WAS W.E. JOHNS REALLY A CAPTAIN?
That’s the simple answer to that one.
“The Captain part of it, I may say, he supplied himself ………”
(A line written by W. E. Johns, no doubt with a wry smile, in the 1950 story “The Renegade” collected in “Biggles Takes the Case” in 1952)
The Royal Flying Corps became the Royal Air Force on 1st April 1918. On 20th July 1918, W. E. Johns was confirmed in his rank as a 2nd Lieutenant when he served in the First World War. He remained in the RAF until 11th April 1919 when he was transferred to the Unemployed List, meaning he had no claim to pay and allowances. It was not until 23rd November 1920, that Johns was reinstated on the Active List and promoted to the new RAF rank of Flying Officer, the equivalent of a full Lieutenant.
You can see the London Gazette entry from 30th November 1920 showing W.E. Johns promotion from Pilot Officer to Flying Officer and the London Gazette entry from 22nd December 1931 showing that W. E. Johns relinquishes his commission but is permitted to keep his rank (of Flying Officer) at the bottom of this page.
“By the end of 1932 it seems that Johns had given himself a small promotion; from Flying Officer to Captain. It is, of course, as Captain W. E. Johns that he has become world famous. However, when he left the Royal Air Force he was a Flying Officer, the equivalent to the army rank of a full Lieutenant. In later years, explaining why he was a Captain when there was no such rank in the RAF, Johns told those who enquired that it was his old RAF rank. According to Boys’ Own Paper editor Jack Cox,
“ … his rank of Captain was never an Army title but a Royal Flying Corps distinction and he was immensely proud of it. To this day he still uses it as much as ever. I would never dream of publishing a story or serial of his except under the by-line “Captain W. E. Johns”. But when the Royal Flying Corps merged with the Royal Naval Air Service to become the Royal Air Force, Johns only held the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. It seems that Johns felt that the title Captain would have a more immediate appeal to his younger readers. It sounded more dignified, more assured, and his youthful audience would know what a Captain was, but might not be sure about a Flying Officer – a rank scarcely a decade old. Thus, the December 1932 issue of Popular Flying was able to advertise The Camels are Coming (published by plain W.E. Johns) and The Pictorial Flying Course (published with the by-line Flying Officer W.E. Johns) as being by Captain W. E. Johns. No one seemed to notice the discrepancy. Throughout the 1930s, Johns used the by-line which was to become world-famous with a cheerful inconsistency. For his adult work, books as well as magazines, he used simply W. E. Johns, but for his juvenile markets, right up until the end of 1939, he wavered between the titles Flying Officer and Captain”.
Below is a link where you can see a letter from W. E. Johns himself, written to Lutterworths, where he criticises the standard of their work for him – and he is especially annoyed that they credited him as plain old W. E. Johns rather than Captain W. E. Johns on their Worrals books ……
WHEN DID JOHNS START USING THE TITLE “CAPTAIN” W.E. JOHNS IN HIS ACTUAL WRITING?
When Johns wrote his first article for ‘My Garden’, published in May 1936, he was just plain old W. E. Johns but by his October 1936 article he was Captain W.E. Johns.
When Johns wrote his first article for ‘Men Only’, published in November 1936 he was Captain W. E. Johns.
These had originally been published in “The Modern Boy” magazine. TRAIL was published between 22nd June and 24th August 1935 and EAST between 28th September and 28th December 1935. In these original publications he was created as “Flying Officer” W. E. Johns (his real rank). In fact in ‘Modern Boy’ Johns was ALWAYS created as “Flying Officer” (sometimes hyphenated and sometimes not) right up until the last part of Castle Sinister (Biggles’ Secret Agent) published on 14th October 1939.
When BIGGLES LEARNS TO FLY and BIGGLES IN FRANCE were first published by the Boys’ Friend Library in March and November 1935 (respectively), Johns was “Flying Officer”. The earlier title hyphenated and the latter not. All other Boys’ Friend Library reprints of Johns’ stories, published from 1938 onwards, were credited as “Captain”.
Johns’ last book published under the name “Flying Officer” W. E. Johns was ‘Modern Boy’s Book of Pirates’ in September 1939.
When Johns first wrote for AIR STORIES in Jan, Feb & March 1936 he was just W. E. Johns but his stories published in this magazine in Sept and Nov 1936 were credited as “Captain”
When Johns wrote articles for MINE magazine in March and June 1936 he was credited as “Captain”.
When Johns wrote the “Steeley” stories for “THE THRILLER” he was “Flying-Officer” Johns until October 1936. By January 1937 he was “Captain” W.E. Johns.
When Johns first wrote for the “Air Defence Cadet Corps Gazette” in August 1940 he was credited as “Captain”.
Wings – Quarterly Magazine – Summer 1934 – Vol. 1 No. 1 (published 29th June 1934)
which contained the stories ‘All’s Fair’ and ‘Old Soldiers Never Die’ and an article called ‘The World on the Wing’. Johns is credited as “Captain” on all of these.
Wings – Quarterly Magazine – Autumn 1934 – Vol. 1 No. 2 (published 1st October 1934)
which contained the story “The Raid”. “This story by that popular author, Capt. W.E. Johns, is placed in Iraq, a country that he knows well. The Armistice found him a prisoner of war and shortly after his return to England he was posted to Iraq, where served for some years”. (The subtitle is interesting as Johns’ biographers could find no trace of his service in Iraq and they speculated that he may have “gilded the lily” and made that up. Just as an aside, I personally believe that he did serve there, as his frequent descriptions of the Middle East are so good in his books. Also he gives accounts of things he specifically did there, which I do not think are bare faced lies. I would love to find proof of his service in the Middle East – if anyone out there knows anything further about Johns’ service in the Middle East, please e-mail me).
Wings – Quarterly Magazine – Winter 1935 – Vol. 1 No. 3 (published 1st January 1935)
which contained the story ‘Strange Freight’. Johns is credited as “Captain”.
Wings – Quarterly Magazine – Spring 1935 – Vol. 1 No. 4 (published 1st April 1935)
which contained the stories ‘V.C.’s Won in the Air’ and ‘The Dawn of Aviation’ again as “Captain”.
ROGER HARRIS, Originally written 5th April 2014 but revised and updated 17th July 2020