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.
BACK TO CIVILIAN LIFE
After the war, Johns didn't want to return to life as a sanitary inspector but wanted to stay in the Royal Air Force. However, the Armed Forces were being drastically reduced to peacetime levels. Initially Johns was posted as a flying instructor to Cranwell but by 11th April 1919 he was transferred to the 'Unemployed List' which meant no pay. His marriage to his wife Maude, was breaking down. Maude had developed acute arthritis and Jack was a sickly child. Johns took up painting, a childhood hobby, until on 23rd November 1920 he was reinstated on the RAF Active List for a three-year commission and promoted to the new RAF rank of full Lieutenant. He was sent to join the Inspectorate of Recruiting in London's Covent Garden and the family moved to Lancaster Gate. It was here that Johns recruited 'John Hume Ross' into the RAF. Hume was really Lawrence of Arabia. Johns actually rejected Lawrence because he didn't like his attitude but was forced to take him by higher authority. Between 1921 and 1924, Johns claims that he spent time serving in Iraq and India, but his RAF records do not show that he served outside the UK. Friends from that time have said that Johns did not serve in Iraq and India and he was simply 'gilding the lily'. Speaking of which, this may be the appropriate time to mention that Johns' title 'Captain' was self-imposed. If asked, he would say it was his old RFC rank, but Johns was a 'Flying Officer' which was the equivalent of Lieutenant. It appears that Johns gave himself a promotion purely because children would more easily understand what a Captain was, rather than a 'Flying Officer'. It is not known whether Johns really did serve in India and Iraq, or whether he merely picked up stories from other officers who had served there. His books, a number of which are set in those countries, certainly have the ring of authenticity about them, as if they were written by someone who was familiar with those countries. Johns also produced artwork from those places, which may indicate his claims are true, but the real truth is something of a mystery. In 1922 Johns wrote his first novel, "MOSSYFACE". It was published by the Weekly Telegraph Novel under the pseudonym William Earle (Johns adding the "E"). In 1923 his RAF commission was extended another four years and Johns was in Birmingham working on RAF recruitment. By this time, his wife and son had moved back to live with her father, the Reverend Hunt, the marriage having completely broken down. Johns wanted a divorce, but the Reverend would have none of it and Maude wouldn't go against her father's wishes. Whilst living in a hotel in Hackney Road, Edgbaston, Johns got friendly with the Leigh family next door. He fell in love with Doris May Leigh (born 6th September 1900) and explained his situation to her. When Johns was posted to Newcastle, Doris went with him, calling herself Doris Johns, they were inseparable until the day he died. Johns continued to pay for his wife and son's upkeep as well as for nurses to look after Maude.
ILLUSTRATOR AND AUTHOR
In 1927, Johns' commission in the RAF was coming to an end and Johns had started making a living by selling his artwork to various magazines such as the Illustrated London News. He specialised in aviation art. Johns moved to Lingfield in Sussex to a cottage with a studio. Doris's family moved nearby and her brother Howard Leigh, then 18, joined Johns to learn to be an artist as well. Howard Leigh was to become a famous aviation artist, and illustrated many of the Biggles books. Johns began selling aviation illustrations to THE MODERN BOY magazine, published by Amalgamated Press from 11th February 1928 and soon after started writing aviation articles. These were initially credited to 'Our Aviation Expert' but by 1930, were being credited to Flying Officer Johns. In 1931, Johns edited two books, THE MODERN BOY'S BOOK OF AIRCRAFT and WINGS: A BOOK OF FLYING ADVENTURES. John Hamilton Ltd, a publisher that specialised in aviation books, published the latter. Johns then illustrated THE PICTORIAL FLYING COURSE with text by Harry Schofield. A few months later Johns wrote FIGHTING PLANES AND ACES. John Hamilton Ltd decided to launch a new aviation magazine and they asked Johns to edit it. POPULAR FLYING, aimed at an adult market, was first published on 16th March 1932 (cover dated April 1932). Wanting to write authentic stories about flying in the Great War, Johns decided to create a fictional airman for the first issue and James Bigglesworth, known as 'Biggles' was born. Biggles first appeared in Popular Flying Volume 1, No 1, April 1932 credited as being written by 'William Earle'. If you click on the turquoise 'Popular Flying' above you will find a list of all his appearances in the magazine. In August 1932, John Hamilton published a collection of Biggles stories as THE CAMELS ARE COMING. This was the first Biggles book and Biggles was to become a British Institution.