Roald Dahl was born in Llandaff, Wales, on September 13, 1916, to Norwegian parents, Harald Dahl and Sofie Magdalene Dahl (née Hesselberg). He was named after the explorer Roald Amundsen, a national hero in Norway at the time.
In 1920, when Roald was still only three years old, his seven-year-old sister, Astri Dahl, died from appendicitis. A few weeks later his father Harald died of pneumonia at the age of 57. Nevertheless, his mother was determined to keep the family in Britain rather than head back to Norway and live with her relatives, because of her husband's wish to have their children educated in English schools.
Because the family still lived in Wales, Roald first attended Llandaff Cathedral School.
At the age of eight, Roald and four of his friends were caned by the headmaster after putting a dead mouse in a jar of sweets at the local sweet shop owned by a "mean and loathsome" old woman called Mrs Pratchett. Thereafter he was sent to several boarding schools, which was an unpleasant experience for him and his friends.
When he was 9, Roald Dahl was sent to St Peter's Preparatory school, a private school in the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare, which he attended from 1923 to 1929. From 13 he was educated at Repton School in Derbyshire, where he was a fag for a prefect, became captain of the school Fives team and developed an interest in photography. During his years at Repton, Cadbury, a chocolate company, would occasionally send boxes of new chocolates to the school to be tested by the pupils. Dahl himself apparently used to dream of inventing a new chocolate bar that would win the praise of Mr. Cadbury himself, and this proved the inspiration for him to write his second book for children, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory.
Throughout his childhood and adolescent years he spent his summer holidays in his parents' native Norway. His childhood is the subject of his autobiographical work, Boy: Tales of Childhood.
Though his mother expected him to attend university after leaving school, Roald Dahl instead found a job with Shell Petroleum, which sent him to other parts of the world.
After finishing his schooling, he spent three weeks hiking through Newfoundland with a group called the Public Schools' Exploring Society. In July 1934 he joined the Shell Petroleum Company. Following two years of training in the UK he was transferred to Dar-es-Salaam, Tanganyika. Along with the only two other Shell employees in the entire territory, he lived in luxury in the Shell House outside Dar-es-Salaam, with a cook and personal servants. While supplying oil to customers across Tanganyika, he faced black mambas and lions, amongst other wildlife.
In August 1939, as World War II was imminent, plans were made to round up the hundreds of Germans in Dar-es-Salaam. The fifteen or so British citizens in Dar-es-Salaam, including Dahl, were made officers each commanding a platoon of askaris of the King's African Rifles. Dahl was uneasy about this and having to round up hundreds of German civilians, but managed to complete his orders.
It was soon after this incident, in November 1939, that he joined the Royal Air Force. After a 600-mile car journey from Dar-es-Salaam to Nairobi, he was accepted for flight training with 16 other men, 13 of whom would later die in air combat. With 7 hours and 40 minutes experience in his De Havilland Tiger Moth he flew solo, and hugely enjoyed watching the wildlife of Kenya during his flights. He continued on to advanced flying training at RAF Habbaniya (50 miles west of Baghdad) in Iraq. Following six months of flying Hawker Harts he was made a Pilot Officer and assigned to No. 80 Squadron RAF, flying obsolete Gloster Gladiators. Dahl was surprised to find that he would not be trained in aerial combat, or even how to fly the Gladiator.
On September 19, 1940, Dahl was to fly his Gladiator from Abu Suweir in Egypt, on to Amiriya to refuel, and again to Fouka in Libya for a second refuelling. From there he would fly to 80 Squadron's forward airstrip 30 miles south of Mersah Matruh. On the final leg, he could not find the airstrip and, running low on fuel and with night approaching, he was forced to attempt a landing in the desert. Unfortunately, the undercarriage hit a boulder and the plane crashed, fracturing his skull, smashing his nose in, and blinding him. He managed to drag himself away from the blazing wreckage and passed out. Later, he wrote about the crash for his first published work (see below). It was found in a RAF inquiry into the crash that the location he had been told to fly to was completely wrong, and he had mistakenly been sent instead to the no man's land between the British and Italian forces.
Dahl was rescued and taken to a first-aid post in Mersah Matruh, where he regained consciousness, but not his sight, and was then taken by train to the Royal Navy hospital in Alexandria. There he fell in love with a nurse, Mary Welland, who was the first person he saw when he regained his sight after eight weeks. The doctors said he had no chance of flying again, but in February 1941, five months after he was admitted to the hospital, he was discharged and passed fully fit for flying duties. By this time, 80 Squadron were at Elevsis, near Athens, Greece, fighting alongside the British Expeditionary Force against the Axis forces with no hope of defeating them. Now upgraded to the Hawker Hurricane, in April 1941 Dahl flew one across the Mediterranean Sea to finally join his squadron in Greece, six months after becoming a member.
There he met a cynical Corporal who questioned how long his brand-new aircraft would survive, along with just 14 other Hurricanes and four Bristol Blenheims in the whole of Greece, against around a thousand enemy aircraft. 80 Squadron's Squadron Leader was similarly unenthusiastic about having just one new pilot. However, he became friends with David Coke, who, had he not been killed later in the war, would have become the Earl of Leicester.
Dahl saw his first action over Chalcis, where Junkers Ju-88s were bombing shipping. With just his lone Hurricane against the six bombers, he managed to shoot one down. He writes about all these incidents in his autobiography Going Solo. During the Greek Campaign, he scored five confirmed kills in total.
He later saw service in Syria and then worked for military intelligence. He ended the war as a Wing Commander.
He began writing when in 1942 he was transferred to Washington as Assistant Air Attache. His first published work, in the August 1, 1942 issue of the Saturday Evening Post was Shot Down Over Libya, describing the crash of his Gloster Gladiator. His original title for the work was A Piece of Cake - the title was changed to sound more dramatic, despite the fact the crash had nothing to do with enemy action.
He was married for 30 years (1953-83) to American actress Patricia Neal (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Hud, The Subject Was Roses, A Face in the Crowd and Breakfast at Tiffany's, a rare comedy for Neal). They had five children, including author Tessa Dahl, one of whom, Olivia Twenty Dahl, died of measles encephalitis at the age of 7 in 1962. Theo, his only son, was involved in an accident as an infant and went on to develop hydrocephalus: as a result his father became involved in the development of what became known as the *Wade-Dahl-Till (WDT) valve, a device to alleviate the condition. His daughter Ophelia Dahl is director and cofounder (with doctor Paul Farmer) of Partners in Health, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing health care to some of the most impoverished communities in the world. Tessa's daughter and inspiration for the "helpmate" character in The Bfg is model and author Sophie Dahl. In 1983 he married Felicity Ann d'Abreu Crosland, his former wife's former best friend.
He died of leukemia on November 23, 1990, at his home, Gipsy House, in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, at the age of 74, and is buried in the cemetery at the parish church of St Peter and St Paul there. In his honour, the Roald Dahl Children's Gallery was opened at Bucks County Museum in nearby Aylesbury. Dahl's charitable commitments in the fields of neurology, hematology and literacy have been continued after his death by his literary estate, through the Roald Dahl Foundation. In June 2005 the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre opened in Great Missenden to celebrate the work of Roald Dahl and advance his work in literacy.
Inspired by a meeting with C. S. Forester, Dahl's first published work was Shot Down Over Libya, a story about his wartime adventures, which was bought by the Saturday Evening Post for $1,000 and propelled him into a career as a writer.
His first children's book was The Gremlins, about mischievous little creatures that were part of RAF folklore. The book was commissioned by Walt Disney for a film that was never made, and published in 1943. Dahl went on to create some of the best-loved children's stories of the 20th century, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and James and The Giant Peach.
He also had a successful parallel career as the writer of macabre adult short stories, usually with a dark sense of humour and a surprise ending. Many were originally written for American magazines such as Ladies Home Journal, Harper's, Playboy and The New Yorker, then subsequently collected by Dahl into anthologies, gaining world-wide acclaim for the author. Dahl wrote more than 60 short stories and they have appeared in numerous collections, some only being published in book form after his death.
One of his more famous adult stories, Tales Of the Unexpected was adapted to a successful TV series of the same name. A number of his short stories are supposed to be extracts from the diary of his (fictional) Uncle Oswald, a rich gentleman whose sexual exploits form the subject of these stories.
For a brief period in the 1960s Dahl wrote screenplays to make money. Two of his screenplays—the James Bond film You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang—were adaptations of novels by Ian Fleming, and he adapted his own work into Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971).
Memories with Food at Gipsy House, written with his wife Felicity and published posthumously in 1991, is a mixture of recipes, family reminiscences and Dahl's musings on favourite subjects such as chocolate, onions, and claret.
Dahl's works for children are usually told from the point of view of a child, typically involve adult villainesses, who hate and mistreat children, and feature at least one "good" adult to counteract the villain(s). They usually contain a lot of black humour and grotesque scenarios, including gruesome violence. The Witches and Matilda are two examples of this formula. The BFG follows it in a more analogical way with the good giant (the BFG or "Big Friendly Giant") representing the "good adult" archetype and the other giants being the "bad adults". This formula is also somewhat evident in Dahl's film script for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.