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W. E. Johns

W. E. Johns

English pilot and writer of adventure stories
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro English pilot and writer of adventure stories
A.K.A. William Earl Johns, Captain W. E. Johns
Countries United Kingdom
Occupations Aviator Writer Science fiction writer Children's writer
Gender male
Birth 5 February 1893 (Bengeo, England, United Kingdom)
Death 21 June 1968 (London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, Greater London, England, United Kingdom)
The details

William Earl Johns (5 February 1893 – 21 June 1968) was an English pilot and writer of adventure stories, usually written under the pen name Captain W. E. Johns. He is best remembered as the creator of the ace pilot and adventurer Biggles.

Early life

Johns was born in Bengeo, Hertford, England, the son of Richard Eastman Johns, a tailor, and Elizabeth Johns (née Earl), the daughter of a master butcher. A younger brother, Russell Ernest Johns, was born on 24 October 1895. Johns' early ambition was to be a soldier, being a crack shot with a rifle. In January 1905, he attended Hertford Grammar School. He also attended evening classes at the local art school.

Johns was not a natural scholar. He included some of his experiences at this school in his book Biggles Goes to School (1951). In the summer of 1907 he was apprenticed to a county municipal surveyor for four years and in 1912 was appointed as a sanitary inspector in Swaffham in Norfolk. Soon afterwards, his father died of tuberculosis at the age of 47. On 6 October 1914 Johns married Maude Penelope Hunt (1882–1961), the daughter of the Rev. John Hunt, the vicar at Little Dunham in Norfolk. Their only son, William Earl Carmichael Johns, was born in March 1916.

Military service

In 1913, while living in Swaffham, and working as a sanitary inspector, Johns enlisted in the Territorial Army as a trooper in the King's Own Royal Regiment (Norfolk Yeomanry). The regiment was mobilised in August 1914 and was sent overseas in September 1915, embarking on RMS Olympic. The Norfolk Yeomanry fought (as infantry) at Gallipoli until December when they were withdrawn to Egypt. In September 1916 Johns transferred to the Machine Gun Corps. While serving on the Macedonian front in Greece he was hospitalised with malaria. After recovering he was commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in September 1917 and posted back to England for flight training.

Johns undertook his initial flying training at the short-lived airfield at Coley Park in Reading, flying the Farman MF.11 Shorthorn aircraft. He was then posted to No.25 Flying Training School at Thetford in Norfolk, closer to where his wife Maude, and son Jack lived.

On 1 April 1918, Johns was appointed flying instructor at Marske-by-the-Sea in Cleveland. Aircraft were very unreliable in those days and he wrote off three planes in three days through engine failure – crashing into the sea, then the sand, and then through a fellow officer's back door. Later, he was caught in fog over the Tees, missed Hartlepool and narrowly escaped flying into a cliff. Shooting one's own propeller off with a forward-mounted machine-gun with malfunctioning synchronisation was a fairly common accident, and it happened to Johns twice. The Commanding Officer at Marske was a Major Champion, known as 'Gimlet', a name used later by Johns for the hero of a series of stories. Johns served as a flying instructor until August 1918 when he transferred to the Western Front.

He performed six weeks of active duty as a bomber pilot with No. 55 Squadron RAF, close to the average in the latter part of the war. This squadron was part of the Independent Air Force, a section of the Royal Air Force that had been formed for the purpose of bombing strategic targets deep inside Germany.

On 16 September 1918, he was piloting one of six De Havilland 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 250-pound (110 kg) bomb and turned for home, but was attacked by a large group of Fokker D.VII fighters. During a lengthy, furious, but one-sided battle, Johns' observer and rear-gunner, Second Lieutenant Alfred Edward Amey, was badly wounded and the aircraft shot down. The victory was credited to German pilot Georg Weiner, the commander of Jagdstaffel 3. Johns and Amey were taken prisoner by German troops. Johns received a leg wound during the battle and was slightly injured in the crash; Amey died of his injuries that day. Johns was a prisoner of war until the end of the war (November 1918).

After the war, Johns remained in the Royal Air Force, apparently with the substantive rank of Pilot Officer. His promotion to the rank of Flying Officer was gazetted on 23 November 1920. Johns worked in central London as a recruiting officer and, notably, rejected T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) as an RAF recruit for obviously giving a false name, but was later ordered to accept him.

By 1923, Johns had left his wife. His RAF commission had been extended a further four years and he had moved to Birmingham, again working as a recruitment officer. In Birmingham he met Doris 'Dol' May Leigh (1900–1969), daughter of Alfred Broughton Leigh. They later moved to Newcastle upon Tyne when Johns was posted there. Although he never divorced Maude Hunt, Doris Leigh was known as 'Mrs Johns' until her death. Johns continued to pay for his wife and son's upkeep and for her nursing care (she suffered from acute arthritis).

On 15 October 1927, he was transferred to the reserves. Four years later, on 15 October 1931, he relinquished his commission.


W. E. Johns was a prolific author and editor. In his 46-year writing career (1922–68) he penned over 160 books, including nearly one hundred Biggles books, more than sixty other novels and factual books, and scores of magazine articles and short stories.

His first novel, Mossyface, was published in 1922 under the pen name "William Earle". After leaving the RAF, Johns became a newspaper air correspondent, as well as editing and illustrating books about flying. At the request of John Hamilton Ltd, he created the magazine Popular Flying which first appeared in March 1932. It was in the pages of Popular Flying that Biggles, first appeared.

The first Biggles book, The Camels are Coming, was published in August 1932 and Johns would continue to write Biggles stories until his death in 1968. At first, the Biggles stories were credited to "William Earle", but later Johns adopted the more familiar "Capt. W. E. Johns". While his apparent final RAF rank of Flying Officer was equivalent to an army (or RFC) Lieutenant, Captain is commonly used for the commander of a vessel or aircraft.

Johns was also a regular contributor to Modern Boy magazine in the late 1930s as well as editing (and writing for) both Popular Flying and Flying. From the early 1930s Johns called for the training of more pilots, for if there were not enough when war came, "training would have to be rushed, and under-trained airmen would die in accidents or in combat against better trained German pilots." He was removed as editor at the beginning of 1939, probably as a direct result of a scathing editorial, strongly opposed to the policy of appeasement and highly critical of several Conservative statesmen of the time. Cockburn, however, feels that the government was concerned about being so "expertly attacked" on the lack of trained pilots by the editor of the most widely read aviation magazines in the world, including readers "in the RAF or connected with flying."

Johns' opposition to appeasement is reflected in some of his books. For example, in Biggles & Co (1936) the storyline revolves around German preparations for conquest. Even more advanced in his thinking, for that time, was the story Biggles Air Commodore (1937) which alludes to Japanese preparations for conquest of British colonies in the Far East.

Apart from "Biggles", his other multi-volume fiction series were:

  • The 6-volume "Steeley" series (1936–1939), featuring former World War 1 pilot turned crime-fighter Deeley Montfort Delaroy (nicknamed "Steeley").
  • The 11-volume "Worrals" series (1941–1950), detailing the exploits of plucky WAAF Flight Officer Joan "Worrals" Worralson (who was also the subject of three short stories); these were created at the request of the Air Ministry to inspire young women to join the Women's Auxiliary Air Force.
  • The 10-volume "Gimlet" series (1943–1954), whose hero is the dashing British commando Captain Lorrington "Gimlet" King.
  • A 10-volume science fiction series (1954–1963) that follows the interplanetary adventures of retired RAF Group Captain Timothy 'Tiger' Clinton, his son Rex, scientist Professor Lucius Brane (who invents a spaceship powered by cosmic rays) and Brane's resourceful butler Judkins.

Johns also wrote eight other books of juvenile fiction, twelve books of fiction for adults, and eight factual books, including several books on aviation, books on pirates and treasure hunting, and a book on gardening, The Passing Show.

Unusually among children's writers of the time, from 1935 Johns employed a working-class character as an equal member of the Biggles team – "Ginger" Habblethwaite, later Hebblethwaite, the son of a Northumberland miner. However, readers never learn his real Christian name, and he proclaims himself a Yorkshireman once or twice.

W. E. Johns died while writing his last Biggles story, Biggles does some Homework, which shows Biggles at last preparing to retire, and meeting his mixed-race replacement. The 12 chapters written were issued privately in 1997.


By Jove, Biggles!, a biography of Johns, was published in 1981, written by Peter Berresford Ellis and Piers Williams.

The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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