Roald Dahl – Children’s Author and Flying Ace

On 21 April 1941, Dahl took part in the “Battle of Athens,”

Roald Dahl is today known as a beloved author of children’s books like “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach,” “Matilda,” and “The Fantastic Mr. Fox.” But before he began his career as an author, Dahl was a decorated World War II flying ace for the Royal Air Force (RAF) and an international diplomat.

Born in 1916 to a Norwegian family that was residing in Cardiff, Wales, Dahl was not considered by his teachers to have a future in literature. “I have never met anybody who so persistently writes words meaning the exact opposite of what is intended,” wrote one teacher.

Once he was out of school in 1934, he took a job with the Shell Petroleum Company. He worked in Kenya and then was sent to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.

The 3rd Bn. King’s African Rifles formed in 1902 in Kenya. By The National Archives UK – OGL
The 3rd Bn. King’s African Rifles formed in 1902 in Kenya. By The National Archives UK – OGL

When the war began in 1939, Dahl joined the Royal Army and was assigned the rank of lieutenant in the King’s African Rifles where he was place in command of a platoon of Askaris. A month later, Dahl joined the RAF.

Once in the RAF, Dahl began training in Nairobi, Kenya. He trained on the De Havilland Tiger Moth before being sent to Iraq. There he was commissioned as a pilot officer and received six months of training on Hawker Darts.

As an acting pilot officer, Dahl was assigned to the No. 80 Squadron RAF. He was assigned to fly the obsolete Gloster Gladiator, the last biplane the British used as a fighter plane. He had received no additional combat pilot training and no training at all on the Gladiator.

Dahl was flying a Gloster Gladiator when he crash landed in Libya
Dahl was flying a Gloster Gladiator when he crash landed in Libya

Ordered to fly from Abu Seir in Egypt to Amiriya for refueling and then on to Fouka in Libya to refuel a second time. He was then to fly on to the squadron’s forward airstrip south of Mersa Matruh but had difficulty locating the strip. Running low on fuel, he was forced to crash land in the desert.

In the crash, Dahl was temporarily blinded and badly injured. He managed to crawl away from the plane just before it exploded.

Fortunately a rescue team located him and got him to a Royal Navy hospital where he began his lengthy recovery.

In 1941, he had recovered enough to rejoin his squadron. He flew his first combat mission over Greece during the failed attempt to defend the country against the invading Nazi Germany forces. Only 18 RAF planes were available to fight off the incoming enemy.

During this battle, Dahl flew a Hawker Hurricane. On April 15, 1941, he intercepted six German Junkers Ju-88s by himself and shot one down. The very next day he was able to shoot down another German bomber.

Credit: Cpl Phil Major ABIPP/MOD
Credit: Cpl Phil Major ABIPP/MOD

On April 21, 1941, he flew in the Battle of Athens along with Pat Pattle and Dahl’s friend David Coke. Twelve RAF Hurricanes flew in the battle, five were shot down, and four of the pilots were killed – including Pattle. Observers counted 22 German aircraft shot down.

But the action was so confusing, no one could identify who shot them down. Dahl himself said it was a “blur of enemy fighters whizzing towards me from every side.”

It is believed that Dahl shot down at least one enemy aircraft but since it could never be confirmed, he did not get credit for any.

Dahl’s leather flying helmet . Credit: DeFacto – CC BY-SA 4.0
Dahl’s leather flying helmet . Credit: DeFacto – CC BY-SA 4.0

After suffering defeat in Greece, his squadron was reassigned to Egypt. There he shot down two more enemy planes.

Dahl began having headaches that caused him to blackout at this time so he was sent to Britain as a pilot officer on probation. He was promoted to war substantive flying officer.

For the remainder of the war, Dahl worked as a diplomat and intelligence officer in Washington, D.C. He wrote propaganda material for the US public and kept Winston Churchill informed of  Roosevelt’s mindset.

Dahl retired from service in 1946 as squadron leader. He qualified as a flying ace for his five aerial victories which were confirmed after research and cross-referencing with Axis documents.

While serving in the US, Dahl took a leave and wrote the book “The Gremlins.” He showed it to his bosses to get their approval before publishing. They, in turn, showed it to Walt Disney who liked it and began plans to make it into a movie.

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The movie deal fell through, but Dahl’s interest and success in writing for children was secured as his career after the military.