Thursday, 24 April 2014

Exploits of WW1 'Boy's Own' flying aces emerge

As an unashamed fan of the "Biggles" stories by W. E. Johns (some of them splendid snapshots of the Great War from a serving pilot's [1930s] perspective - and not just for young boys!) and with a burgeoning library of First World War-themed books leaning disproportionally towards the aerial aspect of the conflict, the thrilling tales that have come to light in these two articles perhaps come as little surprise to me but are still nonetheless as amusing and amazing as any I have read before.

Exploits of WW1 'Boy's Own' flying ace emerge 

Some of the things that went on over the skies of France and Belgium throughout the war were deeply astonishing if the accounts in the various books in my collection are anything to go by.  Johns himself was at pains to point out that aerial warfare during the Great War really was "stranger than fiction" and some of the stories he touches upon in the preface of his very first Biggles book The Camels Are Coming - not to mention some of the true-to-life adventures our hero gets caught up in - really do defy belief.  Therefore to read about the real-life experiences of Major Robert Loraine is to be reminded that they are no exaggeration and that war-flying one hundred years ago was genuinely hair-raising stuff!   

Major Robert Loraine, RFC
The fact that Robert Loraine can be credited with a number of aeronautical "firsts" also drives home the fact that these men were truly at the beginning of a new technology, learning as they went and doing things that no human being had ever done before.  Loraine himself was flying across the Irish Sea barely seven years after the Wright brothers had travelled a few hundred feet on that first ever powered flight at Kitty Hawk.  The technological advancement of the aeroplane - still only a decade old at the start of the war - during the four years of fighting is astounding to the modern observer, for whom aircraft design has changed substantially little in the last 50 years (and it's such a shame that war is a catalyst for progress!).

Loraine was ahead of the charge by all accounts, though, and it is heartening to see that his pioneering achievements all came before the war and were peaceful in nature.  We also now know who to thank for the term "joystick", although it still isn't clear how the word came to be derived (and there are still other claims for the origin of this word).  His war service, as already mentioned, was hugely heroic too and I'm glad to see he came out of it all right - and on to the London stage (& screen) of all places!

How daredevil British pilot 'buzzed' the Kaiser

The second series of recollections, committed to paper some forty years after they occurred (just weeks before the outbreak of hostilities) but unseen until now, read even more like the most humorous "Biggles" stories.  A very cheeky chappie, the wonderfully-named Eric Gordon England sounded!

Eric Gordon England in 1913
One can only wonder what the Kaiser must have thought on that day in early June 1914, upon seeing a British aeroplane diving down towards his yacht before pulling up and over a passing zeppelin!  Nothing complimentary, I should think!

The relaxed feelings of peacefulness and prosperity that so characterised the "golden summer" of 1914 in England can be readily felt through this story, I think.  Not only by the actions of Gordon England in so comprehensively teasing the Germans both in the air and on the ground but also the sheer fact that Britain was still keen to provide aircraft to what would in barely a month's time be its most hated enemy.  (I don't know if those of you in the UK managed to catch the excellent three-part drama 37 Days on B.B.C. Two earlier this year but to my mind that did a fantastic job of showing how quickly and ridiculously the whole run-up to war unfolded.)

The unearthing of these kinds of fantastic tales is one of the best aspects of the increased interest in the First World War as a result of the centenary.  They serve to remind us of the human acts of courage and good old-fashioned derring-do that took place amid the carnage and decimation of 1914-18 and it is as excellent as ever to see them rediscovered for a new generation.  Now I'm off to re-read some of my Biggles books, and maybe some more new accounts by the real airmen who inspired his creation!

1 comment:

  1. It's fascinating finding out about these things, thanks for sharing.


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