll make altitude to watch your back while you make your run."
"Will do, Skip," replied Algy, "Expecting trouble?"
"Always," answered Piggles, pulling on his flying gauntlets, "If Jerry is so desperate to keep prying eyes away from something he's not going to make do with just Archie. Von Stalhelm's squadron is only five miles south-east of the target. He's not going to give up on a chance to add to his tally of kills.
Rosy fingers of sunlight were beginning to paint the eastern horizon as the two fliers approached their mounts. Piggles approached the nearest saddleback, its trotters straining against its chocks. Piggles slapped its sleek flanks as he made his preflight examination.
"Easy, girl," he said, casting a professional eye on the confusion of fabric and bracing wires. A flight sergeant, standing just forward of the pig's snout, saluted as Piggles rounded the beast and made for the cockpit.
"Morning, flight," said Piggles, "How is she this morning?"
"A bit skittish, sir," replied the flight sergeant, "She's still a bit shaken up after the tussle over Amiens yesterday. We patched a couple of tusk marks on her rear flank and there's some bruises where she tangled with that Schwartzwalder Wilderschwein, but everything else seems sound."
Piggles climbed onto the port wing and vaulted lightly into the cockpit. "Fuel?"
"Topped off, sir,"
"Full belts on both Lewis guns, sir. The camera and a rack of spare plates are the shelf on the side of the cockpit."
"Thankyou, Flight," said Piggles settling into his seat. "Ready to start."
"Ready to start, sir."
Piggles glanced over to Algy, raised a finger and stirred the air, indicating to the other pilot to start his engine. Algy shot him a thumbs up, then barked an order to his ground crew. Khaki-coloured figures fussed around the saddlebacks as they prepared for flight.
"Throttle set," Said Piggles.
"Yes, sir," called the flight sergeant, "Switches off,".
"Switches off," confirmed Piggles, checking the position of the magneto and fuel switches.
The flight sergeant pulled back the immense wooden prop, drawing fuel and air into the pig's rotary engine.
"Contact," answered Piggles, flipping the magneto switches.
The flight sergeant swung the mighty propeller. The engine coughed, briefly, then squealed into life. Piggles eased the throttle back, then moved the stick and rudder pedals, watching the control surfaces responding lightly to his touch. A sickly odour, a strange mixture of over-fried bacon and gasoline, roiled around him as he methodically completed his preflight checks. He looked towards Algy, seeing the other saddleback's engine burst into life. The two pilots exchanged thumbs-up, then, with a chopping motion Piggles indicated that the ground crew were to remove the chocks.
Clumsy at first, but with growing confidence, the Sopwith trotted forward, its mighty bulk strangely light and delicate on its little feet. Piggles looked towards the airfield's windsock, and turned into wind. Behind him and to his right, Algy's saddleback turned into line.
Piggles pulled the goggles off the top of his flying helmet down over his eyes, his cheeks already slick with oil from the engine. A salute to the flight sergeant, and he pushed the throttle forward. The saddleback began its determined run across the gently undulating grass. In moments, the pig was airborne, bucking slightly in the turbulent air rising from the village beyond the airfield.
Algy's saddleback settled into formation on his starboard wing. Piggles' cares had slipped from his shoulders as he'd left the ground. Only airborne could he begin to feel totally in control. He banked left and right, checking the response from the controls. His ground crew had done a good job, the saddleback showing no adverse affects from its privations of the previous afternoon.
The two Sopwiths slowly gained altitude, the chill morning air mixing with the hot exhaust from the engines. Piggles checked his watch, estimating the time to no-man's land, and the terror of a ground war where thousands had already fought and died.
Every minute or so, he made a lazy turn, watching for the glint of sunlight on doped wing fabric, or the puff of white anti-aircraft smoke that would mark the presence of an airborne enemy (black archie smoke was German, white was the allies, an immediate marker as to the target of the anti-aircraft gunners' attentions).
The air remained cold and clear. He was almost beginning to enjoy himself…
A handful of rounds of German archie woke him from his daydream. Clumps of black smoke burst harmlessly below and to his left. Somebody was awake down on Jerry's side of the lines. The trenches and barbed-wire zigzagged across the shattered ground below. Not a nice place to make a forced landing, he thought, and nudged the throttle open another touch, making more altitude so that if he was hit he'd have a decent chance to glide back to behind his own lines. Algy matched his moves, seemingly oblivious to the anti-aircraft fire.
Piggles began quartering the ground, searching for navigation points. A church spire, casting a long, dark shadow, confirmed he was, more or less, on the correct course. He turned left again, making for the northern side of his target. The patch of woodland that he'd marked as a reference point swept beneath the saddleback, thin skeins of cloud darting across it giving the only sense of speed as they hurtled through the air.
Piggles rocked the saddleback, waving its wings to signal to Algy to begin to climb. The other aircraft rose, slowly at first, its wings biting into the frosty air. The sun was just above the horizon, its lurid red orb the imagined lair of a dozen enemy aircraft.
Piggles gripped the control column with his knees and turned to lift the heavy camera from its mount and leaned it over the side of the cockpit. He cocked the camera's shutter, and sighted through the crosshairs of the viewfinder as the saddleback crested the brow of a hill.
The sight that met his gaze as he cleared the forest chilled him to the bone. Row upon row of lumbering, metal-clad shapes, bunched tightly on the narrow road leading straight to the front lines. The unmistakable whiff of diesel smoke and lanolin assailed his nostrils.
"Panzer Sheep," muttered Piggles, to an unhearing world. "Dozens of them!"
He triggered the camera's shutter and heaved it back into the cockpit, grasping the control stick in his left hand and pulling it hard into his stomach. The saddleback gave a surprised squeak as it zoomed skyward. Piggles banked slightly to look back at the ground, and the very heavens erupted as the German archie opened up.
Black smoke, laced with hot steel, blossomed around his saddleback as he kicked the rudder, desperately manoeuvring to spoil the gun layers' aim. Shrapnel pattered like deadly raindrops across the underside of the lower wing as he banked and jinked out of its way.
Algy began his run, low and fast. Piggles, now clear of the Hun archie, began quartering the skies, searching for enemy aircraft. He swapped the exposed plate in the camera with a fresh one, as another barrage of artillery shells marked Algy's progress over the target.
The saddleback shook as something struck the upper wing. Piggles instinctively threw the damaged pig into a neck-wrenching, right hand turn, suddenly aware of neat row of bullet holes that had stitched themselves across the fabric covering of the wing. He reached onto the cowling in front of him and pulled the cocking levers of his Lewis guns, throwing the saddleback into a left bank as he twisted in his seat to find his attacker.
A black shape thundered past, almost colliding with the saddleback. Piggles turned with it, dragging the nose of his aircraft against the torque of its mighty Le Rhone rotary engine. The very torque that allowed it to make lightning-fast turns to the right made it fly…well, like a pig, to the left.
The dark mass that had nearly hit him floated into his field of view. A Schwartzwalder Wildrind, huge, black-and-white crosses plastered across its wings and flank, a grinning skull-and-spare ribs emblazoned on its tail fin. The mark of Jagdgeschwade 5, thought Piggles, Von Stalhelm's squadron. He nosed the saddleback over, diving to gain speed. As the Schwartzwalder rose into his sights, he pressed the trigger and a stream of tracer bullets danced through the icy air and wrought havoc on the German machine. A round caught a vital spot, sparks spattering from its engine cowling. Oily smoke streamed from the holed fuselage, and, slowly, terribly, the wounded pig rolled away into what most certainly was a fatal dive.
Piggles ignored the dying pig and its doomed pilot, looking back to where Algy had finished his run. Two more Schwarzwalders, one with yellow-and-black hornet stripes, the other nose to tail a lurid red, had, quite literally, dropped out of the sky and were herding the saddleback away from the relative safety of the Allied lines. Piggles glanced upward, checking for other aircraft, then pulled his steed into a screaming turn to intercept one of the huns. Almost instinctively, he closed on the nearest aircraft. So intent was he on downing Algy, the pilot had made the grave mistake of ignoring threats from the rest of the sky. Piggles raked the scarlet Schwartzwalder with a two-second burst, watching with some satisfaction as the fuel tank exploded, shuttering the doomed pig with a cloud of burning gasoline. He turned to cut across the wake of the Schwartzwalder, catching a whiff of roasting pork laced with flaming petrol, already lining up on the third aircraft.
Algy's saddleback pulled out of its dive, then zoomed upward, followed by the German. The saddleback reached the top of the climb, then stall-turned to the right, ominous wisps of smoke sputtering from its engine. Piggles fired again, more out of blind hope than airmanship, the tracer shells falling ineffectually short.
Algy dived past the surprised German, who kick-turned to follow – right into Piggles' path. Piggles held the triggers down until the stream of tracers waltzed through the air, neatly bisecting the black and yellow aircraft.
Without waiting to see the results of his marksmanship, Piggles banked his saddleback and dove for the lines. The photograph in his camera made it too risky to hang around while Von Stalhelm and his circus were in the area. Zigzagging over the inevitable (and equally as ineffective) archie, and, less than fifteen minutes later, the welcoming sight of his airfield appeared on the horizon.
Lining up on the smudge fire at the end of the airfield, Piggles gently brought his tired saddleback into land, only relaxing when its cloven feet trundled across the grass. He taxied back to the dispersal apron, parking alongside Algy's battered machine.
Piggles shut the magneto and fuel switches and the engine clattered to a stop. He unfastened his lap strap and clambered from the cockpit. The ground crew kicked chocks under the pig's trotters as an artificer wiped a smear of blood from the mighty rump of the saddlback. "Close thing, sir," he said, as Piggles heaved the photograph plate from its rack.
"See to it, Flight," said Piggles, patting the pig's side, "And see she gets an extra ration of kitchen scraps," He hefted the plate case and walked past the nose of the saddleback, "From the officer's mess, mind," he added, "All the enlisted men leave is potatoes and porridge."
Algy was out of his aircraft and handing over his plates to a dispatch rider that was standing beside the taxiway. Piggles handed the rider his plate case. The rider saluted, then, in a roar and a cloud of smoke, kicked his motorcycle into life and rode from the airfield.
Piggles pulled off his gauntlets and peeled his flying helmet from his head, running his fingers through his sweat-slicked hair. He strode towards the officer's mess, his batman running up as Algy fell into step beside him.
"Good show, eh, Skip?" said Algy "No wonder the Boche were so keen on keeping that little lot a secret."
"Well, it's not a secret any more," replied Piggles, handing his flying kit to the batman. "I'm hungry. What's for breakfast?"
"Pork chops, sir," said the batman. "Nice and fresh…"
The odour of frying pig meat drifted from the door of the mess.
Piggles suddenly felt very sick.
Next: Chapter 4: The Sheep of Death.
The piece contains a few factual and dating errors. Piggles would have flown either an Essex Porker or a Wessex Piggy. British Saddleback didn't exist until the 2 were merged. Personally I think he would have flown one of the early Tamworths or possibly an early Cumberland. I am also sure the hun had some Babirusas in service and would have used them to devastating effect, but that is neither here nor there.
In accompanying correspondence, the finder of this "lost manuscript" refers to some pretty stirring descriptions of the Hun Panzersheep rolling inexorably across a mist-shrouded no-man's land, striking terror into the heart of the plucky Tommies, while Piggles, Ginger, Algy and Bertie wait anxiously for a break in the weather so they can deliver a clutch of 25lb Cooper bombs or several tons of untreated porcine slurry onto them.
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