Roald Dahl: The fighter pilot

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Roald Dahl HQ
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10:30am, 11th November
Short stories
Roald Dahl in RAF uniform with flying log book behind

Following the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Roald Dahl enlisted in the RAF – something which would have a huge effect on his life in many ways.

It was in November 1939 that Roald decided to enlist in the Royal Air Force (RAF) at 23 years old. He travelled to Nairobi for his medical and a month later commenced flying training in Tiger Moths alongside 15 other men of a similar age.

Dahl loved flying, and once described it as “marvellous fun” in a letter sent to his mother during his flying training. Despite being so tall (well over 6ft) he still managed to squeeze himself into the airplane cockpit and the other men in his squadron gave him the nickname "Lofty".

Well I have a minimum height for pilots but no maximum, so as you are fit, you'll do

The doctor at Roald's RAF medical

On completion of the course he travelled to Iraq for Advanced Training on Hawker Harts, and was then commissioned as a Pilot Officer in the RAF Volunteer Reserve and posted to 80 Squadron based in North Africa to fly "Gloster Gladiators against the Italians in the Western Desert of Libya," as he says in Going Solo (the Gloster Gladiator "was an out-of-date fighter biplane with a radial engine").

In September 1940, Roald's Gladiator crashed in the Western Desert of North Africa and he received severe injuries to his head, nose and back. Following this he was taken to the Anglo-Swiss Hospital in Alexandria, Egypt where he spent around six months recovering from his injuries, under the care of the hospital staff.

Roald then rejoined 80 Squadron near Athens, Greece, this time flying a Mark 1 Hurricane. In April 1941 the remaining members took part in The Battle of Athens, led by Flight-Lieutenant Pat Pattle, who Roald described in Going Solo as "a legend in the RAF." The Battle of Athens destroyed five of 80 Squadron's Hurricanes and took the lives of four of their pilots, including that of Pat Pattle.

In the summer of 1941, Roald and the remaining members of his Squadron were in Haifa, northern Israel, when Roald began to suffer from severe debilitating headaches as a result of his earlier crash in the Libyan desert. Unable to fly any longer, he was invalided home to Great Britain to live with with his mother in Buckinghamshire - the county he would go on to make his permanent home.

It is a fact, and I verified it carefully later, that out of those sixteen, no fewer than thirteen were killed in the air within the next two years.

Roald Dahl on the RAF colleagues he trained with after the outbreak of WWII

One year after being discharged from the RAF, Roald was posted to the British Embassy in Washington D.C. as an Assistant Air Attaché, where a chance encounter with the writer C.S. Forester led to the publication of his first short story, Shot Down Over Libya (also known as A Piece of Cake).

After that the stories just kept on coming.

You can read about these and other war experiences in Boy and Going Solo.