Worrals of the WAAF – Captain W.E. John’s Flying Heroine for Girls

Captain W.E. Johns, illustrated by Matt Kindt, Worrals of the WAAF (London: Indie Books 2013).

Captain W.E. Johns, illustrated by Matt Kindt, Worrals Carries on (London: Indie Books 2013).

Captain W.E. Johns, illustrated by Matt Kindt, Worrals Flies Again (London: Indie Books 2013).

Captain W.E. Johns was the creator of that great British hero, ‘Biggles’ Bigglesworth, an RAF fighter ace, who with his friends Algy and Ginger foiled the evil designs of the German menace in a series of tales set in the First and Second World Wars. They’re classics of British children’s literature. They appeal mostly, but by no means exclusively to boys – they’re have been plenty of female readers. Even though they’re now somewhat passe, they’re influence on British popular culture is still noticeable. In the 1980s there was an attempt to translate the character into film with an SF twist. Johns’ hero was still a World War II airman, but was sent into the present day by time warp. The character was so much a staple of British literature, that he was lampooned, I believe, by Punch’s Alan Coren in his short story, ‘Biggles Strikes Camp’. More recently, the square-jawed space pilot, ‘Ace’ Rimmer, the heroic alter ego of the cowardly, egotistical and sneering Rimmer in TV’s Red Dwarf, seems to be something of a mixture of Biggles and that other great British hero, Dan Dare, the pilot of the future.

But during the Second World War, Johns was also determined to thrill and inspire girls with a similar figure for them. And so he wrote a series of three books about Joan Worralson, ‘Worrals’, and her friend Frecks. They were pilots in the WAAF, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, which was set up to deliver aircraft to the RAF. Although not combat pilots, Worrals and Flecks soon found themselves actively fighting the Nazi menace in Britain, and then France. The books were republished in 2013 by Indie Books. There’s also some connection there with the RAF Museum, as that institution has its logo proudly printed on the back cover.

I found them in a recent catalogue for Postscript, a mail order firm specialising in bargain books. They were there, alongside serious histories of women in aviation and the WAAF. I liked the ‘Biggles’ books when I was a schoolboy, and decided to order them to see what his female counterpart was like. A decision helped by the fact that they were £2.95 each. They came shortly before the shutdown last week. I haven’t read them yet, but will probably give them a full review when I do. In the meantime, here’s the blurbs for them:

1: Worrals of the WAAF

Britain: 1940

Joan Worralson – Worrals to her many friends – is ferrying a replacement aircraft to a RAF fighter station when she is plunged into combat with a mysterious plane.

Later, she and her friend Frecks investigate what that plane was up to – and fall into a nest of spies.

With their own airfield the target for destruction, the two girls will need every ounce opf skill and daring to save the day.

2: Worrals Carries On

Britain: 1941

While Britain reels from nightly air attacks, Worrals and Frecks are stuck in the routine of delivering new planes to the RAF – until a chance discovery put them on the trail of a Nazi spy.

The hunt leads them to London at the height of the Blitz and even into occupied France. Cut could it be that the traitor is right in their midst? And ready to hand them over to the Gestapo?

3: Worrals Flies Again

1941: Occupied France

British agents are risking their lives behind enemy lines. But how to get that vital information back home?

MI6 need a pilot who speaks French like a native and with the courage to take on an operation so crazy that it might just work. A job for Worrals.

But when she and Frecks fly to the isolated French castle that is to be their base, they discover that nothing is what it seems – and the Gestapo have got there first.

Like other professions and employers, the RAF is trying to diversify its ranks and recruit more women and people of BAME backgrounds. This was shown very clearly a few months ago on the One Show, in a section where pilot and former Countdown numbers person, Carol Vorderman, herself a pilot, talked about the winners of a competition by the Air Cadets  and the RAF to find their best and most promising members. There were three, two of whom were girls, while the third was a Black lad. As a reward, they were given a tour of the vast American factory where they were building the new high performance jets that were due to come into service over this side of the Pond, and talk to some of the American Air Forces pilots. These included a young woman, who was so thrilled with flying these machines that she told them she couldn’t believe she got paid for doing it. There was also a little subtext informing the viewer that young women could still fly these deadly war machines without sacrificing their femininity. One of the girl cadets was a blogger, who specialised in makeup and beauty. And there’s also a more general drive within aviation to recruit more women as pilots, for example in civil, passenger flight.

There have clearly been for a long time women interested in flight and careers in the armed forces. I don’t know how many girls were encouraged to join the WAAF or take to the air by reading Worrals – I suspect they more likely to be influenced by the ‘Biggles’ stories. There was also an attempt to launch a comic strip which featured a group of female pilots fighting for Britain in the WAAF or RAF in the girls’ comics. This was mentioned in the excellent short BBC documentary series, Comics Britannia. However, the strip didn’t prove popular with female readers and was closed down. The comic asked them what they’d rather read instead, and they said, ‘a good cry’. This resulted in a series of strips of unrelenting misery in their comics, including ‘Child Slaves of War Orphan Farm’. I think stories about heroic female pilots sticking it to the Nazis would have been far healthier, but the girls of the time obviously didn’t want it. I don’t know if the books would have any greater success now, when writers are trying to create strong role models for girls in fiction.

I haven’t read them yet – they’re on my ‘to read’ list, along with many others. But I intend to read them eventually. I’m interested in finding out what they’re like, and how they stand up to today’s changed ideas about gender roles. And more importantly, whether they’re any fun. I look forward to finding out.

And my mother wants to read them afterwards. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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6 Responses to “Worrals of the WAAF – Captain W.E. John’s Flying Heroine for Girls”

  1. trev Says:

    Well you learn something new everyday, I’d never even heard of ‘Worrals’ ! What a good find.

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks! W.E. Johns also wrote a series of SF books about flying saucers, which I’ll also have to review sometime.

  2. trev Says:

    Unrelated, but interesting…a while back when that USAF fly-past was happening over a War monument in Sheffield, a few of us at the foodbank were discussing the WW2 Bombers that came down over the moors in Yorkshire. Unbeknownst to me/us, someone had donated a book on that very subject, but we don’t take books. The manager said “here you are” and passed me the book. Just then another volunteer turned up and seeing it said “oh that’s uncle Dick’s book”. He phoned his wife in France to confirm and it was indeed authored by her uncle! Needless to say I let him have the book.

    • beastrabban Says:

      What an amazing story! I’m glad he got his uncle’s book back. It’s one of those stories like the tales of people, who lose their wedding rings during sailing trips, only to have them turn up later in fish that they’ve caught. It’s an urban legend, but it has actually happened, as described a few years ago in the Fortean Times.

  3. Florence Says:

    As a teen I was a member of the Girls Venture corps (GVC), essentially the Air Cadets for girls. It was absolutely fantastic. Mostly working class girls were learning to fly, shoot, mend engines, direct planes on the ground, read radar and so much more. It wasn’t the girl guides! We were always welcome for tuotion and flying lessons etc at RAF bases where they called us the JACs – from the wartime when the corps was called the (womens) junior air corps. We felt even as 12 year old we were treated with respect by airmen.
    It was the icing on the cake to see some of “our girls” in othe finale of the film of the Beatles Magical Mystery tour !
    Thanks, beast, for reminding me of better times.

    • beastrabban Says:

      My pleasure, Florence. And it was great that you girls got the respect you deserved from the airmen when you were in the corps. Great story!

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