Thursday, 11 November 2021

Biggles flies at bedtime!


The "Biggles" (christened James Bigglesworth) series of books were published by Captain WE Johns between 1932 and 1970 (two years after his death). These were my staple literary diet between ages about 11-13 (until displaced following the impact of reading Lord of the Rings); so I have considerable affection for them. 


Biggles was an aviator, and later an 'air police' adventurer, and I followed him from his beginnings in the First World War as a Sopwith Camel pilot, through the Second World War (when he flew Spitfires). 

Indeed, I believe Biggles was the only fighter pilot who saw active service in both wars, a fact which was helped by the fact he never got any older. I then continued on with his later (Indiana Jones-type) international missions, of a more crime-fighting nature. 

Of course, I not not read all the Biggles books, nor even half of them - because there were apparently nearly 100 novels! - but I did read the first (The Camels are Coming, 1932) and very nearly the last (Biggles and the Little Green God, 1969)... essentially I read everything I could find in the library, borrow from friends, afford to buy, or got as presents.  


Recently, I bought a trio of Biggles's earliest WWI novels at a bargain price, from a secondhand bookshop, because my wife said she would not mind trying one as our bedtime reading-aloud book. 

This may sound a strange choice for a married couple; but we have found that childrens' books tend to read aloud better, and their short chapters fit with the relatively short timescale before sleep supervenes. 

Also my wife has been pretty interested-in, and knowledgeable-about, the history of the two world wars over the past several years - albeit remaining shockingly ignorant of what I regard as their most interesting aspect: the aeroplanes! 

(As an extreme example: she once mixed-up the identifications of a Spitfire and a Lancaster on a jigsaw puzzle. Yes, I know...!)


We started with The Camels are Coming. This derives from a series of short stories published in childrens' magazines of the mid-war era. 

WE Johns was himself a WWI pilot; and he describes in the introduction that he is using Biggles and his friends as the fictional protagonists of what were real incidents and adventures. Some of which happened to him, but most of were taken from accounts of other pilots he knew - or from gossip among the pilots.  

Consequently, the book has considerable documentary interest. For instance, as well has having a lot about the 'machines' (aircraft) it is written using uncompromising RFC (Royal Flying Corps) slang. For instance, anti-aircraft fire is 'archie', observation balloons are 'sausages', the Fokker Triplanes are called 'tripehounds', and of course the Germans are usually 'Huns'. 

This, either on the assumption that their boy readers would already know this. My modern edition has numerous footnotes to explain these terms; but as a kid, I simply picked-up their meanings from context. 


I found myself becoming fascinated all over again by the extraordinary world of the pilots of that era; and my wife too got engaged. This we moved on to read Biggles Learns to Fly covering our hero's early years, and are currently working-through Biggles of the Camel Squadron which covers the end of the war

Indeed I got so interested that I read several real pilot's memoirs - both from the first and the second wars; and indeed, these kinds of books had also formed a staple of my early teen reading: I recall reading the accounts of or by Douglas Bader, Ginger Lacey, and 'Cats Eyes' Cunningham the night fighter pilot...

Whose exploits British propaganda explained as due to eating carrots to help Cunningham see in the dark - rather than due to the secret radar. Carrots were not rationed and could be grown anywhere - so the government wanted to encourage their consumption. 


People die in these books, and quite frequently. This was a war, of course, and the RFC pilots had a staggering high mortality rate - especially in their first weeks; mostly due to very unreliable 'machines' and the gross lack of training. 

At some points, something like half the pilots were killed in training - even before going to The Front, and they would be sent into battle after only a few hours of solo flying - rather like someone who has just recently passed their driving test participating in a Formula One Grand Prix

Experienced pilots lived much longer, but even so most of the best WWI 'aces' of both sides (with many 'kills' to their credit) were sooner or later shot-down, or died from a malfunction. For instance even 'The Red Baron' von Richthofen - with 80 victories - was killed during a dogfight with Canadian airmen (who actually fired the fatal bullet that penetrated his chest is unsure). 

The WWI aircraft were slow especially the two-men machines from early in the war that c. 70 mph was common (albeit this had been doubled in the best fighters from 1918) that they were very vulnerable to machine-gun fire - or even to rifle fire from ground troops. 

And the pilots had no parachutes. (The authorities took a shockingly long time to learn that pilots were worth, and cost, far more than aircraft.)    


So, our Biggles experiment has proved a major success! I can now see that the books are of a modest literary quality; and that Biggles himself is a rather unappealing character - because he tends to be very irritable and - under stress - violently bad tempered; also prone to making sarcastic and derogatory comments. 

Also, Biggles is surrounded by rather more genial chaps (and they certainly are 'chaps' - officers from the upper classes) such as his cousin and wing-man, Algy and his frenemy 'Wilks' Wilkinson. I liked Henry 'The Professor' and maths expert - but he seems, at this point, to have 'bought it' and 'gone West'- i.e. died.

But of course Biggles is both brave and loyal, and shoots down vast numbers of enemy planes, so none of that really matters!


6 comments:

The Continental Op said...

My first history reading as a youngster was the air war in WW1. I believe the romantic appeal was that it was still a war of man-against-man--a human scale--with a code of honor, while below in the trenches the war had turned into a mass production slaughter.

Today we have drone operators remote killing people halfway around the world. I hear their psyches are shot in short order.

Howard Ramsey Sutherland said...

Biggles! It's good to see the cheery warrior isn't altogether forgotten.
Like you, I'm a WWI/WWII fighter aviation enthusiast; hard for me to avoid as I'm an old single-seat, single-engine fighter pilot myself, if with more bells and whistles than our World Wars ancestors enjoyed.
Biggles wasn't the only WWI fighter pilot to fly fighters in WWII. There were several in the Luftwaffe. Not in British Empire or American service, though, as the thinking was that anyone over 26 was too old for fighter operations. (That was nonsense; I flew F-16s through the end of my 30s, and I was not unusual.)
The early Luftwaffe took advantage of Great War vets' experience. The best-known is probably Oberst (later Generalleutnant) Theo Osterkamp. Onkel Theo to his WWII troops, Osterkamp had scored 32 victories over the Western Front. In 1940, Osterkamp commanded JG 51 (Bf 109E) in the Battles of France and Britain, adding six to his Great War score. He survived and lived into his 80s. Osterkamp was one of the last Germans awarded the Pour le Merite (Blue Max) in 1918, a notable distinction.
On the right side of the Channel, at least one Great War veteran had a crack at the Hun in the Battle of Britain. W/C Ira Jones, a 40-victory ace from the Western Front, commanded a training aerodrome in Cornwall. In July 1940, a Ju 88 was loitering over his field. After watching it through binoculars, Jones got so annoyed that he jumped in a Henley target-tow and took off after it. He dove on the Ju 88, firing a Very pistol (flares) at it by hand. When the rear-gunner opened up at him, Jones realised that was rather foolish, and broke away. Biggles-worthy pluck!
There were many American and several British pilots who scored in both WWII and Korea, including some two-war aces - first in pistons, then in jets. But those wars were only five years apart. A few USAAF WWII aces flew fighters (F-4 Phantoms) in Vietnam, more than 20 years later. The famous Chuck Yeager was one; most notable was Robin Olds, a P-51D ace in Europe, he was credited with four MiG-kills in Vietnam whilst commanding the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing - though he probably got six.
As for Biggles, do you remember the Jethro Tull record Thick As A Brick? It features the following lyric: "And where the hell was Biggles, when you needed him last Saturday? And where are all the sportsmen, who always pull you through?"
A blessed Remembrance Day/Armistice Day, one and all.

Bruce Charlton said...

@CO - "it was still a war of man-against-man--a human scale--with a code of honor" - yes, that seems to be accurate. e.g. Sometimes a beaten pilot would surrender and be allowed to land. It was regarded as almost unforgiveable to strafe a pilot on the ground.

Howard Ramsey Sutherland said...

I overlooked the difference between Biggles and Taffy Jones:
In real Battle of Britain-world, Jones broke off his Don Quixote attack and returned to base unscathed.
In Biggles Battle of Britain-world, Biggles would have closed right in behind the Ju 88, absorbing battle-damage all the way, and plugged that gunner with a flare right between the eyes, then pulled up alongside the cockpit and shot the pilot through his ear, driving the deceitful Boche down into the drink, then brought his flaming biplane in for a perfect three-point landing, followed by laughs over a pint in the local.
Chivalry may have endured for awhile amongst fighter pilots in WWII, but it was hardly universal. As for air war generally, I'd say chivalry was largely gone once carpet-bombing and fire-bombing of civilian targets began. We've tried to avoid that post-WWII. Far from perfectly, it must be said.

Amethyst Dominica said...

So in "BlackAdder Goes Forth", when they called the flying corp, the "Twenty-Minuters" (because that's how long it took a new pilot to get shot down,) they were only slightly kidding. WWI really was a meatgrinder for brave men. Can't imagine anyone in Generation Z willing to risk almost certain death for God and Country.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AD: "Can't imagine anyone in Generation Z willing to risk almost certain death for God and Country."

Or for any other reason...