Biggles Flies...in the face of realism



(or the perils of trying to write about what combat flying in WW1 was REALLY like)


Like many men of my age (no, I'm NOT going to say what that is), as a boy I read Biggles. I know I'm not alone in the fact that my interest in aviation in general and WW1 aviation in particular comes from reading Captain WE John's stirring stories of derring do from the age of about six onward. It seemed to real, so vital, so exciting.

Biggles has got a lot to answer for!

As I got older and read in more depth on the subject it became apparent that things in WW1 were very different. Yes, compared to the squalid nightmare that was trench warfare on the Western Front, the war in the air was glamorous, the pilots - particularly the Aces - were the knights of the air. But, that's only comparative; for far too many life for the aircrew was short, brutal, very uncomfortable and incredibly stressful. The aircraft were often unreliable, some were structurally unsound. Early ones could barely get off the ground, later ones were forced to either fly ever higher, taking their oxygen-starved pilots in their open cockpits to frigid places similar to the death zone on Everest, or else where set to support ground forces, flying a few feet above the trenches protected only by fabric and the wicker seat they sat on from fire from beneath.

All, in the main, without parachutes.

People who don't know have completely the wrong idea about WW1 aviation. Ask anyone to name a pilot from the era and the inevitable answer will be the Red Baron. Ask them to give an example of an aircraft and it will be a Fokker Triplane or Sopwith Camel. WW1 was all about Aces and fighters...wasn't it?

No. Absolutely not.

Why were there fighters in the first place? What was their purpose? Just to fight the enemy fighters for the glory of their country? Why did some pilots- a very, very few in reality - become Aces? Who were they shooting down?

The answer is the same to both sets of questions: the poor sods who were doing the REALLY important jobs.

These were, in no particular order:

Photo Reconnaissance
Gun laying
Muzzle flash spotting
Aerial mapping
Contact patrols to determine where the ground troops had got to in an advance

This was the primary purpose of the air arms in WW1. Yes, other important functions came later - bombing and ground support - but these activities were incidental, the ones I have listed were ALL that was important.

Nothing else.

Why did fighters develop? To stop these happening. To shoot down the reconnaissance aircraft and stop the intelligence getting back. That's it. That's all the reason there was. Fighter squadrons on both sides developed to shoot down other fighters but only to stop the other side shooting down their intelligence gatherers.

Air combat was a SECONDARY function.

Yet, in our minds, in our imagination, in popular culture, in virtually every novel and, yes, in Biggles, we have focused on the fighter and the Ace as being what WW1 aviation was all about.

It wasn't.

One of the things I wanted to do as a writer of historical fiction was to try to put this right. I had the ambition to write about the unglamorous, about the truth of WW1 aviation; pilots doing the primary job: Reconnaissance. To tell the tale of the unsung poor buggers who had to fly slow, poorly armed and terribly vulnerable machines day after day effectively making themselves easy targets for those so-called 'knights of the air'. It was a crazy thing to try, but I am a bit crazy hence my forthcoming 'Eleven Days' set in Bloody April, 1917.

And this, after a long preamble, gets to the reason for this post.

Another forthcoming book of mine: 'Leviathan'.

Out of the research that went into this was a lot of reading about a certain aircraft; the BE2. Very advanced when it was designed in 1912, it was the primary British reconnaissance aircraft for the majority of the war, only finally being supplanted on the Western Front in the middle of 1917. It was, therefore, THE most important aircraft in the RFC stable. It was also the 'fodder' of the Fokker scourge in 1915-16 when the first real fighters appeared and shot them out of the sky and still the primary casualty of 'Bloody April' in 1917 when, in preparation for the Battle of Arras, the need to map the battlefield and spot the German guns caused these vulnerable relics to be shot down in droves.

Yet these relics were also used as the first night fighters home in British skies to try and counter the aerial threat from Zeppelins.

I looked at the pictures of these conversions and wondered what it would have been like to fly one of these missions. These were flown on moonless nights, so in the virtual pitch black. The BE2s were flown as single-seaters to give them a little more performance (they could barely do 80mph). There were no radios, the pilots were entirely alone, they had no company but their own thoughts for hours on end. They would be scared; flying at night at that time was very dangerous - the machines were unreliable and there were no lights, no navigational aids other than a compass, nothing - without the fact that the defences beneath them would fire at anything they heard in the skies. And these pilots were often not experienced, they were not Aces, they were young and poorly trained and, almost certainly, terrified.

So I set out to try and capture this - the dreadful loneliness and uncertainty, and the sheer miserable cold experience of the 2-3 hours they'd spend in the hostile skies searching for something huge and elusive.

To add depth to the story, I also wanted to reflect the fact that the precious, safe, Victorian and Edwardian society of Britain was rapidly changing, probably at a greater rate than any time since the English Civil War - it's no coincidence that the title of my novella, 'Leviathan' is shared with a much more famous book about society at a time of extreme upheaval by Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan: Or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civil). I wanted my character to be trying to make sense of a world upended, changing, unsettling, bringing him into contact with classes of people he would not otherwise have done and who shake the foundations of all he believes.

No, it's not bloody Biggles. And, as you've gathered, it makes me quite annoyed when people think it should be.

Biggles does have a lot to answer for. I try and write realistic stories, I try to capture what it was really like to be young, alone and afraid in a dark, confusing world.

If you want an adventure story, look elsewhere.





Comments

  1. As an aviation-mad girl, I, too, read Biggles. I do vaguely remember some early missions of him wrestling with photographic plates or similar.
    When will your book be out - I'd like to read it!

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  2. Hi Jayne, thanks for you comments. I think I read that one too and WE Johns served in a DH4 squadron in France so he was used to the unglamorous jobs!
    As to publication dates, things are a bit up in the air (excuse the pun).
    Leviathan is waiting for its cover art. An American artist whose work I admired volunteered to do it for free but hadn't factored in the Covid lockdown; he's suddenly had a lot more commissions so he's got a bit behind with mine. He's talking about mid-May.
    Eleven Days is in a trickier position. It's ready to go too but I'd like to see it published by a traditional publisher (I'm unsigned). It was sent to agents at the beginning of March and, of course, things have not been normal since! I'm hanging fire at the moment, I could put it out myself but I'd rather not.
    Sorry I can't be more definite.

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  3. Unfortunately it's the flashy things people want to read, they want to read about the aces who shot down 80 planes and crashed his bright red plane into the groud.
    Hardly anyone wants to read about Harry Tates and such, I wanted to try write a novel about bloody April and a pilot joining a squadron of them, it wasn't very long unfortunately :-(.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, I know the feeling. My novel Eleven Days is set in just such a squadron, one that is transitioning from BE2es to Harry Tates just as Bloody April is starting. It took a lot of thought to find a way to do this whilst still making it thrilling enough to keep the reader interested.
      I'm still to find out whether I've succeeded!
      Mine is quite long - 160,000 words - in fact by far the longest novel I've ever written but it is in three parts; before, the 11 days itself and then the aftermath.
      It was refreshing to turn to Leviathan after it. A titchy 24k words - a lot easier to edit!

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  4. Back in the day (1977), the BBC produced a TV series, Wings that addresses WW1 aerial warfare in a surprisingly realistic way, as well as address the societal changes and prejudices you allude to above. It's definitely public broadcaster in much of how it looks but still highly recommended

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