“Algy”, or Algernon Montgomery Lacey to give him his full name, is Biggles’ cousin. By exerting special influence with the Higher Command of the RFC, his mother succeeds in getting him posted to 266 squadron, where he is assigned to Biggles’ flight. He turns up with a dirty uniform, long hair and a face full of freckles. Biggles treats him coldly at first and his naivety makes the chapter heading of “The Boob” seems appropriate. However, Algy shoots down an enemy aircraft on his first flight and then on his next patrol returns to join Biggles in a dogfight against overwhelming odds even though his guns are jammed. He has passed the test. From that time onwards he is Biggles’ special companion. He even knows Biggles’ deepest secret. Nearly fifty years later (in “Biggles Looks Back”) he reveals to a startled Bertie and Ginger the details of Biggles’ affair with Marie Janis. It is something that Biggles can trust him never to talk about until he grants permission.
The depth of Biggles’ affection for Algy is best seen in “Biggles Flies East” when Biggles fears that his comrade has been killed “Something seemed to have died within him…” Their closeness is continued in the stories after the war when in “Biggles Flies Again” they fly around the world in their Vickers Vandal. A prolonged dalliance with a girl called Consuelo, the daughter of the President of Bolivia, is the nearest Algy gets to romance. Biggles says, “Then again, Algy, old son, you can’t go on flirting with Consuelo unless you intend marrying her….”
Throughout the thirties the team of Biggles, Algy, Ginger and Smyth fly the world and Algy’s character gradually undergoes a change. In “Biggles The Rescue Flight”, set during the First World War, we are told that he showed no sign of nerves and that he treated the war as a joke. Yet in the later stories he has become a somewhat sober character who has to take the strain of responsibility of being Biggles’ second in command. The Second World War confirms this position and in the post-war Air Police stories he is rarely let off the leash, unlike Bertie and Ginger. His best outing during the war is in “Biggles Fails to Return” where he shares with Ginger and Bertie an extraordinary search for Biggles on the Riviera Coast and in Monte Carlo. Oh, yes, and he nearly gets his head cut off in “Biggles Delivers the Goods”.
W.E.Johns became conscious of Algy’s change in role when he wrote a foreword to “Biggles in the Gobi” which began “Some regular readers of these stories have complained that Algy has of late been rather pushed into the background…..” The Gobi story itself is an attempt to redress this situation but there are very few signs of the devil-may-care hero of the Sopwith Camel days. Nevertheless in “Biggles Takes Charge” Algy confronts von Stalhein for the first third of the book before Biggles does indeed take over the situation. 'Biggles in the Terai' we learn that Algy has gone on a special investigation in India and not returned. Once again there is considerable emotion expressed by Biggles when he finds his lost comrade. Quite a few of the other Air Police stories, however, have Algy being forced to stay with the aircraft and sometimes opting to do so (see “Biggles on Mystery Island”). Sometimes he is even away on leave or left behind in England to hold the fort whilst Biggles, Ginger and Bertie do the investigating. Just a little younger than Biggles, it is quite clear that he will retire from the police at the same time as his cousin.
A friendly rivalry exists between Biggles and Wilks from the first time that we see them together. Though a firm friend, Wilks belongs to 287 squadron and a spirit of competition continues throughout the whole of the First World War. They dispute mainly over whether SE5’s are better than Sopwith Camels. They compete in shooting down the enemy, in destroying his balloons and in special projects like capturing a special camera and dropping propaganda leaflets. They even join forces when a brash American pilot decides to lead his newly formed squadron over the enemy lines far too low. Cleverly they use these novice Yanks as bait in a trap for a German “circus”.
Wilks crops up in two adventures between the wars. In the collection of short stories “Biggles Flies Again” he is pilot-instructor to the Bolivian Air Force. Later (in “Biggles Flies North” ) he sends Biggles and Algy a letter from Canada (by the way W.E.Johns has now changed Wilks’ old squadron to 187 !) in which he explains his move to the frozen north. He is in desperate trouble and Biggles, Algy and Ginger go over to help him out. Naturally his firm, Arctic Airways, is back on even flight by the time the “old firm” has finished with the enemy.
In times of war Englishmen rallied to the Old Country and Wilks is no exception. Very soon W.E.Johns has him alongside Biggles’ 666 squadron of Spitfires with his own squadron of Hurricanes at 701. A few of the situations of the First World War repeat themselves in “Spitfire Parade” and Wilks gets to know the personnel of Biggles’ squadron.
Thus another little problem is set for the reader in the last story that actually Wilks appears in, which is the first Air Police one, "Sergeant Bigglesworth C.I.D.". Wilks is now Group Captain Wilkinson and in command of R.A.F aerodrome at Khartoum in Sudan when Bertie flies in out of the desert. Surpisingly Johns declares that Bertie and Wilks had never met yet in the story "The Record Breakers" ("Spitfire Parade") Bertie is there when Biggles confirms he has outscored Wilks in the race to shoot down as many Germans as possible in one day.
The final mention of WIlks comes in "Biggles Hunts Big Game" where we learn that he has become the director of "Air Freight Limited" and thus an airline that Biggles considers must have impeccable credentials.
Major/ Colonel/Air Commodore Raymond
There is some confusion about the stories that W.E.Johns wrote about Biggles' early combat experience. This is well exemplified by the number of times that Biggles gets introduced to Raymond for the first time e.g. in the story called "The Packet" in "The Camels are Coming" he is presented to Colonel Raymond by Major Mullen of 266. In a story written later, but which is chronologically earlier , Biggles is again formally introduced to Major Raymond of Wing Headquarters (this time by Major Paynter) in "Biggles Learns to Fly".
Nevertheless from the first meeting onwards Biggles gets constantly embroiled in missions that lead him beyond his duties as a front line pilot and into the confused world of espionage. First he is kept busy landing agents and rescuing them from behind enemy lines. Later Raymond gets him to undertake important missions in deepest France.. When Biggles gets the chance to infiltrate the German Air Force in Palestine in “Biggles Flies East” Raymond is sent along as his liaison officer. In the other short stories he often instigates the friendly rivalry between Biggles and Wilkinson over such matters as who can plant propaganda leaflets further behind the line or who can destroy the most enemy observation balloons.
After the war we learn that Raymond has become Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard and that he is still keen to send work Biggles’ way (see “Biggles and Co.”). With Chamberlain’s announcement of the outbreak of World War II he is straight on the phone to Biggles having resumed his job at Air Intelligence. We learn during the inter-war years he could afford the luxury of a private yacht for his cook is assigned to special duties with Biggles in the exciting Baltic adventure. It is Raymond who hatches the idea of 666, Biggles’ squadron, and in “Spitfire Parade” he presents him with a group of misfits to inspire and knock into shape. The formation of the Air Police after the war thus comes as a natural progression.
The relationship he has with Biggles is not always smooth and trouble-free. Raymond has to be a politician and to satisfy those above him in the chain of command. Many times Biggles comments sarcastically on how he and his comrades will be disowned by the Government if they get into difficulties. Raymond wants Biggles to do things by the book except when it suits his convenience. It must also be said that Raymond is a man of vision for it is he who persuades Biggles that von Stalhein could be a very good friend to the Western Alliance. And so begins one of the strangest adventures….
Flight Sergeant Smyth
Biggles first meets Smyth when he joins 266 squadron at Maranique in France during the First World War. Their conversations are usually brief and to the point. All that Smyth is required to do is organise the teams that repair the Sopwith Camels and get them back into the air. One example of the combined ingenuity of the mechanic and the young pilot comes in the “Biggles of 266 story”- “The Camera”. In order to capture a high-flying German reconnaissance bomber Biggles needs to get his machine to fly 3,000 feet higher. Biggles asks Smyth to come up with ideas and the result is a high-flying deathtrap. However, it does the job and Biggles forces down the German, unfortunately destroying the much desired camera in the process.
After the war Biggles, Algy and Smyth are involved in an unplanned round-the-world flight (“Biggles Flies Again”) which leads to many hair-raising episodes. Smyth certainly does his bit to keep the Vickers Vandal flying and once he saves all their lives in the story of “The Blue Orchid”. His tone towards the two pilots is always correct, with many statements being punctuated by the respectful, “sir” which comes instinctively from the habits of war-time service. He shares several of the adventures of the thirties, though some of his mechanic’s duties are gradually taken over by Ginger. His contributions are usually minor and he is kept in the background a typical effort would be the way he turns up with three Mounties at the end of “Biggles Flies North”.
The Second World War sees him return to full-time active service in “Biggles in the Baltic” when the comrades operate an undercover squadron from Bergen Ait. This time he brings with his son Roy who is qualified as both a wireless operator and mechanic. He is on duty again in “Biggles Sweeps the Desert” and, when Biggles helps to set up the Air Police in the immediate post-war period, it is natural that he should turn to the man who has done such sterling work throughout the years. From then on there is the brief occasional mention such as in “Biggles Works it Out” when he helps the team to spot that their aeroplane has been booby-trapped.
Intriguingly, after all the many adventures, the reader is never sure whether his name should be pronounced "Smyth" to rhyme with with "with" or "Smyth" to rhyme with 'blithe' !
We never do learn his real first name. Biggles calls him "Ginger" when he first comes across him in a disused railway hut in the north of England in “Biggles and the Black Peril”. He is a lad who has run away from home in Smettleworth and is on his way to London to join the RAF. His plans change when he and Algy have to get together to rescue Biggles from a group of what appear to be communist agents or British “fellow travellers”. He gets his first flight with Algy but is actually taught to fly not by Biggles but by Captain Pim Carthorne (“Biggles Hits the Trail”). He has also acquired great skill at maintaining aero engines and effecting repairs to aeroplanes that would normally be done by ground crew. Indeed in several of the adventures it is Ginger who is assigned the task of fixing the various holes that inevitably get shot into their different machines. For a while Flight Sergeant Smyth becomes redundant until he is needed again in the Second World War.
Ginger is youth personified. He has learned his language in the cinema and he addresses Biggles as “Chief” and comes out with expressions learned in gangster movies. - “You’ve sure said a mouthful !” Gradually this American influence disappears and even his expertise as a mechanic is allowed to fade into the background. His principal function is to allow the narrative of the Biggles’ stories to split into more than one section. Viewing things through Ginger’s eyes, as he learns the harsh lessons of flying, dealing with crooks and with the perils of wartime, is one of the tricks pulled off by W.E.Johns in the books of the 1930’s. His ability to scrounge, because of his hand-to-mouth existence before he met Biggles, is amply displayed in “Biggles and the Black Peril” and “Biggles Sees it Through”. His initiation into warfare comes in “Biggles Goes to War”, a sort of Ruritanian adventure, and then more plausibly in the bombing attack in "Biggles in the Baltic”. Thus he goes through the same “rites of passage” as Biggles and Algy did in the First World War. This occurs again in some of the short stories in “Spitfire Parade.”
After the Second World War Ginger plays a prominent part in many of the adventures. Quite often his inexperience is contrasted with the more worldly-wise Biggles. Thus he is often the one who gets lost out on the frozen wastes of Antarctica in “Biggles Breaks the Silence” and in the deserts of Egypt in “Another Job for Biggles”. In lots of the short stories it is Ginger who is the preferred companion of Biggles when the case is a two-man job. Like Algy he too had a brief romance. A war-time encounter with a girl from Monaco (“Biggles Fails to Return”) looks promising for a while but Johns does not pick up the idea in his next story.
Lord Bertie Lissie
“Spitfire Parade” introduces a whole host of characters who are to be the members of 666 or Biggles’ squadron. W.E.Johns wanted to show the wide range of types and classes who were coming together to defeat the attacks of the Luftwaffe. The biggest contrast of all was made between Lord Bertie Lissie and Tug Carrington. For Tug war is a grim and serious business and the bombing of London and the death of civilians is ever present in his mind. Bertie appears as the representative of the monied upper class. He has spent time in Monte Carlo, taking part in the famous rally and competing in motor boat races in the Mediterranean. A product of Cranwell College, Bertie appears as highly-strung or even “mad as a hatter”. He has a dog named Towser which he pursues with a hunting horn and he wears an eye-glasss even when he is flying. However, he can fly and he can fight. It is only years later (in “Biggles Takes Charge”) that Ginger confirms just how well he did - “Bertie managed to knock down thirty-two enemy aircraft.”
Mutual respect grows between Bertie and Tug and the other members of the squadron begin to recognise the quality amongst all the eccentricities. During the war he leads his flight by example rather than by brain power. Indeed, in “Biggles Sweeps the Desert” he admits his relief when first Ginger (junior to him in rank) and later Biggles take over the situation.
The wartime Gimlet stories “King of the Commandos” and “Gimlet Goes Again” confirm that he is Gimlet’s friend and fellow hunting lover. In the midst of dangerous situations Bertie and Gimlet calmly discuss the merits of a horse called Seagull or whether Bertie’s dog will be successful in the production of puppies !
After the war Bertie too joins the Air Police and he gradually becomes more and more of an asset to both the team of comrades and to W.E.Johns as a storyteller. Not since the early days of Ginger have any of the characters had such recognisable verbal mannerisms. Each book is riddled with “Blow me downs” and “bally” this and “beastly” that and a repertoire of other “silly ass” comments. Quite clearly it is the early version of the Bertie type of character who is caricatured whenever people (like the Monty Python team) try to lampoon the concept of Biggles and wartime pilots. His tendency to go for the most straightforward method is appealing and his bluntness often illuminates the more advanced reasoning power of Biggles and the rest. He can play Watson to Biggles’ Holmes.
As the books move forward W.E.Johns makes it clear that Bertie learns a lot about detection. He also deploys his special knowledge of small boats, antiques and even the breeding of bulls ! By the later books his language has toned down considerably and the percentage of sensible contributions has gone up. Indeed in “Biggles and the Dark Intruder” Biggles congratulates him on the number of brainwaves that he has about the conditions on Bodmin Moor. Remarkable progress indeed for the “silly ass.”
He is a fighter from the slums of London to whom we are first introduced in “Spitfire Parade”. He contrasts strongly with the upper class Bertie Lissie. He has a preference for non-alcoholic drinks and a pre-occupation with revenge for what the Germans have done to London in general and for the death of his parents in particular, which means that he exudes an air of tension wherever he goes.
He is one of the few members of the old 666 squadron that we hear about after the war and he figures prominently in “Biggles Hunts Big Game”. He is training for a middle-weight fight but is earning his living by driving a taxi. One of the comparisons that is used is with an angry terrier and so the reader is not surprised when Biggles unleashes him with dramatic effect on the man who is watching him. Later Tug becomes the man on the inside of the forgery operation, piloting a plane in Africa and witnessing Bertie’s supposed “death”. Though not a heavyweight, there is a remarkable resemblance between Tug and Copper in the Gimlet series.
It might be fair to describe Angus as the forgotten Flight Commander of 666. Algy and Bertie are nearly always in the thick of the adventures and Ginger serves in the same flight as Algy. Angus arrives in “Spitfire Parade”, contributes in “Biggles Sweeps the Desert” and ends up invalided out in “Biggles in the Orient”. He is perhaps the only true casualty of Biggles’ squadron in the whole of the Second World War. He is the second member of 666 that W.E.Johns employs in a later adventure - “Biggles Takes a Holiday”. Here he spends his war-time pay on a passage to a new life in Paradise Valley and is fortunate indeed to be rescued and to recover his money.
The idea of an international Air Police is pursued mainly through the character of Marcel Brissac who first walks into Biggles’ headquarters in “Biggles Works it Out”. He is full of enthusiasm and good humour and his face mirrors all the ideas that are flashing across his mind. Biggles had served with Marcel’s father in the First World War and welcomes the man who is to be the sole representative of the French Air Police.
The remains of the French Empire in North Africa and in the South Pacific now open up whole new areas of the world for Biggles and his men to visit. W.E.Johns exploits this possibility from the first story. The south of France and the Ahagger desert are the operating areas for a particularly vicious band of crooks. Together with the help of Biggles, and especially with Bertie working on the inside of the organisation, Marcel cracks this first case. The successful cooperation leads to many more exciting adventures and investigations in which Marcel plays a full part.
Unsurprisingly Marcel, though a fluent speaker of English, relapses many times into French idioms and exclamations that add a certain colour to the dialogues. Thus “Beegles” is an “old dog” and an “old cabbage” and sometimes an “old fox” whilst “Tiens” and “Attendez” come regularly to his lips.
Marcel’s deductive skills impress Biggles on several occasions, most notably when he demonstrates to Biggles that the dead body in a wrecked aircraft could not possibly be there as a result of an accident. This Frenchman is a man proud of his nation and ready to fight for its honour as he shows on the lonely island in “Biggles Cuts it Fine”. Here he pulls a tiny French flag from his notebook and then lets rip a torrent of machine-gun fire on a trespassing Russian submarine. He too can go under cover and play a part to the hilt. Thus in “Biggles, Foreign Legionnaire” Biggs and Hepple (Guess who !) find themselves serving under his command in a force on the edge of the desert.
On other occasions he is magnificently cool, displaying a sang-froid and a capacity for bluff that saves Ginger from a tricky situation in a Paris night-club in “Biggles’ Combined Operation”. Little wonder then that Biggles and his colleagues are determined to find their missing friend in “Biggles’ Chinese Puzzle”. A hazardous trip to Saigon in Indo-China is undertaken as a matter of course for Marcel too is now covered by the Musketeer code of “one for all and all for one” that has inspired all the Biggles’ team and which von Stalhein so envies.
More mundanely Marcel is always there across the Channel to deal with the French end of the many smuggling cases that crop up in the short stories that chronicle the investigations of the Air Police.
In a host of short stories Inspector Gaskin is the representative of the ordinary police force that cooperates with Biggles’ Air Police Section. Sometimes the problem is brought to Gaskin by Biggles and sometimes Gaskin calls in Biggles when he suspects an "air angle”. Both men are impressed with the other’s very different qualities.
Gaskin’s strength is his intimate knowledge of the London criminal and his habits. Thus in “Biggles on the Home Front” both Biggles and Ginger, working undercover, rely heavily upon the obvious fear he inspires in the habitual rogues and thugs that inhabit a notorious East End pub. His ability to bring the full might of the vast police machine into operation is nowhere better illustrated than in “Biggles and the Poor Rich Boy” where he accomplishes what Biggles would find impossible by making extensive routine inquiries until he discovers the particular address the kidnapper is likely to be staying at.
Like Biggles he is prepared to bend the rules and in “Biggles and the Black Mask” he even provides the Air Police with an efficient house-breaker so that a rescue attempt can be made for Ginger, trapped inside a lonely mansion.
He is a man of considerable personal courage, thrusting himself into danger and narrowly missing being killed on many occasions.
Eddie is introduced to the reader in “Biggles’ Combined Operation”. He is an American policeman who is young, brash and not very worldly wise. To a certain extent Marcel Brissac and Biggles appear old stick-in-the-muds in their attitudes to the international drug problem. To use Eddie’s own language he is so angry that he is prepared to “shoot off his mouth” so that the people in Europe become aware of the fact that the narcotics are starting from their continent. Biggles admires his enthusiasm but advises caution. Throughout the story there is the contrast between Eddie’s enthusiasm and Biggles’ restraint. In fact Biggles sees echoes of his own younger self. When Eddie embarks upon a bout of destruction at the end of the trail Biggles is both dismayed and admiring. As he reports to Air Commodore Raymond “I wouldn’t ask too many questions.” Nevertheless the Biggles team and Eddie have become firm friends.
His appearance in “Biggles and the Poor Rich Boy” is, at first, less dramatic. This time he brings with him a flavour of the American Mafia and, it has to be said, contributes to a violent confrontation and gangster gunplay by the side of a raging Scottish river.
Of the regular characters this just leaves Erich von Stalhein and Marie Janis but, properly speaking, they fall into an entirely different category from all the above who can clearly be identified as Biggles’ friends and allies. In the same way I have left out Biggles’ friends and colleagues from the First World War (Mark Way, McLaren and Mahoney, the Professor and others.) and the other members of 666, Biggles’squadron (Henry Harcourt, Ferocity Ferris, Tex O’Hara) from the Second World War. Let us leave them to a later occasion and a different sort of investigation.