BIGGLES, as he would soon come to be known on every corner of this planet, was born in India in 1899. His proud father was then the Assistant Commissioner of the United Provinces of India, with the result that young James learnt the ways of bush survival at an early age, and could handle a rifle well at the tender age of seven. Unfortunately, he contracted a fever which was to dog him not only through his childhood in India but later on whenever he visited the tropics. At the age of fourteen, Biggles commenced schooling at his father's old school, Malton Hall, in rural England, a school primarily for lads destined for the British Army. Biggles' elder brother Charles had also attended Malton before entering Sandhurst. (Charles, with the rank of Major, was to die under enemy fire just before the end of the war.)
Although Biggles' father intended that the lad should go to university and study for the Indian civil service exam, the Great War arrived. Biggles quickly found himself in Norfolk at No 77 Flying Training School. After a number of adventures, he was posted to Maranique with 266 Squadron, via 169. It wasn't long before his brilliant abilities in the air saw his elevation to Captain Bigglesworth, flawless saint as portrayed in the reprinted stories of the 1950s and 60s. Although fearless in any crisis, Biggles sometimes took to the bottle briefly to dull tragic occurrences (of which there were many in those violent days). Late in the war he had a brief encounter with Marie Janis, a Belgian lass who proved to be a German spy. Biggles' cousin, the Honourable Algernon Lacey, ALGY from this point on joined 266 in 1917. The two became inseparable companions despite early misgivings on Biggles' part, with the result that they formed a chartering operation, Biggles & Co, after the War.
It was not long before GINGER (first seen as a 16 year old lad in The Black Peril in 1935) came on the scene. WW2 arrived and the threesome, together with Smyth, their mechanic, formed Z Squadron, then 666. Early on in the war while on a secret mission in Norway, Biggles found himself surrounded by the invading forces and actually managed to join the Luftwaffe in order to escape. After further adventures, and with the war over, Biggles, Algy, Ginger and a new arrival, Bertie, scored jobs in the Special Air Police. Biggles' adversary throughout his career was Erich von Stalhein, first with Germany and later with 'the other side' as it was termed in those days. Approximately 103 Biggles books were published in the period 1932-1970. This included several omnibus editions which contained more than one novel, but not the later R.F.C., Bumper and Best Of, titles.
Several of the books relating Biggles' wartime exploits comprised short stories which originally appeared either in Popular Flying (a monthly magazine) or The Modern Boy storypaper weekly of the 1930s. The first book, published by John Hamilton in 1932, was The Camels Are Coming. The Cruise of the Condor, Biggles of the Camel Squadron, Biggles Flies Again, and The Black Peril followed over the next few years from the same publisher. Biggles Learns to Fly appeared in a pocket library (The Boys' Friend) in 1935, as did Biggles in France.
Oxford University Press took over as Johns' publisher for the next eight years with Biggles Hits the Trail; Biggles in Borneo was their last in 1943. Biggles Fails to Return came out from Hodder & Stoughton in the same year. Brockhampton, Dean, Thames and even Marks and Spencer shared the publishing from the 1950s with H&S. Some titles appeared from more than one publisher, some of course being printed many times.
Artist Howard Leigh provided most of the fine jacket and frontispiece illustrations for the OUP titles before Leslie Stead took over with the change of publishers to H&S. One title worthy of note was the 1942 edition of 'Biggles in the Jungle'. The brilliant illustrations came from the hands of famed transport artist Terence Cuneo. With the rapid rise of interest in Johns' works, a number of clubs (and thus magazines) have appeared. The best of these was Biggles & Co, an A5 size quarterly.
Quite a few of the titles were reprinted in paperback. Cheap laminated editions were also published by Dean, but these should not be confused with some of the later titles which came out in both laminated (without dust jacket) and standard cloth (with dustjacket). As one writer said in an article on the Biggles books, figuring out who published what, when, first, etc, is a minefield.