It’s that time of the year again when I try to find a tenuous link between the Salonika campaign and my adopted home, the fine county of Norfolk, even though, as I’ve only lived here 29 years, I’m still a ‘furriner’.
This year I’m focusing on another ‘furriner’ who moved to Norfolk; someone known for many things, but probably not for serving in the Salonika campaign – W.E Johns, creator of Biggles. Although he is celebrated in my local Wetherspoons it was a visit to the splendid Muckleburgh Collection – which incorporates the Suffolk and Norfolk Yeomanry collection – that brought him to mind.
William Earl Johns was, like me, born in Hertfordshire. He moved to the Norfolk market town of Swaffham to work as a sanitary inspector in 1912 and, having previously had military ambitions, he soon enlisted as a trooper in the King’s Own Royal Regiment (Norfolk Yeomanry). Here is a photo of him on his horse, Pistol, taken through the glass at Muckleburgh.
The regiment was mobilised in August 1914 and embarked for Gallipoli in September 1915 where it fought as infantry, being withdrawn to Egypt in December. In September 1916 Johns transferred to the Machine Gun Corps and was posted to the 26th Division on the Doiran Front in October, later taking part in the 1917 Doiran spring offensive. There he caught the inevitable malaria and, after his recovery in September 1917, applied to transfer to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). He was accepted and commissioned as a temporary second lieutenant and posted back to England for flying training.
He served with the RFC and then the RAF – including a spell as a bomber pilot and POW on the Western Front – until 1927 when he transferred to the reserves, finally relinquishing his commission in 1931. Of course, it is as a writer that Johns is best known and he began writing in 1922, with his most famous and popular creation – Biggles – first appearing in print in 1932. Although he wrote many other books, fiction and non-fiction, for children and adults, Biggles is his enduring legacy and it is fitting that he was writing a further adventure – albeit one in which Biggles contemplates retirement – when he died in 1968. Sadly, Biggles never seems to have flown over Macedonia – Egypt and Palestine seem to be the nearest (Biggles Flies East) – but if you know differently, please let us know.