W.E. Johns

W-E-JohnsWilliam Earl Johns (1893-1968) published ten science fiction novels for children between 1954 and 1963, although he is best known for the 98 books he wrote about the flying ace James Bigglesworth, nicknamed “Biggles”, between 1932 and his death; the last was published in 1969. During the Second World War the Air Ministry asked him to promote the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, and he wrote eleven books about Flight Officer Joan Worralson (“Worrals”) (1941-1950) and, following a request from the War Office, also wrote ten books about a commando, Captain Lorrington King (“Gimlet”) (1943-1954). He always published as “Captain W.E. Johns”, although in fact he never held that rank officially, and left the RAF (which did not use the rank Captain) with the rank of Flying Officer.

He was the eldest son of a tailor in Bengeo, Hertfordshire. He trained as a surveyor, while taking evening classes in an art school. While still studying for his surveying qualifications, and working as a sanitary inspector in Swaffham, he joined the Territorial Army. He married Maude Hunt, the daughter of a Norfolk clergyman, on 6 October 1914; they had one child, William Earl Johns, born in March 1916. He had an active service in the Great War, serving in Gallipoli and Salonika, and then joining the Royal Flying Corps (which was renamed the Royal Air Force when it merged with the Royal Naval Air Service on 1 April 1918). He stayed in the RAF after the war, and was promoted to Flying Officer in 1920. He was recruited to serve as a recruiting officer. In 1923 “a thin palce-faced chap walked in. There was something so off-hand about his manner, almost amounting to insolence, that I took an instinctive dislike to him. I had got to know the type. He was ‘different’ from the other recruits and he was letting me know” (quoted 94). Johns discovered that this man, John Hume Ross, was trying to enlist under a false name (Johns checked with Somerset House). Johns turned him away, and an hour later “Ross” returned with a messenger who held an order requesting Ross’s enlistment. Later, Johns would be adamant that it was well known within the RAF that Aircraftman Second Class Ross was Lawrence of Arabia.

He left the RAF in 1927, by which time he had left his wife and started living with Doris Leigh (who was always known as Mrs Johns until her death in 1969, though they never got married). Johns worked as an aviation illustrator, and as a freelance journalist, and in 1932 became the founder editor of Popular Flying, a monthly magazine. In that same year, and in the same publication, Biggles saw the light of day. Johns wrote an enormous amount in the 1930s, for Modern Boy and other publications, and in 1938 began editing the weekly Flying. He was dismissed from both his aviation magazines in 1939, for criticising the government’s air defence policy. Despite this, he worked actively for the government during the Second World War: lecturing at the Air Training Corps, and writing aviation books for the Air Ministry and Ministry of Information. The RAF was very conscious how useful Biggles was as a recruiting agent, and Johns was persuaded to help out other branches of the armed forces by writing his Worrals and Gimlet books.

After the war he lived for ten years in Scotland, and then moved to Hampton Court. His work continued to be published, in many languages: after Enid Blyton, he was the best-selling children’s author in the period after the war.

For this information I am wholly dependent on Peter Berresford Ellis and Piers Williams: for their entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and for their book By Jove, Biggles! The Life of Captain W. E. Johns (London: W.H. Allen, 1981). This was revised in 1993 and then reissued in 2003 as by Peter Berresford Ellis and Jennifer Schofield (Watford: Norman Wright, 2003). I have used the latter edition (the preface by Mary Cadogan makes it clear that Piers Williams and Jennifer Schofield are the same person).

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