Roald Dahl is known throughout the world as a beloved author of children’s books. What is less well known is that he also spent several years as a British spy during World War II.
When England declared war on Germany in 1939, Dahl enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF). On one of his first missions, he crash landed his plane in enemy territory and was rescued by a British patrol. Dahl soldiered on for a few more months, but when it became clear that his injuries were interfering with his ability to fly, he was sent back to England to recover.
By all accounts, Dahl was an unusually handsome and charming young man. Perhaps it was because of his natural talent with people that he was assigned to the British Embassy in Washington D.C. as an assistant air attaché. Part of his mission in Washington was to build American sympathy to the war effort. It was 1942, and plenty of Americans were of the opinion that the U.S. should stay out of the war against Hitler. The "America First" movement lobbied for pacifism and neutrality, supported by Charles Lindbergh. Even after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the declaration of war on Japan, many politicians were hesitant to lend aid to the fight in Europe.
To undermine anti-interventionalist sentiments, a Canadian named William Stephenson was appointed as head of a covert organization called the British Security Coordination (BSC). The purpose of the BSC was to promote British interests and counter any Nazi propaganda in the U.S, yet Stephenson exceeded legal and ethical bounds in pursuing these ends.
Bored with his work at the Embassy, Dahl hinted that he was interested in the BSC and began passing off tidbits of information to Stephenson. Despite the war, Washington high society was as lively as ever, and Dahl – “drop-dead gorgeous” and a gifted conversationalist – was a guest in high demand. This put Dahl in an ideal position to overhear whispered conversations and gain confidences. It wasn’t long before Dahl was in the sole employ of the BSC.
Dahl was among an elite group of Stephenson’s informants known as the “Baker Street Irregulars” in homage to Sherlock Holmes’ ragtag band of spies. Among his fellow Irregulars was Ian Fleming, who would go on to use his experiences to write James Bond. The two men became friends through a shared passion for writing. In later years, Dahl later worked as a screenwriter for the movie adaptations of Fleming’s books You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It’s fairly certain that the character of the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang has Dahl’s fingerprints all over it.
Dahl’s life in Washington wasn’t what one would expect of a spy. It was an almost constant stream of parties (not to mention affairs with older, wealthy women) and occasional trips to Hyde Park to spend days with President Roosevelt. In 1944, Dahl began experiencing pain in his back and underwent a series of treatments that kept him out of work for several months. In the time Dahl was recovering, Roosevelt passed away and victory was declared over Germany. After all was said and done, Dahl found that he had lost his taste for secrecy and covert operations. He returned home to England in 1946 to pursue his interest in writing. Espionage was left in the past as Dahl became one of the world's most beloved children's authors.