Before the best-selling author Roald Dahl wrote “James and the Giant Peach,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and other children’s favorites, he led an unlikely secret life as a dashing British spy hobnobbing with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and other politicians and bedding wealthy socialites while gathering intelligence on the United States during World War II.
Before he gained fame putting pen to paper, Welsh-born Roald Dahl served as a World War II fighter pilot in Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF). During one non-combat mission in September 1940, the novice flier was forced to crash-land his Gloster Gladiator biplane in an Egyptian desert when he found himself lost and short on fuel as darkness approached. Although the violent landing fractured his skull and knocked him briefly unconscious, the young pilot managed to push open the cockpit canopy and escape further harm from the explosion of the plane’s fuel tanks and the subsequent hail of machine-gun fire unleashed by the heat.
After months of convalescence, Dahl returned to the cockpit in 1941 and flew combat missions in a Hawker Hurricane over Greece, but the crippling headaches and periodic blackouts he continued to suffer as a result of the crash made it too dangerous to fly. With his wings clipped, Dahl was reassigned in 1942 to a diplomatic post at the British embassy in Washington, D.C. As an assistant air attaché, he was tasked with public relations, dealing with the press, delivering lectures about his wartime exploits and using “his experiences as a wounded fighter pilot to help tie the Americans ever more closely into the British war effort,” according to biographer Donald Sturrock, author of “Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl.”
Barely a week after his arrival in the United States, British novelist C.S. Forester came into the air attaché’s office seeking to write the story of Dahl’s plane crash for the Saturday Evening Post. The previously unpublished Dahl, however, had found that writing had offered him a sanctuary from his headaches, and he wanted to take a crack at penning the piece first. Forester was so impressed by the result, which took Dahl five hours to write, that he passed it directly onto the Saturday Evening Post. The resulting article—“Shot Down Over Libya”—showed the budding writer’s creative imagination at work as the fictionalized account was a flight of fancy that embellished and altered the true circumstances of his plane crash.
The crash that had nearly taken Dahl’s life now launched his life as a writer. The 1943 publication of his first children’s book—“The Gremlins,” based on mischievous creatures that were part of RAF folklore—raised his public profile. He met in person with Walt Disney, who purchased the film rights, and dined at the White House with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who read the book.
It may have been around this time that Dahl was recruited as an undercover agent by the British Security Coordination (BSC), a covert espionage network established in the spring of 1940 by Britain’s MI6 intelligence service to spy on its greatest ally—the United States. Spearheaded by Canadian industrialist William Stephenson from an office in New York City’s Rockefeller Center, the BSC had more than 1,000 agents at its peak. Originally tasked with planting pro-British and anti-Nazi stories in the American press in the hopes of rallying a reluctant United States to join World War II, the spy network worked after the bombing of Pearl Harbor to counter the significant isolationist sentiment that still remained in the country and ensure the United States remained in the fight.
Dahl’s connections with prominent power brokers and his charismatic personality that charmed the cocktail party circuit were valuable assets for the BSC, although Sturrock writes that it’s not entirely clear how Dahl stumbled into the world of espionage. “Official records suggest that he had little contact with the intelligence world until some months after he arrived in Washington,” the biographer writes.
Through his political connections, Dahl kept his ear to ground for any anti-British sentiments that might be circulating at the highest levels of the American government. In 1943 he spent a weekend with President Franklin D. Roosevelt at his Hyde Park, New York, home and submitted a 10-page report with his insights on the American leader. Of particular concern to the British were the anti-imperialist views of Vice President Henry Wallace, with whom Dahl socialized and played tennis. Dahl passed along information in 1944 that the United States was planning to “emancipate” a large part of the British Empire after the conclusion of World War II, not to mention beginning an effort to land a man on the moon. Some of the writer’s reports landed on the desk of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, including unsubstantiated and likely false gossip that Roosevelt was having an affair with a Norwegian crown princess.
Dahl befriended politicians, journalists and corporate tycoons, but the tall, handsome attaché had a particular knack for wooing some of America’s most wealthy and powerful socialites and reporting back on their attitudes toward Great Britain. “The war had created a shortage of eligible young men in both cities, and the dashing 27-year-old RAF officer and author found himself constantly in demand as a guest,” Sturrock writes. A ladies’ man in the vein of fictitious British spy James Bond, the suave secret agent reportedly had affairs with oil heiress Millicent Rogers, French actress Annabella and congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce, wife of the owner of Time and Life magazines. Dahl hoped that he could persuade Luce to become more pro-British in her political leanings. “I hope to be able to make her change her views a little and say something better next time she speaks,” he told his mother.
Following the end of World War II, Dahl returned to England and continued his writing career. Along with authoring some of the most popular books of the 20th century, the former spy put his experience to work on a most appropriate project—adapting Ian Fleming’s novel “You Only Live Twice” into a screenplay for the 1967 James Bond movie.