At the shop of the IWM on Saturday, I found a selection of Biggles books. These used to be favourites of mine, but I reckon it’s fifty-three years since I last looked at one, so I thought I’d investigate the first in the series, The Camels are Coming, originally published in 1932.
Many of the stories in this book had first been published in Popular Flying magazine earlier that year, under the name of William Earle (W.E. Johns was William Earl Johns). This was not a boys’ magazine, though there were probably quite a few plane-obsessed teenagers among its readership.
In his foreword, Johns writes:
I hope that from a perusal of these pages a younger generation may learn something of the tricks of the trade, of the traps and pitfalls that beset the unwary, for I fear that many of the lessons which we learned in the hard school of war are being rapidly obscured by the mists of peace-time theory.
The book is indeed a very effective primer in the art of Great War aeronautical tactics. Having read it, I am confident that, in the unlikely event of my ever flying a Sopwith camel in conflict, I would at least know better than to swoop in attack on a single Hun who looks like suspiciously easy prey. And should a Hun get on my tail, I hope I wouldn’t run, but turn quickly and go for him like a mad dog, which is apparently the best tactic. And I’d keep away from enemy observation balloons, if I could.
The education of the younger generation is a common theme among writers in the late twenties and early thirties. One reason why Sherriff wrote Journey’s End was to let the younger generation know what war was like, and both Richard Blaker and A.M.Burrage express a wish that their books will give the young an idea of the reality of war. Johns’s book, though, is the only one I know that would serve as a pretty effective training manual.
The Biggles of this first book does not quite match my memory of the Biggles I read about in childhood. He smokes nervously, he loses his temper, and at one point starts drinking too much. Later on in the series (of about 98 books, I think), when the books were marketed directly at a young audience, Johns presumably felt an obligation to make Biggles much more of a moral and manly role model. In the fifties, I’ve read, the publisher clearly found these early stories a bit hard to take (or maybe teachers and librarians protested) and they were bowdlerised. In one story, Biggles and Wilkinson, his friend and rival, are involved in a dangerous competition to destroy a balloon, motivated by the prize of a dozen bottles of whisky. The bowdlerisation turned this to lemonade, which doesn’t seem so convincing to me.
The book is an interesting bit of evidence (if more were needed) against the thesis that after 1929 all war books conveyed the myth of disillusionment. In The Camels are Coming, the values of the actual war years still reign supreme. The War is conducted with a ruthlessness that goes unquestioned. Biggles downs a German plane or two in each of the seventeen stories, without much compunction (though when a plane is out of action, he would rather that the enemy crew survived than not). Several of his flight are killed, and he bears the loss stoically.
One story even features a favourite trope of 1914. Biggles, in mufti, is awarded a white feather by a silly girl, and immediately is revealed as a flying ace, to the shame of both the girl and a war profiteer who is full of excessive patriotic talk.
One senses that Johns had little idea when he was writing these tales that he was setting up a profitable life’s work for himself. The final story even ends with the Armistice, so that in later stories he would have had to backtrack if he wanted to deal with the War. In due course he did, and the oeuvre contains volumes like Biggles Learns to Fly, and even Biggles goes to School.
Any questions you might have about Biggles will almost certainly be answered at http://www.biggles.info/