by Captain W. E. Johns



VII. BIGGLES THEN AND NOW  (Pages 147 – 149)


“The stories that follow are reprinted to comply with many requests for information about Biggles’ early days as an air pilot.  They are taken from the first Biggles book published, The Camels are Coming.  This and Biggles of the Camel Squadron have long been out of print, and copies are rare.  Both consist of short stories and deal with Biggles’ exploits in the first world war.  Biggles was then a junior officer in the Royal Flying Corps, then a branch of the army, for the R.A.F. did not come into existence until 1918.  When the books were written the threat of a second world war had not darkened the horizon, and their main purpose was to keep alive the traditions established by the pioneers of war-flying.  Air combat was then very different from what it has become; but let it be remembered that it was in the first world war that the primary lessons of air warfare were learned.  Equipment (Biggles flew a Sopwith Camel) was primitive, but bullets struck just as hard as in Hitler’s war.  “Flak”, then called “archie”, was just as much a menace, for machines were comparatively slow, had a low ceiling, and were therefore easier to hit than their modern counter-parts.  There were no parachutes to give pilot or gunner a chance if things went wrong.  In fact, there was none of those things that make the cockpit of a modern aircraft look like a watch-maker’s shop.  There was no wireless telephony.  Once the wheels of an aircraft were off the ground the pilot was his own master, to go where he wished.  There was no “blind-flying” equipment, no oxygen apparatus and no electrically heated clothing.  Most machines were fitted simply with an airspeed indicator, an altimeter, an air engine rev. counter, and an inclinometer that might as well have been left at home for all the practical use it was.  There might be petrol and oil gauges, but it was unwise to rely on them.  A pilot flew “by the seat of his pants”, with his head in the open air.  One could usually recognise a “Camel” pilot by the oil-soaked shoulders of his tunic.  (The castor-oil used by rotary engines was thrown out as fast as it was used, and a pilot, leaning out to see where he was going, collected some of it on his person.)  True, in 1918 there appeared a machine with a covered cockpit – the S.E.5.  It was promptly dubbed “the greenhouse”, and at the front the cover was usually removed.  Pilots hated the unaccustomed shut-in feeling.  The Sopwith Camel was an efficient machine in its day, but tricky to fly.  It had little inherent stability.  The excessive “torque” of the rotary engine tended to turn the whole machine over, and holding on controls to counteract this was a tiring business.  The same torque enabled a pilot to turn in a flash in one direction, but against torque the aircraft had to be dragged around.  In short, war-flying in the period covered by these stories was a simple but dangerous occupation.  You took off, found an opponent, and shot at each other until one fell, or ran out of bullets.  This was air combat in its infancy, but it lent itself to tricks that could be employed to advantage.  Few pilots lived long enough to become senior officers, for which reason the average age of a major commanding a squadron was twenty-one.  We used to say that if a pilot, after being posted to a service squadron, could survive the first forty-eight hours he might live for a month.  By that time, if he had learned the tricks of the trade, he had a reasonable prospect of life.  The following stories were the first “Biggles” stories ever written.  Biggles was a young man then, so if you notice a difference in his behaviour, or if his methods and equipment seem strange, you will understand why.