Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Who Was Biggles?

First Biggles Collection, 1932
Captain James "Biggles" Bigglesworth is one of the great literary creations from the First World War. His air adventures are well known in the United Kingdom and other countries but much less known here in the States. Written by "Captain" W. E. (William Earl) Johns, the Biggles series consists of 96 books published between 1932 and 1970 with an additional six omnibus editions published within this period, plus two further books published in the late 1990s. 

Johns was born in 1893 and served in the war initially at Gallipoli and on the Macedonian Front.  After being commissioned and volunteering for the Royal Flying Corps, he served in France first as a machine gunner and from 1918 as a fighter pilot. Shot down over Mannheim, he was captured, escaped, caught again, and given a death sentence. Only the sudden end of the war saved his life. 

Johns remained with the Royal Air Force until 1927 as a flight instructor and later as a recruiting officer. His final rank was flying officer. When he became a successful author he promoted himself to captain. Biggles first appeared in the story "The White Fokker," published in the first issue of Popular Flying magazine, in 1932. The first collection of Biggles stories, The Camels Are Coming, was published that same year. Biggles has appeared in films over the years, the latest attempt being a science fiction flick, Biggles — Adventures in Time in 1986.

W.E. Johns, RAF Flight Instructor After the War

Graham Chapman as Biggles
Fans of Monty Python's Flying Circus will recall the parodies "Biggles Dictates a Letter" and "Cardinal Biggles," complete with flying helmet and goggles, assisting in the interrogations in the "Spanish Inquisition" sketch.

Sources:  Andrew Melomet's review of Biggles – Adventures in Time in the September 2009 St. Mihiel Trip-Wire and Wikipedia.


  1. For those of us of a certain age in the UK and Commonwealth countries, it was Biggles who got us into aviation, and into the First World War history. Names such as Polygon Wood, Hooge, Bapaume, Arras, were familiar to me at an early age because of Biggles. He also taught me the virtues of courage, loyalty, decency and Doing the Right thing.
    These ideals were hardly dented at all by finding, much later, that Johns [1893-1968] was less than a perfect individual. He was certainly capable of building up his own life story. He did very little flying after WW1. He was not a flight instructor after war - the photo above shows him with an RE8 during training. Like thousands of others, he was unemployed immediately after the war but eventually managed to serve again as a recruiting officer for a few years. He never claimed to be a fighter pilot; he flew DH4s with 55 squadron for a couple of months before being shot down; his 18 year-old gunner, 2/Lt Amey, was killed behind him. Previously, as a machine gunner in Macedonia, he was once the only survivor of his section. Like many others, he was marked for life by these experiences, and then by being dumped onto the unemployed list after the war.
    But perhaps a positive outcome from that is that his books are actually quite subversive, at least by the standards of the time. He was not an Establishment figure; many of his villains in the Post WW2 Air Police stories are English Aristocrats, and several times Biggles comments on women who wear fur coats "like people used to thousand of years ago when they had nothing else to wear".

  2. Or, for rock music affectionados and Jethro Tull... "Where the hell was Biggles when you needed him last Saturday?"