Some interesting trivia about the Biggles books and their author, Captain W. E. Johns
The Biggles books, detailing the adventures of fictional pilot James Bigglesworth, were hugely popular in the mid-twentieth century. Ever since the young pilot’s first appearance – in a story called ‘The White Fokker’ in 1932 – he has been delighting and entertaining readers. His creator, Captain W. E. Johns (1893-1968), was a prolific author and wrote over a hundred Biggles books in total.
‘Captain’ W. E. Johns never attained the rank of Captain – he was only a Flying Officer, but adopted the title when he published his hugely popular Biggles books, believing that ‘Captain’ would appeal more to young readers. The first volume of Biggles stories, The Camels Are Coming, appeared in 1932 (its title refers to the fighter plane, the Sopwith Camel, rather than the animal).
The character of Biggles and his friend, Ginger Hebblethwaite (Ginger was his nickname, of course; we never learn his real given name) are reasonably well known, but how many people can actually name the title of a Biggles book? Unless you’re a hardened Biggles fan, you may know the name of the characters but might find it difficult to name a particular book title. Some of the lesser-known titles of books in the Biggles series are Biggles Goes to School, Biggles Takes It Rough, Biggles Delivers the Goods, Orchids for Biggles, Biggles Scores a Bull, Biggles in the Underworld, and the last book on which Johns was working when he died, Biggles Does Some Homework (this is slightly more exciting than the title makes it sound).
Captain – sorry, Flying Officer – Johns was lucky to survive WWI, perhaps luckier than most. In September 1918 he flew bomber planes in a raid on the German city of Mannheim, but was shot down and captured. It wasn’t a good time to be captured in that neck of the woods: shortly before Johns flew over the city, a whole group of German Sunday school children had been killed in a raid. The Germans were unforgiving, and Johns was sentenced to be shot. In the end, this sentence was commuted to imprisonment, and he was sent to Strasbourg where he lived out the remainder of the war (only a few weeks) in a prisoner-of-war camp. He was presumed dead and his family were surprised – and, one imagines, more than a little relieved – when he eventually made it home.
After the war, Johns joined the RAF and was put in charge of recruitment, and initially turned down T. E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia, but at the time going under the assumed name of John Hume Ross), though his superiors overruled him. Johns was a talented flyer but also frequently crashed: he once wrote off three planes in three days. But in the temperamental early days of aircraft technology, this was almost to be expected.
Biggles is well remembered, particularly amongst readers of a certain age and a certain gender (the readership is overwhelmingly male), but few now read Johns’ accompanying ‘Worrals’ series. Flight Officer Joan Worralson, known as ‘Worrals’, was the protagonist of eleven books and was created in response to a request from the Air Ministry, who wished to boost recruitment among the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (the ‘WAAFs’) during the Second World War. Biggles had proved so popular with male readers that he had helped to boost recruitment among the RAF. Worrals was, in John Sutherland’s phrase, ‘Biggles in skirts’, and would not prove to be as popular as James Bigglesworth. W. E. Johns also wrote a number of space novels – science fiction for young novels – about interplanetary conflict, with titles such as The Edge of Beyond and Return to Mars. As his most successful creation testifies, exploration and adventure were the watchwords of Johns’ fictional universe.
Johns died aged 75 of a heart attack in 1968, while making a cup of tea, halfway through writing the final Biggles book.
Even as late as 1964, a UNESCO survey was showing that Biggles was the most popular juvenile hero with readers. And his influence is still with us: in 2009, a real-life pilot attributed his lucky escape in a crash to his knowledge of Biggles stories.
If you enjoyed these interesting facts about Biggles, we recommend the Biggles Information Web Site for more information.
Image: Biggles of the Interpol book cover, via Bradford Timeline on Flickr.