Captain James Bigglesworth, known as Biggles, absent-mindedly tapped a fresh cigarette on the back of his hand and anxiously eyed the grey eastern sky. Algy – the Honourable Algernon Montgomery Lacey – was long overdue from patrol over the lines and his fuel would be getting low. Just then, the melodic hum of a Bentley Rotary reached Biggles’ ears and he spotted the welcome sight of a Camel rapidly approaching the aerodrome. His smile suddenly froze. “What’s the silly chump doing,” he growled. The Camel was rather too high, and then dropped abruptly to bump down hard on the turf. It bounced, twice, three times, and ran to an uncertain standstill some distance from 266 Squadron sheds. When the pilot did not get out, Biggles bit back a sarcastic remark about the dashed awful landing and ran over to the machine. As he got closer, he could see the fabric was ripped and torn, the struts shattered; how it had flown at all was a miracle. Reaching the cockpit, one look at the young pilot’s ashen face was enough. With help from an ack-emma, Biggles carefully lifted the freckled-faced lad out and they gently laid him on the grass, waiting for the MO to arrive. “What happened, kid?” choked Biggles.
“Archie over Lille,” whispered the youngster. “Then got – jumped – by – Boche circus. I’m going west, aren’t I sir?”
“Don’t worry, old boy; I know a Blighty one when I see it. And tomorrow we’ll get that bally Boche circus,” he said grimly.
I owe an explanation to those (surely, there can’t be that many of you?), for whom the above made absolutely no sense whatsoever*. James Bigglesworth, Royal Flying Corps, Royal Air Force, professional adventurer and bar, was the ageless fictional hero for boys in over a hundred books written by Captain W E Johns (1893-1968). The fact that William Earl Johns was no captain should not detract from the gloriously archaic, sometimes politically incorrect, language, atrocious story lines and far-fetched scrapes that Biggles and his chums get into – and out of. We initially meet Biggles as the daring, deadly and debonair young RFC officer in The White Fokker, the first of several short stories about Biggles’ flying experiences in the First World War later collected into a book, The Camels are Coming. To avoid any unfortunate misunderstanding, I should add that both ‘Fokker’ and ‘Camel’ are types of aircraft, not a bad man and brand of cigarette.
The flyers of the First World War were all pioneers. It had only been eleven years earlier, in 1903, that the Wright brothers made the first powered flight near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina; just six years later, Bleriot flew across the Channel; a mere five years after that, Europe was at war. The pace of technological advance in aviation has always been astonishing. The first aeroplanes were designed and built by enthusiasts in back gardens, sheds and borrowed buildings and the first wartime pilots were mostly boys. Everything was new; they learned as they went, or they didn’t learn and they perished. Life expectancy was cruelly short; aircraft were primitive, flimsy and there were no parachutes. I believe the British authorities claimed that issuing parachutes would encourage flyers to leave their aeroplanes prematurely, so they did not become standard issue until after the war. In the early days, the frail flying machines, mostly biplanes, made of wood, canvas and wire, were used for reconnaissance; machine guns were added, an adversarial role developed and, later, fighters and bombers evolved. What some people initially perceived as a relatively chivalrous challenge between knights of the air, of necessity degenerated into a brutal and business-like battle. Survivors could not afford to be too polite and many developed a hunter mentality, perhaps carelessly using light language to disguise their emotions. Perhaps, some of them would have recognised Biggles as a sanitised, very lucky, version of themselves.
Today, we understand the importance of air power, that control of the skies is a decisive factor in warfare. But it took the experience of the First World War to prove both the strategic and tactical capabilities of aviation. On 1 April 1918, the army’s Royal Flying Corps and the admiralty’s Royal Naval Air Service** merged to create the Royal Air Force, the world’s first independent air force, with a strength of 20,000 aircraft and 300,000 personnel. As it celebrated its centenary, RAF100, with a host of events – including a gala concert, various airshows and, on 10 July 2018, a service in London’s Westminster Abbey with a parade and massive flypast, RAF strength was around 800 aircraft and 34,000 personnel.
In 1923, the official memorial of the RAF was unveiled on London’s Victoria Embankment. It commemorates all ranks of the Royal Naval Air Service, Royal Flying Corps, Royal Air Force and air forces from every part of the British Commonwealth and old Empire who have given their lives.
The images of aircraft in this article were mostly taken during a visit to the fabulous Royal Air Force Museum in Hendon a few years ago. Of course, there’s considerably more about the place than older aircraft, many of which are, inevitably, replicas. The size of the RAF was massively reduced after the First World War and, ironically, it was possible to buy an SE5a, described by at least one pilot as the ‘honey’ machine of the war, for £5.00. Someone bought a Sopwith Pup for £2 at Croydon Airport and had it towed to their garden in Carshalton for the children to play on. Anyway, at RAF Hendon – incidentally, an airfield with a proud history in its own right – is the Claude Grahame-White hanger, which the RAF claims is the first purpose-built aircraft factory, built in 1917 and later relocated to its present position. This hanger is so old that the gents’ toilets boast (or maybe they’ve been modernised by now) a Thomas Crapper’s valveless waste preventer No 814, a design which dates from 1900 and which Biggles, or W E Johns, would probably have been familiar with. Just thought I’d mention it; and you can’t say A Bit About Britain doesn’t offer variety.
In any event, that visit to RAF Hendon reminded me of borrowing Biggles books from the library when I was a good deal smaller than I am now, when “Jolly good show” didn’t seem a strange thing to say (even if few people actually said it), when goodies and baddies were stereotypical and simpler; and when it seemed a perfectly reasonable aspiration to climb into a cockpit and chase Baron Manfred von Richtofen all over sky before dinner. The reality would have been terrifying and I doubt I would have lasted long. In any event, it is blindingly clear that the flyers of these absurdly insubstantial craft were far braver than I could ever be.
There are almost 100 aviation museums of one sort or another in Britain, including private collections and the amazing, enormous, IWM Duxford. Hendon has a sister site at Cosford in Shropshire and, between them, they have getting on for 200 aircraft on display.
If anyone’s feeling nostalgic, or curious, you can still buy Biggles books – there’s a tempting link for you below.
Per ardua ad astra – through adversity to the stars
*Apologies to the late Capt WE Johns, whose style I badly plagiarise here. Do feel free to email me for a translation.
** The Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm was created in 1924.