Not everyone knows that Roald Dahl, one of the most famous writers of stories for children, among many other remarkable things, also served as a fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force during World War II.
Generally his name is immediately associated to books like ‘the BFG’, the big friendly giant, ‘Mathilda’ and ‘Charlie and the chocolate factory’. ‘Going Solo’ is an autobiographical book accounting for three years in Roald Dahl’s life, starting when he sailed to Africa at a very young age to take employment with Shell and concluding with his return to England after being taken off operational duty due to the head injuries he suffered during a crash. What happened in between is one of the most exciting stories of adventure and heroism. With the outbreak of the second world conflict, Dahl decided to enlist as a pilot in the RAF and went to Kenya to start his training in a Tiger Moth. A few months after starting his training, of which he describes the sense of freedom flying inverted over the wild life of the Savannah, he was sent to Egypt with the rank of Pilot Officer, to collect a plane and join the 80th Squadron.
Something went wrong on this first duty flight, he received wrong coordinates and ran out of fuel over the desert at night. In the crash of his Gloster Gladiator, he fractured his skull and only because of his extraordinary survivorship instinct he manage to pull-out of the cockpit before the plane caught fire.
The recovery lasted a few months in which he lied in bed completely blind in the Anglo-Swiss hospital of Alexandria, in Egypt, without any hope to ever see the light again. However, things turned out well for him and the head injuries did not leave permanent marks on his sight. He was released again for flying duty and was sent off to Greece to join what remained of his Squadron. This time he left with a Hawker Hurricane in which he had clocked only 2 hours, without any guidance and manage to reach the basis located near Athens. His squadron consisted of only 15 planes and it was called to defend the evacuation of the country by the English forces against a fleet of thousands of Luftwaffe planes. Their resistance did not last long, however, in the few weeks spent in Greece, Roald Dahl, inexperienced about aerial fights and with little knowledge of the machine given to him, managed to score five confirmed aerial victories earning the title of ‘flying ace’.
The book then, goes on about his deployment to Palestine, but the author himself dedicates only a few pages to this and the most prominent episode is the dialogue he had with a German Jew surveilling a landing strip used by the RAF. He was finally discharged because the head injuries of the crash in the gladiators caused him to black out during air combat and he eventually made it home to see his mother, after three years.
It is a lovely book which you’ll read in just a few hours, if you haven’t done so yet. Seeing through this side of Dahl’s life I can’t easily explain how his other books are clear from any hint of this adventurous, dangerous and, for some parts, painful time. My take is that perhaps such a whole-round person like Roald Dahl, experienced so many things in life that he could consciously and without doubt decide what type of world he preferred to live in and wanted to offer to his kids and all the kids that grew up with his books.
Surely, I couldn’t write about him without mentioning that his life was dedicated fully to taking care of children. Event 27 years after his death, this commitment continues to do good. If you want to learn more about this, check the page of the Roald Dahl’s Marvellous Charity (http://www.roalddahl.com/charity) and if you liked this post, make a little donation.