Ripping yarns that were born in Norfolk skies

Combat pilot: Captain William Earl Johns, formerly of the Norfolk Yeomanry, in full flying kit during his brief First World War service. Combat pilot: Captain William Earl Johns, formerly of the Norfolk Yeomanry, in full flying kit during his brief First World War service.

Sunday, January 19, 2014
10:20 AM

Over time the story may have been embellished a little, but there was no denying the drama of that flight nor the nature of the death-defying escape. By any standards, the struggle of man and machine 4,000 feet above Narborough’s wartime aerodrome was an extraordinary one.

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The RE8 trainer aircraft was locked in a near vertical bank, its controls inexplicably rendered useless. Inside the cockpit, the “badly scared” pilot racked his fear-befuddled brain for a way to avert disaster.

“I dared not switch my engine off,” he later wrote, “because I was almost certain to go into a spin if I did.”

With a patchwork of Norfolk fields growing larger by the second, he focused all his efforts on wrestling the aircraft back on to an even keel.

Somehow, he had to bring the machine down or risk eventually plunging to his death like so many others whose graves now swelled the village churchyard.

Bestselling author: Captain W E Johns, creator of Biggles, with an image of his most famous character.Bestselling author: Captain W E Johns, creator of Biggles, with an image of his most famous character.

In a moment of clarity, he hit upon a desperate solution. Drawing back the throttle, he let the nose dip slightly. The moment he went too low and the risk of spinning became too great, he opened 
up again.

This way he dropped some 200-300 feet, all the while circling on his side. Time after time, he repeated the hazardous manoeuvre, each turn part of a dizzying, semi-controlled spiral that carried him relentlessly earthwards.

Finally, some 20 feet from the ground, he cut the engine, drew his knees up to his chest, shielded his face with his arms and braced himself for the impact.

It wasn’t long in coming. First, the wing-tip clipped the ground and then, in a shattering split-second, the wood and wire biplane tore apart. A trail of debris littered the landscape, but, in a miracle of good fortune, the fuselage with its pilot strapped inside did not break up and came to rest in a hedge.

Emerging safely from the wreckage, the young aviator marvelled at his remarkable survival. “I wasn’t hurt,” he later recounted. “Not even a scratch.”

Amazingly, William Earl Johns, one-time Norfolk sanitary inspector and part-time soldier turned flying instructor, had lived to tell not only that tale but countless more real and imagined stories like it as the creator of the greatest fictional aviator of all - Captain James Bigglesworth, aka Biggles.

Over the course of 36 years between 1932 and his death in 1968, W E Johns, as he was more familiarly known, thrilled generations of children with the exploits of a very British superhero, a teenage flying ace-cum-charter pilot-cum-aeronautical sleuth-cum-swashbuckling spy whose feats of derring-do spanned war and peace.

In more than a hundred novels, Biggles, a product of the playing fields of Norfolk and a graduate of the county’s fictional No 17 Flying School, proved himself more than a match for all manner of foes, from ‘Huns in the sun’ and evil Nazi henchmen to the most dastardly of criminal villains.

Along the way, this most strait-laced and stiff-upper-lipped of fictional heroes would also have to withstand the barbs of critics and the ridicule of satirists.

But just as his creator would display an astonishing talent for survival against the odds, so Biggles has continued to confound his detractors by his remarkable longevity.

More than 80 years after first taking wing in the aeronautical magazine Popular Flying which Johns edited and wrote for, our “fair-haired” hero with “deep-set hazel eyes” that “held a glint of yellow fire” about them is still going strong in a new millennium.

Having already spawned dramas on radio, television and in films, Biggles is now reaching out to another generation of readers with the publication of new editions of some of his classic adventures.

Mainstream publisher Random House, evidently convinced of Johns’ hero’s enduring appeal, has begun re-issuing the books to coincide with the centenary of the First World War.

Biggles Flies East, an espionage drama which sees the air ace cast as a double agent, and Biggles Learns To Fly, which were originally published in 1935, both take their inspiration from the 1914-18 conflict which would transform Johns’ life.

Of the two stories, it was the latter, the vivid tale of the under-age recruit turned novice aviator, which would most closely resemble the author’s own real-life ripping yarn of wartime flying.

For while much of his service career bore little comparison with the action-packed, adventure-strewn heroics of his most famous literary creation, his experiences as a pupil pilot and, later, as a trainer of pupil pilots provided him with a fund of anecdotes ripe for fictional reworking.

Even before he arrived at Narborough, however, and long before Biggles pitched up in the imaginary village of ‘Settling’, Johns knew enough about Norfolk for it to become the ideal backdrop to the aeronautical beginnings of his own mythical flying legend.

Born the son of a tailor in 1893 in a suburb of Hertford, Johns moved to Norfolk, aged 19, to take up the post of sanitary inspector with Swaffham Rural District Council.

It was there, while performing in a local concert, that he met his first wife, Maude Hunt, daughter of the vicar of Little Dunham, and where he took his first steps towards fulfilling a schoolboy ambition to pursue a career in the military.

On October 4, 1913, he enlisted as a private in the King’s Own Royal Regiment (Norfolk Yeomanry), a Territorial Army cavalry unit officered by country gentlemen and local landowners. In less than a year, peace-time service had given way to the war that would change his life irrevocably.

Johns later described the conflict as marking “the end of one life and the beginning of a new”. Recalling his journey to war, he remarked: “I led my mare from the stables, and, slashing with my sword at imaginary foes, galloped down the drive to what, in my youthful folly, I supposed was going to be death or glory.

“I had yet to learn that in war there is plenty of death but little glory; that in war only death is real; that the glory is simply gilt and tinsel to wrap around the other so that it looks less like what it really is.”

The grim reality of war was something Johns quickly discovered, first in the trenches of Gallipoli and then amid the malarial swamps of Salonika. The mere memory of night-time patrols spent worming across the churned wilderness of no-man’s-land was enough to give him “the screaming willies”.

Remembering the horrors of gas warfare, campaigning in temperatures that topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade and the lethal danger posed by snipers left him with “no delusions… about war”.

Eventually, having been hospitalised with malaria in Salonika - or “that disease smitten pesthole” as he preferred to call it - he decided enough was enough and applied to train as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps.

If anything, the life expectancy of a fledgling aviator was even shorter than that of a young subaltern in the trenches on the Western Front, but the fatalistic Johns had his reasons. “I was learning something about war,” he later explained to readers of Popular Flying, “and it seemed to me that there was no point in dying standing up in squalor if one could do so sitting down in clean air.”

He transferred to the RFC in September 1917, but it would be 10 months before he ventured to the frontline. In stark contrast to his fictional creation, his combat service was brief and undistinguished, though not without incident.

Unlike Biggles, the dashing fighter ace with 35 confirmed victories to his name, Johns was a bomber pilot engaged in the decidedly less glamorous but no less hazardous aerial offensive against strategic targets inside Germany.

Unescorted long-range missions, sometimes led by a flight commander with the name of Captain Silly, proved anything but funny. Losses were frequent. And any lingering romance Johns may have had with combat flying was soon shattered.

“With most of us the war was a personal matter,” he wrote. “Another fellow shot at you and you shot back; you shot at another fellow and he shot back; and it jolly well served you right. That’s all there was to it.”

Johns was writing from bitter experience. His ‘personal’ air war lasted barely a couple of months before he was shot down and captured. Despite a gallant attempt to escape, he spent the remaining eight weeks of the war incarcerated in Germany.

It would be a further 14 years before he would call on his wartime experience to create a fictional character to “counterblast some of the war-flying nonsense that was being imported in the cheap papers”.

Ironically, given the sometimes far-fetched exploits of his later adventures, his original aim was to present a true portrait of the kind of officer he had served alongside and perhaps wished he had been, “a shadowy figure created by my admiration for the courage and resource displayed by some of the men with whom it was my good fortune to spend several years of 
my life.”

Not unreasonably, Johns thought that “having had some experience of air warfare, and knowing my own limitations, I was better able to appreciate what those fellows did.”

In time, of course, as the magazine short stories expanded into full-length adventure novels far removed from the warring skies over the Western Front and Middle East, he came to rely on his fertile imagination for plot-lines, but occasionally he was able to draw on his own memories.

This was never more so than for his largely Norfolk-set yarn Biggles Learns To Fly, a story, or rather series of tales, in which he was able to vouch that “every incident… runs parallel with fact” for the simple reason that much of its content was auto-biographical.

Like Biggles, Johns was taught to fly in “an old Rumpity”, a Maurice Farman Shorthorn, otherwise known as a ‘flying birdcage’ on account of the myriad wires holding the aircraft’s wings together.

And, again, just like Biggles, much of Johns’ earliest and most memorable flying experiences took place in Norfolk, his adopted home county, where his son would later be educated and where his first wife would live out her last years alone following their separation.

Having survived his first solo flight in which he crashed on take-off, he soared away at the second attempt a day later, turning a planned 10-minute flight into a 90-minute adventure that found its way into Biggles Learns To Fly.

Posted as an instructor first to No 25 Flying Training School at Thetford and then to the much larger airfield at Narborough, he endured more accidents, enjoyed more narrow escapes and wrote engagingly of a flight of the heart worthy of one of his most outlandish fictional plots.

The unscheduled sortie to Little Dunham where his wife, son and in-laws were living was an indulgence with unexpected consequences. Invited to test the air worthiness of a newly serviced two-seater, he headed off “to a house where a particularly pretty girl I knew lived, and gave her a short exhibition of my idea of super airmanship”.

He was part way through his aerobatic display when he suddenly noticed a hand clutching the side of the rear cockpit.

Levelling out, he peered back but could see nothing. A shiver ran down his spine. Turning away, he made a bee-line for Narborough where he landed to discover a petrified aircraft fitter, cowering in the cockpit where he’d hidden away for a quiet smoke. Evidently, the young airman had never flown before and, from his appearance, Johns suspected he would probably never wish to do so again.

In a description that might have been stolen straight from Biggles’ own lips, Johns inisisted that Narborough’s stowaway looked for all the world like “two-pennyworth of warmed-up death”.

Biggles Learns to Fly and Biggles Flies East, by Captain W E Johns, are both published as Red Fox paperbacks, priced £6.99 each.

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