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THE daring adventures of Biggles and his loyal chums Algy and Ginger have entertained generations of children.

But the fighter pilot's finest hour has never made it into print - until now.

It is the untold story of how Biggles helped to win the real life Battle of Britain - and it is no work of fiction.

When Captain WE Johns started writing the Biggles books in the 1930s he drew upon his own experiences as a World War I pilot for inspiration.

Some of the boys who read those first Biggles books in turn fought for king and country as fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain 75 years ago.

This week crowds watched as 24 World War II Spitfires and Hurricanes took off to mark the 75th anniversary of the Hardest Day on August 18, 1940, when both Britain and Germany recorded their highest losses.

The aerial conflict, which raged from July 10 to October 31, 1940, marked a turning point in the war.

Adolf Hitler planned to crush the Royal Air Force before invading Britain. But he badly underestimated British Fighter Command.

By the end of the conflict the Luftwaffe had lost nearly 1900 aircraft and more than 2500 crew. Fighter Command lost just 544 pilots.

So successful were the British pilots that several were interviewed by the authorities to find out where they had first learned their aerial warfare tactics.

"Biggles," they replied.

The books full of Boy's Own-style derring-do had inadvertently helped to train our formidable flying warriors.

Several World War II pilots wrote to Captain Johns to thank him for saving their lives with the words of wisdom he imparted through his Biggles books.

That legacy is revealed by historian James Hamilton-Paterson in his new book Marked For Death.

Hamilton-Paterson said: "They believed they were still alive because they had read his stories and had survived by using some of the tricks of air combat he learned the hard way and passed on to Biggles.

"The Battle of Britain was a major victory and a decisive moment in the Second World War. In his own small way, Johns certainly contributed to that. It is remarkable really."

William Earl Johns was no big fan of war after seeing close friends and comrades die in air battles.

He had joined the Territorial Army as a private in 1913 and saw action in Gallipoli, Egypt and Macedonia.

After a bout of malaria, he was, transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and flew bombing missions behind enemy lines until he was shot down en route to Mannheim and spent the rest of the war in a prison camp.

The horrors that Johns saw and the toll it took on him were as much an inspiration for his Biggles books as his flying experience. In an early story for the magazine Popular Flying, which Johns edited, Biggles suffered from such frayed nerves that he downed half a bottle of whisky for Dutch courage before take off.

Hamilton-Paterson said: "I suspect a lot of pilots who had done a long tour and had that thousand yard stare wouldn't have got into the air without a good deal of whisky inside them.

"Often they were completely smashed. I suspect many may also have taken drugs as cocaine and heroin were quite freely available during the First World War."

Most of the pilots were just 18 or 19 and the life expectancy of a new pilot was just three weeks as many were quickly picked off by more experienced airmen, German flying aces such as the Red Baron Manfred von Richthofen.

During the first half of the war pilots had to get so close to their enemy that they could wave to each other, see the expressions on their faces, and almost share a joke.

Moments later they could be spattered with their enemy's blood.

There was one way of dying that terrified them more than any other - burning to death in mid air.

Hamilton-Paterson said: "At the beginning of the war all the planes were made of wood and powered by petrol, making them highly inflammable.

"To make matters worse the fuel tank was located right in front of the pilot. They could very easily get covered in petrol and burned alive."

At the start of the war, the wings were prone to falling off in mid air and the aircraft were so unstable that a light cross wind during take off or landing could prove fatal.

The planes were poorly armoured because anything more would make the aircraft too heavy and pilots were not even given parachutes until the final months of the war. Hamilton-Paterson says: "Pilots were considered to be more or less expendable.

"It is a very strange thing given that pilots were expensive and time-consuming to train."

The horrors left their mark on survivors such as WE Johns, who was a Flying Officer but adopted the title "Captain" to help sell books.

By the time he started writing his books in 1932, he was increasingly worried about the prospect of World War II and his stories aimed to remind people what war was like.

His writing was critical of the officer class and politicians who had sent so many of his friends to their deaths.

Hamilton-Paterson said: "The rest of the country had gone back to civvy street and forgotten what war was like.

"So Johns thought this new generation of boys ought to be taught the facts as he had experienced them.

"He worked like crazy and I think a lot of that was probably quite therapeutic. I suspect he came to terms with a lot of what he had seen through his writing." ? Marked For Death: The First War In The Air by James Hamilton-Paterson is published by Head of Zeus, PS20.

Often pilots were totally smashed. I suspect many may also have taken cocaine and heroin hamilton-paterson


COURAGEOUS Battle of Britain pilots grew up reading books of WE Johns, right

DEADLY Dogfights in primitive planes were just one of the perils facing WWI fliers

SCARRED WE Johns used his experiences in books, left

TALLY HO Biggles's exploits were based on real wartime experiences
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Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Aug 22, 2015
Next Article:From Forces to farce; Army veteran James has lived and served in Scotland for 36 years but Home Office say he's no right to work.

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