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Saturday, 25 October 2014

Biggles in your dreams

Sopwith Camel, RAF Museum, Hendon, Biggles

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.

Vickers FB5, Gunbus, first fighter aircraft, RAF, museum, Hendon, Grahame-White
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.

SE5a, RAF, Hendon, museum, Grahame-White

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’.

Albatross DVa, RAF, museum, Red Baron, Grahame-White
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.

Vickers Vimy, Alcock and Brown, cross the Atlantic, first flight over the Atlantic

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.

*Apologies to the late Capt WE Johns (1893-1968), whose style I attempted to plagiarise here.  Do feel free to email me for a translation.

Fokker DV111, Sopwith Camel, RAF, museum


  1. Beautiful aircraft! We have an aviation museum here as well... but it's been awhile since I last visited. I should remedy that.

    The Great War was the first time planes were used in combat, so the young pilots were making up strategy and tactics literally as they went along, something you never saw before in warfare.

  2. Mike, a heartfelt thank you for a splendid post about my favourite subject (flying) and a reminder of younger days! Ah, those were the days!
    Ex-RAF flyboy

  3. I wish I could share this post with my late Dad, who was absolutely nuts over WWI aircraft. Thanks for bringing Dad to mind for me today.

  4. Today I visited Cosford (the other arm of the museum). They are just introducing replicas of WW1 aircraft ready for a new display in December. The hangers there are rather cramped, so the planes are not showed off to their best.

    My favourite plane in the (Cosford) museum is the Avro Lincoln Bomber (I checked your bombers link). It is now surrounded by so many other planes it is not possible to appreciate the amazing plane for what it is.

    I will be going back to visit the WW1 exhibition in Cosford when it is completed ;-)

    You have reminded me that a visit to Hendon museum is long overdue...

  5. Loved those stories when I was younger. Now it strikes me that a lot of that RAF language was really just a way of disguising the fear and horror which they encountered on a daily basis, though often not for that many days.

  6. I think I had every one of those Biggles books. I wonder what happened to them? I'm sure that enjoying those tales influenced me in many ways, including the love of reading.

  7. Only the naive, fearless young would dare climb into those planes. I suspect that they were more willing back then to die the glorious death for King and country. Just a thought. Anyway, the museum sounds fascinating. Jolly good post!

  8. Interesting post. I hadn't heard of the stories of Biggles but know of Camels and Fokkers. My husband would love the museum and I showed him the photos.

  9. Yes, they were amazing pioneers. I'll bet that was a fun afternoon visit.

  10. Methinks a WWI fighter pilot had to be quite mad to even consider going up in one of those planes! Of course, those in the blimps were undoubtedly certifiably insane.

  11. Hard to imagine flying in one of these, for me anyway!

  12. Great post, Mike. I could not imagine myself flying in one of these!

  13. They are beautiful machines and the men who flew them were very brave. Wonderful post Mike, great photos. I enjoyed the excerpt from Biggles too, a name I haven't heard in a very long time.

  14. You made me want to keep reading about Biggles!

    I live near Dayton Ohio, which is famous for the Wright Brothers...and very close to Wright Patterson Air Force Base, too. Lots of history....those first planes were amazing!

  15. It still seems our military pilots are mostly boys. At least now they have parachutes, and the planes have improved a bit.

  16. I've never read Johns work, but it sounds like I would have loved these books.

  17. There is another museum at Brooklands though I always call it a poor relation of Duxford which is amazing. I still have yet to visit Hendon but will.

  18. Good to see so many preserved in the same place.
    As one grows up from being a child you get the picture that once the aerodynamics had been mastered, all planes were deemed relatively safe to varying degrees as a result of events such as air shows. Saw a programme recently that suggested nothing could be further from the truth for those that travelled in these machines.


Hi - thanks for dropping into A Bit About Britain. New material is now being posted to and most of the material here will gradually be updated and moved over to that new site. Please drop in there, click on the blog page, and take a look round. TTFN - Mike.