The Blagger's Guide to: Worrals of the WAAF

By Jove, Biggles, that chap's a gal, don'tcha know!

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The Independent Culture

Seventy years after Flight-Officer Joan Worralson first dazzled youngsters in the novels of W E Johns, she's back! IndieBooks has just republished three hardback editions of her adventures, so that children of today (and, let's face it, probably lots of adults) can be reminded of her tales of wartime derring-do. New illustrations have been provided by Matt Kindt, an award-winning young American graphic novelist.

Worrals was the creation of W E Johns, a former First World War pilot who went on to edit Popular Flying magazine and write the famous Biggles stories. Biggles had proved to be such an effective recruiting tool that in 1940 the Air Ministry asked Johns to write stories that would highlight the work of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (and possibly distract attention from the fact that many Waafs were actually code-cracking at Bletchley Park). He published 12 books between then and 1950, and later wrote: "She undertook some remarkable missions, but none more desperate than were actually being made by girls in the same service. Well has it been said that much that sounds improbable can be true. Truth can sound like fiction and still be true."

Pilot Officer Joan Worralson was based on two real-life pilots who served with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA): Pauline Gower and Amy Johnson (who was killed in 1941). In reality, members of the WAAF were not supposed to fly (even as passengers) so Johns combined the roles of the WAAF and the ATA in the books.

Among the real-life Worrals who were involved in counter-espionage in enemy territory were the children's writer Noor Inyat Khan and Anne-Marie Walters (code name Colette), who later wrote the classic account Moondrop to Gascony.

In 1940, the Air Council decided that Waafs should be banned from flying in case their male colleagues spent time giving them "joyrides". By the end of the war, women were routinely flying to test repairs and in air ambulances, and were serving in every part of the world, and were central to the "Enigma" decoding work at Bletchley Park. WAAF officers were trained in sabotage and were parachuted into occupied Europe. Only the ban on women pilots remained.

Although Johns wrote as Captain W E Johns, his actual final RAF rank was Flying Officer – equivalent to a lieutenant in the Army. During his training, he wrote off three planes in three days. Between the wars he worked for a time as a recruiting officer, where he rejected T E Lawrence. He wrote around 160 books, including more than 100 about Biggles.

When Worrals's loyal sidekick, Frecks, suggests that they ask permission from their commanding officer before plunging into their next adventure, Worrals replies: "He'd probably start raising all sorts of objections — you know, not the sort of work for girls, and all that sort of rot." As IndieBooks' Worrals Blog points out, in June this year an employment tribunal found that Group Captain Wendy Williams was passed over for promotion by the RAF "because of her sex". Currently, just six out of 470 people in senior RAF grades are women. The publisher dares to suggest that "Captain" Johns must have been an early feminist.

More information can be found at 'Worrals of the WAAF', 'Worrals Carries On' and 'Worrals Flies Again' are published by IndieBooks (£12 each).