On the self-promotion of W. E. Johns

The 1955 novel Biggles in Australia is the subject of an interesting article in Inside Story by Adam Nicol, 'Uncivil aviation: Biggles down under' (I like the line 'The common term “civil aviation” -- that is, flight for leisure -- suggests that aviation is intrinsically warlike'), which could be usefully read alongside my UNE colleague Erin Ihde's 'Biggles sees red: Saving Australia from the communist menace'.1 There is an error, though: in referring to the well-known fact that W. E. Johns, the creator of Biggles, called himself Captain Johns 'despite retiring from the Royal Air Force with the rank of flying officer, some four ranks below captain'. But flying officer is not four ranks below captain, unless Nicol is thinking of group captain, or naval captain, neither of which is the rank Johns was claiming. In fact there isn't a RAF rank of plain old captain, except for the brief period when there was, i.e. after the formation of the RAF in April 1918 and before August 1918 1919 when the current ranks (more or less) were established. In between, RFC ranks were used, that is to say, Army ranks. This is where Johns's captain comes from. Since flying officer in the RAF is the equivalent of a lieutenant in the Army, just below captain, Johns only promoted himself one rank, not four.

But this made me think that maybe there is a way to explain why Johns called himself captain, not flying officer, or at least to shed some light on the matter. (In fact he was very inconsistent about it, sometimes using one title, sometimes the other.) In fact it was not an uncommon practice for officers to be given an honorary promotion upon retirement. (Sometimes, too, they retired with the highest rank they may have temporarily held during their career, again normally one grade.) Apart from a bit of additional status in civilian life, I think this also meant a higher pension. Also, in this period when the Air Force was new, former officers who had been in the wartime RAF or indeed the RFC sometimes elected to be called by the military version of their ranks, since these were more familiar and could carry more cachet. P. R. C. Groves is an example of both. At the end of his career in the RAF he was a group captain, but was granted an honorary promotion to brigadier-general (and not air commodore, the next RAF rank up), which had not been an Air Force rank for nearly 3 years at this point. Since he'd actually spent 19 years in the Army and just under 4 in the RAF, brigadier-general might have felt more real to him, for all his devotion to the cause of airpower. But, usefully, since brigadier-general was, at the time, classed as a general officer rank, it also meant that he could be called General Groves, as indeed he always was, which is far more impressive than Air Commodore Groves, it must be said. Not everyone did this; L. E. O. Charlton, also ex-RFC, was happy with air commodore when he retired, though since he didn't receive an honorary promotion perhaps he didn't get any say in the matter.

As for Johns, I don't think he was actually granted an honorary promotion; the London Gazette's entry recording his retirement calls him a flying officer and says he is permitted to retain his rank.2 For comparison, the equivalent for Groves says he 'is granted the honorary rank of Brigadier-General'.3 Perhaps Johns felt he deserved an honorary promotion anyway; and almost certainly he thought Captain Johns sounded better than Flight Lieutenant Johns, the RAF equivalent, let alone Flying Officer Johns, his actual title. Maybe, too, those who had known him as a flying officer in the RAF assumed that he had earned his promotion, which might explain why he seems to have got away it even though he was still heavily involved in the aviation scene. Either way, we're stuck with Captain Johns now.

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  1. Erin Ihde, 'Biggles sees red: Saving Australia from the communist menace', Australasian Journal of Popular Culture 2 (2013): 363-80. []
  2. London Gazette, 22 December 1931, 8260. []
  3. Ibid., 17 February 1922, 1415. []

6 thoughts on “On the self-promotion of W. E. Johns

  1. It almost sounds like some or all of the Army officers who transferred were on some form of loan service/secondment/attachment to the RAF and could therefore return to the other arm, presumably getting credit for their prior service and resuming their substantive rank.

  2. Post author

    Not sure about that -- I can't think of any examples of RAF officers returning to the fold, as it were, in the immediate postwar period. (Then again, since they were leaving the air behind I probably wouldn't know about them.) The use of Army ranks is a bit misleading, as it was always just a temporary compromise. In that first year or so there were at least three different rank proposals which were all rejected before the familiar structure was settled upon -- most bizarrely to our eyes were the ones based around the invented word 'Ardian': i.e. Ensign, Lieutenant, Flight-Leader, Squadron-Leader, Reeve, Banneret, Fourth-Ardian, Third-Ardian, Second-Ardian, Ardian, Air Marshal; or alternatively Ensign, Lieutenant, Flight-Leader, Squadron-Leader, Wing-Leader, Leader, Flight Ardian, Squadron Ardian, Wing Ardian, Ardian, Air Marshal. Some great dieselpunk fodder there.

  3. An 'interesting' article for all the wrong reasons, sadly. As well as not understanding 'Captain' in the British military rank structure, the author doesn't actually know what 'civil aviation' means (you might as well as inaccurately define 'civil engineering' as only DIY). For clarity, 'commercial aviation' - all that flying for hire and reward - is a subset of civil aviation.

    There are so many errors of fact in the article it's painful. Most insulting is it's evident he doesn't know much about Johns' career, or his attitude to war, or Johns' own experiences of 'terror bombing' - an interesting case for someone who has an idea of the subject - Johns was in fact captured after being shot down by the Germans on a strategic (read 'terror' in their view) bombing mission in 1918.

    To call Biggles or Johns 'warlike' is another undergraduate level error conflating someone in a war with someone who wants to be. Johns (and in his character Biggles) loathed war, and was very clear about it particularly in his editorials in 'Popular Flying' in the 1930s. But he also hated bullying and bullies, and believed you had to stand up to them. He lost his job because he thought we should stand up to Hitler when that wasn't fashionable.

    This, and the story behind Johns' use of the rank of Captain is covered in published biography of WEJ ('By Jove, Biggles!', published in two editions) It is a pity (as his biographers note) that Johns' never wrote his own autobiography, and there remain some intriguing questions in his career, but none of which are touched on here sadly, just well-known data mis-represented instead. For instance, while Johns' had Biggles undertaking numerous counter-espionage works on behalf of the British government, Biggles was from 1945 a member of the Metropolitan Police's CID (even given as one of the book titles, too) no supra-national organisation, unless we are making the neophyte error of the nature of INTERPOL. The bad boys of the fifties and sixties were the communists, and the dismantling of Empire was taxing greater brains than Johns'.

    No one has ever suggested that 'Biggles in Australia' was anything but one of the worst churned-out 'pin in the map' location later works (I have a theory it was actually originally set in Kenya during the Mau Mau, where it made some sense - it doesn't make any sense in Australia) and there's a lot else wrong with it. But to damn the whole of the series on the basis of one of (several) duds in the 80+ titles would be equivalent to saying Agatha Christie couldn't write a decent story on the basis of one of her equally frequent late-career duds like 'Passenger to Frankfurt', or more pertinently, dismiss Germane Greer's important contribution to humanity and feminism because of the cheap-controversy bait she writes for the UK newspapers today.

    There is an interesting article to be written on Johns' "outmoded view of the pilot", but this isn't it, because Biggles in Australia is a whodunit spy adventure, as are most of the post- W.W.II stories with very little to do with - or even using - aviation as a credible plot factor.

    As a matter of fact, Johns' editorship of 'Popular Flying' in the inter-war period is at fundamental odds with his almost complete lack of familiarity of flying in the period. Even the eccentric C.G. Grey, editor of 'Aeroplane' in the same period, who hated flying and couldn't (or wouldn't) fly, had a reasonable - if always partisan - idea of the technology of the time. Yet Johns was popular in the Editor's chair!

    But worst in this article is the snide tone, and the application of modern mores and expectation to a period piece. Johns was as racist as the norm of the times, and saw reds under the bed as plots, but he was a champion of feminism (not least with the 'Worrals' books) when it wasn't the norm, and the values he give Biggles, such as acting to a moral code, to stand up to bullies, and developing over time to treat people regardless of colour properly is something often overlooked while chastising him for the racism that we'd like him not to have had - just like his peers.

    I'll have a look and post the full story behind Johns' use of 'Captain'. But in brief, as I recall, he wasn't in any way entitled to use it - no promotion on retirement etc - but felt that the (boy) readership would relate to it better and it fitted better on the spine than 'Flight Lieutenant' or 'Lieutenant'. It was one of the two 'big lies' Johns was never (it seems) called on during his life.

  4. Post author

    Yes, you're perfectly right about the definition of civil aviation; but it's the larger point that I like, mainly because I do think that aviation is, or was, by default military. Fair points about Johns (and Biggles) often being unfairly criticised. Apparently in the last, unfinished Biggles novel he was about to retire and be replaced by an RAF officer with Native American ancestry! So he wasn't a white supremacist.

    I haven't read the biography of Johns by Ellis and Williams, but I did link to an extract from it on the question of his claimed rank. There's nothing in there from Johns himself to explain his self-promotion, only the editor of Boy's Own claiming that Johns' 'rank of Captain was never an Army title but a Royal Flying Corps distinction and he was immensely proud of it', which doesn't make much sense to me. It seems obvious that there was a marketing angle, though the almost random way he mixed captain with flight officer is puzzling. (Note that contrary to Ellis and Williams, he was sometimes called captain in adult publications, too.) What I wonder is whether there was more to it than that (especially if 'he was immensely proud of' a rank he hadn't earned)? (How did he introduce himself socially, what was he called when he lunched at his club?) And maybe the idea of an honorary promotion upon retirement made it easier to justify or get away with.

  5. I have never seen any letters written by W. E. Johns were he refers to himself as "Captain". He normally signed his letters as either 'W. E. Johns' or, on occasion, 'W. E. (Bill to you) Johns'. Using the title "Captain" for a pen name is perfectly acceptable. Thank you for the links to my web sites. Much appreciated. If anyone wants to find out more about all of W. E. Johns' work please visit and have a browse. There are literally thousands of web pages to view spread over various related websites.

  6. Post author

    People should certainly go to your sites if they want more information about Johns, Biggles, etc! Thanks for the information about how Johns signed his letters. Using 'captain' in a pen name might well be acceptable; but he was writing under his own name, so I can't see how this absolves him of claiming a rank he hadn't earned.

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