Biggles tapped a cigarette thoughtfully on the back of his hand and eyed the eastern sky anxiously. Algy was long overdue and his fuel would be getting low. Just then, the melodic hum of a Bentley Rotary reached his ears and he spotted the welcome sight of a Camel rapidly approaching the aerodrome. His smile froze. ‘What’s the silly chump doing,” he growled. The Camel was rather too high, and then dropped suddenly to bump hard on the turf. It bounced, twice, and ran to a standstill some distance from 266 Squadron sheds. When the pilot did not get out, Biggles bit back a sarcastic remark about the dashed awful landing and ran over to the machine. The fabric was ripped and torn and the struts shattered. One look at the pilot’s ashen face was enough. With help from an ack-emma, Biggles gently lifted the young lad out and they laid him on the grass, waiting for the MO to arrive. “What happened, kid, choked Biggles.
“Archie over Lille,” whispered the youngster. “Then got – jumped – by – Boche circus. I’m going west, aren’t I sir?”
“Don’t worry, old boy; I know a Blighty one when I see it. And tomorrow we’ll get that bally Boche circus,” he said grimly.
I owe an explanation to those (surely very few in number), for whom the above made absolutely no sense whatsoever*. James Bigglesworth, Royal Flying Corps, Royal Air Force, professional adventurer and bar, was the ageless fictional hero for boys in over a hundred books written by Captain W E Johns. The fact that W E Johns was no captain should not detract from the gloriously archaic, sometimes politically incorrect, language, atrocious story lines and ridiculous scrapes that Biggles and his chums get into - and out of. We initially meet Biggles as the daring, deadly and debonair young RFC officer in ‘The White Fokker’, the first of several short stories later collected into a book, ‘The Camels are Coming’. To avoid any unfortunate misunderstanding, I should add that both ‘Fokker’ and ‘Camel’ are types of aircraft and that these are tales of early flying in the First World War.
The flyers of the First World War were all pioneers. It was only in 1903 that the Wright brothers made the first powered flight; six years later, Bleriot flew across the Channel; five years after that, Europe was at war. The first aeroplanes were designed and built by enthusiasts in back gardens, sheds and borrowed buildings. At the Royal Air Force Museum in Hendon is the Claude Grahame-White hanger, which the RAF claims is the first purpose-built aircraft factory in Britain, built in 1917 and later relocated to its present position. It houses the museum’s oldest aircraft and, from December 1914 will re-open with a new permanent exhibition, ‘The First World War in the Air’.
The first wartime pilots were mostly boys. Life expectancy was short; aircraft were primitive, flimsy and there were no parachutes. I believe the British authorities claimed that issuing parachutes would encourage flyers to leave their aeroplanes prematurely and they did not become standard issue until after the war. In the early days, the frail flying machines, mostly biplanes, made of wood, canvas and wire, were used for reconnaissance; machine guns were added, an adversarial role developed and, later, fighters and bombers evolved.
In any event, a visit to RAF Hendon reminded me of borrowing Biggles books from the library when I was a lot smaller than I am now, when “Jolly good show” didn’t seem a strange thing to say (even if few people actually said it) and when goodies and baddies were stereotypical and simpler. It also made it blindingly clear that the flyers of these absurdly insubstantial craft were far braver than I could ever be.
There’s considerably more to the RAF Museum at Hendon than older aircraft. A Bit About Britain has already featured bombers and we’ll cover more about aviation in future posts. According to my research on the web, there are almost 100 aviation museums of one sort or another in Britain, including private collections and the amazing IWM Duxford. Hendon has something like 100 historic aircraft on display, it’s easy to get to from central London (a short walk from Colindale tube station on the Northern line) or the M25 and, unlike many museums, entry is free. There’s another RAF Museum at Cosford, near Telford.
To find out more, visit the RAF Museums’ website.