The Independent once described Roald Dahl as “one of the greatest storytellers for children of the 20th century“. Somehow, I don’t think that this collection of stories, War, was on the reporter’s mind when he wrote that. This one definitely not for the children; it is very much one for the grown-ups and is all the more punchy for being biographical.
- Roald Dahl
The book consists of a collection of his stories that were based on his wartime experiences. It includes the autobiographical description of Dahl’s early flying days, Going Solo, which was first published in 1986 four years before his death and then seven of his short stories, all published in 1944-5, with the exception of The Soldier, which was published in 1953.
Going Solo is a pretty stark description of Dahl’s early wartime experiences. It starts in Africa where he was made a lieutenant in the King’s African Rifles and then his transfer to the RAF, his training to be a pilot and then his experiences in the Western Desert and Greece. The latter two areas brilliantly capture the difficulties facing both the RAF and individual pilots and, at times, he was lucky to be alive and he knew it. Being given the wrong location in the Western Desert to land resulted in a near-fatal crash and he also survived a ferocious melee over Athens harbour which killed two RAF aces, the Irishman ‘Timber’ Woods and the South African ‘Pat’ Pattle (probably the RAF’s highest-scoring ace of World War II). Dahl is a bluntly honest writer and his embarrassment at showing that he is afraid is readily apparent.
The short stories are a mixed bag; they’re all good but some are markedly better than the others. In their own way, each one is dark (which is perhaps to be expected from Roald Dahl) but each shows it in a different way. By way of example, Only This captures a woman’s fear for her son, a pilot, They Shall Not Grow Old describes a man losing his fear of death and Someone Like You shows the impact of the war on individual pilots and their inability to move away from it. You can see the autobiographical elements in some of these stories (especially having just read Going Solo a few pages before) and this makes them all the better.
War is a great book and part of a series of eight Roald Dahl anthologies including Lust, Madness and Fear. Based on War, I will definitely be picking up the others and I recommend the book to everyone.