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Book reveals Roald Dahl’s secret mission

In Jennet Conant's new book, "The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington," she explores the time  the classic author was assigned to be a diplomat in Washington, D.C., and in charge of a secret mission, as well as Dahl's relationship with the great British spymaster William Stephenson. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

In Jennet Conant's new book, “The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington,” she explores the time the classic author was assigned to be a diplomat in Washington, D.C., and in charge of a secret mission, as well as Dahl's relationship with the great British spymaster William Stephenson. An excerpt.

Chapter One: The Usual Drill
“Don't you think that you or some other regular officer should be doing this job?”

“We've all got our hands full,” the Captain said.

— Roald Dahl, “Going Solo”

It was an unseasonably warm spring evening in 1942, and between the cherry blossoms and soldiers in uniform, brightly lit shopwindows and partly darkened government buildings, wartime Washington was a strange sight. Four months had passed since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The grim task of mobilization had clearly begun, and the streets were riddled with Quonset huts and hastily constructed plywood office complexes. But these were the only outward signs of conflict. In the eyes of a newly arrived Englishman, life in the capital appeared almost normal. Back in London, there was not a light to be seen in the bomb-shattered streets, where blackout shades were kept drawn against the nightly air attacks, and people fumbled home from work in the permanent gloom. The Battle of Britain, Germany's first air assault on England, intended to pummel them into submission prior to invasion, had been won the previous fall, but only just, and the city had paid a hell of a price. Here in America, among all the cheery reminders of the uninterrupted Easter holiday, it was hard to tell that there was a war on and that there were far-flung battlegrounds — desert, jungle, and ocean —where England had been fighting for her life the past two and a half years.

Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl had decidedly mixed feelings about his new posting in the United States. He had turned twenty-five that September and was thoroughly disgusted with himself for being invalided out of the war so soon. His sense of failure was only intensified by the thought of the friends in his old squadron who were still in the thick of it. He knew that at one level he should be grateful. The life expectancy of an RAF pilot was not long, and he was lucky to be alive. On the other hand, the idea that he might have to sit out the rest of the war as a spectator, one of the "whiskey warriors" in Washington, was too awful to contemplate. Everyone knew the diplomatic service was just one of the more respectable ways of dodging the draft. It was "a rotten job," and he wanted no part of it, but then he was in no position to argue.

Dahl had been working for the Shell Oil Company in East Africa when England declared war on Germany in September 1939, and like most men of his age, he had been in a hurry to enlist. Two months after the fighting started, he quit his job and drove six hundred miles across jungle roads from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi to report to the small headquarters the Royal Air Force maintained in Kenya. After taking one look at him, the medical officer advised that at six feet six inches, Dahl was not exactly "the ideal height" for a fighter pilot. It was not hard to see what they were getting at: in order to fit his attenuated frame into the tiny cockpit of a military airplane, he was forced to curl up almost into a fetal position, with his knees tucked tightly under his chin. 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.

Dahl spent the next two months at the RAF's run-down, little initial training school learning to fly over the dusty plains of Kenya. He discovered that flying the aerobatic Tiger Moths was easier than it looked, and he quickly learned to coax the small, single-engine biplanes into vertical spins, flips, and graceful loop-the-loops at a touch of the rudder bar, all of which, he wrote home, "was marvelous fun." Once he had mastered the basics, he was sent on to Iraq, to a large, desolate RAF outpost in Habbaniya, about one hundred miles south of Baghdad, where it was so fiendishly hot that the pilots could practice flying only from dawn to ten a.m. He spent another six months there learning how to handle Hawker Harts, military aircraft with machine guns in their wings, and practiced shooting down Germans by firing at canvas targets towed behind another airplane.

With barely a year's worth of formal training, Dahl was made a pilot officer and judged ready to join a squadron and face the enemy. He was sent to Libya to fight the Italians, who were attempting to seize control of the Mediterranean and were amassing their forces prior to advancing into Egypt. He made his way to Abu Sueir, a large RAF airfield on the Suez Canal, where he was given a Gladiator, an antiquated single-seat biplane that he had absolutely no idea how to operate, and told to fly it across the Nile delta to a forward base in the Western Desert, stopping twice to refuel along the way and receive directions to his new squadron's whereabouts. Needless to say, he never made it. Lost and low on fuel, he made what the RAF squadron report termed "an unsuccessful forced landing" and crashed headlong into the desert floor at seventy-five miles an hour. Despite the impact, he remained conscious long enough to free himself from his seat straps and parachute harness and drag himself from the fuselage before the gas tanks exploded. His overalls caught fire, but he somehow managed to smother the flames by rolling in the sand and suffered only minor burns. Luckily for him, he was picked up not long afterward by a British patrol that spotted the wreck and, when darkness fell, sneaked into enemy territory to check for survivors. All in all, it was a very close call.

Dahl was sent to a naval hospital in Alexandria, where he spent six months recovering from a severe concussion sustained when his face smashed into the aircraft's reflector sight. His skull was fractured, and the swelling from the massive contusion rendered him blind for weeks, and he suffered splitting headaches for months after that. His nose, which had been reduced to a bloody stump, was rebuilt by a famous Harley Street plastic surgeon who was out there doing his part for the war, and according to an informal poll of the nurses, Dahl's profile looked slightly better than before. The most lasting damage was done to his spine, which had been violently crunched in the collision and would never be entirely free of pain.

The entire time he was laid up in the hospital, Dahl could not wait to go back. It was not just the excitement he missed, though he had come to love flying. He had not been able to escape the feeling that he had failed everyone — failed himself — by ditching his plane on his very first trip to the front lines, and he was determined to redeem himself. The doctors had told him that in time his vision would clear, and the headaches would lessen, but the waiting was agony. Dahl was so worried about not being cleared for combat duty again that when informed that he was scheduled to return home on the next convoy, he refused to go. "Who wants to be invalided home anyway," he wrote his mother. "When I go I want to go normally."

It was a sign of just how badly the war was going that in April 1941, despite the injury to his head, he was cleared for operational flying. He was told to rejoin 80 Squadron, which was now in Greece. While convalescing in Alexandria, Dahl had kept up with the news and was aware that things were not going at all well for the token British expeditionary force that had been sent to Greece to repel the invading Italians. By the time the British decided to recall their army, the Italians had brought in German reinforcements, and as they rolled across the Greek frontier, the British found themselves outnumbered and outmaneuvered. Unless they could extricate their 53,000 troops in a hurry, it promised to be a bitter defeat, another Dunkirk in the making. Dahl realized that the two paltry RAF squadrons assigned to provide air cover for the retreat, of which 80 Squadron was one, were no match for the enemy and were being used as cannon fodder in an utterly hopeless and ill-conceived campaign. But he had his orders. There was nothing to do but get on with it.

Once again Dahl took off from Abu Sueir in an unfamiliar plane, a Mark I Hurricane, a powerful fighter with a big Rolls-Royce Merlin engine and eight Browning machine guns. This time, however, he managed to find his way north across the sea and landed safely on Elevsis, near Athens, less than five hours later. Almost immediately upon landing, his worst fears were confirmed when he learned that England was attempting to defend the whole of Greece with a total of eighteen Hurricanes, against a huge German air invasion force of well over one thousand Messerschmitt 109s and 110s, Ju 88s, and Stuka dive-bombers. Any dreams of glory Dahl had entertained while lying in his hospital bed vanished at the prospect of such daunting odds.

When he arrived on Elevsis, Dahl had never been in a dogfight, never shot down a kraut, never seen a friend die. By April 24, after almost two weeks of intensive flying, engaging the enemy as many as three or four times a day, and culminating in a prolonged siege known as the Battle of Athens, he had seen more air-to-air combat than he cared to remember, racked up his share of kills and many times more unconfirmeds, and watched as the better part of his squadron was wiped out. In the end, they were down to a handful of bullet-ridden planes and battle-shocked pilots and were forced to hide from the swarms of German patrols in a grove of olive trees at Argos. After German planes strafed their camp and destroyed their fuel and ammunition stores, the most senior pilots took off for Crete in the five serviceable Hurricanes, while the remaining survivors of 80 Squadron were flown out of the country. By April 30 the Germans expelled the British from Greece and by May had won Crete. The retreating British divisions crawled slowly toward Athens and suffered extremely heavy losses before they were finally evacuated by the navy. Roughly 13,000 men were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. It was a debacle from start to finish.

The 80 Squadron was re-formed and sent on to Haifa, on the coast of Palestine, where they engaged the Germans again in the Syrian campaign. They had a full-time job trying to protect the British destroyers stationed in the harbor, which were also under attack from Vichy French forces. Dropping a brief line to his mother, Dahl bragged that he had managed to bag five enemy planes and probably many more on the ground. He participated in another three weeks of fierce fighting, during which the Vichy French succeeded in shooting down four out of nine pilots in his squadron, before his headaches returned with a vengeance. The blinding pain tended to hit when he was in the middle of a dogfight, just as he was diving or doing a steep turn, and on more than one occasion brought on a blackout that caused him to lose consciousness for several seconds. The squadron doctor ascribed the episodes to gravitational pressure and the toll it was taking on his old head injury. Dahl had become a danger not only to himself, but to his airplane, which the RAF regarded as valuable property. He had flown his last sortie. He was declared unfit to fly and at the end of June shipped home as a noncombatant.

Dahl had been on leave, convalescing at his mother's small cottage in the rural village of Grendon Underwood, in Buckinghamshire, and pondering his future in some dreary ministry office in London, when he was summoned to the London office of Harold Balfour, the undersecretary of state for air, and informed that he was being sent to the United States as part of a diplomatic delegation. Dahl was stunned. He had known his present state of limbo could not continue indefinitely, that eventually he would have to find something to do, but he was back in the bosom of his family, and that had seemed like enough after what he had been through. He had been away from England for almost three years, first for the Shell Oil Company and then for the RAF, and it had been an emotional homecoming. He was one of seven children, including two from a previous marriage, and his mother's only son, and he had been raised in a household of women, fussed over and adored his entire life, and his safe return had been cause for great relief.

While his mother was a singularly stoic Norwegian, he knew his extended absence had been difficult for her. She had seen too many of those she held most dear snatched away unexpectedly not to find good-byes, even temporary ones, painful. Sofie Magdalene Hesselberg was twenty-six when she married Roald's father, Harald Dahl, and left Norway to go live with him in the small fishing village of Cardiff, in the south of Wales, where he owned a prosperous shipping supply firm. She became a mother to her husband's young son and daughter by his first wife, who had died in childbirth, and in quick succession bore him another four children, two girls, a boy (Roald), and another daughter. Then, when Roald was three, tragedy struck. In the space of only a few weeks, his mother lost the eldest of her three girls, seven-year-old Astri, who died of appendicitis, followed by the death of her fifty-seven-year-old husband, whose heartbreak had been compounded by pneumonia. A woman of rare courage and resolve, she never gave way to despair, even though she had been left alone with five children to care for and was expecting another baby in a few months' time. She also never wavered in her determination to see her children properly educated. It had been her late husband's deepest conviction that the English preparatory schools had no equal in the world, and he had left her sufficiently well off to see his wishes carried out. According to the hard British tradition, Dahl was sent away to school in England at the age of nine, first to St. Peter's, and then to Repton, which ranked a notch or two below Eton in social standing but nevertheless had a solid reputation.

It had been expected that he would go on to university, to Oxford or Cambridge, but he had set his heart on adventure abroad. Mother and son were very close — she had moved the whole family from Wales to England to be nearer his school — and when he broke the news that he had signed a contract with the Shell Oil Company for a three-year tour in Africa, she had been careful not to betray any hint of emotion. He was more boy than man when he left, and he had been bursting with excitement and too full of thoughts of "palm-trees and coconuts and coral reefs" to feel any guilt as he waved a last farewell to his mother and sisters at the London docks. He had not known then that the war would intervene and that the three years would seem much, much longer — more like a lifetime.

Excerpted from “The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington” Copyright © 2008 by Jennet Conant. Excerpted by permission of Simon and Schuster. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.