Roald Dahl is best known for writing a series of beloved and critically acclaimed children’s books. But before Willy Wonka, Mr Fox, the B.F.G and all the rest, Dahl had a career of a very different sort – as a fighter pilot in the Royal Air Force.
During World War 2, he took part in the brutal Battle of Athens, sustained life-threatening injuries in a crash and rose to the rank of squadron leader. Oh yeah, and he also fell in love with a nurse.
I’d always imagined Roald Dahl as a grandfatherly professor type cooking up fabulous tales in a quaint English study. Turns out he was actually a bit of a stone-cold killer in his youth.
At the outbreak of war, Dahl, who was then living in Tanzania, was commissioned into the King’s African Rifles as a lieutenant. One month later, he travelled 600 miles to a RAF base in Nairobi by car with dreams of enlisting as a fighter ace. Within the year, he had completed his training and become a combat-ready pilot officer.
Less than a month later, Dahl was involved in a near-fatal crash landing after being given the wrong airstrip coordinates. The crash fractured his skull, broke his nose and temporarily blinded him. He was ‘lucky’ not to perish in his aircraft, managing to drag himself free from the blazing wreckage just before falling unconscious.
On the plus side, he met and fell in love with a nurse at the Alexandria Royal Navy hospital during his recuperation. However, the romance turned out to be very short-lived. (They really scuppered the chance for an Oscar-winning biopic there.)
The next year, Dahl was back between the wings of a Hawker Hurricane as part of a fighter squadron battling the Germans near Athens. It was here that he first engaged in aerial combat, shooting down a pair of Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 88s in two separate air battles.
On 20 April 1941, Dahl took part in the Battle of Athens which involved particularly frantic and chaotic air combat. Dahl described the battle as “an endless blur of enemy fighters whizzing towards me from every side”. Around a third of participating British pilots were killed, including the legendary RAF fighter pilot Pat Pattle.
As the Germans pressed their advance, Dahl was evacuated to Egypt where he continued to fly sorties daily and scored another two kills. However, severe migraines caused by his earlier crash resulted in him being sent home to Britain.
After the war, Dahl continued to dabble with a military career, spending time as an RAF training officer and later an intelligence officer – but his love of writing continued to grow. In 1961 he released James and the Giant Peach which became an instant best seller. The rest is history.
When you consider the unimaginable horrors of war, the occasionally macabre and gruesome plot elements in Dahl’s stories begin to make more sense. It also makes you wonder how many other children’s books we never got to see due to the untimely deaths of their would-be authors. Let’s just count our blessings that Roald Dahl made it through alive.
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