W. E. Johns

William Earl Johns (5 February 1893  21 June 1968) was an English First World War pilot, and writer of adventure stories, usually written under the pen name Capt. W. E. Johns. He was the creator of the fictional air-adventurer Biggles.

William Earl Johns
Born(1893-02-05)5 February 1893
Bengeo, Hertford, United Kingdom
Died21 June 1968(1968-06-21) (aged 75)
London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, United Kingdom
Pen nameCaptain W. E. Johns
OccupationAviator, author, editor
GenreAdventure fiction, war fiction, science fiction
SpouseMaude Penelope Hunt (m. 1914)
PartnerDoris May Leigh
ChildrenWilliam Earl Carmichael Johns (1916–1954)[1]

Early life

Johns was born in Bengeo, Hertford, England, the son of Richard Eastman Johns, a fabric 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, and he was a crack shot with a rifle. From January 1905, he attended Hertford Grammar School.[2] 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, vicar of Little Dunham, Norfolk.[2] Their only son, William Earl Carmichael Johns, was born in March 1916.

Military career and the First World War

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 The Norfolk Yeomanry fought (as infantry) at Gallipoli until December when they were withdrawn to Egypt.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 as a temporary second lieutenant[3] 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 were living.[4]

On 1 April 1918, Johns was appointed flying instructor at Marske-by-the-Sea in Yorkshire. The aircraft of the time were very unreliable 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. During this time Johns's probationary commission was confirmed[5] and he 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.[6] 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 on their way to bomb Mannheim when his aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire and he 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 number of Fokker D.VII fighters. During a lengthy 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 Georg Weiner, the commander of Jagdstaffel 3.[7] Johns and Amey were taken prisoner by German troops: Johns received a leg wound during the battle and was slightly injured in the crash, but Amey died of his injuries later that day.[7][8] [Note 1] Johns remained a prisoner of war until after the Armistice of 11 November 1918.

After the war, Johns remained in the Royal Air Force, apparently with the substantive rank of Pilot Officer.[Note 2] His promotion to the rank of Flying Officer was gazetted on 23 November 1920.[9] Johns worked in central London as a recruiting officer[10] and rejected T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) as an RAF recruit for obviously giving a false name, but was later ordered to accept him.[11]

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[10] (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).[10]

On 15 October 1927, he was transferred to the reserves.[12] Four years later, on 15 October 1931, he relinquished his commission.[13]


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,[Note 3] 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 (a reference to the Sopwith Camel aeroplane), 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 The 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."[14] 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.[15] 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."[16]

Johns' opposition to appeasement is reflected in some of his books. For example, in The Black Peril (1935) 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 First World War 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 given name, and he proclaims himself a Yorkshireman once or twice.


W. E. Johns died on 21 June 1968 in his 76th year. Shortly before his death he was writing the final Biggles story, entitled Biggles does some Homework, which shows Biggles at last preparing to retire, and meeting his mixed-race replacement. The twelve chapters written were issued privately in 1997.[17]

Johns' body was cremated at the Kingston-upon-Thames Crematorium, on Bonner Hill.[18]

Personal life

From 1953 Johns resided at Park House, Hampton Court Road, at Hampton Court in Middlesex.[19]


By Jove, Biggles!, a biography of Johns, was published in 1981, written by Peter Berresford Ellis and Piers Williams. It was republished as Biggles! The Life Story of Capt. W. E. Johns (Veloce Publishing, 1993, ISBN 187410526X).

Published works

Biggles Stories

  • The Camels are Coming (1932)
  • Cruise of the Condor (1933)
  • Biggles of the Camel Squadron (1934)
  • Biggles Flies Again (1934)
  • Biggles Learns to Fly (1935)
  • Biggles and the Black Peril (1935)
  • Biggles Flies East (1935)
  • Biggles Hits the Trail (1935)
  • Biggles in France (1935)
  • Biggles and Co. (1936)
  • Biggles in Africa (1936)
  • Biggles Air Commodore (1937)
  • Biggles Flies West (1937)
  • Biggles Flies South (1938)
  • Biggles Goes to War (1938)
  • The Rescue Flight (1939)
  • Biggles in Spain (1939)
  • Biggles Flies North 1939)
  • Biggles Secret Agent (1940)
  • Biggles in the Baltic (1940)
  • Biggles in the South Seas (1940)
  • Biggles Defies the Swastika (1941)
  • Biggles Sees It through (1941)
  • Spitfire Parade (Biggles) (1941)
  • Biggles in the Jungle 1942)
  • Biggles Sweeps the Desert (1942)
  • Biggles Charter Pilot (1943)
  • Biggles in Borneo (1943)
  • Biggles Fails to Return (1943)
  • Biggles in the Orient (1945)
  • Biggles Delivers the Goods (1946)
  • Sergeant Bigglesworth C.I.D. (1947)
  • Biggles Second Case 1948)
  • Biggles Hunts Big Game (1948)
  • Biggles Takes a Holiday (1949)
  • Biggles Breaks the Silence (1949)
  • Biggles Gets His Men (1950)
  • Another Job for Biggles (1951)
  • Biggles Goes to School (1951)
  • Biggles Works It Out (1951)
  • Biggles Takes the Case (1952)
  • Biggles Follows On (1952)
  • Biggles Air Detective (1952)
  • Biggles and the Black Raider (1953)
  • Biggles in the Gobi (1953)
  • Biggles of the Special Air Police (1953)
  • Biggles in the Blue (1953)
  • Biggles Cuts It Fine (1954)
  • Biggles and the Pirate Treasure (1954)
  • Biggles Foreign Legionnaire (1954)
  • Biggles Pioneer Airfighter (1954)
  • Biggles in Australia (1955)
  • Biggles Chinese Puzzle (1955)
  • Biggles of 266 (1956)
  • No Rest for Biggles (1956)
  • Biggles Takes Charge (1956)
  • Biggles Makes Ends Meet (1957)
  • Biggles of the Interpol (1957)
  • Biggles on the Home Front (1957)
  • Biggles Presses On (1958)
  • Biggles on Mystery Island (1958)
  • Biggles Buries a Hatchet (1958)
  • Biggles in Mexico (1959)
  • Biggles Combined Operation (1959)
  • Biggles at World's End (1959)
  • Biggles and the Leopards of Zinn (1960)
  • Biggles Goes Home (1960)
  • Biggles and the Poor Rich Boy (1961)
  • Biggles Forms a Syndicate 1961)
  • Biggles and the Missing Millionaire (1961)
  • Biggles Goes Alone (1962)
  • Orchids for Biggles (1962)
  • Biggles Sets a Trap (1962)
  • Biggles Takes it Rough (1963)
  • Biggles Takes a Hand (1963)
  • Biggles Special Case (1963)
  • Biggles and the Plane that Disappeared (1963)
  • Biggles Flies to Work (1963)
  • Biggles and the Lost Sovereigns (1964)
  • Biggles and the Black Mask (1964)
  • Biggles Looks Back (1965)
  • Biggles Investigates (1965)
  • Biggles and the Plot that Failed (1965)
  • Biggles and the Blue Moon (1965)
  • Biggles Scores a Bull (1965)
  • Biggles in the Terai (1966)
  • Biggles and the Gun Runners (1966)
  • Biggles Sorts It Out (1967)
  • Biggles and the Dark Intruder (1967)
  • Biggles and the Penitent Thief (1967)
  • Biggles and the Deep Blue Sea (1968)
  • The Boy Biggles (1968)
  • Biggles in the Underworld (1968)
  • Biggles and the Little Green God (1969)
  • Biggles and the Noble Lord (1969)
  • Biggles Sees Too Much (1970)
  • Biggles in the Antarctic (1970)
  • Biggles of the Royal Flying Corps (1978)
  • Biggles Does Some Homework (1997)

Gimlet stories

  • King of the Commandos (1943)
  • Gimlet Goes Again (1944)


  1. Amey's medals were sold at auction in the United Kingdom in 2005, in a lot that included a letter to his family from Johns, describing the circumstances of his death (see: Bosleys 2005, Lot 556). In the preface of Biggles Pioneer Air Fighter (1954), on page vi, Johns wrote: "Lieutenant A. E. Amey, who fought his first and last fight beside me, had not even unpacked his kit!"
  2. It was common for officers continuing in the service after the war to take a lower rank than that held during the conflict, but it does seem highly unlikely he had ever held the rank of "Captain" in the RFC (equivalent to Flight Lieutenant in the RAF), even on an "acting" basis.
  3. Mossy Face was a name given by the Allies to Havrincourt Wood: it is mentioned in some of the Biggles stories and in some pilot's memoirs of the period.


  1. "POPULAR FLYING MAGAZINE – ISSUE 1 (0F 88)". Popularflying.com. Retrieved 19 November 2016.
  2. "A Brief Biography of Captain W. E. Johns Part One". Wejohns.com. Retrieved 17 October 2012.
  3. "No. 30347". The London Gazette. 19 October 1917. p. 10886.
  4. "The Coley Park Aerodrome and CWS Jam Works". Users.on.net. Coley Park & Beyond (Kevin Rosier). Retrieved 15 February 2008.
  5. "No. 30887". The London Gazette. 6 September 1918. p. 10551.
  6. H.A.Jones. War in the Air. Naval and Military Press; New edition (8 Oct 2002)
  7. Hart, Peter (2007). Aces Falling: War Above The Trenches, 1918. W&N. p. 278. ISBN 0297846531.
  8. "Bosleys 2005, Lot 556". Invaluable.com. Retrieved 16 October 2012.
  9. "No. 32145". The London Gazette. 30 November 1920. p. 11823.
  10. "A Brief Biography of Captain W. E. Johns Part Two". Wejohns.com. Retrieved 17 October 2012.
  11. Biography of Johns, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  12. "No. 33319". The London Gazette. 11 October 1927. p. 6402.
  13. "No. 33782". The London Gazette. 22 December 1931. p. 8260.
  14. Patrick Cockburn, "Biggles flies uncensored: more whisky, less jingoism." The Independent, Sunday 17 November 2013 Retrieved 23 November 2013.
  15. "POPULAR FLYING MAGAZINE – ISSUE 1 (0F 88)". Popularflying.com. Retrieved 19 November 2016.
  16. Cockburn 2013.
  17. Harris, R (26 July 2006). "Biggles does some homework – plot summary". Biggles.info. Retrieved 3 February 2010.
  18. Entry for W.E Johns in Findagrave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/35221044
  19. "London mansion where the Biggles' children's books were written by Capt. W.E Johns goes on sale", Daily Mail, 19 October 2015.
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