Biggles Defends the Desert by Capt. W.E. Johns

Those magnificent men…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

World War 2, the Sahara Desert. British planes carrying supplies, dispatches and important officials have been going missing en route over the desert, so Squadron-Leader James Bigglesworth – Biggles to his friends – has been despatched with his squad to an oasis halfway across the desert, partly to protect planes as they pass the danger zone, and partly to get to the root of the mysterious disappearances. Biggles is an ace fighter pilot, having made his name in WW1 and now back fighting the same enemy twenty years later. His old companions are still with him – Ginger and Algy – supplemented by some new faces, all skilled pilots too. They have their trusty Spitfires and endless heroism to carry them through.

I used to love the Biggles books as a child and wondered if the old magic would still be there. I’m happy to say that I thoroughly enjoyed my revisit to these old friends. Although they’re written in rather more simple language than an adult book would be, and occasionally Capt. Johns takes a detour to give a little life lesson – on how to plan things, or the qualities required of a leader, etc. – the story itself is certainly enough to hold the interest of grown-ups as well as children. The edition I read, from the Random House Children’s Publishing range, has a helpful notes section which explains some of the terms and jargon that the characters use, which have since fallen out of common knowledge.

Biggles and the squad soon discover that the planes are being diverted by a nefarious Nazi plot to mess with their compasses, taking them off their route. The squad responsible for this is led by the German fighter ace, von Zoyton, and his team of Messerschmitt pilots. So Biggles’ first task is to destroy the equipment that is sending out dodgy signals, and then to drive the Germans out of this sector of the desert to make the route safe again. This will involve sneaky plots, thrilling dogfights, desert survival and even camel rides! It all happens at a fast pace with no long dull passages, but there’s plenty of description that gives a real feel, if a little sanitised, of what it would have been like out there, far from the main action of war but performing a vital task.

The men are heroes, and all are brave and good. However they do make mistakes and misjudgements sometimes, even Biggles, which keeps them human. Both Brits and Germans show respect for their counterparts – they may be at war and they may be forced to kill each other, but they recognise that the enemy is simply doing his job, as they are doing theirs. First published in 1942 (under the title Biggles Sweeps the Desert), Capt. Johns already differentiates between German servicemen, for whom he has clear respect and no particular ill-will, and Nazi fanatics, who are the baddies. I think this is why the books still feel quite comfortable to read – there is no sense of racialised anti-German hatred, only anti-Nazi, and we can still all get on board with that, I think. There’s also a sense of them simply doing a necessary job – there’s no unseemly celebration over the deaths of enemy pilots on either side, while enemy prisoners are granted respect and decent treatment, by both sides.

Capt. W.E. Johns

I was pleased that Random House have chosen not to update the text as far as I can see. This means there’s an awful lot of smoking, seen as a Good Thing, which I feared they might have felt inclined to edit out. The British also often refer to the Germans as “the Hun”, now seen as somewhat derogatory, but back then, as Capt. Johns himself points out in a short note presumably added years later, “The word Hun used in this book was the generic term for anything belonging to the German enemy. It was used in a familiar sense, rather than derogatory.” By leaving this kind of thing in, the book keeps an air of authenticity and will give young readers a truer picture of the habits and language current at the time.

So a happy reunion with my old heroes for me, and I’d be quite happy to recommend Biggles for a new generation of readers, young or old – they feel more like a glorification of heroism and decency than of war itself, and they are respectful towards the enemy, showing that they too are heroic and decent men (except the Nazis). Plus, and more importantly, the adventures are still thrilling!

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38 thoughts on “Biggles Defends the Desert by Capt. W.E. Johns

  1. Never heard of this one, will look it up. And I have no problem with Germans being called Huns in old texts. Nowadays if I heard someone using that word, I would assume that it‘s an old guy who hasn‘t quite caught up with the 21st century. There used to be one guy on GR that kept trotting out all the old clichées about Germans, so my German reading buddy and I (German as well) eventually blocked him. It just got too annoying.. 😏

    Liked by 2 people

    • Haha, yes, I think we should really have got over WW2 by now, and stopped behaving as if the Brits and the Germans are still enemies! My Dad used to call the Germans the Hun, being of that generation, but it’s been a long time since I heard anyone use the term now. I’d imagine a lot of younger people might never even have heard it. That was one of the things I liked about this edition, that it had notes that explained a lot of out-dated terminology.

      Liked by 2 people

        • No, they’re “proper” books! Quite short in adult terms, but quite substantial as kids’ books. Without wanting to be too sexist about it, they’d be particularly good for getting reluctant boy readers to read, I suspect, though of course perfectly suitable for girls too. Generally speaking, all the characters are male.

          Liked by 3 people

  2. I was so thrilled to see this. I didn’t really read Biggles as a child thinking they’d be not of much interest to me, but I was wrong because when I started reading them in college, I enjoyed them very much. I don’t think I’ve read this one (in fact most of the ones I’ve read have been from the great war and non-war adventures), but glad to see that both sides are presented in a balanced way, without demonising anyone, and also perhaps causing one to reflect on the futility o f war with deaths on both sides.
    (I thought there were a 100 of these but Goodreads says 126!!!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought the story worked just as well for an adult audience as for children, and I like the cleaner, slightly sanitised style – if only people would write adult books with no swearing and fundamentally decent characters! I had a feeling Johns had always portrayed the Germans respectfully, so I was glad to have that memory confirmed. I read tons of them when I was a kid but have no recollection of specific titles or stories. I think it was mostly WW1 ones though, plus a few of the non-war ones. I’ll happily read more – they’d make great palate cleansers between heavier reads!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m really happy for you, FictionFan, that the Biggles magic hasn’t worn off for you. So often that’s not what happens when we return to books we loved as young people. And I think part of the reason these novels work is that the emphasis is on the story. So even though there are ‘life lessons,’ one’s not bashed over the head with them, if that makes sense.

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    • Yes, the ‘life lesson’ detours were very short and quite well done, and not aimed at too juvenile a level either. I was pleased this was a successful trip down memory lane – I always worry about re-visiting childhood favourites. But really I think these books would work quite well for an adult audience too. I quite like the cleaner, slightly sanitised style – I wish more adult books would avoid swearing and sex, and have some fundamentally decent characters!

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  4. The so-called liberal elite want us to believe that any old-style children’s stories – Enid Blyton, Biggles, etc – are the work of the devil, but the ethic in them is generally honesty, decency, sticking by your friends, etc, which is all positive as far as I’m concerned. And “Brits” was originally a derogatory term, I think coined by the Japanese, but no-one objects to that 🙂 .

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    • I know – I actually feel sorry for kids now, since the kids’ books all seem determined to indoctrinate them about all the miseries of life, and make them feel guilty if they happen to be healthy or otherwise “privileged”! Oh for the good old days, when the books just taught us how to be decent human beings and have fun! I was pleased they hadn’t updated this – much better to have notes explaining unfamiliar things or how words have taken on different meanings over time.

      Liked by 1 person

    • If he enjoys adventure-style stories, then these are certainly worth a try! Probably from about age 10 for an avid reader, I’d say – maybe 12 for a less enthusiastic one. They’re short in adult terms, but quite substantial as kids’ books, if that makes sense.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. So delighted the magic endured for you, FF! Too often, I fear, the books we read as children now sound almost silly to our adult ears. I haven’t read any Biggles, but your review makes me want to. Wasn’t Rafa splendid in his win on Sunday?!?!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I’m always hesitant to re-read books I loved as a child, but this one felt like a real cross-over – perfectly suitable for adults who like adventure stories too! Rafa is unbelievable!! 14!! 🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆🏆 I wonder if he can make it 15 next year… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think it depends on whether they like adventure stories. I suspect they’d be especially good for reluctant boy readers – it seems to me there aren’t many current adventure stories for boys. And Biggles and his friends make excellent role models – decent, kind, loyal men! 😀 I’d say suitable for about age 10 for an enthusiastic reader, maybe 12 for a more reluctant one.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m thinking something similar could be said for the young Russian soldiers in the current conflict. It’s Putin, his oligarchs, and all the rest of that ilk who are the evil ones. I knew from the title that it was leaning toward the kids’ audience. I’ll have to ask my husband if he read these as a kid.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, sadly there are always some atrocities in wartime, but I suspect most of the people who serve really don’t have any particular animosity towards the individuals on the other side. I don’t know if the Biggles books were big anywhere other than in Britain but there was a period of time over here when everyone knew who Biggles was!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m always frightened to revisit the books I loved as a child, but actually child me and adult me often seem to share remarkably similar tastes! I was pleased Biggles can still be my hero after all these years… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’m always frightened to revisit books I loved as a child in case I’ve completely grown out of them, but actually it’s surprising how often child me and adult me are in tune! I’m glad Biggles can stay as one of my heroes after all these years. 😀

      Like

  7. Interesting post – I’ve never heard of these books, although that’s not surprising given how old they are. What age range were these meant for FF? Nice to know that they are still in print with a few updates for modern-day readers, I could see my son really enjoying these books when he gets older 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I reckon they’d be good for a ten-year-old whose a confident reader, maybe twelve-years-old for a less enthusiastic reader. Without wanting to be too sexist about it, I think they’re great books for boys especially – lots of good male role models!

      Liked by 1 person

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