Johns was one of those British men of a certain era with a biography that sounds that it can’t possibly be true, featuring more heroics, odd incidents, narrow escapes, and prolific writing than one would expect from any twelve reasonably adventurous people. He was a fighter pilot in WWI, where he had a number of exciting incidents, including accidentally shooting off his own propeller, culminating in being shot down and taken prisoner. He then became an RAF recruiting officer, and rejected T. E. Lawrence for giving a false name. Mostly after this, he wrote 160 books, including 100 about ace pilot Biggles. (I cribbed this from his Wiki article, which is well worth reading.)

These books were hugely popular in the UK for while, and are probably still easier to find there. They were also reasonably popular in India when I was there. I virtually never see them in the US, and had I known this I would have obtained some before leaving India. They weren’t huge favorites of mine, but I did enjoy them and they are excellent for researching early aviation and fighting tactics, such as they were; Johns notes that WWI pilots were not formally taught to fight, but had to learn on the job. Casualty rates were high.

Biggles Learns to Fly is a solid, if episodic, adventure story; the interest is in the very realistic details. It takes new pilots time to learn to spot enemy aircraft while flying, even when a more experienced gunner is screaming that they’re on top of him, because they’re not used to scanning in three dimensions. It fascinated me to read the details of such early, primitive aircraft and aerial warfare. Pilots communicated with hand-signals, and Biggles was sent on his first combat mission after something like ten hours of solo flying.

Here’s an excerpt from the very last page, after yet another heroic action. Major Mullen shot a glance at Biggles, noting his white face and trembling hands. He had seen the signs. He had seen them too often not to recognize them. The pitcher can go too often to the well, and, as he knew from grim experience, the best of nerves cannot indefinitely stand the strain of air combat. The Major sends him off for a week’s rest.

This is what we would now call combat stress (acute stress in civilians), which may or may not be a precursor to PTSD. (It becomes PTSD if it doesn't go away.) I found it interesting because of how matter-of-fact and sympathetic Johns is, depicting it as something that happens to everyone and doesn’t reflect badly on Biggles. Some other writing from WWI sees it as a sign of cowardice or mental/moral deficiency. Possibly he would not have been so sympathetic if Biggles wasn’t back in reasonably good shape after his rest. Or possibly the RAF had a different attitude. Then again, the book was written in 1935. Benefit of hindsight?

That's also a good example of the tone in general; emotions are noted but not dwelled upon. We only get enough of anyone's interior life to make their actions make sense.
muccamukk: Spiral staircase decending multiple levels inside a tower.. (Marvel: Cheers!)

From: [personal profile] muccamukk


This is making sense of a number of references in Cabin Pressure.
legionseagle: (Default)

From: [personal profile] legionseagle


I can see listening to Cabin Pressure without having Biggles at the back of your mind would leave a lot of references floating in mid-air, yes.
kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore


Is he the guy who wrote the WWII memoir about "was it I who had (paraphrasing) learned to fly and done this and that?" paragraph break, "I suppose it was...." Someone quoted it in a book review post like a month? or so ago and it's been driving me nuts ever since. It was definitely a nonfiction books about WWII by a British pilot, who also wrote novels, argh....

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From: [personal profile] kore


....also I don't even want to tell you for how long I had Biggles mixed up with Raffles. It was YEARS.

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From: [personal profile] hederahelix


I don't know if you have seen and/or like Peter Jackson's film Heavenly Creatures, and off the top of my head, I can't recall exactly how Biggles is referenced in the film, but it is. (and that makes sense since it is set in New Zealand). All I can recall is that it was in researching the reference that I found out who Biggles was and discovered that I had never heard of those books. </ tangentially-related trivia>

But this was fun to read because I knew what the books were but almost nothing about them other than they existed.

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kore: (Default)

From: [personal profile] kore


Because I was obsessed with that film for ages and actually have several books about it I can tell you they're reading a Biggles book and then acting out the "flying" in it during the Donkey Serenade sequence. No idea which one it was, tho.

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From: [personal profile] staranise


Heh, I remember that it took quite the feat of engineering to get a propeller to pause at the right time in its rotations to let the bullets go through. No wonder that was needed!

Those kinds of biographies are, I think, a wonderful testament to what happens when you're handed a great deal of money, privilege, and credibility from a very early age.
davidgillon: A pair of crutches, hanging from coat hooks, reflected in a mirror (Default)

From: [personal profile] davidgillon


Other way round, you have to pause the stream of bullets to let the propeller go through :) Actually worked on the modern equivalent in the (ex-) day job, only with computers things were so much quicker you were checking if the bullet had made it to the end of the barrel yet ( why that was significant I can't remember)

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From: [personal profile] cyphomandra


Funnily enough, I am currently re-reading Biggles Fails to Return, which was published in 1943 and is set in WWII (I find such books, especially episodes in fictional series - the Chalet School has a similar volume - fascinating, especially given that the authors would have no idea what might happen by the time they were published). Biggles has still failed to show up, a hundred or so pages in, but I am enjoying the tension of everyone looking for him, and the setting, Monaco, is nicely drawn.
legionseagle: (Default)

From: [personal profile] legionseagle

Wot abaht Worrals, eh?


I think it's fair to mention here that Biggles had a female counterpart, also written by W.E.Johns, called Worralls of the WAAF. He wrote about five Worrals books, also some about a Commando called Gimlet.

Re: Wot abaht Worrals, eh?

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oursin: Photograph of James Miranda Barry, c. 1850 (James Miranda Barry)

From: [personal profile] oursin


I'm not sure about comparative understandings of 'shell shock' by service in WWI (Maybe I'll see if I have a spare moment to look at the Official Medical History during the course of the day), but possibly because planes and flying were new-fangled modern things, battle fatigue was regarded with more sympathy? I also wonder about equivalent re submarines. I.e. could not be assimilated to traditional narratives (even though modern mechanised trench warfare was a new thing in itself).
legionseagle: (Default)

From: [personal profile] legionseagle


I'm inclined to take the more cynical view that, like not being able to buy commissions in the Navy from a far earlier date than in the Army, cocking up in a plane damaged expensive materiel, not just troops.

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From: [personal profile] green_knight


I found the memoirs of Manfred von Richthofen (the 'Red Baron') an interesting - and judging from other sources of the time, not too far out - insight into the mindset of WWI pilots. He sails through most of his fighting life in a snotty, detached fashion - it's all a game to him. And then it hits him, not too long before his death, and he begins to understand what is happening and the role he's playing. I'd nearly put the book down by that point; I'm glad I hadn't.

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ellarien: Blue/purple pansy (Default)

From: [personal profile] ellarien


That takes me back -- I seem to remember reading a bunch of those as a child.

From: [identity profile] tool-of-satan.livejournal.com


I've never seen one of the books in the US. I HAVE seen the Monty Python sketch "Biggles Dictates a Letter."

Vaguely relevant: Billy Bishop's Flying School
ext_12542: My default bat icon (Default)

From: [identity profile] batwrangler.livejournal.com


There was a 1986 time-travel movie featuring Biggles that I remember fondly. (I also remember looking for the books after seeing the movie and not having much luck -- that was probably in 1988.)

From: [identity profile] tool-of-satan.livejournal.com


There appears to also have been a TV show in the early 60s, which I bet is what Monty Python was actually basing their sketch on, rather than the books.
sovay: (Morell: quizzical)

From: [personal profile] sovay


Then again, the book was written in 1935. Benefit of hindsight?

The Dawn Patrol was filmed for the first time in 1930 and sympathetically depicted combat stress is a major plot point. In that case it's the pilots' commanding officer with his nerves at breaking point; he has to send green fliers with no combat experience directly into the field, with the result that most of them don't even come back from their first missions, and the guilt and the responsibility and the constant, deadly decision-making are cracking him apart. He argues constantly with his commanders to let him give the new recruits a little time, but his requests are constantly denied. Meanwhile, the surviving pilots despise him as a butcher and a mindless martinet who waves the new kids off like clockwork to the slaughter because he's keeping a stone face where they can see him, trying to cover with mechanical efficiency how close he is to collapse. I watched the film cold on television a number of years ago and was genuinely worried the plot was going to hinge on him shooting himself or some similar implosion. I realize it's still not as early as you're asking about, but I think the tradition was there.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com


That sounds interesting, thanks!

There's always been sympathetic views of shellshock/whatever it was called. Even during WWI, there was Rivers at Craiglockhart. I was just wondering how typical Johns was.

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From: [identity profile] desperance.livejournal.com


Fairly sure I have some Biggles out in the clubhouse, if you ever pass this way. I loved 'em when I was a kid, and sort of retrospectively still do, without actually feeling inclined to read 'em any more. (One of my early novels features a dog called Algy: "Why's he called Algy?" "Because he's ginger...")

From: [identity profile] axolotl9.livejournal.com

combat stress and pilots


I have read a number of pilot memoirs from WWI, WWII and Vietnam (well, I guess Chuck Yeager's covers Korea as well) and the amount of drinking, screwing around (in both senses) and general mayhem that pilots were allowed to get away with while in combat is stunning. Pilots were recognized as being under heavy stress and many figured that the rules didn't apply to them because hey, might die tomorrow, let's live it up while we can. The reason "The Memphis Belle: The Story of A Flying Fortress" was such a big deal is that it documented the final mission of the first crew from the 8th Air Force to survive 25 missions over Germany and be sent home. (Well... the second such crew, but the first such crew were in a plane called Hell's Angels and as there was already a movie by that name about WWI flyers, they got the short end. Some of the footage in William Wyler's movie was shot aboard Hell's Angels, with the crew of the Memphis Belle, as the Memphis Belle was under repair from battle damage and the crew of Hell's Angels had already been sent home.)

From: [identity profile] anglerfish07.livejournal.com


I've read WW1 and WW2 memoirs, but I've never read the Biggles one. Thanks for the interesting review and recommendations! :)

I like the matter of fact, tactful compassion portrayed in some WW1 fiction towards soldiers.
Edited Date: 2015-02-07 10:55 am (UTC)
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