In Culture in Camouflage: War, Empire, and Modern British Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), Patrick Deer discusses airminded fiction for boys from the 1930s and suggests that (78):
In their own cheery way, these boys' flying stories echo the mythos of the flying übermenschen so dear to the fascist imagination. In their patriotic exuberance, these flying stories remain disturbingly oblivious to the darker side of British air power, curiously out of step with the apocalyptic fears so much a feature of 1930s popular culture.
I'm not so sure about this. I'll grant the first sentence -- Biggles himself is certainly a flying übermensch -- but then again, didn't just about all adventure fiction, of whatever subgenre, feature steel-eyed square-jawed two-fisted men of action? And flying adventure stories would necessarily simply have flying versions of same. Still, it's not wrong as such.
The second sentence is more problematic. Most airpower writing of the 1930s was 'oblivious to the darker side of British air power', if you place the emphasis on 'British'. It wasn't a problem for Britain to possess airpower, because it believed to be peaceful and non-aggressive, and could be trusted to use it responsibly. It was everybody else's airpower which was the problem. Similarly, the 'apocalyptic fears so much a feature of 1930s popular culture' were almost always about London being wiped off the face of the Earth, and not, say, Hamburg or Dresden. Only pacifists denounced British airpower as such (and by 'only', I don't mean to imply their views were not widely shared, but they were in a minority, at least in print). It should not be surprising that juvenile fiction did not do this as well.
So Deer's assumptions here are only true if you read them more broadly, i.e. he must not be referring to critiques of British airpower specifically but to fears of the knock-out blow more generally. But then I don't know that his conclusion is actually true, because juvenile air stories did talk about this darker side. At least sometimes. Consider the sixth Biggles novel, The Black Peril, which was published in March 1935 (and set and probably written in 1934). 1 The plot revolves around a, er, plot by Germany and Russia combined (with the Russians the main instigators) to bomb Britain using long-range flying boats (with silenced engines and bigger bomb bays than anything Biggles has ever seen. The cover illustration suggests something like a super-Do X). Biggles, Algy and new chum Ginger rumble the nefarious scheme by stumbling upon secret enemy bases laid out along the east coast of England. Near the bases, submerged under the sea, are navigational beacons, to show the flying boats where to touch down. There they would refuel -- thus effectively increasing their range, enabling them to fly from Russia -- and then proceed to attack Britain, presumably in a sneak attack. The precise targets are not given. But Biggles concludes that
There was not the slightest doubt that at some date in the near future it was intended to blow England out of the water by wholesale bombing. 2
Of course, the plot is foiled by the actions of Biggles and co., which is unlike more adult knock-out blow novels where the threat to Britain is usually carried out. Nor is the air menace dwelt upon throughout the book; its nature only becomes clear near the end. But it is there.
I suspect that this is not atypical. Children were not oblivious to the fears their parents might have held about the bomber, though they may not have fully understood or even fully shared them. So fiction aimed at children wouldn't necessarily ignore those fears but might address and try to assuage them in some way, as W. E. Johns did in The Black Peril. A second, and last, example is Captain Zoom, Birdman of the RAF, who Deer introduced to me. Captain Zoom was a comic book superhero who debuted in The Skipper in the summer of 1940. A pilot in the RAF, he preferred to fly using his own invention, a pair of artificial wings which enabled him to fly like a bird. Using these he was able to foil any number of Nazi plots, including one in which a mad scientist plans to work RAF prisoners to death by building an invasion tunnel from the occupied Channel Islands to Cornwall. 3 I haven't seen a full list of Captain Zoom stories but given how closely they seem to track the war's progress, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find him helping to fight off the night bomber at some point.
And, yes, I did pretty much write this post to justify putting up this image of Captain Zoom socking it to a Nazi paratrooper.
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- It was later reissued as Biggles and the Black Peril.
- W. E. Johns, Biggles and the Black Peril (London: Red Fox, 2004 ), 191.
- Graham Greene wrote about and quoted from this story in 'The unknown war', Spectator, 29 November 1940, 578.