Tenby’s Roald Dahl Centenary Celebrations commenced on Thursday last week at Tenby Museum & Art Gallery. The museum was delighted to welcome guest speaker Graham Laurie to the town to talk about Roald Dahl’s wartime experiences, including his time serving in the Royal Air Force. Graham himself enjoyed a lengthy career in the Royal Air Force that included serving in the Queen’s Flight and No 32 The Royal Squadron for over 20 years where he flew members of the Royal Family and senior government Ministers.
Graham started his talk with Dahl’s early life and schooling in Cardiff and Weston-super-Mare. Dahl was a regular visitor to Tenby at this time, staying at the Cabin on the old pier. A blue plaque now marks the building. In 1934 following his schooling Dahl obtained an apprenticeship with Shell. Dahl was a keen photographer with many of his photos being published in the staff magazine. Graham illustrated the talk with a large number of photographs taken by Dahl, by kind permission of The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre in Great Missenden.
After his initial training in Somerset Dahl was posted to East Africa as a salesman. At the commencement of WWII, Dahl was appointed as a temporary army officer and in November 1939 he joined the Royal Air Force in Nairobi. He was commissioned in 1940 and served with 80 squadron. While moving between bases he unfortunately crash landed in ‘No Mans Land’ and was seriously injured. Rescued by members of the Suffolk Regiment he was evacuated to Alexandria with head and back injuries. Following his rehabilitation he rejoined his squadron and flew in a number of sorties and recorded a number of kills. The squadron took part in the Battle of Athens and then moved to Megara and Argos and finally to Haifa in Palestine. However the injuries sustained earlier were still causing him problems and he was repatriated to the United Kingdom.
Dahl was then posted to the British embassy in Washington where he met the writer C. S. Forester who asked him to write accounts of his wartime experiences. Articles including ‘Shot Down in Libya’ and ‘Gremlins’ were published in American magazines as propaganda pieces. The script of Gremlins was passed to Walt Disney but the film was never made. Graham pointed out however that the book was published and today is worth a considerable sum. Ann Watkins was employed as Dahl’s literary agent and he commenced writing short stories. During this period Dahl was working for the British intelligence services. He was a regular at White House parties having become friends with the Roosevelt family. Information gleaned from these parties and card games at the White House was fed back to Churchill. Dahl attended a specialist intelligence course in London at this time and met Ian Fleming. This resulted in Dahl writing the screenplay for ‘You Only Live Twice’. He also wrote the screenplay for ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’, both based on novels by Fleming.
After the war he married the actress Patricia Neal and became a professional writer of short stories. Following his divorce he married Felicity Crosland who encouraged him to write children’s stories. It was Felicity who opened the Roald Dahl centre eleven years ago. The centre features a ‘writing hut’ as used by Dahl to write his best-known children’s books. At the height of his success Dahl was receiving about 4,000 letters a week from children. He replied to every letter. To date Roald Dahl has sold over 200 million books in over 59 languages. The royalties from these books now goes to the Roald Dahl Marvellous Children’s Charity.
On behalf of the Trustees of Tenby Museum & Art Gallery, Chris Sierwald, Honorary Secretary, thanked Graham for an entertaining, informative and amusing talk.