The Air Adventures of Biggles

© 2006 Jeff Lynch



I am currently reading ‘Biggles in Spain’. This book was published in 1939, and is set in the Spain of the civil war. It is only one of the one hundred and four Biggles books that exist in our universe. You read the figure correctly the first time. His creator (Captain) W.E. Johns wrote 169 books and possibly two hundred short stories during his long career. He died in 1968 at the age of 75, and was quite possibly thankful for a dose of malaria, which may just have saved him from a much earlier death, or at least a messy wound and later life. He was trained as a machine gunner with the Territorial Army and fought at the Salonika front during the First War. However he was hospitalised, and during this time he successfully applied to transfer to the newly created Royal Flying Corps. Just like Captain James Bigglesworth himself. He had been spared death at Gallipoli and was also to walk away from his first flight “in an old Rumpity”. A Rumpity was a Maurice Farman Shorthorn plane. He stalled and crashed this airplane on his first solo flight. It is said that he also walked away after writing off three planes during the one and the same day. It is difficult however to assess just how accurate this event is. I am assured that this type of record was relatively common at that time. He became a bomber pilot, unlike his much snoopier alter ego of Biggles fighter air ace, of the royal flying Corps.

‘Biggles in Spain’ was written in 1939. Between 1931 and 1939, ex Flying Officer William Earle Johns wrote forty years worth of Biggles books. Your simple short division will tell you, that he wrote an average of five books every year, and goodness knows how many articles to boot. I hardly know rightly if it would be more interesting to discuss Mr Johns or James Bigglesworth the master aviator of 109 adventure yarns. Of course I was just foolin’ you. As you have already guessed, Johns is by far the far more interesting study. W.E. Johns was born in the February of 1893 at Benego in Hertfordshire, England. He was an indifferent scholar at school, and from the humble background of being born the son of a tailor All the histories state that Johns was an indifferent scholar, but it is recorded that he was at least handy with a rifle. He went to the Hertford Grammar school in 1905 where his headmaster was a military man. He was a former Major by the name of Kinman. It has been said that Johns already wanted to join the army. Instead he was made an apprentice to a county municipal surveyor and was later appointed as a sanitary inspector in Swaffam in Norfolk. Of course the war to end all wars overtook everybody and everything. He had joined the Territorial Army and this was about the worst idea going around. His unit was the King’s own Royal Regiment (Norfolk Yeomanry). These Territorials were soon shipped out to the place that Mr Churchill fancifully called the underbelly of Europe, or did he mean middle Asia perhaps? Geographically confused or not as the Honourable gentleman may have been, an attack was subsequently made on the Turkish peninsular called the Dardanelles. In fact, many of my own countrymen were killed at this place, and we call it Gallipoli. Private Johns however, survived to be sent to the Greek front at Salonika.

In 1914 William Earl Johns married Maude Hunt. Maude could certainly not be called a girl, for at 32 she was eleven years older than our real life hero. Now both our lovers were from what I may call the upper lower classes. Perhaps she was considered a little higher on the plane of classes, for her father was the Reverend John Hunt and the vicar of a place called Little Dunham. Johns own father was a tailor, who died at age 47. Yes so it does seem strange on first viewing, that their ages should be so far apart. He went to war, and she bore him a son. Does that sound familiar? Oh I think it does. The pair called the boy William Earle Carmichael Johns. Apparently they normally called the boy Jack.

Private Johns was shipped out to Gallipoli on the SS Olympic, to join the ANZACS fighting the Turks in their own country. His regiment went via Alexandria and initially they were part of the defences for the Suez Canal. But Gallipoli or Galibou in Turkish, was to be the regiment’s destination. At times Johns would talk of his encounters with instant death on this dry and forsaken peninsula that Winston Churchill desired so much, and the British generals conspired to attack with careless planning and little conception of who or what they might be fighting. The army, as history tells us all, was withdrawn after bloody hand to hand fighting and a long drawn out stalemate with the Australian and New Zealand and British troops constantly on the back foot. After a spell of London leave Johns was once more a frontline fighter as a machine gunner at the Salonika front in Greece. It was there he went down with malaria, and his stint as cannon fodder for the Territorials was over. But not his fine war, no not by a long way.

It is when W. E. Johns becomes a pilot for the fledgling Royal Flying Corps that two things began to happen. The first is his material for a fine writing career over some odd forty years was formed. He soon morphed into James Bigglesworth, the scourge of all the Huns, Boche, spivs and the criminal classes on the planet. Secondly, his own story becomes a little more glossy and much harder to pin down. Soon Johns will adapt ‘Captain’ as his rightful title for all his Biggles stories. He became a bomber pilot and not the dog fighting air ace that many biographers have wrongly assumed for him. Biggles did all that, and not our real chap. Johns was a Flight Officer who had a lairy war, and eventually found himself in his own version of a Biggles yarn. Some historians have him meeting a beautiful Frenchwoman from a chateau while he served in France and it seems true that he was once captured by the Germans after being forced down from the air. One story has him being condemned to death for being a civilian killing bomber pilot. In this tale his execution was ordered but never carried out. No mention of these tales is made in the more sober Wikipedia online accounts.

However his highflying days had plenty of low spots. He left his wife to settle with another woman. He went upstairs to tell that same woman that he wasn’t feeling well, on the day he died at age 75. He promptly was sat down his Maurice Farnham Shorthorn. Called a ‘Rumpity’, Johns managed to stall and crash the craft on his first solo flight. But on April 1 of 1918, he was appointed flying instructor at Marske in Cleveland. Perhaps the appointing body had a decent sense of humour, or he did have a genuine aptitude for flying. But it is frequently pointed out to us that aircraft were quite unreliable in the early days of the Royal Flying Corps. Certainly Johns’ record supports that for he then had a sequence of mishaps, accidents and near death experiences up in the atmosphere, up where the air is rare. Twice he shot off his own propeller while using the synchronised machine gun devise. Then there are the three crashes in three successive days. They are all perhaps recorded as due to engine failure and not solely the pilot’s own responsibility. Apparently on the first day he crashed into the sea. On the second he went into the sand, and on the third and most apocryphal sounding of all three, he was said to have crashed into one of his fellow flying officer’s back door. He slid from the heady days of the Royal Flying Corps into the regular RAF, as easily as he had slid from his crash and burns. He reached the rather lowly rank of Flying Officer, and remained in the air force until 1930.

He even appears to have had a tiny role in the case of the very famous Lawrence of Arabia’s short air force stint. Once again Johns’ role in the matter is not entirely clear, but he is said to have had the unpleasant duty of dismissing Lawrence from the ranks after it was discovered that Lawrence has enlisted in the air force under a false name. This was entirely true, but Lawrence’s friends in high places soon put matters to rights again, and Lawrence was swiftly reenlisted. Johns quit the air force to become a newspaper air correspondent and thus the seeds of Biggles were now well and truly sown. Biggles appeared in a magazine called ‘Popular Flying.’ And very soon Biggles did become most popular to the tune of some 109 books perhaps, and many short stories almost too numerous to mention. There is no doubt that the first Biggles book was ‘The Camels are Coming.’ Of course, I would never in life say that Biggles got off to a flying start. But it is true nevertheless. A British and best star, and a boys-own-legend was born. Johns was now beavering away stereotyping a British type that never existed for a group of readers too young to grasp that fact. On top of that they were living at a time when the possibility of that colonial world was collapsing fast By Jove.

The British condition was reflected already in the incipient collapses of the giant ship building industries at both Belfast and on the Clyde. The coalfields were not far behind them either. Only the next war would temporarily support these dying monsters and British technology was dangerously close to stalling point. Johns in fact was quite lucky be retained in the RAF. He had no trade except killing with a machine gun, and flying. I think I like the idea that he did not get a job with a passenger airline. He made money with the Biggles stories and because he was too old, he missed the next lot, except for assisting the war effort, and creating new stereotypes such as Worrals. Worrals was the female Biggles character, specially designed to attract women into the WAAF. War for Britain meant simply both the ruination of some of their cities and their economy. The fall of their Empire was speeded up, and only the ultra conservatives of the British world could ever believe in a Biggles now. As I heard Johns himself say, via the magic of the internet, Biggles just stayed the same, while the world changed ever more rapidly than it had before.

On the back cover of my copy of the Geoffrey Cumberlege, Oxford University Press ‘Biggles in Spain’, there is a list of 20 titles. They are the titles of ‘The air adventures of Major James Bigglesworth. ‘Bigles in Spain’ is listed as number eleven. But I am not fooled for one moment. Capt W.E. Johns wrote 109 books based on Biggles and 165 books altogether. We are not counting the probable couple of hundred magazine short stories and articles. My copy was probably published in 1946, which was five years after I was born. It was first published in 1939 and then reprinted in 1942 and probably ad infintum.

Biggles is taking a cruise on a Greek liner. We are informed that the cruise is the recipe for better health handed down to Biggles by his doctor. He is on the obligatory deck recliner when we first meet him, in the first chapter called an interrupted cruise. Algy Lacey is just abaft of him on a similar recliner aboard the S.S. Stavros, and Ginger Hebblewaite occupies a third chair. Biggles is both bored and sarcastic, and wishes either for another doctor or something better to do with his life. Soon, as we already suspect he gets his wish and he and the ship, is attacked by a heavily armed two seater aeroplane. Biggles declares that it is one of Franco’s air force planes and wonders who is going to take control aimed the excitable Mediterranean types which make up the crew go into a slight panic. Once again we are in little doubt who will take control very shortly. He grabs the machine gun from a wounded gunner, and takes a careful bead on the plane coming round for his second bombing run. Almost simultaneously his accurately aimed gun * brings down the plane as a bomb makes the S.S. Stavros from stem to stern. Biggles must then organise both Algy and Ginger into their own survival team as the Greeks are seen once again, to be of no bloody use whatsoever. These and other racist characterisations, remind me of Enid Blyton’s gypsy and e the sole survivors European typecasts, which permeate nearly all her Secret Seven type of books. Again it is British and bloody best! The ship explodes and our trio of airmen find themselves safe in the briny. They have abandoned all thought of mutual aid and cooperation with any crew members. Biggles is commenting on the crew’s actions as their attempts to lower a boat comes awry. ‘There what did I tell you?’ He sneered, as the bow of the boat swung down, throwing those who were already in the water.’ Once in the water, they paddle about, rather worrying that their passports have gone down with the ship, and the fact that they are not carrying very much hard cash on their persons. They appear to be the sole survivors of the ship’s compliment, but nary a word is heard about their Greek shipmates as they quite blithely paddle to what they think must be the shores of Spain. They even witness a bombing raid on the city before them on the coast while they float around in their lifejackets. It turns out to be Barcelona, and they muse about how lucky they are to be in their position bobbing about in the sea rather than suffer the air raid.

This tale gets very little better once that are safely on shore again. They have been but less than an hour in Barcelona town, when they become enmeshed in espionage and are being chased and hounded by about half of the Spanish police force and assorted criminals as well. Spaniards are deemed foreigners by Biggles, as he continues to make decisive moves to extricate the trio from dastardly positions, again and again. Ginger and Algy it seems, are just pretty faces. Biggles we are told, possesses about five words of Spanish, but continually interprets the Spanish language willy nilly, as well as making super decisions on the way. He does appear as some kind of British superman, albeit he lacks any cape, or brightly coloured underpants.

Johns’ writing is thoroughly stolid throughout the book, and is greatly lacking in any flair, élan or flashes of insight. The book might as well be read by a clever eight year old, as a rather backward seventeen year old. I try to conceive of how I felt as I read all of the Biggles books that I could get hold of from The Mechanics Institute Library in my hometown of Yarrawonga in about 1953. I cannot come up with any real memories of why they appealed so much back then. Certainly ‘Biggles in Spain’ is a much easier read, than say Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’ or ‘Kidnapped’. R.M. Ballyntyne was another favourite author of mine too. ‘The Coral Island’ was undoubtedly my favourite book, but I also loved ‘The Gorilla Hunters’ as well. All these books were exciting but were written with part of the nineteenth century lexicon embedded in their works. W.E. Johns shows no hint of these religious, philosophical or rhetorical devices from the age of the widowed Queen Victoria.   Perhaps then Johns had hit on a winning formula in the very simple nature of his writing. Certainly he was a huge success. There was very little to object to, by a flag saluting state school boy like myself, in a smug and hot little country town in Victoria. Neither would the parents or teachers object. All the wartime proprieties are present in these books. Foreigners are quite rightly dealt with suspicion or contempt or both. Biggles makes enemies so easily, because of those very attitudes. You are either or against the Brits, and there are no charcoal lines to be seen in any of the works. My wife said to me when we were discussing the subject of our own brainwashing at school and at home, ‘no wonder we were a little leery of froggies and foreigners when we first went to the continent in 1967.’ This was true in every way possible. Our fathers too, had just returned, or not as the case may be, from the good war. They were in the cases of most of the men I saw in Yarrawonga a little dazed, prone to drinking a lot of grog, and marching in the Anzac day parade. But not all of them would march in that either. My own Dad for one, refused to march for years, and I do not really know his inner reasons for his decision until this day.

And so, the thirteen year old child in Yarrawonga’s Mechanic’s Institute constantly took off the shelves, the other works of Capt W.E. Johns. These were the Gimlet series about a fighting Commando called Gimlet. Gimlet had been Johns’ CO’s nickname, when he first took up his post as a flight instructor. Then there were the Worrals books too. Johns had actually been asked by the war machine in Britain, to create this female airwoman to enhance the role of WAAF women in general. It was in short, a bald recruiting device and no more. Worrals then was a female Biggles or superwoman for young British lads and lassies come one and all. Once again I read all I could get my eager hands on. But I was growing up fast and I needed more than Biggles could give me. Other war books surfaced in my little library. Norman Mailer’s devastating ‘The Naked and The Dead’ for one.* I took this book home one evening, and promptly had it confiscated from me, in a rare move and in an uncharacteristic awareness by my mother. Fug meant fuck in this book, and the word fug appeared on almost every other page. War was shit, and sucked badly, and war took the young marine Mailer, to hell and back* many times over. It also sang dirty ditties to a fifteen year old boy too. Singing...

‘Roll me over, roll me over,
Roll me over in the clover and do it again.’

This was not a Biggles book. I quietly re-borrowed ‘The Naked and The Dead’ and also quietly read it down at the lake alone. It rolled me over as well, and quite possibly, I was cured of Capt W.E. Johns tales for ever.

Jeff Lynch, October 2006

Notes:
*Two other war books come to mind as well - the first was ‘The Cruel Sea’ by Nicholas Monsarrat, and the other was, ‘From Here to Eternity, by James Jones.
*To Hell and Back, was a title of a Hollywood film - it thunderingly told, of the career of the highest decorated soldier in the American armies during WW2. His name was Audie Murphy, and the film starred Audie Murphy himself, playing himself, as the wartime hero. I well remember seeing this ‘heroic’ war film in Yarrawonga.


 

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