The acclaimed British writer Roald Dahl is best known for his classic children's books, like James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda. But though he wrote for little boys and girls, Dahl was nothing short of a man’s man. In fact, Roald Dahl was a certified Bad Ass.
In the North African campaign of World War II, Dahl fought the Nazis as part of the British Air Force. He was a regular flying ace, downing five German planes during his brief service from 1939 to 1941. During his initial training in Kenya, he reputedly only had seven hours and 40 minutes of flight time logged in the finicky De Havilland Tiger Moth before he could fly it solo.
On a 30-mile trip in September 1940, Dahl’s plane, the nearly antiquated Gloster Gladiator, ran out of fuel and was forced to make an emergency landing in the Libyan desert. The undercarriage snagged a boulder and the plane crashed, causing Dahl a head wound that left him blind for several days. As it turns out, he had been given incorrect coordinates; the bogus destination was in the no-man’s land between the Allied and Italian forces. He wrote about this ordeal in his first published work, the short story “Shot Down Over Libya,” which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in August 1942.
After being rescued from Libya and recovering at a hospital in Alexandria, where he briefly fell in love with his nurse, Dahl returned to duty in February 1941. His squadron had been relocated to Greece, where Dahl experienced his first aerial combat: singlehandedly engaging six Luftwaffe Junkers Ju-88s. He also fought in the infamous Battle of Athens, which he described later as “an endless blur of enemy fighters whizzing towards me from every side.”
Following his experiences in Greece, Dahl soon began experiencing severe headaches and regular blackouts, and was sent home to Britain. There he met Major Harold Balfour, who was impressed by Dahl’s record and intellect. He assigned Dahl to the British Embassy in Washington D.C. as an assistant air attache.
In America, Dahl collected and relayed intelligence to the British Security Coordination, a variant of MI6. His mission was to neutralize the anti-war movement that was gaining ground in the United States. Though he loathed the work, it allowed Dahl the opportunity to rub shoulders with a few famous master spies, including James Bond creator Ian Fleming and William Stephenson, Fleming’s inspiration for 007.
Dahl’s experiences in World War II undoubtedly had a major influence on his writing. His first children’s work, for instance, The Gremlins (1943), was about riley little beasts who sabotaged British aircraft. (They were a regular scapegoat during his time with the Royal Air Force.) Dahl’s adult short story catalog also shows his influence from the war years: “Madame Rosette” (1945) tells the tale of mischievous R.A.F. soldiers on leave in Cairo who, after a few libations, decide to liberate a harem of prostitutes.
It's usually macho men like Ernest Hemingway or Jack London whom people think of when someone mentions intrepid 20th century writers, but Roald Dahl proves that one can entertain generations of children and still go down in history as a certifiable bad ass.