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Chapter no 15 – ‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌Home‌

Going Solo

I had been at Haifa for exactly four weeks, flying intensively every day (my Log Book records that on 15 June I went up five times and was in the air for a total of eight hours and ten minutes), when suddenly I began to get the most blinding headaches. I got them only when I was flying and then only when dog-fighting with the enemy. The pain would hit me when I was doing very steep turns and making sudden changes of direction, when the body was subjected to high gravitational stresses, and the agony when it came was like a knife in the forehead. Several times it caused me to black out for seconds on end. I reported this to the squadron doctor. He examined my medical records and gravely shook his head. My condition he said, was without question due to the severe head injuries I had received when my Gladiator crashed in the Western Desert, and I must on no account fly a fighter plane again. He said that if I did, I might well lose consciousness altogether while up in the air and that would be the end of both me and the plane I was flying.

‘What happens now?’ I asked the doctor.

‘You will be invalided home to Britain,’ he said. ‘You are no use to us out here any longer.’

I packed my kit-bag and said goodbye to my gallant friend David Coke. He would stay with the squadron after this Syrian Campaign was over. He would continue flying his Hurricane for many months in the Western Desert against the Germans. He would be decorated for bravery. And then at long last, tragically but almost inevitably, he would be shot down and killed.

Haifa, Palestine 28 June 1941

Dear Mama,

We’ve been doing some pretty intensive flying just lately – you may have heard about it a little on the wireless. Sometimes I’ve been doing as much as 7 hours a day, which is a lot in a fighter. Anyway, my head didn’t take it any too well, and for the last 3 days I’ve been off flying. I may have to have another medical board & see if I’m really fit to fly out

here. They may even send me to England, which wouldn’t be a bad thing, would it. It’s a pity in a way though, because I’ve just got going. I’ve got 5 confirmed, four Germans and one French, and quite a few unconfirmed – and lots on the ground from ground-straffing landing grounds. We’ve lost 4 pilots killed in the Squadron in the last 2 weeks, shot down by the French. Otherwise this country is great fun and definitely flowing with milk and honey …

I drove my old Morris Oxford back to Egypt and this time the weather was cooler when I came to the Sinai Desert. I made the crossing in seven hours, with only one stop in order to pour more petrol into the tank. Not long after that I embarked at Suez on the great French transatlantic luxury liner Ile de France, which had been converted into a troop-ship. We sailed south to Durban and there I was transferred to another troop-ship whose name I have forgotten. On her, we called in at Cape Town, then we went northwards to Freetown in Sierra Leone. I went ashore at Freetown and bought quite literally a sackful of lemons and limes to take home to my family in war- rationed England. I filled another sack with things like tinned marmalade and sugar and chocolate, all of which I knew were virtually unobtainable at home. In a small shop in Freetown I found lengths of superb pre-war French silks and I bought enough of those to make a dress for each of my sisters.

 

 

The journey from Freetown to Liverpool was a hazardous affair. Our convoy was continually attacked by packs of U-boats and also by the long- range German Focke-Wulf bombers flying out of western France, and all the service-men on board were detailed to man machine-guns and Bofors guns which had been scattered in great numbers over the upper decks. We used to bang away at the massive Focke-Wulfs as they swept low overhead, and now and again, when we thought we saw a periscope in the waves we banged

away at that, too. Every day for two weeks I thought our ship was going to be finished off either by bombs or by torpedoes. We saw three other ships in the convoy going down and once we stopped to pick up survivors and once we had a near-miss from a bomb which sprayed our entire vessel with water and soaked us all.

But our luck held, and after two more weeks at sea, on a black wet night in early autumn, we nosed our way into Liverpool Docks and tied up. I ran down the gangway immediately and went off to try and find a telephone kiosk that had not been bombed out of action. When I found one at last, I was literally shaking with excitement at the thought of speaking to my mother again after three years. She could not possibly have known that I was on my way home.

The censor would not have allowed such things to be written in letters, and I myself had not heard from anyone in the family for many months. No letter from England had found its way up to Haifa. I got the trunk-call operator and asked for our old number in Kent. After a pause, she told me it had been disconnected months ago. I asked her to consult Directory Inquiries. No, she said, there were no Dahls in Bexley or anywhere else in Kent come to that.

The operator sounded like a lovely elderly lady. I told her how I had been abroad for three years and was trying to find my mother. ‘She’ll have moved,’ the operator said. ‘She’ll probably have been bombed out like all the rest of them and she’s had to move somewhere else.’ She was too kind to add that the whole family might well have been killed in the bombing, but I knew what she was thinking and she probably guessed that I was thinking it, too.

I waited in the pitch-dark telephone kiosk down in the docks of Liverpool, pressing the receiver hard to my ear and wondering what I was going to say to my mother if I was lucky enough to get through. After a while the operator came back on the line and said, ‘I have found one Mrs Dahl. She’s a Mrs S. Dahl and she’s at a place called Grendon Underwood. Could that be the one?’

‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘I don’t think that could be her. But thank you so much for trying.’ What I should have said was, ‘Try it, we might be lucky,’ because that, as it turned out, was my mother’s new home. A bomb had landed in their house in Kent while my mother and two of my sisters and their four dogs were sensibly sheltering in the cellar. They had scrambled out the next morning and having seen their house in ruins had simply got into the small family Hillman Minx, the three of them and the four dogs, and had driven through London north into the Buckinghamshire countryside. Then they had cruised slowly through the small villages looking for a house that had a For Sale notice by the front gate. In the tiny rural village of Grendon Underwood, ten miles north of Aylesbury, they found a small white cottage with a thatched roof and it had the notice-board they were looking for stuck in the hedge. My

mother had no money with which to buy it, but one of the sisters had some savings and she bought the place on the spot and they all moved in. I knew none of this on that dark wet evening in Liverpool docks.

I went back to the ship and collected my kit-bag and my two sacks of lemons and limes and tinned marmalade, and I staggered to the station with this load on my back and found a train for London. I sat all of the next morning by the window of the train gazing in wonder at the green, rain- sodden fields of England. I had forgotten what they looked like. After the dusty plains of East Africa and the sandy deserts of Egypt they looked ridiculously and unnaturally green.

My train did not reach London until nightfall. At Euston Station I shouldered my belongings and trudged through the blacked-out bomb- shattered streets, heading for the West End. When I got to Leicester Square, I somehow managed to find in the darkness a small seedy hotel. I went in and asked the manageress if I could use the telephone. An RAF uniform with wings on the jacket was a great passport to have in England in 1941. The Battle of Britain had been won by the fighters and now the bombers were beginning seriously to attack Germany. The manageress looked at my wings and said that of course I could use her telephone.

With the London telephone directory in my hands, I had a bright idea. I looked up the name of my ancient half-sister who I knew was married to a biochemist called Professor A. A. Miles (the Goat’s Tobacco man in Boy). They lived in London. I found their number and rang it. The ancient half- sister answered the phone and I told her it was me. When the squeals of surprise had died down, I asked her where my mother and my other sisters were. They were in Buckinghamshire, she told me. She would telephone my mother at once to give her the amazing news.

‘Don’t do that,’ I said. ‘Just give me the number. I’ll call her myself.’

The half-sister gave me the number and I wrote it down. She also told me she could give me a bed for the night and I wrote down her address in Hampstead. ‘Try to get a taxi,’ she said. ‘If you don’t have any money, we can pay for it when you arrive.’ I said I would do that.

Then I rang my mother.

‘Hello,’ I said. ‘Is that you, mama?’

She knew my voice at once. There was a brief silence on the line as she struggled to get control of her emotions. I had been away for three years and we had not spoken in that time. In those days you did not telephone to one another from far-away countries as you do today. And three years is a long time to wait for the return of an only son who is flying fighters in places like the Western Desert and Greece. Eight months ago she had seen the village

postman standing at the door of the cottage holding a buff-coloured telegram envelope in his hand. Every wife and every mother in the country lived in dread of opening the front door to a postman with a telegram. Many of them refused even to slit the envelope. They could not bear to read the terse War Office message: We regret to inform you of the death of your husband [or son] killed in action etc. etc. They would leave the telegram on the dresser until someone else came along to open it for them. My mother had put her telegram aside and had waited for one of her daughters to return from her daily stint of driving a lorry. Then they had both sat down on the sofa and my sister had opened the envelope and unfolded the piece of paper inside. REGRET TO ADVISE YOU, the message read, YOUR SON WOUNDED AND IN HOSPITAL IN

ALEXANDRIA. The relief was unbearable. ‘I’d like a drink,’ my mother had said.

The sister had got out the precious, impossible-to-buy bottle from the cupboard and they had both had a good stiff slug of neat gin there and then.

‘Is that really you, Roald?’ my mother’s voice was saying now very softly on the telephone.

‘I’m back,’ I said. ‘Are you all right?’ ‘I’m fine,’ I said.

There was another pause, and I heard her whispering urgently to one of the sisters who must have been standing beside her.

‘When will we see you?’ she asked.

‘Tomorrow,’ I said. ‘As soon as I can get a train. I’ve got some lemons for you, and some limes, and some big tins of marmalade.’ I didn’t know what else to say.

‘Try to get an early train.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I’ll get a train as early as I can.’

I thanked the manageress who had been listening from behind her little desk in the hotel lobby, and I went out to try and find a taxi. I was standing just inside the porch of the hotel in Leicester Square in the pitch darkness of the black-out when a group of four or five soldiers peered into the porch. ‘It’s a bloody officer!’ one shouted. ‘Let’s ’ave ’im!’

The leering slightly drunken faces closed in on me and the fists were coming when one of them called out suddenly, ‘Hey stop! ’Ee’s RAF! ’Ee’s a pilot! ’Ee’s got ruddy wings on ’im!’ They backed away and disappeared into the darkness.

It shook me a bit to realize that this was a posse of drunken soldiers prowling around the black streets of London searching for an officer to beat up.

No taxi came, so I slung my enormously heavy kit-bags over my shoulders and set out to walk to Hampstead. From Leicester Square that is a long walk even without three kit-bags to carry, but I was young and strong and I was on my way home and I felt I could have walked a hundred miles had it been necessary.

It took me an hour and three-quarters to reach the ancient half-sister’s house, and there was a happy meeting and I gave presents of lemons and limes and marmalade and then fell gratefully into bed.

Early the next morning, I was driven to Marylebone Station and found a train for Aylesbury. The journey took an hour and fifteen minutes. At Aylesbury I found a bus which, so the driver assured me, would go right through the village of Grendon Underwood. The bus took longer than the train, and all the way I kept asking an old man who sat beside me to be sure to tell me when we were approaching Grendon Underwood.

‘We’re coming into it now,’ he said at last. ‘It’s not much of a place. Just a few cottages and a pub.’

I caught sight of my mother when the bus was still a hundred yards away. She was standing patiently outside the gate of the cottage waiting for the bus to come along, and for all I knew she had been standing there when the earlier bus had gone by an hour or two before. But what is one hour or even three hours when you have been waiting three years?

I signalled the bus-driver and he stopped the bus for me right outside the cottage, and I flew down the steps of the bus straight into the arms of the waiting mother.

 

 

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