“The young pilot looks nervously around him. Below he can just make out seven shapes closing fast on his damaged and lumbering bomber. They are Fokker DVlls, the latest and deadliest German fighter planes, and he is the sole object of their attentions. Hit by flack and dropping out of the bomber formation, the De Havilland is losing height as petrol swirls around the cockpit from a punctured fuel tank. He has seen many aircraft go down in flames and it surely cannot be long before shares the same fate. A burst of machine gun fire shatters his instrument panel, smashes his goggles and kills his observer, but instinct forces him to use all his skill to continue to evade his enemies.”
Captain W.E.Johns. Pilot, artist and author of the famous Biggles stories.
Anyone reading the above could be forgiven for thinking it must be just another piece of fiction from the famous “Biggles” series, but that would be a mistake. These books sold millions, fascinated young and old in the inter war years and encouraged so many to take up flying.
In reality, on Monday 16th of September 1918 the De Havilland DH4 bomber, piloted by Captain W.E.Johns, spun through 20,000 ft towards German territory on the wrong side of the lines. Every thousand feet or so the aircraft would go into a shuddering stall before re entering the spin. Miraculously Johns was able to crash land into a ploughed field and was taken prisoner. With an injured leg, a superficial bullet wound, and glass splinters in the eyes he nevertheless made a full recovery.
Earlier in the year he had served as a flying Instructor at a training squadron in Cleveland. He wrote off three aircraft and shot his own propeller off on two separate occasions; even Instructors make mistakes!
After the war Johns stayed in the newly formed RAF as a recruiting officer, and retired from the Service in 1927. He had become an illustrator and contributed articles on aviation to various newspapers from around 1922. John Hamilton Ltd., engaged Johns to create the magazine “Popular flying” in 1932, and it was here that Biggles first appeared.
It became a hugely influential aviation magazine, but In the late thirties Johns penned articles condemning the government’s appeasement of Hitler. ‘Strings were pulled’ and he was removed from his editorship.
In a writing career stretching over forty odd years, W.E.Johns wrote more than one hundred and sixty books, over one hundred of them were about his eponymous hero.
One recruit for flying training in the RAF was asked at interview exactly what had prompted him to volunteer? He answered with one word: “Biggles!*
* By Jove Biggles. A biography by B. Ellis and P. Williams pub. 1981
By Peter Holloway