Roald Dahl, the son of Harald Dahl, shipbroker, and his second wife, Sofie Magdalene, was born at Villa Marie, Fairwater Road, Llandaff onHis parents were prosperous Norwegians. His biographer, Philip Howard, has argued: "When Dahl was only three another beloved, older sister and his father died within two months of one another. This was the first in a series of catastrophes and mortal disasters that dogged his life, and, he claimed, gave his work a black savagery. His mother, a devoted matriarch, ran the family. In the summers she took them to Norway, where her family fostered Dahl's interest in insects and birds, Nordic trolls, and witches."
Roald Dahl was educated at Llandaff Cathedral School and Repton School. Fellow students have since commented on his "bullying humour and competitive spirit, and his hatred of authority". He clashed with Geoffrey Fisher, the headmaster of Repton. Dahl later recalled that the "hypocrisy of his headmaster's brutal beatings followed by pious sermons in Repton chapel cured him of any inclination towards Christianity."
Roald Dahl decided against going to university and after taking part in the Public Schools Exploring Society's expedition to Newfoundland he joined Royal Dutch Shell in 1934, and was sent to Tanganyika (Tanzania). On the outbreak of the Second World War he drove six hundred miles across jungle roads from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi to volunteer to join the Royal Air Force. He was told initially that at six feet six inches he was not "the ideal height" for a fighter pilot. As Jennet Conant, the author of The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington (2008), has pointed out: "When he climbed into the open cockpit of a Tiger Moth for the first time and took his seat on the regulation parachute pack, his entire head stuck out above the windshield like some kind of cartoon character. But he was not easily deterred. The war had just begun, pilots were in demand, and in the end the RAF was not too fussy to take him."
Roald Dahl was sent to Iraq where he learnt to handle a Hawker Hart, a military aircraft with machine guns in their wings. With less than a year of training he joined a squadron in Libya. Unfortunately he made "an unsuccessful forced landing" and crashed into the desert at 75 miles an hour. He managed to drag himself from the fuselage before the gas tanks exploded. His overalls caught fire but by rolling in the sand he only suffered minor burns. Dahl was taken to a hospital in Alexandria, where he spent six months recovering from a fractured skull and a damaged spine. He lost his sight for several weeks and suffered back pain for the rest of his life. His nose had to be rebuilt by a famous Harley Street plastic surgeon.
In April 1941 Dahl was passed fit and joined 80 Squadron based in Eleusis, Greece. Flying a Hawker Hurricane, for the next two weeks, he engaged the enemy as many as three or four times a day. He made several kills but completely outnumbered, they were forced to relocate to Haifa, on the coast of Palestine. His main role was to defend the British destroyers stationed in the harbour. Dahl managed to shoot down five enemy aircraft before he suffered a temporary blackout during a dog fight. The squadron doctor argued that gravitational pressure was taking a toll on his old head injury. As the RAF regarded his aircraft as valuable property, he was declared unfit to fly.
After a short spell on leave at his mother's home in Grendon Underwood. In March 1942, Roald Dahl was posted to Washington as assistant air attaché. Soon afterwards he began working for William Stephenson, the head of the British Security Coordination (BSC). Grace Garner, Stephenson's head secretary, claims that Dahl was for a while Stephenson's personal assistant. "Then I think he got rather bored with that and moved back to Washington and after that he wasn't in the New York office very much." Other members of the organisation included Charles Howard Ellis, H. Montgomery Hyde, Ian Fleming, Ivar Bryce, David Ogilvy, Paul Denn, Eric Maschwitz, Giles Playfair, Cedric Belfrage,Benn Levy, Noël Coward, Sydney Morrell and Gilbert Highet.
Roald Dahl claims that William Stephenson told him that BSC managed to record the conversations of Japanese special envoy Suburu Kurusu with others in the Japanese consulate in November 1941. Marion de Chastelain was the cipher clerk who transcribed these conversations. On 27th November, 1941, William Stephenson sent a telegram to the British government: "Japanese negotiations off. Expect action within two weeks." According to Dahl, who worked for BSC: "Stephenson had tapes of them discussing the actual date of Pearl Harbor... and he swears that he gave the transcription to FDR. He swears that they knew therefore of the oncoming attack on Pearl Harbor and hadn't done anything about it.... I have no way to judge if he was telling the truth, except Bill didn't usually tell stories like that."
While in New York City Dahl was approached by Cecil Scott Forester, who was working for the British Information Services (BIS) and encouraged to write about his wartime experiences to be used as propaganda. Dahl's romanticized version of his plane crash appeared in the Saturday Evening Post under the misleading title Shot down over Libya . In it Dahl informed his readers that his Hawker Hart had been brought down in flames by a burst of machine-gun fire.
Dahl also wrote a story called Gremlin Lore about a pilot named Gus whose plane is sabotaged by a little six-inch creature bearing a large drill, who damages his engine. Dahl's story introduced the idea of gremlins, a tribe of tiny mythical rogues who live amid the clouds, riding on the fighter planes and bombers. The RAF had for many years blamed everything that went wrong with their aircraft as being caused by "gremlins". Sidney Bernstein of the BIS sent the unpublished story to Walt Disney, suggesting that it would make a good animated film. It was also sent to Random House and it was published as The Gremlins: A Royal Air Force Story.
One of Dahl's tasks given to him by William Stephenson was to spy on Henry Wallace. A close friend, Charles Edward Marsh, managed to get hold of a briefing paper written by Wallace. It called for "the emancipation of colonial subjects in the British Empire countries of India, Burma, and Malaya, and the French Empire of Indo-China, and the Dutch Empire in the East Indies." Stephenson passed this information to Winston Churchill who then took it up with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the 1944 presidential election Wallace was replaced on the Roosevelt ticket by Harry Truman.
At the end of the Second World War the files of British Security Coordination were packed onto semitrilers and transported to Camp X in Canada. Stephenson wanted to have some record of the activities of the agency, "To provide a record which would be available for reference should future need arise for secret activities and security measures for the kind it describes." He recruited Dahl, H. Montgomery Hyde, Giles Playfair, Gilbert Highet and Tom Hill, to write the book. Stephenson told Dahl: "We don't dare to do it in the United States, we have to do it on British territory... He pulled a lot over Hoover... He pulled a few things over the White House, too, now and again. I wrote a little bit but eventually I called Bill and told him that it's an historian's job... This famous history of the BSC through the war in New York was written by Tom Hill and a few other agents." Only twenty copies of the book were printed. Ten went into a safe in Montreal and ten went to Stephenson for distribution.
After the war Stephenson bought a house, Hillowton, on Jamaica overlooking Montego Bay. Roald Dahl often visited Stephenson and his wife. "Stephenson had an extraordinary relationship with his wife... He loved her and they had a very, very good marriage... but she was frightened of him." Lord Beaverbrook, who also had a house on the island, often visited him: "He was a close friend, a really genuinely close friend of Beaverbrook. I've been in Beaverbrook's house in Jamaica with him and they were absolutely like that (crossing his fingers)... A couple of old Canadian millionaires who were both pretty ruthless." He also kept in close contact with Henry Luce, Hastings Ismay and Frederick Leathers. His friends recalled that he was drinking heavily. Marion de Chastelain commented that "he made the wickedest martini that was ever made". Coward referred to him often having "too many martinis".
Roald Dahl managed to have several of his short stories, published in the New Yorker and Harper's Magazine. As Philip Howard has pointed out: "They were horrific, fantastic, and unbelievable. Lapsed vegetarians do not commonly find themselves being slit up for sausage-meat in a homely abattoir, nor do babies fed on royal jelly turn into bees. In a typical Dahl story a woman clubs her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb and then feeds it to the detectives who have come to search for the murder weapon, or a rich woman goes on a cruise, leaving her husband to perish in an elevator stuck between two floors in an empty house." A collection of his stories, Someone Like You, was published in 1953.
Dahl married the film star, Patricia Neal in 1953. The couple had four children. Their son Theo was brain-damaged at the age of four months when he was tipped out of his pram in New York City and fell under a cab. His skull was smashed and he was not expected to live. However, working with an aircraft designer of hydraulic pumps, Dahl pioneered the Wade-Dahl-Till Valve. This non-blocking valve drains fluid from the brain and helped Theo with his medical problems. A second disaster hit the family when a daughter, Olivia contracted a rare form of measles aged seven and died of encephalitis.
Roald Dahl continued to have success with his stories. A second collection of his work, Kiss, Kiss, appeared in 1960. Dahl also began writing for television and his stories appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Tales of the Unexpected. He then turned to writing books for children. This included James and the Giant Peach (1967). This was followed by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, filmed in 1971 as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Other books by Dahl include Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (1973), Danny, the Champion of the World (1975), The Enormous Crocodile (1978), The Twits (1980), George's Marvellous Medicine (1981) and Revolting Rhymes (1980).
Although popular with the public, his work was attacked by educationalists. One critic called his work "cheap, tasteless, ugly, sadistic" and another described them as "incipient fascism". Margaret Meek, an expert on children's literature, and the author of How Texts Teach What Readers Learn (1987), has argued: "I do not trust Dahl as implicitly as his young readers do, because I find his view of life seriously flawed by a particular kind of intolerance." The Witches (1983) was accused of racism, sadism and misanthropy, and removed from some school libraries.
Roald Dahl admitted that he appealed to children's baser instincts: "When you are born you are a savage, an uncivilised little grub, and if you are going to go into our society by the age of ten, then you have to have good manners and know all the do's and don'ts - don't eat with your fingers and don't piss on the floor. All that stuff has to be hammered into the savage, who resents it deeply. So subconsciously in the child's mind these giants become the enemy. That goes particularly for parents and teachers."
While pregnant with their fifth child, Patricia Neal suffered a series of massive strokes. According to Philip Howard: "Dahl refused to accept the grim prognosis. He set about bringing her back into the world with a determination that shocked onlookers by its brutality and ruthlessness. She was helped through her long recovery by Dahl until she was well enough to resume acting. Some said that he humiliated her by treating her like a child, and bullied her back into health with force and even sadism. Dahl not only recreated his wife. He ran his household, adored his children, planned the garden, wrote screenplays (unsuccessfully), and continued to produce stories. Dahl then divorced Neal in 1983 and on 15 December the same year married her best friend and his long-time mistress, Felicity Ann Crosland."
Roald Dahl published two volumes of autobiography, Boy: Tales of Childhood (1984) and Going Solo (1986). He was difficult to work with and one publisher described him as "unmatched in my experience for overbearingness and utter lack of civility". In a couple of interviews he expressed racist comments. This included the comment that "there is a streak in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity" and that Adolf Hitler "did not single them out for nothing".
When you are born you are a savage, an uncivilised little grub, and if you are going to go into our society by the age of ten, then you have to have good manners and know all the do's and don'ts - don't eat with your fingers and don't piss on the floor. All that stuff has to be hammered into the savage, who resents it deeply. So subconsciously in the child's mind these giants become the enemy. That goes particularly for parents and teachers.
When he climbed into the open cockpit of a Tiger Moth for the first time and took his seat on the regulation parachute pack, his entire head stuck out above the windshield like some kind of cartoon character. But he was not easily deterred. The war had just begun, pilots were in demand, and in the end the RAF was not too fussy to take him.