01 May 2009

Going Solo - Roald Dahl

I’m embarrassed to say I had completely forgotten Roald Dahl had been a pilot. Like everyone, I knew of his children’s books – Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and The BFG to name a couple – but I had not read any (Enid Blyton and CS Lewis took his place though). Looking into his work there are numerous comments about his deliciously vulgar writing which, of course, would have kids in raptures. Before beginning GS I half-expected a slightly ‘odd’ read but knew the writing would be enjoyable. That, as it turned out, was only the half of it.

The book begins with Dahl heading for the colonies, Dar-es-Salaam in Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania) to be exact, to join Shell in 1938. He travels with a shipload of expat ‘Empire-builders’ and marvels at their bizarre ways. Some of the characters he encounters are marvellous and his descriptions are delightful. Settling into his work Dahl learns Swahili and, generally, gives a good impression of a way of life now long gone. With war looming he and his colleagues are made officers of the local militia and with no training he manages to do his job with a little drama on the way. Driving to Nairobi to join the RAF, he completes his initial training on Tiger Moths before being posted to RAF Habbaniya in Iraq for six months on Hawker Harts.

His first posting is to 80 Squadron ‘somewhere in Libya’ and he delivers a Gladiator in doing so. Having never flown such a powerful aircraft, he encounters his first frustration with what is expected of him. Nevertheless, he almost makes it but after a refuelling stop is sent in the wrong direction and crashes in the middle of the desert as night descends. Rescued by the army, Dahl is badly injured and blinded and spends considerable time, understandably, recovering in Egypt. His joy at his sight finally returning is as palpable as the re-assignment to his squadron is amazing and ridiculous. Continuing his record of epic flights in unfamiliar aircraft, Dahl is given several hours in a new Hurricane – his first monoplane – before flying almost five hours to Greece. He is sent on his way with the knowledge that if the pumps for his wing tanks don’t work, he’ll end up in the middle of the Mediterranean.

Having little idea of what he was flying into, and with less than 10 hours on type, Dahl is dumb-founded to find his new Hurricane is one of just fourteen available to hold back the Luftwaffe. Here, I believe, some details would have been written from memory and rumours at the time but we all know the desperate situation of the RAF in Greece. So, Dahl, with little flying experience, is thrown into the fight to provide air cover with little to no strategic (early warning etc) or numerical support. That he survives is remarkable. That he actually shoots down German bombers will astound you. However, the breakdown of command and the mad scramble to evacuate means Dahl’s efforts in Greece, singularly impressive, are ultimately futile. What’s left of the squadron’s aircraft is flown to Crete while Dahl and the rest of his colleagues end up back in Egypt before rejoining the squadron in Palestine in May 1941. Here they encounter the Vichy French and Dahl has further success in the air (though little is written about this side of things) and a somewhat interesting, if not slightly disturbing, encounter with a German refugee. Finally, Dahl’s injuries from the Gladiator crash catch up with him and blinding headaches force him out of the air and return him to his family in England after three years away.

Going Solo really is just a joy to read. It’s also the perfect book to introduce children – yours or otherwise – to the aviation of the Second World War. It reads like a well-written adventure novel and will certainly feed and fire their imagination as much as it did mine. Don’t expect a tonne of hard facts and figures. Few names of fellow pilots are mentioned (although you’ll love the ‘Pat’ Pattle reference – another insight into this somewhat ‘mysterious’ flyer). However, here is a writer who knows how to tell a story and you get the feeling he just sat down, made a brief timeline and then filled in the gaps with the most descriptive writing imaginable of some wonderful and eye-opening experiences. Self-effacing, at no stage does he think “I’m getting good at this”. Rather, it is the acceptance of his probable fate and a “Golly, I’ll be lucky to get out of this” that strikes a chord.

Without having read the ‘prequel’ Boy the adventures Dahl has within the period covered by GS clearly shape his take on life and the world. The breathtaking events and adversity he lived through served to eventually bring joy to millions of readers and for that, I think, we have a Gladiator crash and a truly talented flyer to thank!

My copy of this book is an old paperback from the mid-1980s purchased a couple of years ago at a market in Midland, Western Australia. It is easily available online for a reasonable price and will no doubt be relatively easy to find in a local bookshop. It is also available from Alexander Fax Booksellers - http://www.alexanderfaxbooks.com.au/

I hold this book in such high regard that I intend to buy a nice hardcover edition eventually and save it for my kids.

There are some interesting photos included but, in the paperback format at least, are printed on the same stock as the text.

Reviewed copy published by Penguin Books in 1986.
ISBN 0-14-010306-6


  1. Thanks for you kind words, Rohit. I look forward to hearing your thoughts once you've read the book.



  2. Very inspiring Life story :)
    I wanted to be part of a military Force someday too.