On 4 October 1913, William Earl Johns joined the Territorial Army, and spent his weekends and holidays with the King’s Own Royal Regiment (Norfolk Yeomanry). It was a cavalry regiment; his horse was called Pistol. On the first day of the war, 4 August 1914, his regiment was mobilised. He wrote later:
Take ten million men at random from between those man-made boundaries which we call frontiers, and ask them if they want to leave their homes to fight, perhaps die. Not one will answer ‘Yes’. Yet when the time comes they will go. Straining to be at the throats of other poor fools as helpless as themselve. Why will they go? They will go because the handful of men who control their destinies will, by the subtle means at their disposal, by lies and lies, and still more lies, make it impossible for them to stay at home without appearing contemptible cravens. Being one of the fools, I shall probably go myself, and presently find myself destroying the home of a man who has done no more harm to me than I to him. Oh no; I have no delusions left about war. When you have seen such sights as I have, you won’t either (quoted Ellis and Schofield, 30).
The Norfolk Yeomanry were initially on coastal watch in Norfolk., and it was not until September 1915 that he was ordered overseas. The regiment set out on the SS Olympic; they thought they were going to France. They landed on the Gallipoli peninsula on 10 October 1915. When the regiment withdrew on 20 December, out of 26 officers and 504 other ranks, only 13 officers and 221 other ranks were fit for duty. However, the figures are a little misleading: only 6 had been killed and 20 wounded by the enemy; the rest had been laid low by disease. After Gallipoli, Johns was posted to defend Suez Canal, and he seems to have received training on the machine gun here. He left the Norfolk Yeomanry on 1 September 1916 and joined the Machine Gun Corps. He was given leave in September, which he spent in Norfolk with his wife and baby son.
Again he embarked on a ship that sumours said thought was going to France; it landed in Salonika in October 1916. The casualty rate was high:
I helped shovel eighteen hundred of them into pits (without the blankets for which their next-of-kin were probably charged), including sixty-seven of my own machine gun squadron of seventy-five, in front of Horseshoe Hill in Greek Macedonia. We were sent to take the hill without big guns. O yes, they sent guns out to us, but when they got to Salonika there wasn’t any tackle big enough to lift them out of the ships. At least, that’s what we were told. Later, when we took the hill, and the guns afterwards appeared, there wasn’t any tackle powerful enough to haul them up the hill. So back we came again. They sent us boats, too – to patrol that fever-ridden sewer called Lake Dorain [sic] – sent them out as desk cargo to the eastern Mediterranean under the mid-summer sun, so that their shoddy timbers warped and when we put them on the water they sank. So to square the deal they sent us an overdue cigarette ration in cardboard boxes, during the rains, so that each man got a nice packet of green mildew to smoke (quoted 31).
Johns came down with malaria, along with thousands of others, and was sent to hospital in Salonika. He was nearly killed by mosquitoes, as he said years later. “I was learning something about war, and it seemed to me there was no point in dying standing up in squalor if one could do it sitting down in clean air” (quoted 33). So on 25 September 1917 Lance Corporal W.E. Johns was discharged on appointment to a commission and on 26 September we was granted a temporary commission as Second Lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps, and was posted back to England for flight training.
The School of Aeronautics was at 14 London Road, Reading; he flew out of Coley Park in Reading, and learned about instruments in University College, Reading (now the University of Reading). He trained on the Maurice Farman Shorthorn. In Biggles Learns to Fly (1935), Biggles is told how to find if all its myriad wires, which kept it together, were in place: “put a canary between the wings; if the bird gets out, you know there is a wire missing somewhere” (quoted p. 34). He won his wings at the end of 1917, and waited in Reading for his first posting. To his surprise, it was as a flying instructor, in the training school at Thetford in Norfolk, near where his wife and son lived.
On 1 April 1918 the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service became the Royal Air Force, and on the same day Johns became a flying instructor at Marske-by-the-Sea (then in the far north of the North Riding of Yorkshire, now in Redcar and Cleveland). Johns told alarming stories of the unreliability of the aircraft: he wrote off three planes in three days through engine failure. He nearly killed himself several times, almost flying into a cliff in the fog, or shooting through his own propellor because the synchronisation gear was faulty. (“It was my own fault,” he said (quoted 46); presumably he should have checked it.) Johns said that the Commanding Officer at Marske was Major Champion, known as ‘Gimlet’, a name used later by Johns for the hero of a series of stories; the RAF have no record of a man called Champion.
On 20 July 1918 Johns was confirmed in his Second Lieutenant position, with pilot proficiency in aeroplanes and seaplanes, and in August he was posted to no 55 (Day) Bombing Squadron in France. He flew a De Haviland DH4 heavy bomber, known as a flaming coffin (since the petrol tank was between the pilot and his observer, and was a likely place for an enemy to aim for).
Approaching the trenches one day, I thought I would fire a short burst through my forward gun to see if it was all in order. I fired, and shot my propellor into about a thousand pieces. I thought the end of the world had come. The engine raced and nearly jumped off its bearings before I could switch off. Some silly ass had timed the synchronising gear all wrong and instead of the bullets passing between the blades of the propellor they hit them and cut them off instantly. There were plenty of fields handy, so there was no difficulty about getting down. I’ve shot my propellor off twice, curiously enough, for it is a very rare accident (52).
On August 12 1918, he took part in a raid on Frankfurt: there were 12 DH4s, without escort, and they met with around forty German fighters, but all got back home without loss of plane, though one observer was killed. It was a stressful time, with most of the pilots flying every day, and with pilots being lost every day. In Popular Flying in 1938, following accusations in the House of Commons about excessive drinking in the RAF, Johns wrote:
A lot of the fellows started the day on a stiff whisky, and, by thunder, they needed it. If they were lucky they ended the day with a dose of the same medicine. Again, by thunder, they needed it. By September 1918, when the Huns were as thick as midges over a midden on a summer’s evening, I started the day with a half-bottle of champagne. We were in the champagne country, and it cost next to nothing, chiefly because there was a chance of the Huns breaking through, in which case the French vintners would have got nix for it. It got the old arteries moving again. And don’t anybody who has not done any war flying write to me and say that I was a naughty boy (68).
On 16 September 1918, he was piloting one of a group of six DH4s that were to bomb Mannheim. Johns’ aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire and was forced to drop out of formation. He jettisoned his single bomb and turned for home, but was attacked by a large group of fighters. Johns’ observer and rear-gunner, Second Lieutenant Alfred Amey, was badly wounded and the aircraft shot down. Johns was finally shot down and landed in a field on the wrong side of the lines. His observer was dead. Johns used to say that he had been shot down by Ernst Udet, the German air-ace who commanded Jagdstaffel 4; but Udet was not in that area on that day (although his subordinate Hermann Goering was) and the credit was given to Georg Wiener. A German NCO came up to Johns and punched him in the face: unfortunately for Johns, a few days before a DH4 had dropped bombs onto a Sunday school, killing many children. There was a trial, and Johns was told he would be executed for his war-crime. “To this day I do not know whether the whole thing was a farce to intimidate me into talking or whether it was really meant” (quoted 85). There is no German record of this “trial”. Johns said that the execution was never carried out because all knew that the end of the war was coming.
Johns escaped from two of his POW camps. The first time he barely got out of the building; the second time he got clear, and spent several days trying to live off the land: “I think I was glad when a farmer with a shotgun finally caught me in his orchard” (quoted 89). He was taken to another camp, near Ingolstadt, specifically intended for prisoners who kept on trying to escape. Barely a week later news of the Armistice came though. On 20 November 1918 they were told to get ready, although it was not until 30 November that they were driven across the lines. Johns reached Calais on 23 December, and was home on Christmas Day.
In January he became a flying instructor at Cranwell, with the rank of Pilot Officer; but that posting ended in mid-April. He was placed on the Unemployed List, and returned home, spending a lot of time painting, and looking after a host of pet birds. He was put on the active list again on 23 November 1920, and promoted to the new RAF rank Flying Officer. He remained in the RAF until 1927: on 15 October 1927, he was transferred to the reserves, and four years later, on 15 October 1931, he resigned his commission.
For this information I am almost 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). Some additional information is from the Wikipedia article on Johns.