Two major influences on me as a child, and which fostered my lifelong interest in the natural world were The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Biggles books of Captain W. E. Johns.
For many people, Biggles will be synonymous with aviation and, principally, war-time flying, but the Biggles books I preferred were those set in peace-time and where Biggles’ adventures took him to distant and exotic corners of the globe. Johns clearly had a fascination with geography himself and, even if he would have had little or no opportunity to visit many of the destinations where he based his books, nevertheless he describes the locations with great authenticity, the obvious result of much thorough research.
There is one subject, though, which Johns returns to with surprising regularity, but where his research lets him down: this subject is the giant squid (Architeuthis dux).
References to giant squid occur in seven Biggles stories, albeit one very fleetingly. In the other six books, either Biggles or one of his companions manages to have a very close encounter with sometimes multiple giant squid; indeed, so frequent are Biggles’ encounters that he should be considered something of a world expert. However, the descriptions of the squid that result from these sightings leaves something to be desired, and reveal the lack of a trained scientific mind.
“It was a great grey slobbering mass the size of a barrage balloon––or it looked that size to me. The colour was elephant grey, and in fact, it might have been an enormous elephant without any legs.” (Biggles, Charter Pilot, p.13)
“A great, pig-like body as large as a barrel, with two long tentacles protruding in front and a number of shorter ones behind.” (Biggles, Air Commodore, p.172).
“In the bright moonlight he could now see tentacles plainly, two long ones, not less than twenty feet in length, held out in front, and a tangle of smaller ones.” (Biggles in Australia, p.35)
“Once, as the moonlight caught its eyes, Algy had to strangle an exclamation. They were white, flat, like tea plates.” (Biggles and the Deep Blue Sea, p.51)
So, put it all together and what have we got?
An enormous grey slobbering body with two long tentacles in front and a mass of smaller tentacles behind and two large white eyes. Perhaps not so wide of the mark after all?
However, it is on the subject of the squid’s behaviour and habitat where Biggles’ accounts might be treated rather dubiously by the scientific community.
Walking on Land
Johns’ most consistent error when describing the giant squid is to so often place the creature travelling on land. Although small octopuses will occasionally crawl across rocks to get from one water source to another or to ambush prey, the giant squid is usually a dweller of deep waters, typically temperate oceans rather than the tropical oceans where Johns places them, and they neither come onto land nor are capable of the overland speeds that Johns suggests.
“Nearing the end of his run, a swift glance backward revealed both monsters not thirty yards behind, moving swiftly over the ground in a sort of rolling motion.” (Biggles, Air Commodore, p.174)
“The monster was overtaking Donald, and it seemed to me that nothing could save him.” (Biggles, Charter Pilot, p.14)
“That fella no walk on rocks, eh?” asked Algy in dismay.
“Him walk pretty damn quick,” answered Tauri grimly. (Biggles Flies Again, p.90)
Little blame can be put on Johns though for his mistake: to this day, the giant squid remains a hugely elusive creature; the first video of a live specimen to be photographed in its natural environment only having been taken as recently as 2004. At the time that Johns was writing, the giant squid fell firmly into the category of sea monster, as much myth as it was reality.
The Raft of the SS Britannia
One report of a giant squid that Johns would have been aware of was the strange case involving the raft of the SS Britannia.
SS Britannia was a British passenger ship, which was sunk in the mid-Atlantic, 700 miles west of Freetown, Sierra Leone in 1941, by a German cruiser. Survivors took to lifeboats and rafts, many drifting for weeks before rescue.
The Illustrated London News of 1 November 1941 ran a lively and well-publicised account of Lieutenant R. E. G. Cox’s survival on one such raft, entitled ‘The Most Macabre Episode of the War at Sea: Marine Monsters Devour Men Adrift on a Raft’. The account was later included in Bernard Heuvelmans’ book In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, Hart-Davis, 1968.
The story records how the tiny raft was ‘assailed by sharks and other marine monsters, which devoured men under the eyes of their comrades’. The account was accompanied by an illustration by Captain Bryan de Grineau, which depicts the perilous nature of life on the raft, floating above an ocean in which can be seen the fins of several circling sharks; a large manta ray; and, with its tentacles reaching out to pluck a man from the deck, what appears to be a giant squid.
The story of the giant squid attack quickly became an urban myth of the Second World War, and could easily have further fuelled Johns’ imagination on a subject that he had been writing about since 1934.
Despite it being apparent from his descriptions that it is the giant squid that Johns is writing about in the seven Biggles books, he very rarely uses the term ‘giant squid’ itself.
“Twice he glided down towards the lagoon as if to land, but each time the giant squid moved sideways towards him and he knew that it was watching him.” (Biggles Flies Again, p.90)
In Biggles Flies Again and Biggles in the South Seas, Johns most commonly talks about an octopus, although in Biggles in the South Seas he refers to the local Polynesian word for the creature: ‘feke’.
Throughout the other books, the word that Johns most frequently uses is ‘decapod’, literally meaning something that is ‘ten-footed’. Although this would appear to encompass the giant squid, the term is not accurate. Decapods are an order of crustaceans, which include crabs, lobsters and shrimps, whereas squid fall under the phylum Mollusca and are actually cephalopods.
Johns only uses the term cephalopod once, in the last book in which he features the creature:
“I fancy it must be a decapod; the sort I believe is called a cephalopod. I’ve never seen a live one, but there’s a model in the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco.” (Biggles and the Deep Blue Sea, p.61)
Biggles Flies Again, Hamilton, 1934
Short story, “Beauty and the Beast”
Algy and a Polynesian diver find themselves trapped on an atoll in the South Pacific by a giant squid, until Biggles and Sandy rescue them in an amphibious aircraft.
Biggles, Air Commodore, Oxford, 1937
Chapter, ‘Horrors from the Deep’
Biggles and Ginger are chased across a small islet in the Mergui Archipelago in the Andaman Sea by two giant squid, but they manage to outrun them.
Biggles in the South Seas, Oxford, 1940
Chapter, ‘Ginger has a Fright’
Ginger and a group of local Polynesians battle a giant octopus, which is living in a cave on land.
Chapter, ‘Till the Rope Breaks’
A giant octopus attacks Sandy while he is diving for oysters. When Biggles, Algy and Ginger try to save Sandy, the octopus attacks their amphibious aircraft, while it is floating on the ocean. Eventually, they fight off the octopus with knives and revolvers.
Chapter, ‘An Amazing Discovery’
Ginger seeks reassurance that there are no squid in the water before swimming:
“What about feke?”
Chapter, ‘Out of the Depths’
pp.209 & 214
Ginger mistakenly believes he is being pulled into the ocean depths by an octopus, and again queries if there are any feke on the rocks.
Biggles, Charter Pilot, Oxford, 1943
Short story, “Adventure of the Enchanted Island”
A giant squid chases Biggles, Algy and Dr Augustus Duck overland across an island in the north Atlantic, until Biggles fights it off by lighting a fire.
Biggles Delivers the Goods, Hodder, 1946
Chapter, ‘Sortie to Elephant Island’
A brief mention of the Indian Ocean where:
“…lurked marine monsters of unbelievable size and horror––shark, octopus and the giant decapod.”
Biggles in Australia, Hodder, 1955
Chapter, ‘An Uncomfortable Night’
Biggles and Ginger are attacked by a school of three giant squid as they sleep on the shore of a small island off the northwest coast of Australia. One creature attacks their amphibious aircraft, but they put the squid to flight by firing rifles at it.
Biggles and the Deep Blue Sea, Brockhampton, 1968
Chapter, ‘Night Alarm’
Algy and Biggles shoot a giant squid, which crawls over the reef of Jean Bonney Island in the Bay of Bengal to attack them while they slept.
Chapter, ‘More Problems’
Algy and Biggles discuss the previous night’s squid attack.
Chapter, ‘Plans and Speculations’
A dead giant squid is washed up on the shore of Jean Bonney Island after a typhoon.
Chapter, ‘Murder Most Foul’
A giant squid capsizes a boat launched from an Arab dhow in a lagoon on Jean Bonney Island.
Giant squid appear on the cover art and internal illustrations of several of the Biggles books, including several foreign language editions. These include covers for the first editions of Biggles Flies Again and Biggles in Australia; the Boys’ Friend Library #630 of July 1938, which serialised Biggles Flies Again; the Armada paperback edition of Biggles in the South Seas, which used as its influence the illustration from page 105 of the first edition of Biggles in the South Seas; Biggles Reprend le Manche, which is a French translation of Biggles Flies Again; and Biggles a Temně Modré Moře, which is a Czech translation of Biggles and the Deep Blue Sea published by Toužimský and Moravec of Prague.
For me, I have always enjoyed Johns’ depictions of giant squid; their lack of scientific accuracy is neither here nor there. The appearance of a giant squid in a Biggles books signifies an exciting encounter; a passage of thrilling text; a raising of the reader’s heartbeat; and an excursion into the imagination. And surely this is everything that an encounter with a giant squid should be? Certainly, Johns’ descriptions of the giant squid were sufficient inspiration to leave me with an eternal fascination for these magnificent and mysterious denizens of the deep.
© Bradley Dunbar
Bradley Dunbar’s only encounters with squid are of the deep-fried variety.
If you enjoyed this article, you may like to read Bradley’s blog: Biggles – Charter Pilot: Giant Crabs and Ugly Ducklings