A BRIEF BIOGRAPHY OF CAPTAIN W. E. JOHNS
Please note that this brief summary of Johns' amazing life is just that, a brief summary. If you are interested in the full details of his life you MUST read By Jove, Biggles! - The Life of Captain W. E. Johns by Peter Berresford Ellis and Jennifer Schofield. This well researched and comprehensive account was reprinted in August 2003 by Norman Wright - limited to 300 signed copies.
HIS EARLY LIFE
William Earl Johns (his name is often incorrectly spelt with an 'E' on the end of Earl) was born on Sunday 5th February 1893 at Mole Wood Road, Bengeo in Hertfordshire. He father, Richard Eastman Johns was a tailor and his mother Elizabeth Johns (nee Earl) was the daughter of a master butcher. Johns had a younger brother, Russell Ernest Johns, who was born on 24th October 1895. Johns' early ambition was to be a soldier. In January 1905, Johns went to Hertford Grammar School (now the Richard Hale School, Hertford) where the headmaster was Major Kinman. Some of his experiences here went into his book BIGGLES GOES TO SCHOOL. Not a particularly able scholar, Johns was a crack shot with a rifle. In the summer of 1907 Johns 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. Johns soon spotted a "pretty girl" called Maude Hunt who was the daughter of the Reverend John Hunt, a vicar at Little Dunham. Maude was actually eleven years older than Johns. On 4th October 1913, Johns joined the Territorial Army as a Private in the King's Own Royal Regiment (Norfolk Yeomanry). This was a cavalry regiment so Johns had his own horse. In August 1914 the Great War began and Johns' regiment was mobilised. Johns later wrote that he "galloped down the drive to what, in my youthful folly, I supposed was going to be death or glory. I had yet to learn that in war there is plenty of death but little glory; that in war only death is real; that glory is simply gilt and tinsel to wrap around the other so that it looks less like what it really is". Like many other couples, faced with an uncertain future, Bill Johns and Maude Hunt got married on Tuesday 6th October 1914. His brother, Russell was his best man. Johns' regiment was in training and on home defence duties until September 1915 when they received embarkation orders for duty overseas.
THE FIRST WORLD WAR
Travelling in the SS Olympic to Gallipoli, Johns' regiment went to fight alongside the ANZAC's (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) against the Turks and the Germans. Disease was the biggest problems for Johns' regiment but he served under fire in the trenches until the regiment was withdrawn in December 1915. Johns was to recount a number of tales of instant death from these times. Sent initially to Alexandria, the regiment next went to form part of the defences to the Suez Canal. On 18th March 1916, Maude gave birth to Johns' son who was christened William Earl Carmichael Johns but known as 'Jack' to distinguish him from his father. Johns trained as a machine gunner and was transferred on 1st September 1916 to a new force, (only founded in October 1915), the Machine Gun Corps. He was also promoted to Lance Corporal. After brief leave in England, Johns was then sent to Salonika in Greece. Here he served in the trenches and fought in a number of battles. In April 1917 he took part in the spring offensive. Johns came down with malaria and whilst in hospital in Salonika he put in for a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. On 26th September 1917, Johns was granted a temporary commission as Second Lieutenant and posted back to England to learn to fly. Johns learnt to fly at No. 1 School of Aeronautics at Reading, taught by a Captain Ashton. He learnt in "an old Rumpity"; a Maurice Farman Shorthorn and many of his experiences were to go into the book BIGGLES LEARNS TO FLY. Johns had an aptitude for flying and soon went solo, but stalled and crashed on his first flight. On 20th January 1918, Johns was posted to No. 25 Flying Training School at Thetford, close to where his wife and son lived. A Home Establishment posting sounds very cushy but in fact Flying School was dangerous. People crashed and died on a weekly basis and sometimes there were fatalities on a daily basis. There are many astonishing tales of death and disaster from this time, which make fascinating reading. Johns himself had a number of spectacular crashes and forced landings from failed engines. He once wrote off three planes in three days due to engine failure and the planes he destroyed must number in double figures. Had he been a German pilot he would have been an Ace! (For that was the status granted to German pilots who destroyed 10 enemy aircraft). It has to be said that this was not uncommon and many planes were destroyed by various accidents. In April 1918, Johns was posted to Marske-on-Sea in Yorkshire. The CO here was a Major Champion, who was nicknamed 'Gimlet', a nickname Johns was to later borrow for one of his characters. On 20th July 1918, Johns received notification that he was being posted to the front in France.
BIGGLES GOES TO WAR
It is a common misconception that William Earl Johns was a fighter pilot with the Royal Flying Corps. In fact, on 1st April 1918, the Royal Flying Corps had merged with the Royal Naval Air Service to become the Royal Air Force and Johns was actually a bomber pilot. Johns effectively posted himself to No. 55 (Day) Bombing Squadron stationed at Azelot, near Nancy in France. Here they shared an airfield with No. 99 Squadron and No. 104 Squadron.
No. 55 Squadron was equipped with De Havilland DH4 aircraft. These two-seater aircraft were heavy bombers with 275 hp Rolls-Royce Eagle engines. They were nicknamed "flaming coffins" because the petrol tank was between the pilot and his rear observer and a good target for enemy aircraft. It has to be said that life expectancy was low for many First World War pilots. At one stage, average life expectancy was 11 days. Johns arrived in late July 1918 (although due to various paperwork problems he wasn't officially posted to the squadron until 21st August 1918). Johns only had to last until 11th November 1918 and the war would be over but such was the nature of his job, that like many others, he didn't make it. He flew on numerous bombing raids on an almost daily basis and had a number of close shaves with enemy aircraft. It was on Monday 16th September 1918 that Johns "failed to return". The night before had been spent in Nancy but for various reasons he got lost on the return journey and stopped at a magnificent French house at 3.00 a.m. to ask for directions. Here he met a beautiful French girl and was able to spend some time with her. She was to become the inspiration for the love of Biggles' life, Marie Janis in THE CAMELS ARE COMING. On Monday 16th September 1918, whilst flying in formation on a bombing raid to Mannheim, Johns, together with his observer and rear gunner, 2nd Lt. A. E. Amey, were hit by German anti aircraft fire ("archie") and their fuel tank holed. Forced to drop out of formation they were then easy prey for a dozen or so German fighters and shot to pieces. Amey was killed and Johns hit in the thigh and had his goggles smashed by bullets. Eventually his engine was hit and stopped, spraying petrol vapour everywhere. The flames held off and Johns crashed in a German field and passed out. Coming round, Johns was able to get out of the plane but couldn't get Amey's body out. He was captured by the Germans and given a rough time, due to the recent bombing of a Sunday school and the death of a number of local children. The pilots who shot him down came to see him and he was treated with great camaraderie. The pilot who claimed to have eventually got him wore the Blue Max and in later years, Johns became convinced he had been shot down by Ernst Udet, the famous German Ace who scored 62 kills (second only to the infamous Red Baron who scored 80). This cannot be correct, as Udet was not there at that time. Johns was sentenced to be shot by a firing squad, but this was never carried out and he was sent to a Strasbourg gaol. After an initial escape attempt here, he was sent to another camp at Landshut, 30 miles east of Munich. From here he escaped, towards the end of October 1918, and was at liberty for four or five days before being recaptured whilst stealing apples. He was then transferred to a 'bad boys' camp at Ingolstadt and it was whilst Johns was here that the war ended on 11th November 1918. Johns returned to his family on Christmas Day 1918, much to their astonishment as he had been listed as missing and they had presumed that he had been killed, until the moment he walked through the door.