Anatomy of a Hero

About the forum, Captain W.E. Johns and Biggles. Including samples of WEJ writing

Anatomy of a Hero

Postby SaintedAunt » 24 Feb 2014, 22:24

This article is interesting in that it was written when the Hamilton editions were out of print and the Red Fox editions didn't exist! Thus the author of the article (and his daughter) read the edited (polite word for messed about with) editions of the post-war period before Red Fox. Thus you will notice some strange statements in it - like the references to lemonade. Little did A E Day realise that the original had been whisky!

There are one or two oddities too, like a suggestion that the Mount Street Flat was not used in the Air Police days, which we know wasn't true!

Many of A E Day's views have been expressed elsewhere - his article quite often quoted by later articles I think. It took some tracking down because it wasn't freely available on the internet. The copyright was owned by the publisher of the journal, Springer!

Sorry it has taken so long to unscramble from the scanning software - to be truthful, I forgot about it :o

*************************************

A E Day is a chartered librarian who is currently principal lecturer in the department of librarianship at
Leeds Polytechnic

A. E. Day - 1974


Biggles: anatomy of a hero

Lieutenant Bigglesworth of 266 Squadron Royal Flying Corps first clambered into the cockpit of his single seater-Sopwith Camel scout in a story, ‘The White Fokker’ published in the opening issue of Popular Flying for April 1932. This new monthly journal was edited by W E johns, recently retired from the Royal Air Force after fourteen years’ regular service, and from the start it displayed a pronounced military aviation bias in content. Besides his editorial duties Johns also contributed to the early issues a series on famous pilots of World War I entitled ‘Knights of the Air’, a number of other Fact Articles as they were called, and also a Biggles episode under the thinly disguised pseudonym of William Earle. Not until January 1933 did one of these stories appear under Johns’ full name and then only for one issue, subsequent stories being left circumspectly anonymous.

From external evidence it is not clear even now after a careful scrutiny whether these first Biggles stories were intended for junior or adult readers. Probably for adults, there being no other indication that Popular Flying was directed in any way at younger readers. And when a collection of them, The Camels Are Coming, was published by John Hamilton, proprietors of Popular Flying, the book was advertised in their general list. But there could be little doubt from then onwards.

At the risk of providing extra ammunition for Biggles’ many critics it might be amusing to listen in to extracts from ‘The Editor Talks’ in Modern Boy when a new series of stories was announced in the April 7, 1934 issue of that decidedly youthful weekly paper. Flying Officer W E Johns, billed as Modern Boy’ aviation expert, had attended the Schoolboy’ Exhibition the previous February introducing an Air Ministry film. It was then that the idea of a new series of Biggles war stories was born.

‘Look here Johns,’ said I, ‘you have shown us Biggles as a first class scout pilot, a real professor in a crack Camel squadron. But in the Great War no one started as a crack pilot that I ever heard of. You had to learn that job by bitter experience that could be and usually was thrilling and dangerous and terrifying!

‘How did Biggles get into a Scout Squadron? How did he first learn to fly? How did –?’

Johns smiled and cut me short. ‘All that,’ he said slowly, ‘is another story!’

‘And I’ll bet it’s a great story, too!’ I cried enthusiastically.

‘You’ve said it,’ said Johns emphatically. ‚’It is a great story – ‘greater than anything I’ve ever written yet! And by Jove, I’ll write it straight away. . . .

No boy with British blood in his veins will want to miss a line of it!’

And the following week ‘Biggles Learns to Fly’ duly appeared. ‘No. 1 of a NEW SERIES of Thrilling Complete Stories concerning BIGGLES – the GREATEST AIR “ACE” OF ALL TIMES.’

Capt W E Johns, to give him his old RFC rank and the style he adopted when writing his books, continued to act as editor of Popalar Flying until it was merged with Aeronautics in 1939 when he was attached to the Air Ministry specifically to help with the development of the Air Training Corps. Later the Ministry suggested he create a girl counterpart to Biggles, and the War Office, not to be outdone, also persuaded him to write stories for them. As a result Flight Lieutenant Joan Worralson (Worrals) of the WRAF and Capt Laurenton King (Gimlet) entered the lists against the common enemy.

During the war The Camels Are Coming fell a victim of the paper shortage; it went out of print and was almost forgotten. There is no mention of it in Frank Gardner’s Sequels and it was not until 1953 that it reappeared in Biggles of the Special Air Police, issued by the Thames Publishing Company in their Kingston Library series which also included other prewar Biggles titles. To confuse matters still further these inexpensive books tended to find their sales outlets in department stores and supermarkets and were, more often than not, missed by those librarians prepared to add Biggles to stock. This might also explain why Biggles’ 1914–1918 exploits are overlooked when earnest and doubtless well-meaning children’s literature experts condemn the Biggles stories as totally unrealistic.

But if we look closely at Lieutenant Bigglesworth in ‘The White Fokker’ we shall find that he is a slightly more solid figure than the conventional cardboard devil-may-care hero his detractors would have us believe. When we first meet him Biggles is ‚’a slight, fair-haired, good-looking lad in his teens’ and already a Flight Commander. Ostensibly this might seem a highly unlikely appointment for a youngster of Biggles’ age but in actual fact it is more of an indication of just how rapidly RFC pilots and observers could expect promotion at a time when their life expectancy was measured in weeks rather than months.

‘His careless attitude’, we are told, ‘suggested complete indifference, but the irritating little falsetto laugh which continually punctuated his tale betrayed the frayed condition of his nerves’. Now, without suspending our critical faculties altogether, or assuming that The Camels Are Coming is anything more than fashionable (boys?) fiction 1930s vintage, whichever way you look at it this is not the picture of the ice-cool, nerveless hero jousting with death with a gay smile hovering about his lips. We should in all fairness allow Johns the credit of knowing what he is talking about, and it would be misleading to label Biggles, at least in his early days, as palpably untrue to life. As Johns himself remarks in his essay ‘About Pioneer Air Combat’, ‘it may seem improbable that any one man could have been involved in so many hazardous undertakings and yet survive. That may be true; sooner or later most war pilots met the inevitable fate of the flying fighter. I sometimes wonder how any of us survived, yet there were some who seemed to bear a charmed life.’

It would also be unwise rashly to dismiss Biggles’ First World War adventures as complete fabrication; in the same essay Johns has this to say: ‘Many of the adventures that are ascribed to Biggles did actually occur and are true in their essential facts. Students of air history may identify them. In some cases the officers concerned are still alive and serving in the Royal Air F orce.’

At least one other of this first collection of Biggles stories deserves a mention. ‘The Balloonatics’ recounts a Boche balloon-strafing competition between Biggles and another captain from a neighbouring squadron for a twelve-bottle case of lemonade donated by Colonel Raymond of Wing Headquarters. I am prepared to concede that this sort of escapade was a normal part of squadron life but I find it difficult to swallow the case of lemonade. Even allowing for Biggles’ tender years it is stretching the imagination too far to accept an RFC Squadron Mess Night living it up on lemonade. If we substitute a case of scotch or Champagne for the lemonade‚ then the whole episode of course becomes more credible and Capt Johns’ motives for this harmless deception may be easily understood if we remember that in the early thirties it was not thought necessary or desirable that boys’ yarns should be absolutely authentic in every detail.

If the demon drink was not permitted Biggles, it is a little surprising that he was ever allowed even the purest of romantic encounters with a member of the opposite sex, but in ‘Affaire de Coeur’ (Biggles Pioneer Air Fighter ) he falls in love with Marie Janis, ‘a vision of blonde loveliness, wrapped in blue silk’. Biggles’ gallantry is rather stiff and formal but after all he was a British officer and gentleman, and British officers and gentlemen can hardly be expected to rival their Gallic allies in such matters:

For a moment he stared as if he had never seen a woman before. He closed his eyes, shook his head, and opened them again. The vision was still there, dimpling.

‘You were looking for me, perhaps?’ said the girl again.

Biggles saluted like a man sleepwalking.

‘Mademoiselle,’ he said earnestly, ‘I’ve been looking for you all my life. I didn’t think I’d ever find you.’

Tragically Mlle Janis turns out to be a German spy who leaves Biggles’ life as quickly as she entered it but not before she writes him a farewell letter proclaiming her undying love for him. Biggles ‘kissed the letter tenderly, then held it up to the candle and watched it burn away’. As if warned off all romantic dalliance by this affaire Biggles thereafter escaped any sort of entanglement with the opposite sex during the course of his numerous adventures. An intriguing possibility would have been a joint episode with Worrals under the genial guidance of Air Commodore Raymond who would give the bride away in the last chapter with Gimlet acting first as best man and then as godfather when, after a decorous interval, a little Biggle or Worral came taxying out of the hangar. But if Capt Johns ever contemplated writing Son of Biggles he resisted the idea, and Biggles continued as a respectable bachelor in an all-male world to the end.

Right up to the outbreak of the Second World War Capt Johns kept Biggles flying with the Camels of 266 Squadron RFC over the Western Front and simultaneously, with no apparent difficulty, escaped from this restrictive setting by sending him off on more up-to-date adventures to all points of the compass: to Soviet Russia for Air Intelligence; forming an airline to thwart a European gang of bullion robbers; to Central America and the Caribbean in search of buried treasure; establishing an air force for a Black Sea principality; to the frozen wastes of Arctic Canada; skindiving in the South Seas; to Brazil for more treasure. In one episode Biggles finds himself with a temporary commission in the RAF as an Air Commodore and seems barely to have missed having an equivalent rank in the Royal Navy bestowed upon him at the same time. The proposal came to nothing in the end as Capt Johns perhaps considered this exercise in Combined Operations a little premature.

To help maintain the necessary credibility factor in unrolling his dual narrative, a number of characters were cleverly introduced to establish an effective continuity and there were constant references in the contemporary adventures to old wartime comrades. Besides Biggles himself who ends the war as Major James Bigglesworth, MC, DSO, DFC (decorations not always mentioned all at the same time or in the same order), ‘victor of thirty-five confirmed combats and many others unclaimed’, and Capt the Honourable Algernon Montgomery Lacey (Algy), ‘With twenty victories signed up in his logbook’, the others whom we might describe as ‘regulars’ are Major, later Colonel, Raymond, once Intelligence Officer at Wing Headquarters in France and afterwards Assistant Commissioner of Police at Scotland Yard; and, on a far less exalted plane, Flight Sergeant Smyth, an archetypal Cockney fitter and mechanic. An old enemy of Biggles, Hauptmann Erich von Stalhein, reappears back from the dead and eventually carves out for himself a semi-permanent niche in the continuing chronicles. Early in the postwar stories Ginger Habblethwaite (quickly changed to Hebblethwaite) from the Yorkshire mining village of Smettleworth is introduced as Biggles’ sixteen-year-old protégé. He, Algy and Biggles form the permanent triumvirate. Keen-eyed readers with long memories will spot errors and minor inconsistencies but these are so slight as to be excusable in what otherwise is a solidly constructed edifice.

Immediately war was declared in 1939, Biggles was back in uniform as Squadron Leader Bigglesworth. He spent the ‘phoney war’ period in Finland and Norway acting more as an intelligence agent rather than an airman. Full-scale flying operations resumed in the Battle of Britain period, when, under the aegis of Air Commodore Raymond, Biggles is given the task of forming a new squadron from a number of highly individual pilots all of whom are renowned for their disregard of official discipline, and of welding these misfits into an efficient fighting unit whose collective unusual talents will fit them for dangerous and unorthodox operations. It must have been a relief to Capt Johns to be back in the familiar atmosphere of a service squadron. In Spitfire Parade, in which he describes its formation, the atmosphere is more than familiar; some of the exploits of 666 Squadron RAF are identical with those of 266 Squadron RFC two decades earlier!

The personnel of 666 Squadron were selected with great care. Between them they covered every possible type of character with whom his young readers could identify themselves. Algy and Ginger, now Flight Lieutenant and Pilot Officer, respectively, are there of course, together with Lord Bertie Lissie, 'effeminate in face and manner, for ever polishing an eyeglass for no reason that anyone could discover'; Angus Mackail, 'twelve stones of brawn and brain, with heather in his brogue'; George (Ferocity) Ferris, scouse from the back streets of Liverpool; Tug Carrington, a Cockney flyweight boxer named after a Thames barge; J W (Taffy the Buster) Hughes, a rugby-playing Welshman from Aberystwyth; Henry Harcourt, a thin, pale, thoughtful-eyed Oxford undergraduate; and Tex O’Hara, a Texas Irishman from Cactusville who had been a New York cop for two years before being shipped off to England for his own safety.

By the end of the war the squadron had been engaged in Africa and against the Japanese in the Far East. All of them somewhat improbably stayed alive, a fact variously ascribed to astonishing good fortune‚ “leadership which combined caution with courage”, or 'superb flying, straight shooting and close cooperation, which is another way of saying that sort of comradeship which puts the team before self'. All had been content to stay with the squadron even though this meant foregoing promotion they could have reasonably expected. Biggles had, 'by the force of his own personality, and by a queer sort of discipline which appeared to be lax, but was, in fact, rigid, moulded this strange assortment of humanity into a team with a reputation that was as well known to the enemy as to the Air Ministry'.

If the Second World War had given a convenient fillip to Biggles’ adventures, its end confronted Capt Johns with the awkward necessity of providing his characters with a new environment. The social climate was not really amenable for a return to the bachelor menage in Biggles’ Mount Street flat nor was it now credible for him to fly at will round the globe as a sort of super private detective on independent commissions or at the request of his old comrades in arms. His solution was to enrol Biggles, Algy, Ginger and Bertie Lissie in a Special Air Police unit under Air Commodore Raymond back once again in his old job of Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard. A whole new career now stretched out for our intrepid heroes.

The Special Air Police only ever has four regular pilots so Biggles’ rank was a ticklish obstacle to overcome. He starts off as a Sergeant and not until his seventh case does he once more obtain a commission as Detective Air-Inspector but, all-in-all, the changeover is effected smoothly enough, the other three accepting their appointments as Constables with remakable phlegm and aplornb. Their first cases are in some ways hangovers from the war but from then onwards they are more concerned with the conventional tracking down of international gangs of crooks or else involved in cold war intelligence activities. Either way new vistas and wide blue horizons beckon, so much so that including Comrades in Arms (Biggles, Worrals and Gimlet all in the same book) Biggles very nearly knocks up a hundred.

Conceivably this is why Biggles has attacted more than his fair share of criticism. In many ways an author can be too successful and his talent for spinning a tale can be dismissed or overlooked when, having found an attractive formula, he sticks to it. Faced with Capt Johns’ huge pile of books, the outcome of forty years’ successful writing, the experts sheer away more than half-convinced that all they add up to is mere dross, without merit, originality, or even good intentions. It is as if obvious success as an author is suspect in itself, and in circumstances like these, faint praise is the best an author can hope for. Capt johns of course is not the only sufferer in this respect.

The burden of the criticism weighed against the Biggles stories seems to be that, as mentioned earlier, they are completely unrealistic; that they present a nationalistic outlook so outmoded as to be positively dangerous; that plots rely on contrived, adventure-type situations for the most part in distant parts of the globe; that there is a surprising lack of aeronautical technicalities presumably of interest to boys; that Biggles’ sociopolitical attitudes are equal to a “not unduly intelligent Empire builder”; and that, perhaps most surprising and damning of all, the construction and writing technique leave a lot to be desired. And what serves to clinch matters is the contention that if young readers get hooked on Biggles, there are so many books available that they can continue to read nothing else until, in the fullness of time, they graduate to a more adult but nevertheless essentially similar sort of processed pulp fiction.

Truly a formidable charge sheet but do these criticisms stand up to impartial examination? It might justifiably be claimed that boys’ adventure stories profit from being set in the more remote and exotic regions of the globe bearing in mind that Jim Hawkins was on his way to Treasure Island, not Tunbridge Wells, when he overheard Long John Silver plotting the expedition’s downfall; that Kim was journeying down the Grand Trunk Road and not the M1; and that Tarzan was more accustomed to swinging through the jungles of Africa than the untamed groves of Hampstead Heath. And the more an author could contrive his plots, the more adventure they encompassed, the more absorbing they would be. Since when has adventure become a dirty word?

Of all these charges perhaps the most serious, certainly with the strongest evidence in support, concerns Capt Johns’ attitude to foreigners and especially to non-European peoples who, it is argued, have a monopoly in the supply of villains. A report to a House of Commons select committee has recommended that Biggles books be removed from schools and libraries on the grounds that they perpetuate a false impression of foreigners by invariably depicting them as barbarians, renegades and traitors and, further, that if the criminal is not black he is usually greasy haired and has a strong foreign accent. The true tragedy of our times is that we have to take this sort of criticism seriously instead of dismissing it as absurd as the outcry in America a few years back against Tarzan and Jane because their union had never been officially blessed by a parson. As it is there is a certain incongruity to be found in this implicit demand for British renegades and traitors and, if there must be foreign villains, for them all to be immaculately coiffured and conversing in impeccable English.

But in defence of Capt johns it must be remembered that he was inventing the adventures of Biggles, Algy, Ginger and the rest in totally different circumstances. He was, too, a regular officer in one of the armed services and, traditionally, British servicemen have regarded themselves equal to any ten foreigners. From time to time in our history this strongly entrenched belief has served the country well, not least in the blue skies over southern England in the summer of 1940. It is undoubtedly true that Capt Johns reveals himself as an admirer of the British Empire but again forty years ago no one in their right senses would have criticized him for that.

On the other hand he possesses a code of honour dating back to the early days of air fighting when, for a very short period, a group of young men on both sides attempted to establish a code of chivalry in the midst of modern war. That this attempt was doomed to failure is irrelevant; the attempt was made and deserves to be recorded. So Biggles has this to say of his arch-enemy:

'Hauptmann von Stalhein is a Prussian, which means that by nature and training he believes in ruthlessness plus efficiency as the best means of getting what he wants. But that doesn’t make him a liar. As an officer coming from an old military family his pride wouldn’t allow him to sink as low as that. . . If he gave me his word I’d accept it, just as he would, I’m sure, accept mine. In that respect our codes are pretty much alike.'

Does this show all foreigners in an unfavourable light?

Also on the credit side, it should not be forgotten that Capt Johns’ flagwaving has not prevented Biggles’ translation into a score of different languages. Perhaps Johns was right when he proclaimed that “all boys everywhere are at heart the same in their admiration of the fundamental virtues in a man”.

Setting aside the disturbing question of censorship, the most vexing aspect of the latest proposals to ban Biggles is the idea that schoolboys should no longer share vicariously in the thrills of a dawn patrol over enemy lines. Do these people not have any conception of how enjoyableit is to zoom up and over in an Immelmann turn, to kick back the rudder hard, to ease the joy stick forward, and with a full-throttled roar, swoop down out of the sun, heavy Vickers machine guns blazing away at an intruding and unsuspecting Pfalz scout plane? If so they have missed a lot of fun in life.

At sunset, when the flag has been slowly lowered for the night and the bugle calls fade away in the cool of the evening, there can be only one conclusion as the mess lights flicker brightly over the darkened and deserted airfield. It is just possible to take boys’ adventure yarns a shade too seriously.

Note: It would be very remiss of me not to acknowledge the assistance I received in the writing of this essay from Miss Alexis Day who in her fourteen years has read more rubbish and fewer good books than I would have believed possible had I not recalled my own reading at the same age. Her deep knowledge of almost the entire saga was invaluable. In which category Biggles is placed is of course a matter of individual judgment.
The corners of Biggles' mouth twitched. "It's a sad thing to grow old without learning a thing or two." [Biggles Hunts Big Game]
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Re: Anatomy of a Hero

Postby kylie_koyote » 24 Feb 2014, 22:38

Excellent article! I laughed out loud at the thought of "a little Biggle or Worral"!
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Re: Anatomy of a Hero

Postby SaintedAunt » 24 Feb 2014, 22:43

kylie_koyote wrote:Excellent article! I laughed out loud at the thought of "a little Biggle or Worral"!

Yes KK - so did I :D It was nicely expressed.
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Re: Anatomy of a Hero

Postby Spitfire666 » 25 Feb 2014, 09:58

Very interesting, SA; thanks for posting this. I am intrigued by the Note at the end - maybe Miss Alexis Day should be a member of this forum...
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Re: Anatomy of a Hero

Postby SaintedAunt » 25 Feb 2014, 10:12

Spitfire666 wrote: I am intrigued by the Note at the end - maybe Miss Alexis Day should be a member of this forum...

Yes :) She'd only be 54 ... ;)
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Re: Anatomy of a Hero

Postby Tracer » 25 Feb 2014, 10:13

Thank you, SA. That was well worth reading.
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Re: Anatomy of a Hero

Postby Kismet » 25 Feb 2014, 13:00

Well done on your battle with technology. This was interesting.
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Re: Anatomy of a Hero

Postby OzBiggles1963 » 25 Feb 2014, 13:29

Tracer wrote:Thank you, SA. That was well worth reading.


Wow, may I add my thanks to those others who have applauded your efforts in bringing this document into text format...fantastic & informative essay SA!

There are many parts I enjoyed, none the least of which was this section:

"'Hauptmann von Stalhein is a Prussian, which means that by nature and training he believes in ruthlessness plus efficiency as the best means of getting what he wants. But that doesn’t make him a liar. As an officer coming from an old military family his pride wouldn’t allow him to sink as low as that. . . If he gave me his word I’d accept it, just as he would, I’m sure, accept mine. In that respect our codes are pretty much alike.'

So from this I understand that Biggles believes EVS is not a liar [albeit he has other, um, "Prussian" traits, lol]. So, did Erich ever lie to Biggles? Or is Biggles deluded here? [or over trusting of him as I am sure Algy has pointed out in the past a hundred times! :mrgreen: ]
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Re: Anatomy of a Hero

Postby Tommy Smith » 25 Feb 2014, 20:44

I did enjoy this so much.
I salute your tenacity with the OCR text, Sainted Aunt, I can imagine what it looked like.

Damn and blast I can't type straight
Last edited by Tommy Smith on 25 Feb 2014, 20:49, edited 3 times in total.
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Re: Anatomy of a Hero

Postby SaintedAunt » 25 Feb 2014, 20:46

Tommy Smith wrote:I salute your tenacity with the OCR text, Sainted Aunt, I can image what it looked like.

A bit like my typing before being corrected :lol:
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Re: Anatomy of a Hero

Postby Tommy Smith » 25 Feb 2014, 20:47

I don't think von Stalhein ever lied as far as I'm aware. Maybe that's why he had to shoot so many people...
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Re: Anatomy of a Hero

Postby Fairblue » 25 Feb 2014, 22:30

Thank you, SA , for wading through all that text. I know from experience how tricky it can be. One thing stood out for me though.
SaintedAunt wrote: An intriguing possibility would have been a joint episode with Worrals under the genial guidance of Air Commodore Raymond who would give the bride away in the last chapter with Gimlet acting first as best man ......
Had this intriguing possibility come to fruition (heaven forbid) the best man would have been Algy. Not sure why the author chose Gimlet for this.
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Re: Anatomy of a Hero

Postby SaintedAunt » 26 Feb 2014, 00:49

Fairblue wrote:
SaintedAunt wrote: An intriguing possibility would have been a joint episode with Worrals under the genial guidance of Air Commodore Raymond who would give the bride away in the last chapter with Gimlet acting first as best man ......
Had this intriguing possibility come to fruition (heaven forbid) the best man would have been Algy. Not sure why the author chose Gimlet for this.

You are quite right FB (unless Algy had fancied Worrals for himself and gone off in a huff). I don't think this author really understood the finer points - he lacked a forum like this :roll:
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