bc Captain W E Johns and Worrals, by Jim Mackenzie

Captain W E Johns and
Worrals of the WAAF
Page finalised 9th November, 2010.
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Worrals in the Girl's Own Paper
The Main Players in the Worrals Books


< Issue #1 of the GOP

Worrals of the WAAF
Article by: James Mackenzie

Have you read the Worrals books ? There is no doubt that quite a few boys (and men), totally hooked on Biggles, can not imagine the possibility of reading a series of adventures that were written specifically for girls. With what a woman would call "typical male arrogance" they may shy away from stories about a girl of 18, whose very name suggests a poor carbon copy of the intrepid pilot whose name they have come to love. Well, just like the jokers at Cranwell who decided that "cissy" was a good name for Bertie Lissie, (Spitfire Parade), they couldn't be more wrong.

After all, W.E.Johns, like Biggles himself, is totally reliable - you know that you are going to get value for money when he starts to tell you a story. A little more investigation about when the Worrals stories were written would reveal that they came in the middle of his "purple patch" or even his "vintage period". A true fan of Biggles would have to admit that some of the later adventures, as Biggles draws towards retirement, though still worth reading, lack the zest and the pace of those conceived and written on either side of the Second World War. If you haven't done so already, and if you have exhausted the quest for those elusive last volumes of Biggles, then get hold of the Worrals series and discover an unsuspected feast of fast-moving exploits.

Worrals is different. She may have been devised by Johns as a propaganda heroine to entice young girls into the forces during World War 2 but she quickly evolved into a distinct personality who, though she clearly shares some of the same ideals as Biggles, Algy, Ginger and Bertie, has her own remarkable view of the world. The extra dimension is that she is a woman in a world completely dominated by men. Moreover, these are men engaged in a desperate war of survival. From the very start she is the underdog, the one who must battle not just the various enemies that cross her path but also with the uncomprehending and preoccupied higher command on her own side. The modern adjective to describe her would be "feisty". Some of her attitudes would strike a chord with those engaged in the more rational aspects of the women's struggle for equality during the last two decades. However, whether you are a male or female reader, you can't help being on her side. W.E.Johns said of his creation: "She undertook some remarkable missions, but none (although for security reasons this couldn't be divulged at the time) more desperate than were actually being made by girls in the same Service" (The First Biggles Omnibus).

Her adventures outlasted the war. They are listed here and the flavour of each book is suggested, though enough details are kept back, so that you can discover them yourself.

Worrals of the WAAF

Why was the grey horse in the field ? Why did that golf course have a line of bunkers all at one end of the fairway ? You soon realise that when Worrals is around you are going to be plunged into mystery and adventure. A routine job delivering a plane to the advanced R.A.F. post gives the 18 year old pilot her first challenge and her first dilemma. She can fly like a man but does she have the ruthless streak ? The answer soon comes.
"Almost viciously she jammed down the button. Instantly little sparks of orange flame spurted from the muzzles of her guns. They ended in gleaming silver lines that leapt across the intervening distance and ended at the starboard engine of the grey monoplane."
Later you can share her frustration when she stumbles on a clue to espionage and is told to forget it.
"There are moments when I wonder whether some of our senior officers have sawdust in their heads instead of brains."
This is what she tells her friend, Frecks Lovell, and together they set out to find the truth and first they walk and then fly straight into danger. The enemy makes no exceptions for women -
"Let go of that stick or I'll shoot you," he rasped, and Worrals knew that he meant it.
And Worrals reveals no weaknesses in her nerve - "Shoot," she invited grimly, her eyes on the reflector.
A weekend leave is crammed with so many pursuits and traps, tricks and escapes, explosions and crashes, that the reader is left breathless, yet still keen for more adventures.
For his first Worrals story W.E.Johns maintains a high speed of narrative, with little detailed description but the prickly, headstrong and dauntless character of Worrals has already fastened herself on your imagination.

Worrals Carries On

Flying Officer Bill Ashton calls them the "kids" but Worrals and Frecks once again win the respect of all their male colleagues as they battle through another encounter with the Germans in this roller-coaster of a narrative. Yet this story is a curious combination of clues thoughtfully worked out, lines of inquiry carefully followed up and then non-stop action as the narrative rushes to its climax.
A leaf stuck in the tyre of a returning pilot sets Worrals' Sherlockian mind in motion. A trip to London and the Green Parrot night club increases her doubts about a suspect. And then the bombs of the Blitz start to fall ! From the inside of an abandoned ice-cream factory to the depths of a church crypt in occupied France is an unusual journey, full of surprises for both the reader and for the girls.
Frecks was silent for a little while.
"This show isn't turning out as easy as we expected."
"Shows rarely do," Worrals pointed out, sadly.
And, as the dangers mount, Worrals discovers that there is something more than mere comradeship between herself and Bill.
W.E.Johns serves up the mixture as before, though he spends less time developing Worrals' chip on her shoulder about the female contribution to the war effort.

Worrals Flies Again

So far in the Worrals saga she has found the adventures for herself in the ordinary events that surround the aerodrome where she and Frecks serve. In this story she receives a personal invitation to danger. This time the W.A.A.F. uniforms are not just hidden, they are discarded for disguises. This time Frecks is not just a companion for Worrals, sharing the dangers and solving the problems. She has to face the world, believing that Worrals has perished. This time W.E.Johns doesn't just serve up a kaleidoscope of rapid and violent events with hair-raising chases across anonymous stretches of countryside. This time the story is located precisely in an atmospheric locale with well-developed characters. This time there is a despicable villain whose malevolence is matched by his efficiency.
Yes, Worrals has matured from being a gifted amateur into a dedicated professional. By now her skill at flying we take for granted but her sheer nerve and capacity for bluff are nowhere more impressive. The challenges she faces have become as much psychological as physical. She has become harder and it shows even in her attitude to her own senior officers.
"Just a moment, sir," interrupted Worrals coldly. "Are you suggesting that any useful work I may have done in the past was due entirely to the fact that being a girl I enjoyed privileges that would have been denied to a man?"
She is clearly strong enough for the work that awaits her at the mysterious Chateau Delarose. That is… until Bill gets into deep danger.

Worrals on the Warpath

For the first time W.E.Johns gives his Worrals story the "why are they there?" opening that he employs so often in the Biggles saga. In chapter one Worrals and Frecks are there in France, moreover in the heart of wartime France, and the story has to backtrack to the reasons for her latest mission. And the reason that the girls are there is a wild idea, so highly improbable that it could only have come from the mind of Worrals.
"What you'll lose, my gal, if you go on playing with fire, is your life," snorted the CO
"Did no one ever tell you that, when you were collecting all those medals on your chest ?" asked Worrals evenly.
The CO bristled. "That's nothing to do wi't.. I'm a man."

Of course, nothing could be more calculated to put Worrals on the warpath - except that's not what the title means.
Once again W.E.Johns pauses to allow you to drink in the atmosphere of that very special region, the Cevennes, and he makes you understand the special qualities of the people who live there. Then he plunges his heroines into a hurly-burly of action that has them almost constantly on a knife-edge between the perils of the peaks and the brutality of the Gestapo. Strangely enough it is her woman's wiles that get her out of a difficult situation. Is this below really Worrals ?
She affected a look of distress. "It is," she said in a broken voice, "an affair of the heart."
However, later we know she is back to her old self when Bill Ashton calls her Boadicea instead of the usual patronising "kid".
Oh, by the way, Air Commodore Raymond has now got her in his team. She's clearly made the grade - just like Biggles did before her.
Worrals Goes East

Set a thief to catch a thief. Set a woman to catch a woman. Worrals and Frecks go east, recommended by Air Commodore Raymond, and try to solve a problem for Major Kenton in Syria. As Nimrud, their bodyguard, tells them in Aleppo, they are mere bints and, as Major Kenton warns them:
"You realise that in putting on this act you may be running a grave risk ?"
Worrals made a deprecatory gesture. "If we're going to start talking about risks we might as well pack up and go home. Every job that makes personal contact with the enemy is bound to carry risks."
Why should palm trees near the centre of an oasis grow shorter than those on the outside ? How does Worrals' nightie mysteriously move to Frecks' bed ? How you would feel if you had your hand trapped between the metal plates of a printing press ? What is it like to share a coffin with the remains of a Hittite and get up with little bones sticking to your uniform ? It isn't just the action. It isn't just Worrals' superb powers of deduction. It is the new ruthless attitude, worthy almost of Gimlet King, that gives this book an extra hard edge.
"There are ways of making even liars tell the truth," answered Worrals coldly. "Doubtless you know of methods that may restore his memory ?"
Frecks gasped as Nimrud drew his dagger and pressed the point of the steel on the exposed throat until the Arab's eyes rolled with terror. "He'll kill him !" she cried.
"Leave him alone," growled Worrals. "What gave you the idea that we were playing kindergarten ?"

Worrals of the Islands

The steel in Worrals' character has always been there. At this stage of her career it is joined with a self-belief that makes her talk with the higher command as though she were their superior officer.
"Ha ! Managed to get back, I see," greeted the C.O., Wing Commander McNavish, D.S.O.
"Considering I've always managed to get back, so far, sir, I don't see why you need give Squadron Leader Yorke the impression that I've done something astonishing," returned Worrals curtly.
Later when she makes up her mind that she wants to go on a mission her C.O. snorts that she must be out of her mind. Her rejoinder is,
"Being utterly sane must be dreadfully dull."
The enemy are the Japanese. The mission is a search that turns into a quest that turns into an ordeal. There are the horrors of the mangrove swamp. There is a long journey in an open boat. Then there is Summaru - the kind of man who would do anything. And he does it ! Even Worrals is brought to the limits of her fortitude and toughness. When she takes out her automatic we even wonder whether she is saving the last bullet for herself. Falling into the hands of Summaru is too awful to contemplate.
However, "She had taken on a man's job, so it was up to her to act as a man would act."
And she fights back with the madness of war fever. Whoever thought that these were books just for girls ?

Worrals in the Wilds

"Okay," agreed Frecks. "But I warned you. I'm not up to this safari business yet. The only cats I have any time for are those you can stroke."
The war is over but Worrals is not ready to settle down, though she does get an offer. A rescue expedition to Africa puts Worrals and Frecks in amongst the lions and the native tribesmen. However, it is the white men who prove to be the troublemakers. They soon learn that Worrals with a rifle in her hand means what she says.
"I'll shoot you, you scum. I've killed far better men than you."
She can't be faced down for courage. She can't be outwitted for cunning. She won't even let the disbelief of the authorities stop her from doing what she knows is right. She hates what men believe about women pilots but she knows how to make use of their gullibility. She wins through by
"Telling a beautiful fairy tale and looking dumb at the same time."
However, this time she needs Frecks to help her out for
"Frecks is never at her best until things get really grim."
Deep in the story things look more than grim but the reader knows that any criminals who face Worrals will soon realise the sad truth.
"This gang started total war. Now we'll carry on with it. I've been through a real war, don't forget….."
Her tactics should make you shudder but they certainly work. Does the romance between Bill and Worrals finally blossom ? What do you think ?

Worrals Down Under

"This place ain't fit for girls.." declares one of the villains in this story. He doesn't mean the enterprising country of Australia; he means one particular station in the outback. When the girls are Worrals and Frecks you realise that the villains don't realise what they are getting themselves into.
The readers (at least the British ones) learn the local vocabulary alongside Worrals and so are familiar with soaks and mulga and gibbers. They learn of the local legends and myths and "debil-debils".
An honest lawyer and a crooked mineral expert are just two of the characters in this eerie story of the open spaces and of ruthless killers. Aunt Mary's legacy to her niece Janet proves very difficult to find. Bullets fly, a little dog suffers and an aborigine servant proves both his skills and his loyalty. It is a story of greed and cruelty and of courage and determination. Even Worrals learns that seeing is not always believing when the sun gets hot and shadows shimmer and dead bodies disappear.

Worrals Goes Afoot

From one hot spot to another - Worrals surges into action again. Once more the British Government has to call in Worrals and Frecks to help solve a mystery and prevent a minor war in the Middle East. Of course, at first, they are inclined to be condescending and Worrals raises the temperature even before she sets foot in Alexandria.
"What I object to is this supposed masculine superiority, this inherent vanity in the male which makes him so sure he can do things better than we can…."
Even when Air Commodore Raymond tries to placate her with his praise of her previous achievements he is stung by her firm rejoinder.
"I'm sticking up for the women's services generally. Any jobs they've been asked to do they've done as well as the jobs men have taken on themselves…."
Suitably apologetic, Raymond and Cedric Collingwood explain their new mission. By this time the Higher Command knows that the girls can be very inventive but even they must be surprised when Worrals decides to go into the drug-dealing business and immediately begins to make a large profit !
And yet, as usual the dangers and deprivations begin to mount. Riding across the desert on horseback may be bad enough but walking on the sun-scorched plains of Sinai is like a trip into hell. Greed and murder are as old as the Old Testament and Worrals and Frecks have good reason to remember the children of Israel as they too cross the Red Sea and wander in the wilderness. Never has Frecks been so grateful for her love of chocolates.

Worrals in the Waste Lands
"She's as cunning as a vixen and has the temper of a tigress." Not, as might expect, a description of Worrals but Air Commodore Raymond's description of Anna Schultz, wanted for abominable war crimes. At deserted Lake Desolation in Canada there is far more than the wilderness and the rough terrain to face. The war may be over, but hidden somewhere in the jumble of rocks, are the remains of a Condor aircraft. Also concealed in the undergrowth are any number of wild animals - animals that when wounded that can strike with more force even than a wounded Nazi. Not all the U-boats were surrendered or sunk. And an arm of Hudson Bay is quite near. Not all Germans prove to be wicked and heartless.
A straightforward mission of search and arrest leads Worrals and Frecks to stumble across a twisted tale of romance gone sour, betrayal and casual
murder. And then there's also the gold…..
Worrals Investigates.

The title sounds like an opportunity for Worrals to behave like Sherlock Holmes. However, though there is a mystery in the story, the events described draw more upon Worrals' resolution of character than upon her powers as a sleuth. W.E.Johns loved a story with an island in it and so did his readers. Once again he takes us half way round the world to the South Pacific and, not for the first time, we see a possible island paradise turn into a place of purgatory.
Worrals has defeated the Germans, raided the Japanese and outwitted several sets of crooks and racketeers. More than that she has helped women take their rightful place at the centre of modern society, doing anything a man can do and sometimes doing it better, Who was left to face this intrepid woman and her reliable companion ? In this story Johns provides the answer - someone who is not simply bad but also mad.
Mysterious gun-shots, a palace of shells, an abandoned yacht with a desperate prisoner and a disappearing body are just some of the ingredients as the girls operate further away from home and help than ever.
"What on earth was that ?" she asked in a voice that she didn't recognize as her own.
Worrals, tight-lipped, shook her head. "Don't ask me."
"It was frightful."
"Frightful is the word."
"No human being could make a noise like that……"

There are also three short stories, one of which is to be found sharing "Comrades in Arms" with a Biggles story and a Gimlet King story.

A few more points……
You will find the official publication order (and the one given on most web sites) contradicts the reading order given in the summaries above with Worrals Carries On being placed after Worrals Flies Again because it was apparently published a month later. However, the following internal evidence from Worrals Flies Again contradicts this and confirms the order above:
"One point occurs to me. Do you think it at all likely that the Nazis will have a record of me, a description, as a result of what happened in the past ?"
"I doubt it. After all, you weren't in France very long, and most of your work was done at night."
This can only be a description of what has happened in Worrals Carries On (Worrals and Frecks do not go to France in Worrals of the WAAF !)

The first two stories are a rush of action with few of the characters developed with any depth. The later stories in fact contain more talk and speculation than action. As with the Biggles saga it is very often the ones in the middle that contain a balance of the best qualities of W.E.Johns' writing.

A brief who's who

Worrals - Joan Worralson - 18 years old at the beginning of the stories and "hard-boiled" by the end of the war. Good at languages, especially French and German and instinctively talented at shooting straight. Capable of fearsome resolution yet also tender compassion. Her self-possession and quick wits rarely let her down. She is loyal to her comrades and deadly to her enemies. She makes friends around the world. There is a definite "bee in her bonnet" about the role of women and she lets higher command know in no uncertain terms what she feels about their condescending attitude. She is a magnificent example of courage, determination and cold, hard reasoning ability.

Frecks - Betty Lovell - just a little younger than Worrals - in fact in the first book she is not able to wear her wings because she is not yet 18. She is fair-haired, casual in her behaviour and apparently takes nothing in her life seriously. Without any vanity, she makes no attempt to cure the freckles that give her a nickname that most would resent. She plays Watson to Worrals' Holmes but also is filled with a deep courage that is often called on in emergencies.

Bill Ashton - A Flying Officer in the R.A. F. who shares most of the early wartime adventures. His first instinct is to call Worrals and Frecks "kids" but later his regard for Worrals turns into something deeper. Totally reliable in the air, his concern for the two girls sometimes leads him into dangerous risks, inadvertently giving Worrals further dilemmas as she has to organise his rescue as well. Marriage is a subject that rears its head at the end of the war but for Worrals the time is never right and gradually Bill fades from the picture - always a respected comrade and pal, never a prospective bridegroom.

Squadron Leader McNavish (later Wing Commander) - the Scottish commanding officer of the base during the war. He can snarl like a wounded tiger when Worrals dares to contradict him. His conspicuous courage and his magnificent record (DFC and DSO) however, take the sting out of any blundering condescension that he shows towards the efforts of women fliers. His attitude to the men from "Intelligence" that try to recruit his officers (female or not) is always defiant. "No officer of mine has ever willingly left me…."

Squadron Leader Marcus Yorke - one of those intelligence officers that cause McNavish so much bother. His main virtue as far as Worrals is concerned is that he listens to her ideas and then, having made up his mind to trust her, gives her missions his full backing.

Air Commodore Raymond - always ready to employ Worrals when the woman's touch is needed. Worrals often complains that he only turns to her as a last resort. Again, once committed to her exploits, he gives her his total support.

There is also a whole supporting cast of appalling villains, undercover agents, helpful natives and ex-colleagues from the W.A.A.F. that are better met as part of the stories- for to tell more would be to give away some ofthe best parts of the adventures.

WORRALS in the Girl's Own Paper
Special thanks to Diana of the Abbey Girls of Australia for these lovely examples of supporting illustrations and covers taken from her collection of WW2 single issues of the Girl's Own Paper, and to James for his illuminating article above.

Banner title from serial, circa 1940s

Illustration at left taken from the lower half double page of a later issue, published in the small size of 5 x 7.5 inches. Despite wartime, these were beautifully printed on slick, high quality paper.

This page and the photos in particular are for the information of collectors and no copyright infringements are intended.

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