Biggles and his daring Hertford author WE Johns
PUBLISHED: 11:48 05 February 2018
Born 125 years ago this month in Hertford, WE Johns was to define derring-do, both as an early fighter pilot and author of Biggles’ many adventures. Steve Roberts looks at the extraordinary life of the pioneer
Everything went wrong that day. The dashing 25-year-old English pilot was among a flight of six tasked with bombing a German city. Hit by anti-aircraft fire, dropping out of formation, and jettisoning his single bomb, he was set upon by massed enemy fighters. The pilot’s observer-cum-rear-gunner was mortally wounded in the vicious firefight that ensued, and, overwhelmed, his de Havilland bi-plane was shot down. Injured, but alive, the pilot spent the remainder of the First World War as a POW.
This is a true account of what happened to author WE Johns in September 1918. He would go on to write the hugely popular boys’ adventure series about Biggles – the ‘famous flying ace’. If you’re going to have a bash at authoring, try writing about what you know.
William Earl Johns was born 125 years ago, on February 5 1893, in Bengeo in east Hertfordshire, a one-time village and now suburb of Hertford. If its name sounds exotic, it’s very English. The place is mentioned in the Domesday Book, and the name derives from a spur or ridge overlooking the river Beane. William came into the world in Molewood Road. His father Richard was a tailor and his mother Elizabeth the daughter of a master butcher. The household included a general servant. William was the eldest son, his brother, Russell, was born some two-and-a-half years later. The family moved around 1900 to 41 Cowbridge in Hertford, roughly equidistant between the town’s North and East stations. A blue plaque on the building states William lived here from around then until 1912, when he left home.
Despite his later literary success, William was no scholar and his early ambitions reflected a zest for life, rather than a fondness for academia. He fancied soldiering and by all accounts was a crack rifle shot. Nevertheless, the reluctant scholar enrolled at Hertford Grammar School (today’s Richard Hale School) in January 1905, aged 11. He also attended evening classes at the local art school, suggesting he was always more ‘arts’ than ‘science’. His 1951 Biggles Goes to School gives an insight into the author’s classroom trials and tribulations.
Come 1907, the 14-year-old was in gainful employment, apprenticed to a county municipal surveyor. Considering the lad’s panache, this smacks of a career choice doomed to wither. Five years later he was however a sanitary inspector in Norfolk, suggesting he was half making a go of things. He married a Norfolk girl, Maude – daughter of a village vicar – in October 1914, when he was still only 21. Life for just about everyone was about to change however.
With European conflict looming, William joined the Territorials in 1913 and after the outbreak of war was posted overseas in the army in 1915. After recovering from a bout of malaria he contracted in Greece, he was transferred to the fledgling Royal Flying Corps and was back in England for flight training.
The precariousness of flying in these early days of aviators (the Wrights had made the first controlled powered flight just 12 years earlier), was demonstrated by William writing off three planes in three days, and shooting off his propeller twice with his machine gun (a common problem before synchronisation).
Johns was on the Western Front from April 1918 where his brush with death occurred in September. He was lucky the war was in its death-throes; it meant his captivity only lasted a couple of months (he still escaped and was recaptured) and his sentence to death by firing squad was never carried out. His war-time experiences could have come straight from the pages of Biggles. As could walking in on his delighted family on Christmas Day morning. He was officially missing, presumed dead.
William remained in what was now the RAF after the war, working as a recruitment officer. He famously turned down one TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), who applied incognito. William was subsequently ordered to accept him. It wasn’t until 1931 that he relinquished his commission, by which time his literary career had taken off. He’d also resuscitated his childhood passion for painting, selling his artwork.
By 1923 other changes had occurred - he had left his wife of almost 10 years, setting up home with Doris Leigh. Although he never divorced, his new companion was known as ‘Mrs Johns’. He was not averse to exaggeration either, claiming he was a captain (he wasn’t) and that he had served in Iraq and India (there’s only circumstantial evidence he may have done).
His output in his new-found career as a writer was prodigious. His first published novel, Mossyface, was in 1922 under the pseudonym William Earle. Then, in a writing blast lasting 46 years he penned more than 160 books, with nearly 100 about Biggles (or James Bigglesworth to give him his full name). There were also other genres, for example, sci-fi. He also wrote tons of magazine articles and took to editing, creating the magazine Popular Flying in 1932, where Johns’ most famous creation first appeared. The first Biggles adventure, The Camels are Coming, was published the same year. This is a reference, of course, to Sopwith Camel planes, not the ships of the desert. The author adopted Capt WE Johns as his moniker and continued giving his fans more Biggles derring-do right up to his death. He died while writing the not-so-inspiring sounding Biggles Does Some Homework.
William handwrote his manuscripts before having them typed up for his publisher. A typical day involved rising around four in the morning, writing until about 8.30am, then indulging in a spot of fishing while thinking through storylines. After lunch there was more writing until around six, then dinner, followed by jotting down ideas he’d thought of throughout the day. I can vouch for the fact a writer rarely switches off completely and William was of the thoroughly professional mould where writing was concerned.
His life and career did not duck controversy. In the 1930s, seeing another war looming, he advocated training more pilots against the dangers of being ill-prepared. Some Biggles stories of the period warn of the impending threat from Germany and Japan. It could be argued his Biggles books encouraged young men to adopt flying, thereby helping the war effort. He was also a critic of appeasement, which didn’t increase his popularity in some circles. Uncharacteristically, for the time, his novels also featured a working-class hero, Ginger, the son of a coal miner.
WE Johns died of a heart attack on June 21 1968 having broken off from his writing to make Doris and himself a cuppa.