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.
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