Roald Dahl fought in the Battle of Athens, 77 years ago today. Find out about Roald's time in the RAF, and how his flying experiences influenced his writing.
Flying provided inspiration for Roald Dahl’s earliest professional writing. His first ever published piece of writing was about his crash landing in the desert in Lybia, and his first collection of short stories was Over to You, a series of tales about flying published in 1946.
Many of his children’s books feature flying and draw on his knowledge of the subject; Charlie zooms through the sky and then on into space in the Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator and James soars across the ocean in James and the Giant Peach.
Flyying can also be found more subtly in other works such as during Sophie’s journey to Giant Country in The BFG. Roald describes how the wind “whipped her head back and whistled in her ears […] She had a weird sensation they were flying.”
Roald volunteered to join the RAF when war broke out in 1939 whilst he was working in East Africa. He took part in flying training in Kenya and Iraq but suffered nasty injuries after crashing in the desert on the way to join up with his squadron. After months of recovery he was able to join 80 squadron as a fighter pilot and flew in combat missions over Greece and the Middle East. He was involved in the Battle of Athens on 20 April 1941 and in Katina, one of the stories in Over to You, he writes that:
the Battle of Athens was a long and beautiful dog fight in which fifteen Hurricanes fought for half an hour with between one hundred and fifty and two hundred German bombers and fighters.
Much later, in his autobiographical book Going Solo, he says that that day “stands out like a sheet of flame in my memory” and was “truly the most breathless and in a way the most exhilarating time I ever had in my life.”
Roald describes his wartime exploits in vivid detail in this book and his experiences as a pilot were hugely influential on the rest of his life and work. After being involved in air combat he says that he was:
overwhelmed by the feeling that I had been into the very bowels of the fiery furnace and had managed to claw my way out […] and I thought how fortunate I was to be seeing the good earth again.
Late in his life Roald received a letter from Gerd Stamp, a German who had flown planes for the Luftwaffe in Greece in 1941. By comparing their own records form the war they discovered that they had, as Roald put it, “met in the air” over Greece, including on 20 April during the Battle of Athens. Despite being on opposing sides in those perilous encounters there is a feeling of reconciliation and warmth between the two men who shared an extraordinary experience in their youth. Roald apologised for the fact that he shot down German planes and extended an open invitation to Gerd saying, “if you ever come this way you must call in and way [sic] hello”. Gerd replied that, “There is no reason to apologize. You did what you were expected to do” and that he “would be only too pleased to meet you in person and to have a chat on our youthful days.”
You can discover more about Roald Dahl’s time in the RAF in the Roald Dahl Museum's new archive displays in Solo Gallery which include Roald’s very special RAF dress jacket and flying helmet.