Greatest tales of derring-do

Many adventurers have scaled mountains and battled in the skies – but only a few are remembered as true heroes. Conn and David Iggulden tell their stories
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Billy Bishop

At 3.57 am on 2 June 1917, a lone Royal Flying Corps fighter took off from Filescamp airfield near Arras in France. The Canadian pilot had pulled his clothes on over the top of his pyjamas to keep his bed warmth, drunk a cup of hot tea and walked out to his Nieuport 17.

Soon he was across the front, high above the road to Cambrai. In June, the sun rises early and the first colour spread across the Great War battlefields below. At his target airfield near Cambrai there was no activity, so pilot Billy Bishop searched for another target. Near Esnes, 12 miles behind enemy lines, he found an airfield with aeroplanes wheeled out for battle; a single two-seater reconnaissance plane and six grey-blue Albatross scouts – enemy fighters. Bishop swooped low at 200 feet through ground fire, spraying the aircraft below from the Lewis machine gun on his top wing. He saw a mechanic fall.

An Albatross started to take off, so he flew in behind and shot it down, the machine disintegrating as it slid along the grass. Its pilot survived. A second Albatross began its takeoff. Bishop turned tightly, fired but missed. The German pilot swerved away into a tree, tearing off the aeroplane's right wing. By then, two more Albatrosses had taken off and Bishop duelled with one while the second watched and waited. He manoeuvred until he was below the enemy and emptied his gun into the Albatross's engine. The aeroplane fluttered away and crashed near the airfield. The fourth Albatross flew in to attack, but Bishop turned the Nieuport head-on towards it and fired the full drum. The German fled and Bishop turned away for home.

Above him at 2,000 feet he saw a patrol of Albatrosses. He flew directly below them until he reached the front line trenches and dived for friendly territory. German pilots rarely pursued across the front, but the guns on the ground fired up at him. Bishop landed one hour and 43 minutes after taking off. His Nieuport had been raked by machine-gun and anti-aircraft fire along its lower wings, elevators and fuselage.

Bishop's commanding officer of 60 Squadron recommended him for the Victoria Cross, Canada's first aerial VC. General Trenchard, commanding officer of the RFC (later the Royal Air Force), called it "the greatest single show of the war".

Captain William Avery Bishop was already well known along the Western Front of Belgium and France. By June 1917 he had 21 confirmed 'victories' against German flyers, making him an ace four times over. Yet in those early years of aerial combat, success was a lottery, determined by the aeroplane itself as much as the enemy. Bishop flew first in 21 Squadron, flying the experimental RE7 reconnaissance aeroplane. It was known as the Suicide Squadron. "The RE7s are nearly as manoeuvrable as trucks," Bishop commented, "but by no means as safe."

He was one of the few pilots allowed to hunt alone, seeking the advantage of height, of surprise, of attacking out of the sun, and hunting deep behind enemy lines. He was a superb shot, developed from game shooting in Canada.

April 1917 was known as 'Bloody April' in the RFC – the average lifespan for a pilot was 45 days; in Bishop's sector only 17 days. Flying was increased to support the Battle of Arras below, in which the Canadian Corps captured Vimy Ridge. 60 Squadron suffered particularly badly, for they were opposite the red-painted 'Flying Circus' of Baron Manfred von Richthofen, the most successful squadron of the war.

During Bloody April, 13 of the 18 pilots in 60 Squadron were shot down. Yet 35 of the enemy were also shot down, 12 of those by Bishop, so April wasn't exactly a honeymoon for German flyers either.

In July, the out-of-date Nieuports were replaced by the excellent SE5 fighter and Bishop shot down even more enemy aeroplanes until on the 28th his SE5 was hit. Still two miles from Filescamp airfield, the engine caught fire and Bishop crashed into poplar trees. Wire snapped, wooden struts splintered, canvas wings tore, and Bishop was left hanging upside down in his harness. Understandably, he was shaken. He wrote home: "I find myself shuddering at chances I didn't think about taking six weeks ago". By the time he was given leave on 1 September, he counted 50 victories. He took a steamer to Canada and married his sweetheart, Margaret Burden. Thousands lined the Toronto streets to see Canada's air hero and his bride.

In March 1918, posted in Britain, Bishop was given command of the new RAF's 85 Squadron at Hounslow, near Heathrow; more than 200 volunteered to join him.

However, the Canadian government was worried about him. He was more important to the war effort alive than with a few more victories and dead. On the morning of the 19th Billy Bishop flew his last patrol.

"One last look at the war," he described it.

In all, he was credited with 72 aeroplane victories and two observation balloons, making him the greatest ace of the RAF and one of the few great aces to survive the war.

Sir Henry Morgan

The history of Spanish colonies isn't taught in British schools, but Henry Morgan was a pirate at a time when Britain had barely a foothold in the Caribbean Sea. Spain was the great power in those waters, with wealthy ports and cities in a vast bowl from Mexico to Venezuela and the Caribbean islands. Born in Glamorganshire, Wales, in 1635, Morgan had travelled to Barbados as an indentured servant at the age of 20. His combination of ruthlessness, leadership and seamanship would make him the terror of the West Indies.

In 1670, Spain had renewed hostilities in the West Indies, capturing ships and ravaging British settlements there. In reply, Governor Modyford of British-ruled Jamaica appointed Morgan in command of all warships in Jamaican waters.

Morgan, by now an admiral and in his prime, equipped a fleet at Port Royal for an attack on Panama, a Spanish territory. In England, negotiations for peace with Spain were under way and Modyford had orders to cease all operations against the Spanish. He made the instructions clear to Morgan and the admiral replied that he would observe them except for landing on Spanish coasts to replenish water and supplies. Morgan also added the caveat that he would of course respond if attacked, or to relieve a British settlement. With those dubious assurances, Morgan sailed in August 1670.

His first stop was at Old Providence, to the north of Panama. Morgan landed 1000 men and the Spanish abandoned their gun battery. With Morgan's men pursuing them, they retreated and surrendered.

The President of Panama had been told Morgan's fleet was on the way. On the north coast, he reinforced his garrisons with men and supplies of gunpowder, convinced that the English force could not break his defences. His confidence was understandable. To reach Panama City, Morgan's men would have to cross land that was dense jungle all the way, complete with deadly snakes and spiders as well as aggressive native tribes.

He took 1,200 men with him, armed with just cutlasses and two muskets each. It was hard going, as every step had to be cut in dense jungle. Morgan had a group of 30 men whose sole task was to hack through the vegetation. His men were tormented by ticks and mosquitoes and terrified by poisonous spiders and snakes, all the while labouring in a humid, stifling heat. On 16 January, they were attacked by natives. The sight of half-naked tribesmen around them caused great fear in the ranks, but they fought them off, losing some 30 men in the process. Ten days after starting inland, Morgan climbed a hill and saw the towers of Panama City in the distance. His men had survived the jungle, the attacks and the heat.

In the city, the Spanish were furious that Morgan's force had come so close. As the sun rose, the cream of Spanish nobility rode to Morgan's camp. They had almost double his numbers, but on his side, his sailors were hardbitten pirates. Morgan made a stern speech to them, ordering each man to make two pistols ready, but not to fire until he did, or he would shoot them himself. The Spanish cavalry charged. Morgan waited until the enemy were almost on top of them before he fired both his pistols. The volley that followed completely destroyed the Spanish attack. The survivors fled in panic and Morgan's men pursued them ruthlessly for three miles, killing hundreds.

Morgan stayed in the battered city for 20 days, removing everything of value: some £237,000 in gold as well as silk, silver plate, jewels and lace to a similar value. In today's terms, that would be more than £100m. It was Morgan's greatest success.

He was without doubt a ruthless devil when he needed to be. But empires are never built by vicars.

They are built by men like Henry Morgan.

The Men of Colditz

There were two qualifications for Allied soldiers to be sent to Colditz Castle as prisoners. They had to be officers and they had to have escaped before. Men who had tunnelled out of other prisons were sent there. Men who had walked out dressed as guards, labourers and even women were sent to Colditz. In that way, the Germans managed to assemble a group of the most imaginative, determined and experienced enemy officers in one place. In that context, it is perhaps not so surprising that when the prison was finally relieved by American soldiers in 1945, they found a fully working glider in the attic, ready to go.

Colditz, known to the Germans as 'Ofl ag IV-C', had been used in the First World War to hold prisoners and is about 1000 years old. One side overlooks a cliff above the River Mulde. Situated in the heart of the German Reich, escapees had to cross 400 miles of hostile territory in any direction.

The walls were seven feet thick, but the first escape attempts involved Canadian officers just picking up buckets of whitewash and a long ladder and walking out, pretending to be painters. They were quickly recaptured, then kicked and battered with rifle butts. The stakes were always life and death for those who tried to escape and despite the schoolboy quality of some of the attempts, it was never a game.

In 1941, the camp population increased when around 250 French officers arrived, then 60 Dutch and two Yugoslavs. In addition to those, formal 'escape committees' now included Irishmen, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Jews and an Indian doctor. They were united by a common enemy and had to keep each other informed so that one escape attempt did not ruin another.

As 1942 crept by, the French contingent worked on a tunnel that had its entrance in the clock tower. They also sent out one Lieutenant Boulé, who was dressed as a beautiful blonde woman. The disguise was rumbled when 'she' dropped her watch and a guard returned it. The Dutch tried one large man sitting on the grass, hiding a smaller man beneath his coat while he dug shallow grave. Dogs discovered him before he was missed.

There were 60 British prisoners in Colditz by 1942, and one of the best known, Douglas Bader, arrived that year. Morale was dropping with the number of failed attempts. Two officers went insane and had to be restrained from committing suicide. Another feigned madness in an attempt to get himself sent to Switzerland. Bader's presence helped morale no end; for a man with artificial legs, he was irrepressible.

Another British army officer, Pat Reid, planned an escape through the commandant's own office, with the help of a Dutch watchmaker who could get through the more complex locks. Reid began a tunnel under the commandant's desk, working at night.

When the time came, eight men assembled in the office and six broke through to a storeroom, leaving Reid and Lieutenant Derek Gill to hide the route. They were all dressed as German soldiers and their 'sergeant' was saluted by the guards as they walked out the following morning. Of the six, four were recaptured, but two made it to Switzerland by September 1942.

Reid's final escape plan was to join Ronnie Littledale, William Stephens and Hank Wardle in a run over the roofs. Split-second timing was the key as they had only instants to cross a courtyard when the patrolling guard turned. The noise of their run was covered by an orchestra practice which Douglas Bader conducted. Bader could see the vital sentry and the plan was for him to stop the music whenever it was safe to run. However, the Germans became suspicious and stopped the practice halfway through.

The escapers reached the outer buildings safely, but were then unable to go further when a prepared key failed to open a vital lock. Reid found an unused basement with a very narrow, barred chimney to the outside. To get up it, they had to strip naked, then pass up their kits and redress on the other side. They crossed the moat, barbed wire and outer wall with sheet ropes, then set off in pairs. Reid and Wardle covered the 400 miles in four days of train journeys and walking. All four made it to Switzerland safely.

Gertrude Bell

Mountaineer, archaeologist, historian, writer, photographer, translator and curator, Gertrude Margaret Bell helped draw the modern map of the Middle East after seven centuries of Turkish rule. Establishing a free, independent nation when the occupying power has been removed is perhaps the greatest challenge of modern diplomacy, and Bell devoted her later life to the creation of modern Iraq.

She was born in County Durham in 1868. At three, her mother died of pneumonia, and her father married social campaigner Florence Olliffe. Gertrude was educated at home and later in London. There she lived with her step-mother and met a number of archaeologists, Middle Eastern diplomats, politicians and writers.

A brilliant scholar, Gertrude went up to Lady Margaret Hall at Oxford to study history and became the fi rst woman to graduate withfi rst-class honours. Slim, red-haired, personable, independent and free-thinking, Bell was not greatly interested in 'society' and began travelling. After visits to Romania and Constantinople (Istanbul), she decided to visit Persia (Iran), where her step-uncle was ambassador. For six months she taught herself Persian and in 1892 journeyed by train to Teheran.

She journeyed twice around the world, instructed herself in archaeology, visited Jerusalem and became the foremost woman mountaineer of Britain and Europe.

Bell climbed the Alps and achieved moderate fame in 1902 for hanging on a rope for 53 hours when trapped by a blizzard. She visited the ancient cities – Petra, Palmyra, Baalbeck – and inspected major digs like Carchemish, where she first met TE Lawrence. Between 1902 and 1914 Gertrude Bell made six extensive journeys across Arabia by camel.

Bell refused to wear the veil, smoked cigarettes in public, rode camels like a man, and yet somehow became a confidante and friend of many Muslim sheiks and tribes. She was the first white person many Arabs had ever seen and it was remarked: "If this is an English woman, what must an English man be like?"

In 1915 she found herself working for the Arab Bureau of British Intelligence. The following year she was posted to Basra, close behind the British advance in the east. When British forces liberated Baghdad in March 1917, Bell was appointed Oriental Secretary to Sir Percy Cox in Intelligence and moved to the ancient capital. Her responsibility was British–Arab relations and she interviewed sheiks, politicians, Sunnis, Shias and Kurds. In only a few months she met every person of consequence in Mesopotamia to determine their histories, needs and expectations for a post-war independent Arabia.

Bell presented the first-ever white paper by a woman to Parliament, the important 1920 'Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia'. Her negotiations involved 700 years of complicated history and Bell found it particularly difficult dealing with religious leaders. She wrote in frustration: "There they sit in an atmosphere which reeks of antiquity and is so thick with the dust of ages that you can't see through it – nor can they."

In 1921, Britain's new Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill, called a conference in Cairo to find a settlement. Bell was the only woman delegate and, with Cox and Lawrence, directly advised Churchill. He announced that Britain was willing to relinquish control of Mesopotamia apart from the British oil wells near Basra and this cleared the way for an Arab government.

In the negotiations by Bell, Cox and Lawrence, King Feisal was proposed for King of Iraq while his brother was proposed for King of Jordan. Bell hoped that this honoured Arab Hashemite dynasty – directly descended from Muhammad – would unite the factions in both countries.

Referendums were held, and in Baghdad, on 23 August 1921, Feisal was crowned, Bell and Cox remaining in the city to advise him. There was a long way to go for Iraq; the Turks who'd settled there wanted their region to be part of Turkey, the Kurds wanted to be part of a Kurdish republic. In the south, Ibn Saud demanded parts of Iraq and Kuwait for Saudi Arabia. Cox and Bell devised borders so that the suspected oil fields would lie under all three countries, sharing the future oil revenue.

The religious and tribal complexities of the Middle East are all represented in Iraq, which Bell and Cox sought to unite for longterm stability. If the various factions and religions there could not live together under a single government, there was no hope for a single Arabia, the original aim of the Arab Revolt.

When Cox departed Baghdad, Bell continued as Oriental Secretary to the High Commission. In 1923, King Feisal appointed her Honorary Director of Antiquities to preserve the artefacts of ancient Mesopotamia. In this position she helped create the prestigious Baghdad Museum.

It's easy to criticise Bell for what Iraq is today, for she drew the pencil lines which became the international borders. Yet it's surely unreasonable to expect her to have foreseen the death in 1933 of Feisal, the rise of fascism and another world war, the events which destabilised Iraq. Jordan did not suffer this destabilisation and survived, as have the Emirates, the Trucial States (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. Bell understood the peoples, the problems, the ancient faiths and the intricate tribal histories of Iraq far better than most of those who've come after her. Bell left behind some 16,000 letters, 16 diaries, seven notebooks and 7,000 unique photographs of Arabia.

They record a world and a history which would otherwise have been lost for ever.

The Gurkhas

The Gurkhas have been part of the British army for almost 200 years, beginning in 1816 when the British East India Company signed the Peace Treaty of Sugauli with Nepal that allowed them to recruit local men. Gurkhas had fought them to a bloody standstill on a number of occasions and the Company was keen to have such a martial race on their side.

Lieutenant Frederick Young was one of those fighting the Gurkhas in 1815. His troops ran away and only he refused to run as he was surrounded. The Gurkhas admired his courage and told him: "We could serve under men like you." He is known as the father of the Brigade of Gurkhas. He later recruited 3,000 of them and became the commander of a battalion, later named the '2nd King Edward VII's Own Gurkha Rifles'. They still serve today as part of the Royal Gurkha Rifles.

Gurkhas are small men, drawn from a rugged and inhospitable land, the sort of herdsmen who must once have formed the backbone of Genghis Khan's armies. They are famous for carrying the 'kukri' blade, a curved knife that, once drawn, must be blooded before it can be sheathed. Along with the Sikhs, Nepalese Gurkhas remained loyal to Britain during the Indian Mutiny and have fought for Britain in every major conflict since then, winning 13 Victoria Crosses in the process.

They have seen service in Burma, Afghanistan, the northern frontiers in India, Malta, Cyprus, China and Tibet. At the beginning of the First World War, the King of Nepal placed the entire Nepalese army at the disposal of the British Crown. More than 20,000 of them were killed or injured, an almost unimaginable loss to a nation with a population of just four million.

In the Second World War, there were 112,000 Gurkhas in British service. In 1940, the bleakest part of the war for Britain, permission was sought to recruit another 20 battalions. The Nepalese Prime Minister agreed, saying: "Does a friend desert a friend in time of need? If you win, we win with you. If you lose, we lose with you."

As infantry, they have a reputation for incredible toughness. In 2006, in Afghanistan, just 40 Gurkhas held a police station against massed attacks over 10 days by Taliban fighters. One of them, Rifleman Nabin Rai, was hit in the face by a bullet, but refused to leave his post. When he was dazed by another round that struck his helmet, he had a cigarette to recover, then returned to his position. The Taliban attackers eventually left to seek out an easier target, leaving a hundred of their dead behind. The Gurkhas had suffered three wounds and lost no one.

Against the Japanese, the Gurkhas earned a reputation as relentless and skilled hand-to-hand fighters. The British commander in Burma, Field Marshal Slim, told a story of a Japanese officer who challenged a Gurkha to a duel with blades alone. The Japanese officer lunged with his sword and the Gurkha swayed away from it, untouched. The Gurkha then stepped in close and swung his kukri. 'You missed as well,' the officer said. The Gurkha replied: 'Wait till you sneeze and see what happens.'

In 1944 in Burma, a Gurkha unit was faced with Japanese tanks and unable to move forward. Bhutanese Rifleman Ganju Lama went on his own with an anti-tank gun. Although he was shot three times and his left wrist was broken, he used the gun to destroy two tanks, then used grenades to kill the other tank crews. Only when the way was clear for his unit to move forward did he allow his wounds to be dressed. He won the VC for that action, yet it is only one story of hundreds that help explain the enormous affection and respect the Gurkhas have earned for themselves.

In the battle for the Falkland Islands in 1982, the Gurkhas were involved in the final assault to liberate Port Stanley from Argentinian troops. They were particularly feared by the Argentinian soldiers, whose own propaganda had led them to believe the Gurkhas were savages who killed their own wounded, slit Argentinian throats and sometimes even ate the enemy.

Gurkha regiments also served in Iraq and Afghanistan at the beginning of the 21st century. Despite their history, they are in every way modern riflemen, but they maintain an age-old spirit and discipline. They see courage as the greatest aim and honour in life and regard those of their number who have won the Victoria Cross as an elite group of Nepalese national heroes. Every young man who joins the regiments today cherishes the idea that he may one day be part of that small, valiant number.

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