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Remembered Today:

WE Johns


Adrian Roberts
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A few years ago, I read the biography of "Captain" William Earl Johns, who as author of the Biggles books was a rather greater influence on my life than more critically-acclaimed authors.

The biography (Biggles!, Berresford Ellis and Schofield, Veloce 1993) relies heavily on John's own accounts but admits that Johns had a tendency to "Spin a Line". He did not serve in Iraq and India post-war as he said he did; he was never a Captain - he was a Second Lieutenant in the war, and a Flying Officer post-war.

He served with 55 squadron RAF flying the DH4 in the closing phase of the war, but the authors were unable to find his name listed in PRO records (would these now be NA?) as being on as many ops as he said he flew. It is generally accepted that he was shot down near Hagenau and taken POW on 16/9/18, his observer [2/Lt?] Amey being KIA.

Researching the history of individual servicemen is not my area of expertise. For those of you who are able to answer such questions, if you were to consult your normal sources, would Johns' account stand up?

Also, while he was under attack, he observed a DH9 under attack, and the Germans told him the crew, both Sergeants, were killed. Is it possible to trace who they were?

Adrian

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Adrian

Just to start the ball rolling on this topic, I can offer the following. From a quick look at Keith Rennles' Independendent Force, it looks like 2Lt W E Johns flew on two bombing raids on 2 September, one on 14 September, another on 15 September and his final mission on 16 September.

2Lt W E Johns was shot down near Hagenau while flying DH 4 F5712 of No 55 Sqn, Independent Force RAF, on a bombing raid to Mannheim on 16 September 1918. His observer, 2Lt Alfred Edward Amey, was killed in the action. A victory was credited to Ltn Georg Weiner of Jasta 3; it was the 7th of his eventual 9.

The only 'two sergeants' crew shot down with fatal consequences on 16 September 1918 was Sgt Arthur Haigh (99729) and Sgt John West (114643) of No 110 Sqn, Independent Force RAF, who were flying DH 9A E8410 when they were seen going down over Mannheim with the tail missing, which indicates a hit by anti-aircraft fire. Like the rest of No 110 Sqn's aircraft, E8410 was a presentation machine: Nizam of Hyderabad No 9.

I hope this helps.

Gareth

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Thanks - it seems that his experience of air combat from which he derived the Biggles books was fairly short, and he certainly never flew a Camel in combat.

However, one shooting down is quite enough for anyone; he was a fairly experienced pilot by the time he got to the front, and having served in the Machine Gun Corps in the trenches in Salonika, he had plenty of experience of combat per se.

Since Haigh and West went down over Mannheim, it would seem likely that it was them that John saw, though he remembered them as under fighter attack.

adrian

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Thanks - it seems that his experience of air combat from which he derived the Biggles books was fairly short, and he certainly never flew a Camel in combat.

You didn't need to be on ops for flying to be dangerous. While at Redcar as a flying instructor, he got to crash on three successive days! Although Johns didn't fly a Camel 'in anger', its highly probable that he, like many other instructors, managed to blag flights in various scouts while on the Home Establishment.

Most of Johns' flying as an instructor seems to have been on types including the Avro 504 and various BE models, then later on Armstrong Whitworth FK8 light bombers. A control column from a BE said to be flown by Johns, is in the aviation museum at Tangmere in Suffolk.

Its a pity that as yet, no-one sems to have been able to unearth Johns' flying log books - I bet they'd have their own story to tell!!

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Is it true that he was posted as a recruiting officer in the RAF after the war, and was the officer responsible for processing T.E. Lawrence when he joined and became 'Aircraftsman Shaw'?

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His rank of Captain would probably derive from the custom of the time for officers on retirement to take on honary rank, thus Lts would become Captains(retired), Johns was a F/O - equivalent rank to Lt so presumably though Captain sounded better than Flight/Lt.

Jerry

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Surely they would have been awarded the honorary title, they couldn't just adopt a rank higher than their serving one (particularly in another branch of the service) and automatically promote themselves and wouldn't there be a record of this?

Mick

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Many did but the London Gazette should document this if we knew the date of his transfer to the unemployed list.

Jerry

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Is it true that he was posted as a recruiting officer in the RAF after the war, and was the officer responsible for processing T.E. Lawrence when he joined and became 'Aircraftsman Shaw'?

This is true, but whereas TEL gives the impression in his book "The Mint" that the RAF welcomed him with open arms and the selection process was a breeze, Johns said that TEL came across as an arrogant so-and-so who only got in by pulling strings in very high places. Johns did not like him at all, and there is a theory that he based his villain Erich von Stalhein on TE Lawrence (when EvS is introduced in Biggles Flies East, he is disguised as an Arab)

Many did but the London Gazette should document this if we knew the date of his transfer to the unemployed list.

His biography suggests that this was purely an affectation on his part - he said that he wanted a military rank to use on his book jackets to add authenticity, but "no-one has heard of a Flying Officer but everyone knows what a Captain is". [in the 1920's, Flying Officer was a new and weird-sounding rank, understood only by RAF and ex-RNAS personnel - a bit like the US rank of "Specialist" today, what on earth does it mean?]

Adrian

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Thanks, Adrian. It's an interesting connection. I'll have to dig out my old copy of Biggles Flies East!

Chris Henschke

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