“Biggles: The Camels Are Coming” and “Biggles of the Fighter Squadron” by Captain W.E. Johns (published by Canelo)

Chocks away, indeed: Biggles stands test of time in new hardbacks

Biggles flies north (to Canada)! Biggles flies east (to Palestine)! Flies south (to the African desert)! Flies west (to South America)! Biggles in France, Borneo, Australia, Spain, Mexico, the South Seas. Biggles of the Camel Squadron in World War One, in Spitfires in World War Two. Biggles about to be lynched. Biggles in front of a firing squad, locked up in a medieval castle, shot down in flames! Kidnapped! Believed dead! (To be continued… )
1. June 2024 5:25

… In the jungle, the Gobi, battling pirates, a Russian spy, an underwater monster, searching for a lost Persian army, threatened by poisonous orchids, an army of vicious ants. In a 38-year almost-100-book career from 1932 to 1970, the intrepid air ace fought all sorts of evils and survived all sorts of perils. Even between the two world wars and after 1945 the action barely abated, and for sheer adventure it’s hard to go past Biggles and his loyal sidekicks.

He might be regarded sometimes as a relic of a bygone era but unlike other British heroes of his day such as comic and dime novel private detectives Nick Carter and Sexton Blake, Biggles continues not only to be rediscovered by new readers but also devoured again by older folks who were entranced as youngsters when the books came out first time around.

A score or so of the novels remain in print, usually in paperback, but following the success of 12 Biggles titles reissued by British publisher Canelo in hardback in 2022-2023, a further 16 classic adventures are following across 2024-2026. These will be available as ebooks or in hardback, two each spring, summer and autumn, with the titles published in four series (Biggles’ World War 1 Adventures, Biggles Between the Wars, Biggles’ World War 2 Adventures and Biggles, Special Air Detective, each with their own identifiable branding).

Some readers may see it as a plus that the Canelo covers do not show an artist’s impression of a Biggles who fails to coincide with their own mental picture, as on many past editions, but instead feature pictures of the planes that their hero flew on his many daring escapades.

The Biggles books were written by Captain W. E. Johns and he was no armchair warrior. Like his famous fictional creation he knew only too well the reality of deadly aerial combat in early fragile flying machines. It never ceases to amaze this reader at The Budapest Times that in those early Great War days, 1914-18, the flimsy aircraft had machine guns that were actually synchronised to fire through the propellor. Suppose the timing went off a bit?

And in a biography, “By Jove, Biggles! The Life of Captain W.E. Johns” by Peter Beresford Ellis and Piers Williams (1985), those real-life fledgling fliers discovered new ways to die every day, sometimes not even in action in the  midst of aerial dogfights with German “aces”.

William Earl Johns was born in Bengeo, Hertford, United Kingdom, in 1893 and joined the Norfolk Yeomanry as an infantryman. When World War I began in 1904 he was sent to the Middle East. He returned to England in 1916, joined the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and was posted to France as a fighter pilot. He was shot down over the Rhineland in September 1918, captured and initially sentenced to death for bombing civilian targets.

Johns avoided the firing squad by escaping but was recaptured and spent the rest of the war in a Bavarian prison. After the Armistice on November 11, 1918 he remained with the Royal Air Force (RAF), which was founded on April 1, 1918, rising to the rank of Flying Officer, until 1929 when he left to become an aviation journalist. He found his creative niche in April 1932 when he launched Popular Flying magazine, which featured his first Biggles story,  “The White Fokker”, by “William Earle”.

When Biggles’ debut was reprinted in The Modern Boy magazine in January 1933, it was retitled “Biggles and the White Fokker” and credited to Flying Officer W.E. Johns. The author promoted himself to “Captain” with the next serial, “Biggles and the Cruise of the Condor”.

Thus Biggles was, in fact, created in the deadly combat in the skies over the battlefields of France, long before Johns wrote his first adventure. Introducing the debut book, “The Camels are Coming”, a collection of 17 short stories (1932), Johns claimed “many of the adventures that are ascribed to Biggles did actually occur [and] in many cases, the officers themselves are still alive and serving in the Royal Air Force”.

Further, “ Biggles is a fictitious character, yet he could have been found in any RFC mess during those great days [of World War I],” wrote Johns. “Biggles did not exist under that name, yet he represents the spirit of the RFC – daring and deadly when in the air, devil-may-care and debonair when on the ground.”

Squadron Leader James Bigglesworth’s comrades-in-arms included his cousin, Algernon Lacey, nicknamed “Algy”, who joined Biggles’ RFC squadron in 1917. He remained Biggles’ staunch friend throughout the war and joined his peacetime air charter operation, Biggles & Co. When war broke out again in 1939, Biggles and Algy were quickly pressed into service.

Together with their new comrades, “Ginger” Hebblethwaite and the monocle-wearing Bertie Lissie, they fought mostly in the RAF’s 266 Squadron. They were to clash repeatedly with their arch-enemy, Erich von Stalhein. With peacetime, Biggles and his team led Scotland Yard’s Special Air Police, investigating airborne crimes across the globe.
When W.E. Johns died in June 1968, it might have seemed that the apparently old-fashioned Biggles would vanish along with his creator. In some respects Biggles was outdated, with critics seizing on the stories’ casual racism and absence of female characters.

Biggles and his mates never swore, even in the direst moments, ejaculating “Good Gosh”, “By Jove” and other unlikely “expletives”. For some critics, Johns’ writing style could be clumsy and stilted, with perhaps an oddish title such as “Biggles Takes it Rough” (1963).

This book, by the way, published in February that year, was followed by others in May and July 1963, with another two in September (one with 11 short stories, three of them new). That’s a good indication of Biggles’ popularity and Johns’ productivity. Two posthumous titles appeared in the 1990s, “Biggles Does Some Homework”, containing the first 12 chapters of a book Johns was writing when he died in 1968, and “Biggles – Air Ace”, which compiles 11 “lost” stories originally published in magazines and annuals.

Overall the tales had great authenticity and the descriptive writing seemed spot on, whether the tropics, a desert or a sea. Choice of word was sometimes a bit odd, with Biggles tending to “sneer” and be “sarcastic” over-much and inappropriately.

The stories could also be a bit formulaic, often starting with the companions utterly bored by inactivity, whereupon either a stranger or Air Commodore Raymond would appear on cue with a new assignment for the chaps to solve. Biggles naturally insists his companions go with him into the jaws of danger, and one daring caper after another takes the reader on a merry chase down knotted bedsheets or through tunnels to a satisfying denouement.

(Those irreverent Monty Python people had a crack with a sketch called “Biggles Dictates a Letter”, but that’s another matter. Some people have no respect – editor.)

Canelo’s recent publication of “Biggles in the Baltic” (1940) and “Biggles Sees It Through” (1941) are the first hardback editions in 70 years. The latest of their titles are “Biggles: The Camels Are Coming” (1932) and “Biggles of the Fighter Squadron” (originally “Biggles of the Camel Squadron” (1934). You can’t keep a good daredevil down.

The commercial fiction and non-fiction publisher says: ‘It’s a thrill to see these classic Biggles stories back in print, and with such perfect covers. We are sure these books will delight both old fans and new discoverers of Biggles alike. Chocks away!’

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