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February 5, 2014
Random House Children's Publishers

Posted by Philippa Dickinson

I suppose it’s safe now to fess up and say that James Bigglesworth (‘Biggles’ to his friends and colleagues) was more than just a fictional hero to me when I was 11.  Curled up in an armchair reading his adventures, I wanted to be part of Biggles’ crew, to be there when he saved the day (again), or rescued pals Algy, Bertie and Ginger from whatever dire peril they had been landed in (usually by Biggles or Air Commodore Raymond). But most of all, I wanted to fly, to be a pilot.

I never noticed that Biggles had an extraordinarily long career as a fighter pilot, spanning both world wars, followed by a distinguished career as an air detective, having flying adventures all over the world well into the 1960s. I never noticed that there were hardly any girls in the adventures (apart from Biggles Fails to Return, which is still one of my favourites) and I confess that I never read them all (there are 104 Biggles novels).  Eventually other enthusiasms came along but I have always retained very fond memories of the Biggles books I read as a teenager.

Biggle Fails to return original cover

Biggles Fails to Return original jacket by Leslie Stead (1943)

My paternal grandfather was a pilot in the First World War and defied the odds for pilots by surviving two crashes, one near Gallipoli, the second when he came down in the sea. He was awarded the D.S.O. and the Légion d’honneur.  When he left the Royal Flying Corps, he became a teacher.  I have a strong childhood memory of the model of his aircraft which his pupils gave him and which still sits on a shelf in my father’s house.

photo (8)

First World War pilots had very short life expectancy – a mere 11 days.  They were sent out to fight with a maximum of 15 hours training. Very few survived their first sorties. They weren’t allowed parachutes as the RFC did not want to lose the aircraft. This BBC video says it all.

Watch now: The perils of being a First World War flying ace: BBC

The statistics for Second World War pilots were not much better. Geoffrey Wellum’s memoir First Light is an incredibly vivid and readable account of what it was like to be a 17 yr old pilot in that conflict.

First Light cover

Captain W.E Johns’  Biggles books were originally written for young adults and focus more on the adventure of flying than the grim realities of war, but death and loss are there, particularly in the stories based in the First World War. They are very much of their time as well. In the 1990s the current editions were lightly edited (with the permission of Capt. W. E. Johns estate) with more modern sensibilities in mind but the stories remain the same – great fun and packed with action.

Many years passed as this 11 year old Biggles fan grew up, started work, settled down and eventually married. At some point, I must have told my husband that I had long wanted to learn to fly, although I had forgotten I had said this and so was extremely surprised (and delighted) when he gave me a couple of flying lessons as a birthday present. Now, 26 years later and with over 800 hours in my log book, I can look back at some extraordinary flying adventures in small planes in some wonderful places: including Alaska, all through Europe, to Africa and all over the US. Mountains, deserts, islands and rainforests. And that all started with Biggles.

PD on glacier

So, it was with great delight in 2001 when I took on responsibility for Random House Children’s Books that I discovered that Red Fox had a selection of the best Biggles books on the backlist. We reissued in 2003/4 with new covers by David Frankland and the books did well. Now, we have refreshed the covers again with new illustrations by Mick Wiggins and I am extremely pleased with the way they have turned out.

Biggles Learns to Fly by W E Johns Biggles Flies East by W E Johns Biggles and the Fighter Squadron by W E Johns Biggles The Camels are Coming by W E Johns Biggles and the Rescue Flight by W E Johns Biggles in France by W E Johns

For more information about Capt W.E Johns and his books, visit  the Biggles website.

For more information about the history of the RAF, the RAF website has a lot of useful information.

For information about early flying machines, visit the Shuttleworth Collection or the  IWM Duxford website. Both Shuttleworth and Duxford are active airfields as well as museums and hold flying displays of historic aircraft during the summer.

And the RAF Museums are always worth a visit.

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The enduring appeal of Biggles (and why I learned to fly)

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