“We have come here to make a landing ground for British aeroplanes,” replied Worrals. …
Louis stared. He clicked his tongue. “Nom de Dieu. This is a mission dangereux. Why do the English send women on such work?”[i]
In the middle of the 20th century, there were schools for boys and schools for girls and, where schools were mixed, there were often boys’ entrances and girls’ entrances. There were toys for boys (guns, Meccano sets, model railways) and toys for girls (dolls and all their impedimenta). There were games for boys (Cowboys and Indians) and games for girls (‘let’s play house’). And there were books for boys and books for girls and even sometimes, to avoid confusion, separate shelving in libraries.
A small survey of children’s reading, carried out by the public library in Sheffield in 1937-38, reported that girls read more than boys. They liked school, fairy and ‘domestic’ tales, while boys chose air travel, adventure, school and the sea. In non-fiction, boys read about machinery and engineering, science and ‘things to do’, while girls were ‘naturally less interested’ in these and enjoyed poetry and plays.[ii]
But there were exceptions to the gendered norms of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, just as now, when books are less obviously for boys or girls, but there is an awful lot of girly pink everywhere.
One such exception in the world of books was Worrals, Flight Officer Joan Worralson or Worrals of the WAAF. Worrals was the creation of Captain W E Johns (1893-1968), author of the popular books about air ace and adventurer James Bigglesworth, aka Biggles. Johns was a pilot in World War One and was shot down and imprisoned in 1918. By the 1930s, he was an aviation correspondent for newspapers and writing books too, including the first Biggles story in 1932[iii]. It is hard now, when air travel is routine, to appreciate just how aviation held public attention then, with technological advances, international air races and pioneers like Charles Lindbergh. The Sheffield Library survey cited above reports that books about flying were easily the most popular with boys.
Peter: Oh, I could read those again. I could enjoy them again because in it a person can sort of lose himself and you can become Biggles for say half an hour and it’s great to read these stories. But at the same time I used to like to read about the air aces of the First World War, the real ones, and I was always sorry when I came to when they were killed because invariably they were, but I used to think they’ve had a damn good life, they’ve enjoyed it, what they were doing, and that’s it and I do find that’s, shall we say? an example to the rest of us and, y’know, I don’t know, I suppose reading is my way of escape.
What about girls then?
‘…I remember I read all the Biggles books,’ said Erica.
In the early days of World War Two, to aid recruitment, the Air Ministry asked Captain Johns to write about women in the services (even if service life would never be as exciting as he would make it seem). Worrals duly appeared in 1940, wearing a flying suit and aged about 18, in a serial in the Girl’s Own Paper. As the Daily Mail said, there was ”Worrals” – a woman of wit, courage and resource – a worthy ‘sister’ to “Biggles”.
Worrals appeared in 11 books and three short stories between 1941 and 1950. In wartime, she effortlessly shot down enemy aircraft, routed and unmasked German spies, outwitted the Gestapo, escaped from countless traps and near-death incidents, carried out daring missions in France, Syria, Australia and various Pacific islands and rescued French Resistance fighters and British soldiers. After the war, her adventures continued. She rescued people from certain death, thwarted opal thieves in Australia and tracked down war criminals and gun runners.
‘… the older ones loved Biggles and Worrals …’ said Margaret, who worked in Sheffield’s school library service.
Like Biggles, Worrals had allies. There was her friend, Frecks, who was brave but not quite as resourceful as Worrals; Spitfire pilot Bill Ashton, who was sweet on Worrals but was firmly rejected as there was after all a war to be won;[iv] and superiors like Squadron Leader McNavish, who deplored her actions but respected her abilities. But there was never any doubt who was in charge. In Worrals of the WAAF it was her decision to chase and shoot down an enemy fighter.[v] Worrals on the War-Path showed her typically taking the initiative – she had the idea for a secret landing-strip in France and she argued successfully for the opportunity to establish it. In Worrals Goes Afoot (1949) she set up a fake drug deal to make contact with gun-runners.
How unusual was Worrals? From the mid-19th century onwards, unconventional girls like Jo March started to appear in fiction, although they were outnumbered by their obedient sisters. Later there were all those plucky schoolgirls rescuing each other, foiling jewel thieves and so on in books and comics. Books like the Sue Barton series, which started in 1936, described girls training for careers, albeit ones associated with women, like nursing and teaching. When they grew up, of course, many of these unconventional girls settled for matrimony and motherhood. Worrals, who never did settle, was not unique but she was extraordinary.
This was a time when women’s lives were changing rapidly. They had taken on men’s roles in war (and been encouraged to return home in peacetime). Movements like the Guides gave girls new opportunities, although not the same ones afforded to Scouts. More women were going to university. More were getting the right to vote. All these developments might have had some unconscious influence on Captain Johns.
More important in the writing of Worrals were two pioneering women fliers. Amy Johnson (1903-41), the first female pilot to fly alone from Britain to Australia, was an icon in 1930s Britain. Pauline Gower (1910-47) established the women’s branch of the Air Transport Auxiliary, where Johnson was serving when she crashed to her death in 1941. Johns knew both of them. Worrals’ adventures are more ripping yarn than realistic but her skill, courage and determination were grounded in reality.
The greatest influence, however, was fictional: Biggles. Worrals was Biggles. Both were daring pilots, good shots, natural leaders. Both were uninterested in romance or family. Both were patriotic, clear-headed, decisive, even ruthless. Both were responsible for deaths, but felt little remorse. Captain Johns seemed to see no reason for changing his winning formula just because he was now dealing with the female sex (although it is interesting that he kept writing about Biggles until his death but gave up on Worrals 20 years before).
‘… I’ve not said Biggles, and Arthur Ransome and John Buchan, because I was reading those books as well. Those ‘Captain Johns’ and you know, the others, I would’ve sought out them in the central library,’ said Shirley.
Captain Johns’ prose can be purple (‘Deep night lay across the fair land of France, night as black as the soul of its Nazi conqueror.’[vi]), his plots formulaic and his characterisation superficial. There is little subtlety or depth in his writing. To the 21st century reader (both Biggles and Worrals are still in print), his attitudes can seem dated and occasionally offensive. Sheffield reader James Green reflects now:
… Well, Biggles, I think. … It was written for boys. But there’s an underlying propaganda that I didn’t get at the time, that was there. … ‘Course a lot of stuff we read in those days, I mean I was still at school when the map on the wall was half pink at that time. And there were loads of books with heroes that went out to quell the natives and hook all their values of Great Britain you know, and all the rest of it. … through reading newspapers you’d get writers and critics that would dissect a certain book or books or a genre, and make you see things that you hadn’t seen before. And you think, well that’s not right, you know. But at thirteen you … propaganda. And very Gung Ho. And I did think we were the greatest nation on this earth anyway. ‘God is an Englishman.’
But Johns was successful because of his thrilling plots, vivid characters and ability to spin a yarn. Boys and girls in wartime, seeking excitement or reassurance or distraction, were caught up by the adventures of Biggles and Worrals. For boys, this was the norm but it must have been a relatively new experience for the girls. ‘The boys had the best of it with their air ace “Biggles” until “Worrals of the WAAF” came along,’ says the slogan on Worrals Flies Again (1942).
[i] Worrals on the Warpath (1943).
[ii] A J Jenkinson’s survey, What Do Boys and Girls Read? (Methuen, 1940), involving almost 3,000 children, reported similar results.
[iii] The first Biggles novel is The Camels are Coming. There are about 100 books in total.
[iv] In a 2007 graphic novel, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier, by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, it is implied that Worrals and Frecks are more than friends.
[v] There were no women fighter pilots in the British or American armed forces until the 1990s. Russian women flew fighter planes in World War Two.
[vi] Worrals on the War-Path (1943).