Roald Dahl: From pilot and spy to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Twits, James and the Giant Peach… generations of children and adults have been delighted by Roald Dahl’s books. Today is Roald Dahl Day, and here Dahl fan and former primary school teacher LAURA STEELE, of educational resources company PlanBee, shares some interesting facts about the much-loved author

Peachy: Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl is one of the most famous authors in the world. His children’s books have been translated into 60 languages and sold more than 250million copies worldwide.

Dahl was born on September 13, 1916, in Llandaff, South Wales to Norwegian parents who named him after the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, who in 1911 was the first man to reach the South Pole (Roald’s first name is correctly pronounced “Rooo-al”, with a silent “d”).

Dahl started at Llandaff Cathedral School when he was seven. He was said to have been a mischievous child. On one occasion, he and his friends devised the “Great Mouse Plot”, when they hid a dead mouse in a jar of gobstoppers in order to give an unpleasant old sweet shop owner a fright. The boys were later found out and caned by their headmaster while the sweet shop owner watched. This story, as well as many other tales from his childhood, is recounted in his autobiography, Boy.

As a result of the caning, Roald’s mother withdrew him from the school and sent him to St Peter’s, a boarding school in Weston-super-Mare. He was just nine years old. Dahl was very homesick to begin with, and even pretended to have appendicitis so that he would be sent home.

When he was 13, Dahl was sent to Repton, the large public school in Derbyshire. One of the rare highlights of being a pupil there was when the boys were asked to sample and rate new chocolate bars for the nearby Cadbury factory, a truly inspiring experience…

Overall, however, he did not enjoy his school days, calling them “days of horror” that were filled with “rules, rules and still more rules that had to be obeyed”. When, aged 17, he was asked by his mother if he wanted to go to university, his reply was: “No, thank you. I want to go straight from school to work for a company that will send me to faraway wonderful places like Africa or China.”

Dahl’s first job with Shell, the oil company, sent him to work first in Mombasa, Kenya, and then to Dar-es-Salaam, in what was then Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania). There, he encountered saw many wild and dangerous animals, including lions, rhinos and hyenas, but it was the deadly black mamba snakes he feared the most.

At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Dahl joined up in Kenya, first as an officer in the King’s African Rifles, and soon after transferred to the RAF to become a fighter pilot, though he was nearly killed in September 1940 when he crash-landed his Gloucester Gladiator biplane in the Western Desert of North Africa and suffered serious injuries.

Although he would eventually return the active duties, flying a Hurricane fighter in Greece, the injuries he’d suffered in the crash saw Dahl suffering from black-outs, and he was invalided back to his mother’s home in Buckinghamshire. While there, during a chance meeting at a London club, Dahl impressed with his war record and conversational abilities, and so was appointed as assistant air attaché at the British Embassy in Washington.

There, his duties included providing propaganda to counter America’s isolationist policies, and in providing military news and information back to Whitehall – a form of low-key spying, if you like. While working in Washington, Dahl met and worked with CS Forester, the published author of the Hornblower adventure novels set during the Napoleonic wars, who also wrote The African Queen and The Good Shepherd (a 1955 novel which has been recently adapted for the cinema for Tom Hanks in Greyhound). Another of Dahl’s “spook” colleagues in Washington was naval attaché Ian Fleming, who a decade later would start to write the James Bond 007 series.

The first children’s book he wrote was The Gremlins, published in 1943, about mischievous little creatures that were part of Royal Air Force folklore. RAF pilots blamed the gremlins for all the problems with the aircraft. While at the British Embassy in Washington, Dahl sent a copy to the First LadyEleanor Roosevelt, who read it to her grandchildren, and the book was commissioned by Walt Disney for a film that was never made

Dahl’s writing career owed much to Forester and Fleming.

Dahl’s children’s books remain among the most popular at local libraries

It was Forester who got Dahl’s first story published – an account of his crash in the Libyan desert. In the 1960s, Dahl would work on the screenplays of two of Fleming’s novels: the Bond film You Only Live Twice as well as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Many of his own books would later be adapted for the big screen, too, with perhaps his most famous, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, twice being turned into a feature-length musical.

It was in 1961 that Dahl’s first novel for children, James and the Giant Peach, was published. In total, he wrote 20 children’s books – 17 fiction and three books of poetry.

Dahl developed his own “formula” for a successful book for children…

  1. Just add chocolate
  2. Adults can be scary
  3. Bad things happen
  4. Revenge is sweet
  5. Keep a wicked sense of humour
  6. Pick perfect pictures
  7. Films are fun…but books are better!
  8. Food is fun!

As his writing career developed and became increasingly successful, at the bottom of his family home’s garden in Great Missenden, Dahl had a small hut where he would go to write. It contained a battered old armchair and a table of strange mementoes, including a silver ball made from old chocolate wrappers and a piece of his own hip bone.

Dahl continued writing until his death, in November 1990, aged 74.


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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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1 Response to Roald Dahl: From pilot and spy to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

  1. Moya Gordon says:

    Very interesting. I’m sure my Roald Dahl fanatical son will enjoy reading this article. Thanks.

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