Tales of Childbood
Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
These two books tell the story of Roald Dahl's life from boyhood to his return home at the end of his active flying life as a fighter pilot in the second world war. Dahl's parents were Norwegian but he was born in Wales, in 1916. When he was three both his sister and his father died, but his mother stayed in Wales since his father had wanted his son to have a British education. The family used to go to Norway for holidays and these visits are described in the first book. When Dahl later went to a preparatory school as a boarder he was homeick; the descriptions of school life in the 1920s will probably come as a surprise to readers who are not familiar with the older public school tradition in Britain.
Dahl didn't go to university. Instead, he joined the Shell Oil Company on leaving school and after two years' training was sent out to Dar-es-Salaam in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). Here he lived in considerable comfort and even luxury, until the outbreak of the war brought about a dramatic change in his life. He joined the Royal Air Force and was commissioned as a fighter pilot, although he was not given any training in aerial combat. At first he was flying Gloster Gladiators, the last combat biplanes used by the RAF. He had a horrific crash in one of these as a result of faulty information given to him about the location of an airfield he was supposed to fly to. It took several months for him to recover from this, but eventually he did and was promoted to flying Hawker Hurricanes, again without any real instruction.
After seven hours' practice with this new and quite different machine Dahl flew to Greece, where he joined a tiny band of fighter pilots equipped with only 14 Hurricanes, who were fighting against vastly greater numbers of Luftwaffe. The RAF pilots were so few that they had to go up alone, and were dependent on Greeks stationed on mountain-tops for information about the movements of the enemy. In spite of his inexperience and the fact that he was so tall that being squeezed into the cockpit of a Hurricane was acutely uncomfortable for him, Dahl shot down a creditable number of enemy planes. But the Germans were almost at Athens by now, and the remaining pilots took off for Crete. At this point there were only seven planes left; two of those were lost as they took off but the remainder reached Crete and later, after the fall of the island, Egypt.
Dahl continued to fly sorties but he began to suffer from blinding headaches when airborne and was declared unfit for active service. He returned to Britain and the book ends with his reunion with his mother.
Both books are well worth reading: full of incident, vividly evoked. The part which sticks most firmly in my mind is Dahl's account of his wartime exploits in Greece, which he was lucky to survive; the great majority of his fellow pilots, including a close personal friend, were killed either in Greece or later. Dahl writes with great respect of these men; his opinion of the orders they were given is a good deal less flattering.
6 January 2010
%S Tales of Childhood
%A Dahl, Roald
%I Puffin Books
%T Going Solo
%A Dahl, Roald
%I Pufin Books
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