When he was three years old, his father and elder sister, Harald and Astri, died. Astri died of appendicitis and Harald died of pneumonia.
It fell to his mother to raise her two stepchildren and four children, Alfhild, Roald, Else, and Asta. Roald Dahl based the grandmother in The Witches on his mother as a tribute to her.
He attended the Llandaff Cathedral School. An unhappy student, he took solace in trips to the sweet shop, as he recounted in Boy: Tales of Childhood, his memoirs of his boyhood in Wales, published in 1984. The sweetshop helped inspire Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
He was a boarding student at St. Peter’s in Weston-Super-Mare from 1925 to 1929. Suffering from homesickness, he began to write his mother once a week, a habit he would keep for the next thirty-two years until her death, when he discovered she had kept all his letters.
When he was thirteen, Dahl became a boarding student at Repton School, a famous public school in Derbyshire. He excelled in sports, but not academically. The school’s close proximity to the Cadbury chocolate factory proved another source of inspiration for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Instead of going to college, at the age of eighteen he partook in the Public Schools Exploring Society’s expedition to Newfoundland. He then went to work for Royal Dutch Shell as a salesman in Dar es Salaam, the capital of the Tanganyika Territory (the portion of German East Africa that became a British mandate after World War I) and is now Tanzania.
When the Second Great World War broke out in Europe in 1939, Dahl was twenty-three years old. British colonial authorities draw up plans to round up German colonists and place them in internment camps.
Initially, Dahl volunteered to become a Special Constable. He commanded a platoon of six native Askaris, members of the King’s African Rifles.
Their duty was to capture any Germans who tried to flee Dar es Salaam. Those he encountered were civilians who readily surrendered in the face of rifles and a machine-gun, as he recounted in the short stories “The Sword” and “Lucky Break.” Dahl related a more colorful version of events in Going Solo, his memoirs of his time in Africa and fighting in Europe, published in 1986.
Dahl went to Nairobi, the capital of the Colony and Protectorate of Kenya and joined the Royal Air Force (R.A.F.). The doctor balked at so large a man becoming a pilot – Dahl was 6’6” tall – he was allowed to become one.
After training on obsolete Hawker Hart biplanes in Kenya and Gloster Gladiator biplanes at an airbase west of Baghdad, the capital of the Kingdom of Iraq, he flew to the Kingdom of Egypt, where he stopped to refuel on his way to joining his squadron in the Western Desert in Libya, but his plane crashed.
Dahl finally joined 80 Squadron in the Kingdom of Greece, where they received Hawker Hurricane fighters. He fought in the Battle of Athens (April 20, 1941).
As Greece fell to the Germans, and the British retreated, the surviving members of his squadron fell back to Egypt. Dahl was invalided home, but in 1942 he was posted at the British embassy in Washington as an air attaché. He also became a spy, as revealed by American journalist Jennet Conant in The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring.
His writing career began while he was in Washington with the encouragement of C.S. Foster, author of the Horatio Hornblower series, had come to the U.S. in the employ of the British Information Service to promote the British war effort. Forester took Dahl to lunch and asked him for an account of his war experiences for Foster to use for a piece in the Saturday Evening Post.
In response, Dahl wrote “A Piece of Cake.” Forester wrote back to Dahl, “Did you know you were a writer - I haven’t changed a word,” and enclosed a check for $900 from the Post. The narrative appeared without attribution in the Post in August of 1942 under the title “Shot Down Over Libya.”
He would write another sixteen pieces for the Post, which became increasingly fictional. The short stories would later be collected in the anthology Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying, published in 1946.
Walt Disney (1901-1966) invited a twenty-five-year-old Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl to California to help develop material for a movie to be called “The Gremlins” about the mischievous spirits the R.A.F. blamed for engine failures. Disney put him up in a hotel in Beverly Hills and gave him the use of a car.
The script went un-filmed, largely because the British Air Ministry had final approval, but Dahl adapted The Gremlins as a picture book Random House published in 1943. The British embassy sent a copy to Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), who read it to her grandchildren, which led to Dahl becoming a guest at both the White House and F.D.R.’s Springwood estate in Hyde Park, New York.
His first novel for adults, Some Time Never: A Fable for Supermen, published in 1948, also featured gremlins, but this time they are sinister figures who take over after World War IV. It was poorly received, except by the critic of The Glasgow Herald. During this period, he wrote short stories that appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and Atlantic Monthly.
His most famous short story is surely “Lamb to the Slaughter.” It concerns an expectant mother who learns her husband plans to leave her and responds by murdering him with a frozen leg of lamb, which she then cooks and serves to the oblivious policemen investigating their comrade’s death.
Harper’s Magazine published this story and it appeared in Dahl’s collection Someone Like You, which Alfred Knopf published in 1953. It has been adapted for television twice, as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1965) in 1968 and Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected (1979-1988) in 1979.