(text kindly written by forum member 'SaintedAunt')
About Captain W.E.Johns: William Earl Johns, born 5th February 1893, is best-known as the author of the Biggles books, but he was a man of many skills who didn’t hesitate to turn his hand to anything useful or interesting. His first job was as a sanitary inspector, but he, like so many of his generation, longed to be a soldier and so he joined the territorial Army in 1913. The outbreak of WWI, in 1914, saw him serving in the army with the Norfolk Yeomanry in a cavalry regiment.
In 1915 his regiment was sent to Gallipoli, and Johns experienced first-hand the horror of trench warfare, death and disease which was to influence his subsequent anti-war stance. In October 1916, Johns, by now trained as a machine gunner, arrived in Salonika, Northern Greece. The waste of lives by death and disease appalled Johns, and he himself contracted malaria. It was while he was being treated in hospital that he decided to apply for transfer to the Royal Flying Corps – he decided that it would be better to die in clean air rather than in squalor on the ground!
In the autumn of 1917, 2nd Lieutenant Johns was sent to Oxford to be instructed on how to be an officer and a gentleman, and on how to fly. Not that his passage was smooth! He acted as a ferry pilot and then as a flying instructor, but on the way crashed many planes, a common occurrence in those days when the aeroplanes were so fragile and had many shortcomings. Johns didn’t arrive in France, eventually to No. 55 Bombing Squadron, until the late summer of 1918. Flying DH4s, he had an incident-filled but short career, before being shot down and taken prisoner in September. Johns made attempts to escape, but failed, and remained in POW camps after the Armistice in November 1918, until he was repatriated, arriving home on Christmas Day.
After the war, Johns like many pilots was reluctant to return to the boredom of a peacetime job. He obtained a short-term commission in the RAF, becoming a recruitment officer – his most notable act being to turn down Lawrence of Arabia, masquerading as Aircraftman Ross and applying with false papers.
However, Johns was now to set out on a different path. He had studied art and was a competent aviation artist and illustrator; it was a good time to be embarking on such a career because of the huge interest in aviation after the war. But Johns also wrote. He was a prolific writer, turning out articles, books, stories at a rapid rate. He became the first Editor of ‘Popular Flying’ magazine, which started in 1932, famous for Johns’ first ‘Biggles’ story, and he remained as Editor until he was dismissed in 1939 – his criticisms of the government’s failure to build up the RAF in the face of Germany’s re-arming, and his other outspoken comments upset influential politicians. Yet Johns had always kept his options open, editing books on aviation matters, writing for ‘Modern Boy’ and ‘Boys’ Own Paper’, as well as articles on gardening, one of his favourite hobbies, together with numerous books, including detective novels and science fiction.
Yet it is for his aviation hero, Biggles, that Johns is most remembered. The power of ‘Biggles’ to inspire and recruit young airmen was recognised and Johns was asked to write similar stories for women (Worrals) and the army (Gimlet) but none of these ever matched the popularity of the ‘Biggles’ stories, and it was these that Johns concentrated on after the second world war, for the rest of his life. He wrote just under 100 Biggles books, dying suddenly on the 21st June, 1968, aged 75, part way through the last book.
To find out more about W E Johns, read the excellent book ‘By Jove, Biggles’ by Peter Berresford and Jennifer Schofield. You will not be bored!