As a teenager I read many Biggles books written by WE Johns with great interest. Biggles was a WW1 fighter hero who served on in the RFC/RAF after the war. He served during WW2 and later in the Air Police rising to the rank of Squadron Leader.
Now you will notice from my Goodreads widget that I am reading these stories over again, but of course, now with the view and wisdom of maturity. WE Johns wrote 169 books during his prolific writing career, stretching over 30 years, as well as being an aviation illustrator, an editor for a flying magazine of the 1930’s and working for the Air Ministry.
The Biggles series comprised 96 books published between 1932 and 1970 with an additional 6 omnibus editions published within this period, a total of 104 volumes. Two further books were published in the late 1990’s by Norman Wright and Jennifer Schofield.
What about Johns himself? Here is a short biography of the man who was W.E. Johns:
William Earl Johns was born in Bengeo, Hertfordshire, England. He was the son of Richard Eastman Johns, a tailor, and Elizabeth Johns (née Earl), the daughter of a master butcher. He had a younger brother, Russell Ernest Johns, who was born on 24 October 1895.He went to Hertford Grammar School where he was no great scholar but he did develop into a crack shot with a rifle. This fired his early ambition to be a soldier. He also attended evening classes at the local art school.
In the summer of 1907 he was apprenticed to a county municipal surveyor where he remained for four years and then in 1912 he became a sanitary inspector in Swaffham, Norfolk. Soon after taking up this appointment, his father died of tuberculosis at the age of 47.
On 6 October 1914 he married Maude Penelope Hunt (1882–1961), the daughter of the Reverend John Hunt, the vicar at Little Dunham in Norfolk. The couple had one son, William Earl Carmichael Johns, who was born in March 1916. This marriage lasted until 1923 when it completely broke down and Maude went back to live with her father, taking Johns son with her. While living in Edgbaston, Johns became friendly with neighbours the Leigh family. He fell in love with Doris May Leigh, and when Johns was posted to Newcastle, Doris went with him as his wife. They were inseparable until his death, although they never married.
With war looming he joined the Territorial Army as a Private in the King’s Own Royal Regiment (Norfolk Yeomanry), a cavalry regiment. In August 1914 his regiment was mobilised and was in training and on home defence duties until September 1915 when they received embarkation orders for duty overseas.
He fought at Gallipoli and in the Suez Canal area and, after moving to the Machine gun Corps, he took part in the spring offensive in Salonika in April 1917. He contracted malaria and whilst in hospital he put in for a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps and on 26 September 1917, he was given a temporary commission as a Second Lieutenant and posted back to England to learn to fly, which he did at No. 1 School of Aeronautics at Reading, where he was taught by a Captain Ashton.
He was posted to No. 25 Flying Training School at Thetford where he had a charmed existence, once writing off three planes in three days. He moved to Yorkshire and was then posted to France and while on a bombing raid to Mannheim his plane was shot down and he was wounded. Captured by the Germans, he later escaped before being recaptured and where he remained until the war ended. Johns contrary to popular belief, was never a fighter pilot. He was a bomber pilot, and in WW1, the life expectancy of bomber crew was 11 days. In fact when Johns was shot down over Mannheim, his co-pilot/observer was killed. Johns sustained a thigh wound and had his goggles shot off.
After the war Johns continued in the RAF as a flying instructor and other duties. After leaving the service he became a prolific writer and editor. The characters of Worrals and Gimlet were added to his books at a request of the Air Ministry, when they became aware of how many RAF pilots attributed their entry into the RAF after being influenced by the adventures of Biggles. Of course, Worrals was female and was used to encourage women to join the WAAF. Johns was known embellish his military career, stating that he had served in India and Iraq. No RAF records exist to support this claim, although his stories were written with a familiarity of some one who had actually been there. Of course, then there is the use of the rank of “Captain”. Johns was never a Captain. He rose only to the rank of Flying Officer or Leiutenant as its army equivalent. He says he used the rank as readers would relate to that easier than that of Flying Officer. Interestingly, Johns uses RAF ranks and titles extensively through the Biggles series, so this explanation appears somewhat hollow.
On the 21st June 1968 at 8.30 a.m. William Earl Johns (born 5th February 1893) stopped mid-sentence, whilst writing “Biggles Does Some Homework” to make himself and Doris a cup of tea. He went upstairs to her and sat in his armchair and suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 75 years old. Doris was to die on 26th September 1969 from cancer. Interestingly, Biggles was to be retired from service in this novel. This novel was completed in February 1998 by Norman Wright and Jennifer Schofield.
It is often argued that Biggles books are littered with low grade racism and sexism. This may be considered so by today’s standards, but in the 1930’s this was accepted and usually harmless. It may have something to do with the mistaken belief that the officer classes and indeed the British considered themselves superior to every one else, including Americans. However there is little use of alcohol, and swearing is never used in his books, but cigarettes were smoked frequently. It must be remembered however that Johns’ target audience was young teenage males were swearing and alcohol use would have been considered unacceptable.
Biggles books in the main are exciting adventure books which follow a set formula, which I am enjoying reading again after so many years. They are enjoying a revival and most titles are again in print. Those original titles in good condition are now quite valuable. I have a original version of “Biggles Special Case” published in 1963.