W. E. JOHNS
Photo: RAF Museum
Captain James Bigglesworth has made an indelible
mark on aviation history, however fictional character he may be. Anyway, it should not be forgotten
that many of his stories are based on real events
that his creator either experienced himself or heard
from fellow aviators. Who was the man who influenced millions of boys so much that they later became aviators too?
William Earl Johns (his name is often incorrectly spelt with an “e” on the end of Earl) was born
on Sunday February 5, 1893 at Mole Wood Road,
Bengeo in Hertfordshire. His father, Richard
Eastman Johns was a tailor, and his mother
Elizabeth Johns (nee Earl) was the daughter
of a master butcher. Johns had a younger brother, Russell Ernest Johns, who was born on
October 24, 1895.
Johns' early ambition was to be a soldier.
In January 1905, he went to Hertford Grammar School (now the Richard Hale School,
Hertford) where the headmaster was Major
Kinman. Some of his experiences here went
into the book BIGGLES GOES TO SCHOOL. Not
a particularly able scholar, Johns was a crack
shot with a rifle. In the summer of 1907, he was
apprenticed to a county municipal surveyor for
four years and in 1912 was appointed as a sanitary inspector in Swaffham in Norfolk. Soon
after, his father died of tuberculosis at the age
of 47. Johns soon spotted a "pretty girl" called
Maude Hunt who was the daughter of the Reverend John Hunt, a vicar at Little Dunham.
It is worth saying that Maude was eleven years
older than him.
On October 4, 1913, Johns joined the Territorial
Army as a Private in the King's Own Royal Regiment (Norfolk Yeomanry). This was a cavalry
regiment, so he had his own horse. In August
1914 the Great War began and Johns' regiment
was mobilised. He later wrote that he "galloped down the drive to what, in my youthful folly,
I supposed was going to be death or glory. I had
yet to learn that in war there is plenty of death
but little glory; that in war only death is real; that
glory is simply gilt and tinsel to wrap around
the other so that it looks less like what it really
is". Like many other couples, faced with an uncertain future, Bill Johns and Maude Hunt got
married on Tuesday October 6, 1914. His brother,
Russell was his best man. Johns' regiment was
in training and on home defence duties until
September 1915 when they received embarkation orders for duty overseas.
The Great War years
Travelling in the SS Olympic to Gallipoli, Johns'
regiment went to fight alongside the ANZAC
(Australian and New Zealand Army Corps)
against the Turks and the Germans. Disease
was the biggest problem for Johns' regiment,
but he served under fire in the trenches until
the regiment was withdrawn in December 1915.
Johns was to recount a number of tales of instant death from these times. Sent initially to
Alexandria, the regiment next went to form part
of the defences to the Suez Canal. On March 18,
1916, Maude gave birth to Johns' son who was
christened William Earl Carmichael Johns but
was known as “Jack” to distinguish him from
his father. Johns trained as a machine gunner
and was transferred on 1st September 1916 to
a new force (only founded in October 1915), the
Machine Gun Corps. He was also promoted to
Lance Corporal. After brief leave in England,
Johns was then sent to Salonika in Greece.
Here he served in the trenches and fought in
a number of battles. In April 1917 he took part
in the spring offensive. Johns came down with
malaria and whilst in hospital in Salonika, he
put in for a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps. On September 26, 1917, Johns was granted
a temporary commission as Second Lieutenant
and posted back to England to learn to fly at No.
1 School of Aeronautics at Reading. He was taught by Captain Ashton. He learnt in "an old Rumpity"; a Maurice Farman Shorthorn, and many
INFO Eduard - September 2021