"A Flying Ace at Seventeen Gets His First Taste of War"
Reviewed by Clare O'Beara
Posted June 26, 2014
Military | Young Adult Historical | Young Adult Adventure
The fictional flying ace of the First World War gets his
wings. Relaunched to coincide with the centenary of the
Great War, BIGGLES LEARNS TO FLY is not the first written
in the popular Biggles series, but it was written in
1935 while the author Captain W. E. Johns vividly recalled
his own experiences as a wartime pilot.
Aged just seventeen (and lying that he was eighteen), James
Bigglesworth enlisted in the Royal Flying Corps in 1916.
The Corps was a hasty mix of staff from the Navy and Army.
Biplanes such as the Sopwith Pup were made of spruce wood,
canvas and piano wire, with small petrol engines and one
propeller, machine guns and bombs. The two-man crew had no
way to talk to the ground or other planes, except basic
hand signals to each other. A thin, small young man with
good sight, sharp reflexes and a quick brain was exactly
what was needed.
With nine hours of solo flying under his belt, Biggles is
sent to the front. Within minutes of his arrival, he is
bombed and his CO lands a few planes short. The new officer
is pressed into service the same day. Luckily Biggles's
gunner has a few months of experience and manages to keep
them alive. The "countless zigzag lines of trenches in which
a million men were crouching" and railway depots need to be
observed for enemy troop movements while Baron von
Richthofen leads a massed enemy flight.
While Biggles is the hero of many more books, there is no
telling which of his comrades will be killed at any minute,
as the keen excitement of the brave young men turns to
black humour and nervous tension. Flying Bristols and
Sopwith Camels at eight thousand feet without a parachute
or fuel gauge seems immensely foolhardy, but these men did
it every day. Crash-landing behind enemy lines, facing
cavalry charges or falling into the Channel is part of
As I read the series while growing up, I was hoping to get a
glimpse of Biggles' home and family, but no, BIGGLES LEARNS
TO FLY focuses entirely on the war recalled so vividly by
Captain W. E. Johns. I was absolutely hooked by the drama
and tension all over again, as young adults everywhere
should be too. BIGGLES LEARNS TO FLY deserves to be read.
Reissued with a stunning new cover, this is the perfect
introduction to this bestselling series for new readers.
He tilted the machine on to its side, holding up his nose
with the throttle, and commenced to slip wing-tip first
towards the ground. Whether he was over British or German
territory he neither knew nor cared; he had to get on to the
ground or be burnt alive.
This is the story of the very beginning — of the Air Service
and of Biggles. It's the First World War and Biggles is just
17; the planes are primitive; combat tactics are non-
existent; and pilots and their gunners communicate by hand
signals and have no contact with the ground. This is where
Biggles learns his craft and finds he has a certain aptitude
for flying in battle.
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