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

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Recommended: Bruce Charlton on Biggles

One of my favorite bloggers, Dr. Bruce Charlton (political correctness, evolutionary psychology, societal  & spiritual decline, Tolkien & Lewis, and many other topics that fascinate me), is BIG fan of  Captain James "Biggles" Bigglesworth.  Here's his tribute to Biggles from last year's Armistice Day. MH

Biggles Flies at Bedtime! 
By Dr. Bruce Charlton

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 to13 (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 children's 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 children's 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 adventure, 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, and around 70 mph was common (although this had been doubled in the best fighters from 1918), so 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!

P.S.  I know some of our readers just hate the WWI Black Adder series, but in Episode 4 of Season 4, they included an utterly smashing send-up of Biggles with an insufferable character named Capt. Flasheart.

1 comment:

  1. Biggles was primarily responsible for my own life-long interest in aviation and the Great War. As a boy, I learned of places such as Cambrai, Polygon Wood, Arras, Amiens etc from the Biggles books. W E Johns flew DH4s with 55 Sqdn before being shot down and made a POW for the last few weeks of the war; his 19 year-old observer 2/Lt Alfred Amey was killed. Johns does not glorify war; at several points he has Biggles musing on the "futility of it all".

    The original WW1 books were originally written for adults. In one story, the General orders a particularly troublesome Kite Balloon to be shot down, and promises that the squadron that does so will receive a prize of a crate of the "finest lemonade"! Even as a boy this didn't sound right to me, and much later I learned that in the original story, it was a crate of whiskey!

    It isn't quite true that no WW1 fighter pilots flew in action in WW2. One pilot was an ace in both wars - Theodore Osterkamp was a 35 victory ace in WW1, the top ace of the MarineJagdflieger units on the Western Front, and then commanded JG52 during the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain being credited with six more victories. A few other Germans flew in both wars. The British were stricter on the age limits, but Air Vice-Marshal William "Bull" Staton was a Bristol Fighter ace in the Great War, and flew on bomber operations at the beginning of WW2, before become a POW of the Japanese where he had all his teeth pulled out under torture. W E Johns' CO of 55 Sqdn in WW1 was Major B J Silly; as an Air Commodore he was also a POW of the Japanese and died in captivity in 1943.