It was not only Biggles who soared into the sky in his airplanes – the imagination of every schoolboy in the world who devoured his exploits and adventures also took wing. He was every child’s hero, and a very unlikely one at that – he was neither quite an adult nor quite a child. He was a boy-man, who adventured like grown-ups. He smoked. He drank whisky. He killed people (all in the line of duty, of course).
Yet ever since Captain W.E. Johns first introduced him in 1932, Biggles has been one of the most popular and memorable characters in English children’s fiction. Biggles, properly known as James Bigglesworth, is the subject of 100 books published over some 40 years.
My father was a pilot in the Indian Air Force, and I had grown up watching airplanes up close at air forces bases. It was most natural thing for me to get completely hooked to the series. There were many descriptions and instances I could relate to. Buying his books – all of them – became a passion. The frugal pocket money was almost entirely spent on buying at least 2-3 books a month. It would take me about 3 years to go through the entire catalogue. The books would be re-read many times, and every time the pleasure would only increase. Biggles books often came with a glossary of terms, a list of aviation lingo that was already familiar to me; that made the reading experience more joyful. “Chocks away”, a command used in the books, would be shouted by me when I would see them moved away from the wheels of the Caribous in Guwahati Air Force base.
There was also a sense of pride when I read in ‘The Boy Biggles’ that Biggles was born in India, in May 1899, to an Indian Civil Service officer. He was thus a shared heritage, never mind that he did his schooling in England. But before he sailed, he had already started having adventures in India, far removed from aviation. That would come later. He befriended local Indian boys, learnt to speak fluent Hindi, and began exploring the countryside in the foothills of the Himalayas. His early adventures included saving hunters and villages from man-eating tigers, leopards, crocodiles, bears, rabid dogs, snakes, wild boars, and other animals. He even got better of some thugs. All these adventures, requiring an ability to deal with dangers or unexpected turn of events, would stand Biggles in good stead later in life.
His later exploits in the two World Wars, and thereafter, were thrilling to the core. The books meant the world to me; I lived the escapades. The rip-roaring feats, the drama and excitement, the lyrical descriptions of flying, the dogfights, the attention to details – rich and precise, the nerve and sheer bravery that he and the other pilots exhibited, fear and friendship and deaths, elevated the series to the most captivating delight, especially for someone interested in aviation and war history. The books were fast-paced, easy-to-read, with few moral quandaries. Fighting evil was an abiding theme. There was an intensity about them which other children’s books could not match.
The language used was vivid. Sample this – “He tilted the machine on to its side, holding up his nose with the throttle, and commenced to slip wing-tip first towards the ground. Whether he was over British or German territory he neither knew nor cared; he had to get on to the ground or be burnt alive.” Any reader who was an aviation buff knew exactly what was going on.
Aged seventeen, Biggles joined the army in 1916 and got posted to the Royal Flying Corps. It was the First World War. For two months, Biggles learnt flying at an aerodrome in Norfolk known as No. 17 Flying Training School, where large buildings with hangars housed a collection of hastily built airplanes.
He was a Second Lieutenant and after nine hours of solo flying he was sent to the Front in France. The biplanes were new to war and had been first used for observation; later machine guns and bomb racks were fitted. Triplanes were in use on the German side. The planes were primitive- made of spruce wood and piano wire and did not have the luxury of fuel gauges or parachutes. Combat tactics were non-existent; and pilots and their gunners communicated by hand signals and had no contact with the ground.
Tackling the enemy in the hostile skies over First World War France was considered a suicidal mission. In a theatre of war where instinct and lightning-fast reactions were the most important skills that a pilot could possess, Biggles had to learn to be a flier quickly – or die. To his credit, he picked up the art of war-flying with an aptitude that amazed everyone, particularly his flight-commander.
The war stories were an accurate representation of what life was like for the pilots. It was fascinating to read the details of the early, primitive aircraft and aerial warfare.
Curled up with a Biggles book, the image of Biggles that would flash before me (as it would have with other schoolboys), partly gleaned from book covers, and partly by one’s own creative juices, was that of the flying ace in his cockpit as he taxied to the parking bay after a mission, in a lurid dust jacket, goggles atop his leather helmet, his face smeared with oil and exhaust fumes. When he was not flying, I would picture him in his distinctive Royal Flying Corps uniform with a gleaming Sam Browne belt and polished boots.
I would visualize the rough take-offs and landings on rugged airfields, the bone-chilling air above the clouds, the ear-splitting sound of the engines, the raging blaze of machine guns, the pungent smell of lubricant, fuel and explosives, the thunder of ground artillery. Through my mind’s eye I would see the dogfights involving banking, climbs, dives, spins, loops; I would envision zeroing in on the enemy and shooting down the aircraft and following the screaming and burning aircraft down to the ground till it crashed in a fiery ball.
Reading the books, I would see the trenches stretched from the French or Belgian coast to the borders of Switzerland; the artillery shelling a position and planes being sent up to spot them and signal back using hands; I would see the crash landings and the young officers happy to escape back to their own lines. I would see the stress of those early days of aerial combat and the bravery involved. I would see new pilots taking time to learn to spot enemy aircraft while flying, even when the gunner was screaming that they were on top of him, because they were not used to scanning in three dimensions. I would see the recruits, usually in their teens- many who had never driven a car before- in the air with only the briefest training; often they died without even seeing the plane that shot them down. I would see the average life expectancy of new aviators was a matter of weeks.
The number of aircraft mentioned in Biggles series was mind-boggling and enriched my knowledge considerably. The Sopwith Camel was associated with Biggles the most in his First World War era stories although he flew a wide variety of aircraft. Among the planes flown by him in the Second World War – Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires (which the IAF also had during the Second World War), B-24 Liberators (which the IAF used till 1968), right up to the Hawker Hunter jet fighter in the postwar adventure ‘Biggles in the Terai’ (which the IAF had right up to the 1990s) were familiar to me.
Between the Wars, Biggles was a charter pilot working for MI6. The scope of his adventures was worldwide – every Biggles book was a history and geography lesson. A Squadron Leader in the Second World War, he transferred to Scotland Yard in peace time, and fought his own Cold War as Chief of the ‘Special Air Police Division’ and flew all over the world with his mates having adventures. As a child I remember a deep sense of satisfaction at the way Biggles’s career developed; I liked the way that, rather than taking it easy after two World Wars, he flew off into even more extravagant adventures.
In the later Biggles books, he was older and a bit more of a man’s man. He had also gathered about him a team who accompanied him on his adventures: Algy, his cousin and a flying ace like himself; Ginger, young and hot-blooded, a Robin to Biggles’s Batman; and Lord Bertie Lissie.
Biggles was not just memorable but likeable. There was his physical courage, of course, but also his habits of modesty and understatement. Biggles was the stiff-upper lip personified, an undemonstrative man. Biggles tended to act rather than talk, but if in a particularly tight spot he was called upon to speak then he would speak evenly, or even murmur. Biggles respected his enemies – another endearing trait – and after the Second World War ended up working with his old archenemy, Erich von Stalheim.
How did these stories appear so authentic? The reason why the series is so realistic is the fact that the author could well have been Biggles himself.
Captain W. E. Johns flew with the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War and made a daring escape from a German prison camp in 1918. He was a fighter pilot and had many exciting incidents. Johns was shot down after a bombing raid on Mannheim, escaped from a prisoner of war camp, was re-captured and survived till the armistice, and turned up on his family’s doorstep long after they had presumed him dead. He then became an RAF recruiting officer and rejected T. E. Lawrence for giving a false name.
Between the Wars he edited ‘Flying and Popular Flying’ and became a writer for the Ministry of Defense. The First Biggles story, ‘Biggles: The Camels are Coming’ was published in 1932 and he went on to write a staggering 102 Biggles titles before his death in 1968.The insight provided by him of the air war in the First World War was very accurate and extremely well presented. His strengths were his plotting and scenery. His writing style, with the combination of youthful adventure, deadly danger, comradeship and sometimes almost poetic descriptions of the sky and landscape, made the books unputdownable. He was undoubtedly recalling his own youth and days in the fighter squadrons.
How relevant is Biggles presently?
Like Enid Blyton, Johns was also a victim of bowdlerization when stories were re-published. All mention of swearing and drinking was banned. Lemonade was substituted for whisky. Critics hold that Biggles’ shelf-life is over and he must step out of the cockpit and ride off into the sunset. They state that Biggles, and Johns, glorified war and that the stories were replete with racism, sexism and jingoism which are unacceptable in the present era of political correctness. However, to be fair, Johns’ reputation regarding his attitude to war is without basis, and he, who had fought in the First World War, had denounced the army top brass and politicians for the loss of lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers.
The other school of thought, to which I and millions of others subscribe to, is that Biggles books have dated very little. The stories are pacy, they are intriguing, they work. There is no whisper of any xenophobia that may have informed English writing of the early 20th century. Although Johns frequently referred to the Germans as ‘Huns’ in the early books, he was at pains to point out that it was not a derogatory term. This school holds that Biggles’ use-by date is far from over.
The publishers claim that Biggles is selling well. ‘The Camels Are Coming’ -the first book to feature Biggles, went under the hammer in January 2018 and was sold to a telephone bidder for £1,800. Its pre-sale estimate was £500 to £600. Even antique copies are fetching a good price. First editions are going for several hundred pounds and rare first editions for much more. There is a good market for every Biggles book, regardless of its age or condition – rightly so
Biggles was the subject of a 1986 British sci-fi adventure film called ‘Biggles’ with the film’s signature song, ‘Do You Want to Be a Hero?’ as well as ‘Chocks Away’ written by no less a musician than Jon Anderson, front man of the progressive rock band Yes.
Even though Biggles is a fictional character, he has a biography ‘Biggles, the Authorized Biography’ written by John Pearson. The Royal Mail issued a postage stamp in his honor in 1994.
Jethro Tull, the best progressive rock band there has ever been, refer to him in their seminal album ‘Thick as a Brick’ (1972) as follows:
“So, where the hell was Biggles when you needed him last Saturday?
And where were all the sportsmen who always pulled you though?
They’re all resting down in Cornwall
Writing up their memoirs for a paperback edition
Of the Boy Scout manual.”
No, Biggles is not likely to fly off to the heavens above just yet even though he turns 122 years this May. The boys of today will thrill to Biggles, just as I did. On re-reading his books, I am certain that their dads too will!