RAF100 – calling Biggles

RAF, Biggles, Sopwith Camel 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.

Fokker, Camel, RAF, BigglesI 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.

Vickers Gunbus, RAF, BigglesThe 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.

RAF, Biggles, Albatross, von Richtofen

WW1 dogfightToday, 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.

RAF Memorial, EmbankmentVickers Vimy, RAF, BigglesThe 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.

Crapper's valveless waste preventer No 814More seriously, at the time of writing, July 2018, the Grahame-White hanger hosts an exhibition, ‘The First World War in the Air’.

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.

Aircraft, SE5, RAF, BigglesThere 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

RAF, memorial, gilded eagle

*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.

35 thoughts on “RAF100 – calling Biggles

  1. Clare Pooley

    Wonderful post, Mike! Very informative and amusing too. I read Fighter Boys by Patrick Bishop a few years ago and he wrote quite a bit about the pilots of the First World War. What courageous men they were!

  2. colonialist

    This took me back to years as a kid when flying my father’s Hornet Moth biplane – not that much different from the later WW1 aircraft. As a pilot in WW2, his language was still based on some of the WW1 sayings. I wrote a character ‘Wizard Prang’ into a couple of my fantasy novels, and he always uses the ‘Jolly good show, what?’ kind of language. Needless to say, I loved the Biggles stories. Wish I’d been there for the centenary.

  3. Fun60

    Very entertaining and informative post. I’ve yet to visit Duxford or Hendon but did manage to see the flypast last week which was spectacular.

  4. hilarymb

    Bother … wrote a comment and forgot to hit send! I haven’t been to any of these sorts of Museums … though really should. Love your tales – I think I’d better see if I can read Biggles at the library … perhaps it’s even in Project Gutenburg …. but I did love the view of the Crapper and more importantly learning about Mr Johns (aka Biggles) – did they used to call those things Johns …. ?!?! Cheers – and I will post this one … Hilary

  5. artandarchitecturemainly

    My next brother down (2 years younger) was not a great reader, but he LOVED Biggles books in the late 1950s/early 1960s. I, who loved reading, was given every Little Women, Anne of Green Gables etc novel available. My parents were not particularly gender-biased in raising the children, but they were right in this case. Biggles was not for me…ever.

  6. Osyth

    It’s all been said and more so I will content myself with bravo … brilliant post, timed to perfection and full of wit and wisdom as ever. That and my mother adored Biggles but was even more of a fan of Worrals 🙂

  7. 56packardman

    Fabulous post, Mike!
    Is my memory correct that it was Winston Churchill who suggested that a rapid-firing gun could be mounted in front of the pilot and synchronized with the propeller speed so as not to shoot off the propeller blades when firing at the Boche?

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Thanks Louis. I don’t know – but I don’t think so. I think the Germans first perfected the synchronised gun from an idea developed by a French pilot – but don’t quote me.

  8. franklparker

    Loved your plagiarism – I thought it was a real extract from one of the stories that I eagerly consumed back in the day (about 65 years ago, I suppose, I just recently attended a reunion for fellow pupils who left school in 1958!). I also have on my shelves a book about the history of Blackburn Aircraft. Bob Blackburn was one of the “backyard” aircraft builders* whose company enjoyed considerable success before being absorbed by BAE.
    *To be fair, he had the advantage of his father’s Leeds engineering workshop to ‘play with an aeroplane’ as his father put it in 1909.

  9. derrickjknight

    Most topical post, Mike. My paternal grandfather taught flying in the first world war – his qualification? – he ran a School for the sons of Gentlemen in Norwood.

  10. M.B. Henry

    Fantastic post. WWI is such a fascinating age for aviation. I really enjoyed reading this, especially your clarifications on what a Fokker and a Camel are hahaha. 🙂 Great job

  11. Cynthia

    That was a fun read. I can’t imagine flying, much less fighting, in those small flimsy planes.

  12. dinahmow

    Jolly good account, sir. The little girl whose bedroom was festooned with balsa models salutes you.
    And the 100 flypast looked terrific, even from this remove.

  13. Judy@CranberryMorning

    You do make me laugh, Mike, even when I probably shouldn’t. LOL The RAF Museum in London sounds so interesting. I know we loved the IWM there. I doubt those young fliers were any braver than you, but the propaganda campaign was just SO good! As it is in any country at war (or not at war, as the case may be.) :-((

A Bit About Britain welcomes visitors. What do you think?

%d bloggers like this: