Top positive review
Evocative factionalisation of the RFC
on 24 March 2016
I never really took Biggles seriously and, as a child in the 1970's , remember reading "Biggles in the east" and thinking it was a bit old-fashioned and lacked credibility. Had I not read James Hamilton-Paterson's excellent account of First World War aviation called "Marked for death" I would not have bothered picking up this book. Hamilton-Paterson singles out W.E Johns' World War One-themed books for praise as they afford genuine insight into the life of RFC pilots at the time and, having served in the RFC himself, pointed out the air of authenticity about these books.Having now read the collection of "Biggles of the Fighter Squadron" I am inclined to agree with him as, beneath the veneer of the "boy's own" adventures yarns, are accounts of incidents which Johns' preface explains were true but, for the benefit of his readers, were allocated to the fictional character Biggles.
This collection of short stories is over eighty years old and I am in no doubt that the dialogue and attitudes of the characters would seem faintly ridiculous to his target audience in the 21st Century. However, with the passage of time, the stories have perhaps become something they weren't intended to be so that the flippant attitude given to the characters now seems ironic and maybe even satirical. Hamilton-Paterson stresses that there was an element of glib fatalism in the language used by RFC pilots and a tendency to understate circumstances that led to the short life expectancy of pilots at that time. In fairness to Johns', he does not shy away from this and whilst the short stories are lightweight in some respects, the accounts all ring true. In these post-Blackadder days I feel that most readers will come to these stories with sufficient knowledge to see through the accounts of war written for the young male generation that materialised between the 1930's and understand there is far less fiction within these pages than might appear to be the case as well the darker and fatalistic meanings of the euphemisms that pepper the narrative.
I don't really believe in the character of Biggles nor his companions Algy and the Professor are even more cardboard in their portrayal. The dialogue maybe sanitised yet the modern reader will easily be able to read between the lines and grasp that Johns' was strongly hinting towards the less palatable reality of the war in the air at this time. Where this books scores is in it's depiction of aircraft, their behaviour in flight and the sensation of flying which, in my opinion, makes these stories so rewarding. The descriptions of flight including the true nature of dogfights are expertly captured in these stories. I tended to consider these as a fictionalised depiction of real events and , from this perspective, would consider the stories to be as fascinating as the writing of Antoine De St-Exupery, perhaps the greatest aviation writer of them all. Whilst Johns' accounts lack the Frenchman's profound observations and is populated by characters that are about as realistic as those in Tintin, underneath the gung-ho adventures are accounts that truly
capture the aspects of the pioneer aviators.