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Johns William Earl

Johns William Earl (18931968)Biggles

William Earl Johns was an English pilot and writer of adventure stories, usually written under the name Captain W. E. Johns. He is best remembered as the creator of the ace pilot and adventurer Biggles.

He was born in Bengeo, Hertfordshire, England, the son of a tailor, and Elizabeth Johns (née Earl), the daughter of a master butcher. Johns had a younger brother, Russell Ernest Johns (born 24 October 1895). Johns' early ambition was to be a soldier, being a crack shot with a rifle. In January 1905, he attended Hertford Grammar School (now the Richard Hale School), where the headmaster was a Major Kinman. He also attended evening classes at the local art school.

Johns was not a natural scholar. He included some of his experiences at this school in his book Biggles Goes to School (1951). In the summer of 1907 he was apprenticed to a county municipal surveyor for four years and in 1912 was appointed as a sanitary inspector in Swaffham in Norfolk. Soon after, his father died of tuberculosis at the age of 47. On 6 October 1914 Johns married Maude Penelope Hunt (18881961), the daughter of the Reverend John Hunt, the vicar at Little Dunham in Norfolk. Maude Hunt was eleven years older than Johns. Johns' brother, Russell, acted as his best man. Their only son, William Earl Carmichael Johns, was born in March 1916.

In 1913, while living in Swaffham, and working as a sanitary inspector, he enlisted in the Territorial Army as a private in the King's Own Royal Regiment (Norfolk Yeomanry). The regiment was mobilised in August 1914 and was sent overseas in September 1915, embarking on SS Olympic. The Norfolk Yeomanry fought at Gallipoli until December when they were withdrawn to Egypt. In September 1916 Johns transferred to the Machine Gun Corps. While serving on the Macedonian front in Greece he was hospitalised with malaria. After recovering he was commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in September 1917 and posted back to England for flight training.

Johns undertook his initial flying training at the short-lived airfield at Coley Park in Reading, flying the Farman MF.11 Shorthorn aircraft. He was then posted to No.25 Flying Training School at Thetford in Norfolk, closer to where his wife Maude, and son Jack lived.

On 1 April 1918, Johns was appointed flying instructor at Marske-by-the-Sea in Cleveland. Aircraft were very unreliable in those days and he wrote off three planes in three days due to engine failure - crashing into the sea, then the sand, and then through a fellow officers back door. Later, he was caught in fog over the Tees, missed Hartlepool and narrowly escaped flying into a cliff. Shooting ones own propeller off with the synchronised forward-mounted machine-gun was an accident, but it happened to Johns twice. The Commanding Officer at Marske was a Major Champion, known as 'Gimlet', a name used later by Johns for the hero of a series of stories. Johns served as a flying instructor until August 1918 when he transferred to the Western Front.

He only performed six weeks of active duty as a bomber pilot before his De Havilland DH4 was shot down, his observer Second Lieutenant Alfred Edward Amey was killed and Johns was taken prisoner on 16 September 1918; he remained imprisoned until the end of the war.

After the war, Johns remained in the Royal Air Force. By 1923 he had left his wife and met Doris 'Dol' May Leigh (19001969), daughter of Alfred Broughton Leigh. In 1924 they set up home together in Newcastle. Although he never divorced Maude Hunt, Doris Leigh was known as 'Mrs Johns' until her death.

He stayed with the RAF until 1927, retiring with the rank of Flying Officer. As a recruiting officer, Johns initially rejected T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) as an RAF recruit for obviously giving a false name, but was later ordered to accept him.

Johns' first novel, Mossyface, was published in 1922. After leaving the RAF, Johns became a newspaper air correspondent, as well as editing and illustrating books about flying. At the request of John Hammond Ltd, he created the magazine Popular Flying which first appeared in March 1932. It was in the pages of Popular Flying that Biggles first appeared.

The first Biggles book, The Camels are Coming, was published in August 1932. At first, the Biggles stories were credited to "William Earle", but later Johns adopted the more familiar byline "Capt. W. E. Johns". The rank was self-awarded; his actual rank of RAF Flying Officer was equivalent to an army Lieutenant.

Johns edited Popular Flying and later its weekly sister Flying until the beginning of 1939. He was removed as editor because of pressure from the government as he opposed the policy of appeasement. During World War II the propaganda value of Johns' books was seen by the Air Ministry. This opposition to appeasement is reflected in some of his books. For example, in Biggles & Co (1936) the story line revolves around German preparations for conquest. Even more advanced in his thinking, for that time, was the story Biggles Air Commodore (1937) which alludes to Japanese preparations for conquest of British colonies in the far east.

Johns continued writing Biggles stories until his death in 1968. In all, nearly a hundred Biggles books were published.

Unique among childrens writers of the time, from 1935 Johns employed a working-class character as an equal member of the Biggles team - "Ginger" Habblethwaite, later Hebblethwaite, the son of a Northumberland miner (we never learn his real Christian name, and he proclaims himself a Yorkshireman once or twice). Other less-famous characters created by W. E. Johns include commando Captain Lorrington "Gimlet" King; aviatrix Joan "Worrals" Worralson (essentially a female Biggles, created at the request of the Air Ministry to inspire more young women to join the Women's Auxiliary Air Force); and pioneering astronaut (ex-RAF, naturally) Group Captain Timothy "Tiger" Clinton, who first rocketed into space in 1954.

Great Britain, 1994, Biggles


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