of his experiences were to go into the book

BIGGLES LEARNS TO FLY. Johns had an aptitude for flying and soon went solo but stalled and

crashed on his first flight. On January 20, 1918,

he was posted to No. 25 Flying Training School

at Thetford, close to where his wife and son

lived. A Home Establishment posting sounds

very cushy but in fact Flying School was dangerous. People crashed and died on a weekly

basis and sometimes there were fatalities on

a daily basis. There are many astonishing tales of death and disaster from this time, which

make fascinating reading. Johns himself had

a number of spectacular crashes and forced

landings from failed engines. He once wrote off

three planes in three days due to engine failure and the planes he destroyed must number

in double figures. Had he been a German pilot

he would have been an ace! It has to be said

that this was not uncommon, and many planes

were destroyed by various accidents. In April

1918, Johns was posted to Marske-on-Sea in

Yorkshire. The CO here was a Major Champion,

who was nicknamed 'Gimlet', a nickname Johns

was to later borrow for one of his future characters. On 20th July 1918, Johns received notification that he was being posted to the front

in France.

Biggles goes to war

It is a common misconception that William

Earl Johns was a fighter pilot with the Royal

Flying Corps. In fact, on April 1, 1918, the Royal

Flying Corps had merged with the Royal Naval Air Service to become the Royal Air Force

and Johns was actually a bomber pilot. Johns

effectively posted himself to No. 55 (Day) Bombing Squadron stationed at Azelot, near Nancy

in France. Here they shared an airfield with

No. 99 Squadron and No. 104 Squadron. No.

55 Squadron was equipped with De Havilland

DH.4 aircraft. These two-seater aircraft were

heavy bombers with 275 hp Rolls-Royce Ea-

gle engines. They were nicknamed "flaming

coffins" because the petrol tank was between

the pilot and his rear observer and so a good

target for enemy aircraft. It has to be said that

life expectancy was low for many First World

War pilots. At one stage, average life expectancy was just 11 days.

Johns arrived in late July 1918 (although due to

various paperwork problems he wasn't officially posted to the squadron until August 21,

1918). Johns only had to last until November 11,

1918, and the war would be over, but such was

the nature of his job, that like many others, he

didn't make it. He flew on numerous bombing

raids on an almost daily basis and had a number of close shaves with enemy aircraft. It was

on Monday September 16, 1918, that Johns "failed to return". The night before had been spent

in Nancy but for various reasons he got lost

on the return journey and stopped at a magnificent French house at 03.00 a.m. to ask for

directions. Here he met a beautiful French girl

and was able to spend some time with her. She

was to become the inspiration for the love of

Biggles' life, Marie Janis in THE CAMELS ARE

COMING book. On Monday September 16, 1918,

whilst flying in formation on a bombing raid to

Mannheim, Johns, together with his observer

and rear gunner, 2nd Lt. A. E. Amey, were hit

by German anti-aircraft fire and their fuel tank

holed. Forced to drop out of formation they

were then easy prey for a dozen or so German

fighters and shot to pieces. Amey was killed

and Johns hit in the thigh and had his goggles

smashed by bullets. Eventually his engine was

hit and stopped, spraying petrol vapour everywhere. The flames held off and Johns crashed

in a German field and passed out. Coming

round, he was able to get out of the plane but

couldn't get Amey's body out. He was captured

by the Germans and given a rough time, due to

the recent bombing of a Sunday school and the

death of a number of local children. The pilots

Georg Weiner: Johns' Slayer

The German airman who shot down Johns' crew

on September 16, 1918, was Georg Weiner, and at

the time he was commander of Jasta 3. Johns

was at controls of a D.H.4 bomber (F5712) of No.

55 Squadron of Independent Force in a raid on

Mannheim. The flak first hit their tank and then

seven D.VII Fokkers attacked. The British crew

landed at Ettendorf near Saverne. Both pilots

were wounded in the fight, but the gunner, 2nd

Lt. A. E. Amey died.

Weiner was born in Dresden on August 22, 1895

and joined the infantry in August 1914. In June

1915 he was promoted to the rank of Leutnant

and after finishing his pilot training he was assigned to Kasta 38 in September 1916 as part

of Kagohl 7. In November 1916 he was assigned

to the new Jasta 20 and achieved one victory

with it. After an injury in June 1917, associated

with a long period of treatment, he served with

the Air Service Inspectorate and in other supplementary roles. In August 1917 Weiner went

into combat again, this time with Kampfeinsitzerstaffel 3. In September 1918, he became

commander of Jasta 3, and his last task was to

demobilize the legendary Jasta 5 after the end

of the war. In total, he achieved nine victories.

Among the airmen he shot down during his

career was American volunteer Sgt. Thomas

Hitchcock, Jr. serving at Spa 87. Weiner shot

him down on March 6, 1918. Although the American was captured, he managed to escape to

Switzerland in August. In the interwar period,

he became a polo player, leading the U.S. national team and still holds the record handicap

of 10. During World War II, he was involved in

the development of the P-51 fighter, particularly with regard to the use of Rolls-Royce

Merlin engines manufactured under license by

Packard. He was killed in an air crash on April

18, 1944, in the UK. Based on his fate, author

F. Scott Fitzgerald created the character of Tom

Buchanan in his novel The Great Gatsby (1925)

and Tommy Barban in Tender Is the Night (1934).

Georg Weiner served continuously in the armed

forces during the interwar period and from

March 1937 to January 1938 commanded the

fighter unit I./JG 137, which he took over from

Bruno Loerzer (44 victories, PlM, KC). While

serving in various administrative positions in

the Luftwaffe command, he attained the rank

of Generalmajor. In February 1945, he went into

civilian life for health reasons, but was taken

prisoner by the Soviets in October 1945. He was

not released until September 1949. He died in

Göttingen on January 24, 1957.

Photo: zdroj Wikiwand

who shot him down came to see him and he

was treated by them with great camaraderie.

The pilot who claimed to have eventually got

him wore the Blue Max and in later years,

Johns became convinced he had been shot

down by Ernst Udet, but this cannot be correct,

as Udet was not there at that time. Johns was

sentenced to be shot by a firing squad, but

this was never carried out and he was sent to

a Strasbourg gaol. After an initial escape

attempt here, he was sent to another camp at

The Airco D.H.4 was a medium bomber, an aircraft that W. E. Johns flew at the front. Because of the fuel tank placed

between the pilot and observer, these machines were nicknamed the flaming coffins.

INFO Eduard - September 2021