Friday, November 02, 2007

By W.E. Johns

In the early 1930s Captain W.E. Johns of the Royal Flying Corps crafted one of the enduring heroes of aviation stories: Biggles. Generations of British boys have thrilled to the adventures of Captain Bigglesworth and his pal Algy. Whether in the skies over France, flying East, West, North, or South, on vacation, or flying to work, Biggles upholds British pluck and fair play.

Biggles: Pioneer Air Fighter chronicles some of those early adventures. The volume brings together sixteen short stories set in the later stages of the Great War (the one that ended all war, you know?). The stories are in fact culled from the first and third Biggles books: The Camels are Coming and Biggles of the Camel Squadron. There is also and introduction by Johns about air warfare and a note about how Biggles and air warfare began.

The stories themselves tend to be brief and pointed little anecdotes about surprising events in war or tricky tactical problems that Biggles and his squadron mates must work out. There are also side trips to the trenches and the home front. The world of spies gets a look in as well. Biggles may have to figure out how to down a heavily armed scout plane or to rescue a Tommy with a leg wound. A trip home finds him getting a white feather from supercilious civvies and a DSO on the same day.

What makes these stories compelling is the very serious matter Johns interjects in what are boys stories. Formally the Biggles tales read at a grade school level. But the content is much more adult. Johns recalls comrades who fought their first and last battle on the same day, men flung from aircraft spiraling down, a pilot whose sole air kill was a friendly pilot.

The stories have light banter and a fast pace that obscures the darkness below. Biggles best friend dies in a flaming mid-air collision. Pilots leap from burning planes rather than die in the flames. Military intelligence coldly arranges for a spy to arrange her own demise. Biggles begins to drink heavily and crack up under the strain.

Johns notes in his introduction that most of the adventures that happened to Biggles were based on real events. Given the mix of defiant jauntiness and soul-crushing horror, that is easy to believe.

Long relegated to the land of corny boys stories, the adventures of Biggles are worth a fresh look for aficionados of hard-edged action stories.

-Dave Hardy


Charles Gramlich said...

I've heard of Biggles but never read any of the stories. DIdn't realize they were so adventure focused. I'll have to try some out.

Dave Hardy said...

I get the impression that Biggles is sort of British short hand for "corny flying ace story". I was pleasantly surprised with these. They are toguh to find though!