Originally appeared in The Daily.
Last week, two American aviators crashed their F-15E fighter jet outside Benghazi, leaving it a smoking wreck on the ground. When the airmen parachuted unharmed to safety, they may have wondered about a historic precursor, a lanky 24-year-old Norwegian-Englishman who crashed in eastern Libya more than 60 years earlier and was not so lucky. That pilot nearly died. And if he had, the world would be a poorer place because that pilot was Roald Dahl, among the world’s most beloved children’s authors. Dahl’s books (including “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “James and the Giant Peach”) make children and adults squeal with delight and shudder with horror, in part because his own life had its share of delight and horror both. On the night of Sept. 19, 1940, Dahl nearly burned to death under the stars in the Libyan desert.
When World War II broke out, Dahl was a young businessman in east Africa, an English public-school boy who had set out into the world seeking adventure as a representative of Shell Oil. He found the adventure — his memoir “Going Solo” tells of two years in the bush with lion and snake attacks and more — and went on to join the Royal Air Force in 1939. By 1940, Dahl was in the Middle East flying a Gloster Gladiator, the last of the great combat biplanes, armed with eight machine guns.
The Gladiator had a closed cockpit, and to sit in it, the 6-foot-6 Dahl had to fold up his body so his knees rose up around his ears. On the day he crashed, he squeezed into the Gladiator and took off from a British field near the Suez Canal, flying west toward the tense line in the sand between Italian forces in Libya and British forces in Egypt. After refueling at several British bases, he eventually reached Fouka on the Libyan coast, where the commanding officer advised him to turn back toward Egypt to join the rest of his squadron at a secret base in the desert. The officer gave Dahl the coordinates, and at 6:15 p.m., he took off again with an accompanying pilot, Douglas McDonald, in another Gladiator. The two had plenty of time before the sun would set two hours later, but once it set, there could be trouble, as their secret destination would be blanketed in darkness.
What exactly went wrong is not clear: At the time, the Royal Air Force said Dahl simply screwed up and got lost. Dahl said the officer in Libya had given him faulty directions. (Donald Sturrock, author of “Storyteller,” Dahl’s definitive biography, suggests that this claim is at best self-serving, and that it reflects “the intensity of [Dahl's] need to tell the story of his crash in a way that exonerated him from any slur of incompetence.”) In either case, the result was the same. As shadows grew longer across the desert, the young pilots failed to find the landing strip. Dahl grew more and more frantic, and his gas gauge ticked toward empty. Ultimately they decided to land in the desert, where they could camp overnight and wait for a rescue party.
The desert landing turned out to be harder than it looked. McDonald landed fine. But Dahl’s plane caught on rocks and tipped forward, pitching his head into the instrument panel and crumpling the Gladiator like a soda can. Dahl described the scenes that followed. “The blow pushed my nose in and knocked out a few teeth,” he wrote. The fuel tanks ignited, and he drifted out of consciousness as the flames licked the canopy, threatening to roast him alive. “A tremendous heat around my legs galvanized my soggy brain into action.” On fire, he pulled himself out of the cockpit and onto the sand, eventually far enough away to roll around and smother the flames burning his cotton flight suit. McDonald consoled his mangled partner while they waited for help. After a couple hours, an emergency team from nearby Mersa Matrouh, Egypt, arrived and brought Dahl to a hospital.
His body was so smashed that the doctors couldn’t identify him. Dahl says he lifted a hand to his face and found that his nose was missing. (His nose had already suffered greatly, when a car accident in childhood had almost sliced it off.) Back at a hospital in Alexandria, even days later he couldn’t see, because his face had swollen so much that his eyes were forced shut. Plastic surgeons fixed his face (they “pulled my nose out of the back of my head,” he wrote), and the hospital released him after five months. The RAF offered him the option of retiring from military service as a wounded veteran. Instead Dahl flew again, this time more competently. During the next year he fought German planes over Greece and the eastern Mediterranean, downing at least five of them and winning recognition as one of the greatest aces of the war.
After leaving combat duty, Dahl met the novelist C.S. Forester, who intended to write a story about Dahl’s exploits and asked him to provide notes for an article. In the end, Forester acted as Dahl’s agent and saw to it that the notes were simply published verbatim in the Saturday Evening Post, as “Shot Down in Libya” — a blatantly sensationalist title, since the only shooting during the whole incident came from the pings and bangs as the ammunition in Dahl’s machine guns cooked off, round by round, as the plane burned.
Still, the story had fear, tension, a touch of the grotesque and a happy ending — all the hallmarks of Dahl’s greatest works. Twenty years later, he still suffered from headaches, a lingering effect of smashing his head in the crash. But he was now an author in high demand. And as aviator wisdom says: Any landing you can drag yourself away from is a good one. This is especially true when you get a book deal out of it.