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Biggles first appeared in the story "The White Fokker", published in the first issue of Popular Flying magazine, in 1932. The first collection of Biggles stories, The Camels are Coming, was published that same year. The series was continued until the author's death in 1968, eventually spanning nearly a hundred volumes – including novels and short story collections – most, but not all, of the latter with a common setting and time frame.
Biggles first appears as a teenaged "scout" (fighter) pilot in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) during World War I. He has joined the RFC in 1916 at the young age of 17, having conveniently "lost" his birth certificate. Biggles represents a particularly "British" hero, combining professionalism with a gentlemanly air. Under the stress of combat he develops from a slightly hysterical youth prone to practical jokes to a calm, confident, competent leader. He is occasionally given "special" (secret) missions by the shadowy figure of Colonel (initially "Major") Raymond (Wing Commander or Air Commodore in later books, reflecting the creation of the Royal Air Force with its own ranks), who is already involved with the intelligence side of operations. Biggles is accompanied by his cousin Algernon ('Algy') Lacey and his mechanic Flight Sergeant Smyth, who are to accompany Biggles on his adventures after the war; added to the team in 1935 is the teenager Ginger Hebblethwaite.
W.E. Johns was himself a First World War pilot, although his own career did not parallel that of Biggles particularly closely. The author's initial war service was with the infantry – fighting at Gallipoli and on the Macedonian front. He was commissioned, and seconded into the RFC in September 1917 and posted back to England for flight training, serving in England as a flying instructor until August 1918 when he transferred to the Western Front. On 16 September 1918 his De Havilland DH4 was shot down on a bombing raid. His observer, Lieutenant Amey, was killed (in two of the stories in Biggles Learns to Fly observers flying with Biggles are killed or badly wounded) but Johns survived to be taken prisoner of war. Johns remained with the RAF until 1927, although his final rank was only Flying Officer (equivalent to Lieutenant in the RFC) rather than the "Captain" of his pen name.
While the purpose of the Biggles stories was to entertain adolescent boys, in the First World War Biggles stories Johns paid attention to historical detail and helped recreate the primitive days of early air combat – when pilots often died in their first combat and before devices such as respirators and parachutes had become practical. Various models on which the Biggles character might have been based have been suggested – including rugby player and WWI flying ace Cyril Lowe, fighter pilot Albert Ball, and air commodore Arthur Bigsworth – in fact Johns himself stated that the character was a composite of many individuals in the RFC (including himself) but does not represent a single person.
The bulk of the Biggles books, however, are set post-World War I and after Johns' own flying career was over. Biggles has an unusually lengthy career, flying a number of aircraft representative of the history of British military aviation, from Sopwith Camels during World War I, Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires in World War II, right up to the Hawker Hunter jet fighter in a postwar adventure (Biggles in the Terai). In these later books geographic and historical accuracy is rather less evident, and the sometimes rather grim detail of the first stories is moderated, in deference to the increasing popularity of the Biggles books with a younger audience than the older adolescents at which they were initially targeted.
The books were highly successful, and were eventually translated into Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Flemish, German, Hungarian, Icelandic, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish.
According to stories in The Boy Biggles and Biggles Goes to School, James Bigglesworth was born in India in May 1899, the son of an administrator in the Indian Civil Service and his wife (née Lacey). James was the younger of two sons, Charles being the elder by five years. The young James had little contact with European culture, and commenced a lifelong affection for India, befriending the local Indian boys, exploring the countryside and learning to speak fluent Hindi. He retained a lifetime gift for languages, and as an adult spoke French and German fluently, with a "fair command" of various other languages.
However, he did spend holidays in England, under the custody of "Dickpa", an eccentric uncle and inventor who lived in rural Norfolk. When Biggles, now an adult, visits Dickpa, his father's brother, again, an adventure begins that takes both men to Brazil.
He then attended Malton Hall School in Hertbury, England. His first encounter with an aircraft was with a Blériot that landed on the school cricket ground.
Biggles left school and initially joined the army as a subaltern in the Rifle Regiment in 1916. He transferred to the RFC and learned to fly in the summer of 1916, at No. 17 Flying Training School, which was at Settling, Norfolk, flying solo after two hours of instruction. He then attended No. 4 'School of Fighting' in Frensham, Lincolnshire.
Posted to France with just 15 hours solo, he first flew in combat in September 1916 with 169 Squadron, RFC, (commanded by Major Paynter). His observer was another youth named Mark Way, a New Zealander. Biggles began flying the F.E.2b "pusher", and later the Bristol F2B. In late summer 1917, he was transferred to 266 Squadron RFC, commanded by a Dubliner, Major Mullen. With 266 Squadron, Biggles flew the Sopwith Pup and the famed Sopwith Camel, developing a friendly rivalry with 'Wilks' (Captain Wilkinson) and the S.E.5’s of 287 squadron and forming a close friendship with his young cousin Algy (the Hon. Algernon Montgomery Lacey). A study of the short stories featuring his World War I exploits suggests that he claimed at least 32 kills, and was shot down or crash-landed eight times. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, and the Military Cross and bar.
After the Great War, Biggles' adventures as a freelance charter pilot took him around the world in an unidentified amphibian named the "Vandal" (often illustrated on covers, anachronistically, as either a Supermarine Walrus or Supermarine Sea Otter). The nearest "real" aircraft that fits W E Johns description of the "Vandal", is a Vickers Viking Mk 4. His team grows when he and Algy meet young Ginger Hebblethwaite while foiling a possible German plot (post World War II editions of the book change this to a Russian plot) against Britain (in The Black Peril). Ginger brings the energy and daring of youth to these, and many of their later adventures. Between the wars Biggles and his friends mix their own escapades with ventures on behalf of British Secret Service.
Biggles returned to service in World War II, initially with a Supermarine S6B type machine in the Baltic Sea and then to defy the Nazis and their allies in Norway. He then took up his post as Commanding Officer of 666 Squadron, RAF, a Special Duties squadron that fought in the Battle of Britain before being sent around the world on specific assignments. Biggles, Algy, Smyth and Hebblethwaite are joined by a new companion, the monocle-wearing Lord Bertram 'Bertie' Lissie. The changed venue forced Johns to update his material with references to new flying slang and aeroplanes, unsuccessfully at first but later with more realism. Biggles' new squadron includes a diverse cast, including the American 'Tex' O'Hara (from Texas), the Welshman 'Taffy' Hughes, the Cockney 'Tug' Carrington, the Oxford graduate Henry Harcourt and 'Ferocity' Ferris from the streets of Liverpool.
After World War II Johns reinvents Biggles' career yet again, with his former boss the Air Commodore Raymond hiring him as a "flying detective" for Scotland Yard. Biggles returns to his rooms in Mount Street, Mayfair, and assumes a role as head of the new Special Air Police division with Algy, Ginger and Bertie making up the flying squad. The group takes on criminals who have taken to the air, both at home in Britain and around the globe, as well as battling opponents behind the Iron Curtain. The team fly a wide variety of machines, with Auster and Percival types doing much of the work.
Johns continued writing Biggles short stories and novels up until his death in 1968; in all, nearly 100 Biggles books were published.
Biggles's greatest opponent is the German intelligence officer Erich von Stalhein. They first meet in Biggles Flies East, when Biggles acts as a spy in the Middle East in World War I, having some narrow escapes. Von Stalhein returns as an adversary in numerous other adventures: in Biggles & Co. he is the leader of a group of smugglers residing in a medieval castle somewhere in Eastern Germany. As the Cold War begins, von Stalhein enters the services of the Communist bloc, until his former masters imprison him on the island of Sakhalin, from where Biggles helps him escape in Biggles Buries a Hatchet. After von Stalhein settles in London, he and Biggles remain in touch. It is from von Stalhein that Biggles learns that Janis (see "Female characters" below) survived World War II and was imprisoned in Czechoslovakia, from where Biggles rescues her and goes on to support her in England.
In the Biggles stories, female characters appear infrequently. Despite brief affairs, Biggles and his chums remain steadfastly single. Biggles suffered a disappointment in World War I, when he fell in love with German spy Marie Janis in the short story Affaire de Coeur set in 1918. Rather than being considered asexual or a repressed homosexual, Biggles' relationship with Janis suggests he is a romantic hero, "tragically loyal to the only woman he ever really loved".
In Biggles Fails to Return (1943), Ginger falls in love with the sister of the French pilot who has flown Biggles into France on a secret mission, and at the end of the story Ginger gets to spend several weeks in her company while awaiting transport back to England. The young Ginger is also smitten by the beautiful Polynesian girl, Full Moon, in Biggles in the South Seas (1940).
There is a discussion of the issue of Biggles, sex and alcohol in By Jove, Biggles: The Life of Captain W.E. Johns (1981) by Peter Berresford Ellis and Piers Williams.
In the 1950s, a popular Australian radio version of Biggles was made under licence. Johns did not write the scripts and apparently ended the contract after receiving complaints from young readers that the storyline had made Biggles "go soft" by taking up a blonde female lover.
Another female character appears in the form of Worrals (Flight Officer Joan Worralson), eponymous heroine of a related series of books featuring this resourceful and "plucky" member of the WAAF. A further Johns creation, the commando Captain Lorrington "Gimlet" King, also features in a series of books that intersect with Biggles at times.
The settings of the Biggles books are spread over more than 50 years; this produces a number of credibility difficulties, especially for older readers.
Though Biggles and his friends age in the books, they do so much more slowly (and inconsistently) than historically credible. The characters appear to age about one year in every four – at least from around 1925 onward.
Even within a group of stories set in the same time frame there are some chronological inconsistencies:
It is doubtful whether a careful reading of the various World War I stories could result in a coherent sequence.
The author succeeds reasonably well in chronicling developments in aviation technology, but social and cultural changes are much more difficult. The cultural and social world of Biggles (whether in the 1930s or some earlier period) does not persist completely unchanged through the whole series – for instance, in an early book, the evidence points to an English nobleman as the perpetrator, but Biggles dismisses this out of hand as the gentry would never commit a crime; in a later novel, one of the gentry is the villain. Nonetheless, the social context of the books, viewed in chronological order, does become increasingly old-fashioned, even anachronistic, especially in those works set after World War II.
Quaint and dated language in the Biggles books is often footnoted in reprint editions for the benefit of modern readers. As well as early twentieth century British slang and service jargon this includes dated usage such as "opine", and "ejaculate", for "said". The first of these is still current, but rare, although it generally means to "hold an opinion" or "believe" rather than Johns' usual sense of "to express an opinion". "Ejaculate" in the Biggles books is merely a synonym for "exclaim".
One feature of social change since the original publication of the Biggles books has been a considerable shift in attitudes to race and ethnicity. During the 1960s and 1970s a perception of Biggles as unacceptably racially prejudiced, especially considered as children's literature, drove the Biggles books from many public and school libraries.
The Biggles character himself was brought up in India, speaks fluent Hindi, and has a number of Indian friends and colleagues. In Biggles Goes to School, on one occasion when told to write lines in Latin he remarks that he would rather do so in Hindi. On one occasion the adult Biggles asserts to Air Commodore Raymond that "while men are decent to me I try to be decent to them, regardless of race, colour, politics, creed or anything else".
Furthermore, while individually developed non-white characters are rather infrequent, when they do occur, they are usually "positive", from the Oxford-educated Chinaman, Li Chi, in Biggles Flies Again and Biggles Delivers the Goods and the perky Polynesian girl, Full Moon, in Biggles In The South Seas, to Alexander MacKay, a part-Native American (Red Indian) nicknamed "Minnie" who joins "the chums" as a valued colleague, and is even set to inherit Biggles' job in Biggles Does Some Homework. It has been pointed out, however, that the positive characteristics of these characters tend to be such features as relatively light complexions, Western educations, and general usefulness to our (white) hero and his friends and allies.
On the other hand, when Johns wishes to present an unpleasant "foreigner" he will quite often drop a gratuitous and offensive hint that the person involved is of mixed race. Non-whites taken en masse tend to be systematically demonised. With the evil "Chungs" of Biggles Hits the Trail and the sub-human "Aboriginals" of Biggles in Australia, in particular, Johns succumbs to the tendency, typical of his time, to apply unpleasant stereotyping to non-white opponents of his hero. No Rest for Biggles, set in Liberia, where he encounters descendants of Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henri Cristophe plotting to set up a black empire, is another novel which is problematic in its treatment of racial issues. Yet another book, Biggles in Borneo, stereotypes Dayak headhunters as barely human "savages", even though they are Biggles' allies against the Japanese. Nowadays few people would defend the racial prejudice in these books (and others in the "Biggles canon") although they are typical of a genre of fiction for young people that was once common.
Biggles Delivers the Goods (published just three years after Biggles in Borneo) repeats the earlier work's basic plot line so closely that the later novel is clearly a revision of the earlier one. In both books Biggles establishes a secret airfield behind Japanese lines which is discovered and attacked by the Japanese before he can achieve his objectives. Algy is captured by the Japanese and threatened with execution by a brutal Japanese commandant, and rubber (as an important strategic material) figures largely. All ends well in both novels, as a massive air attack relieves the brave defenders of the airfield and defeats the Japanese. The protagonists are also closely paralleled in both novels, although in Biggles Delivers the Goods Li Chi (originally from a short story in Biggles Flies Again) reappears to take the place of a white character from the earlier version; and the headhunters, while still milked for "exotic colour" are much more sympathetically treated.
The early Biggles stories and novels, especially those set in World War I, were apparently written mainly for older adolescents. Death is treated rather frequently and sometimes in quite a grim fashion, and other "adult themes" are also touched on – for instance, on at least one occasion Biggles sets out on a mission with "red mist", inspired by the death of a comrade. The emotional strain of combat is also realistically described, as Biggles becomes a "highly-strung" fidgeting pale youth, lacking his usual sense of humour. In these stories, in particular, alcohol is mentioned occasionally and cigarettes are much in evidence.
The early World War I books were reprinted in the 1950s when the Biggles books had acquired a younger readership, and were bowdlerised to make them more suitable for young children. In the short story The Balloonatics, republished in Biggles of the Special Air Police the prize for capturing a German observation balloon was altered from a case of Scotch whisky to a case of lemonade. The reprint also removes all references to drinking and swearing.
The books contain no explicit sexual content and the traditional values of bravery, honesty and fair play are stressed. Romantic storylines, which would have bored his younger readers and embarrassed the older ones, are on the whole avoided; with the odd exception, such as in Biggles Looks Back, where he and von Stalhein rescue Marie Janis (with whom Biggles was briefly in love in an earlier story) from her prison in Bohemia.
Biggles appeared in a TV series based on the books with Neville Whiting playing the title role. There were 44 B&W untitled episodes of 30 minutes, which were made by Granada and ran from 1 April till 9 September 1960. Biggles was a Detective Air Inspector attached to Scotland Yard. Helping him was Ginger (John Leyton) and Bertie (David Drummond) and they fought against villains like von Stalhein (Carl Duering).
He was also featured in a 1986 feature film called Biggles: Adventures in Time, directed by John Hough with Neil Dickson in the title role. The film attempted to add appeal to the character by adding a science fiction element, but it was a commercial and critical failure. Dickson reprised the character in all but name, in the Pet Shop Boys' feature film, It Couldn't Happen Here.
In 1986, a Biggles video game was released as a tie-in to movie Biggles: Adventures in Time by Mirrorsoft for the platforms Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum. It included levels based in 1917 and other levels set in modern-day London.
There have been many different versions of comics about Biggles published in different countries in Europe.
The first "annual" appeared in 1980.
In India, Euro Books published 14 titles of the Biggles Series along with compilations of the same in 2007.
Biggles, or members of his team, have appeared in the following Gimlet books
Air Commodore Raymond also appeared in W E Johns' "Steeley Books"
The books are a common target for collectors. Some lesser known titles, especially those never released in paperback, are very rare. A copy of Biggles and the Deep Blue Sea, has fetched $1,000 on eBay. Most of the Biggles books are currently (2013) out of print, but a core of popular titles have been reprinted from time to time in various editions. Red Fox (a Random House imprint) reprinted a selection of the "pre-1945" titles, with footnotes added to explain slang and military terms used by Johns; fifteen or sixteen of these seem to have been in print in 2013. In any case collectors interested in acquiring readable copies of the texts (as opposed to mint copies of first editions) have a fair choice of second-hand copies at reasonable prices.
Biggles – The Authorised Biography by John Pearson, published in 1978, added new and embellished elements to the character's history, including the ageing Biggles' (apparent) suicide in a vintage Spitfire circa 1970. Biggles Recounts the Falklands War, by D. Chauvin, M. Uderzo, B. Asso and J. Rideau appeared in 2007. A number of Biggles characters appear in Kim Newman's alternate history novel The Bloody Red Baron.
In the Red Dwarf Series III episode "Marooned", Dave Lister burns Arnold Rimmer's copy of Biggles Learns to Fly to stay warm while stranded on a hostile moon. Later in the Series X opener "Trojan", Rimmer recounts how his brother Howard once painted his rear with orange glow paint, allowing him to read Biggles Flies West for three nights without needing a torch.
The lyrics of the Jethro Tull song, "Thick As a Brick", has a line that mentions Biggles ("So, where the hell was Biggles when you needed him last Saturday?"). Additionally, Biggles is mentioned several times in the elaborate album cover, which is a parody of a local British newspaper, most significantly in a story entitled "Do Not See Me Rabbit".
Biggles was parodied in a series of skits on the 1970s British comedy television show, Monty Python's Flying Circus, including one titled "Biggles Dictates a Letter". In the sketch, Biggles behaves in a naive and overreactive manner about the sexual orientation of his fellow comrades, shooting Algy in the process.
Other Monty Python treatments of Biggles include:
Johns died while still writing Biggles Does Some Homework. Although never completed, it was released as a strictly limited edition of 300 copies in paperback. A further limited print run of 300 hardback copies has been printed in 2007 by Norman Wright publishing.