I found this Biggles book in a London bookshop on one of my visits home. I was surprised to see that Biggles was still popular enough to justify reprints. Perched in the cockpit of his Spitfire in goggles and helmet, silk aviator’s scarf flying, Biggles was the epitome of a thoroughly British war hero. This collection of stories about his post-war exploits with the Air Police was first published in 1963. As you can see from the images above, the early editions had far more appealing covers.
Pilot James Bigglesworth was the creation of Captain W. E. Johns who was himself a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War. The first story featuring Biggles appeared in Popular Flying magazine in 1932. Full-length novels soon followed. In his early adventures Biggles flew a Sopwith Camel in combat during the First World War. Over the years Johns updated the series, giving Biggles a career as a charter pilot between the wars and then a heroic role with the RAF during the Battle of Britain. After the Second World War he became a flying detective for Scotland Yard and first head of the new Air Police division.
Dashing Biggles and his chums Algy, Ginger, and Bertie embodied the traditional English values of patriotism, bravery, and disdain for foreigners. In their travels around the world their attitude to other races was typically colonialist. But I didn’t notice such things when I avidly read my way through the Biggles series as a pre-teen. On my weekly visits to the library I often brought a Biggles book home along with an Enid Blyton Famous Five or Secret Seven adventure. (It would be some years before the librarian let me into the adult section and I began taking home authors like Virginia Woolf). I felt quite proud of enjoying books that were obviously meant for boys. Long before the term YA was invented they were the ultimate boys’ YA series.
My favorites were the Second World War stories when Biggles was Commanding Officer of 266 Squadron, flying Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes. I learned more about the Battle of Britain from these books than from any other source. Amazingly, according to a recent book, the RAF pilots themselves learned from Biggles. In Marked for Death: The First War in The Air James Hamilton-Paterson explains. When pilots who survived the Battle of Britain were asked what helped them avoid the fate of so many of their comrades, many said that they learned aerial combat tactics from reading the First World War Biggles books when they were boys. Some pilots wrote to Captain Johns to thank him for saving their lives.
During my teenage years, when the values of Empire began to be mocked rather than celebrated, Biggles became an easy target for satirists. He made frequent appearances in Monty Python’s Flying Circus in skits such as “Biggles Flies Undone”. I laughed along with everyone else, keeping my childhood crush on Biggles to myself.