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  In the darkest hours of World War II, the British Secret Service infiltrated agents into both enemy and neutral countries. The purpose of these agents behind enemy lines is obvious; but in neutral USA, led by "A Man Called Intrepid", these agents had a less obvious purpose: to inspire sufficient public sympathy to enable Roosevelt to openly support Britain.

These agents included actors, astrologers and - a children's author! Not only that, but the children's author was infiltrating Walt Disney's studios!

The Gremlins

Roald Dahl, then a pilot injured in action with the RAF, was sent to the US as an air attaché. His outspoken style made him at once unpopular with his Air Force chiefs, and a favourite of the cocktail set. He was packed home, recruited by William Stephenson (Intrepid), then sent back with a promotion, much to the chagrin of his chiefs.

He wrote The Gremlins, a book for children about the hazards of being an RAF pilot. These were the original Gremlins - Dahl claimed that he coined the name (a claim that has been disputed). These Gremlins were the anthropomorphised explanation for any mishaps experienced by pilots and their machines.

One edition of a cartoon book was printed by Disney, and plans were in place to make an animated movie version. The Gremlins in the book have more than a passing resemblance to Mickey Mouse. They certainly appeared much milder than some more recent portrayals of their species, and probably milder than Dahl's idea of them.

Dahl's presence in Washington came to the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, who had been reading The Gremlins to her grandchildren. Through this, he gained close contact with FDR, and was in his confidence on many war issues. It is claimed that he also became an informal, but very important go-between for Roosevelt and Churchill.

It appears that Disney may have worked out what was going on, as the movie was never made. The book has never been re-printed.

Based on an article that originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 1998 edition of TableAus.

Conspiracy Theory?

Is this all true? There has been much debate about William Stephenson and the book A Man Called Intrepid. The book was written by William Stevenson (no relation) in 1976. Stephenson - Intrepid - was the head of British Security Coordination, and responsible for British operations in North America during the war, but William Stevenson's book seems to ascribe far more to Intrepid than was within his brief. He certainly played a part with Bill Donovan in establishing OSS, the pre-cursor to the CIA. The book mentions Dahl's role in the USA, but also may well have overstated his importance.

However, I heard Dahl speak of this time in a radio interview with Terry Lane of Australia's ABC in 1990. This must have been only a few months before Dahl's death. Sadly, the recording of this has apparently since been destroyed. In June 1999, Terry had this to say:

"Reading your page on Dahl's The Gremlins reminds me of when I interviewed RD, in one of the most nerve-wracking encounters of my career. I started by talking about The Gremlins, because I had a copy when I was a kid - about 7 or 8. It scared the living daylights out of me, but I loved it. He was very chuffed that anyone should mention it as his first book. The tape of the interview... was one of the most popular tapes ever, because it contains RD reading his poem The Anteater."

Further confirmation of this part of the story was recorded by Dahl in his story Lucky Break in the book The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar & Six More, written in 1977. This story was brought to my attention in July 2003 by James Atkinson. In this, Dahl talks about being recruited to write about his RAAF experiences by C. S. Forester. Dahl wrote what became the newspaper article Shot Down Over Libya, which effectively launched his writing career. It seems clear that Forester was part of the British propaganda effort, although he is not mentioned in Intrepid.

Dahl also gives some detail in Lucky Break of the time he spent with the Roosevelt family, and of FDR confiding in him about communications he had received from Churchill. Was Dahl in contact with Churchill at the same time, as Stevenson states?

I am open to interpretations, and would love to hear from anyone with further information!

C. S. Forester

C. S. Forester wrote the Hornblower series of books, and apparently also The African Queen. Richard Michalak, editor of the Nevil Shute Norway Foundation's newsletter (refer to the Mr Norway page on this site for more details) has been in contact with John Forester, C. S. Forester's son and biographer for more information. John Forester replied:

Yes, CSF was part of the British propaganda effort to keep American public opinion favourable to the British cause. He promised to work about half the time, without pay, in New York for the British Information Service, the rest of the time in Hollywood, or wherever, writing stories that paid.

As he remarked to me, the most effective propaganda in the world is that which people will pay to read or to see. This is all written up in my biography of him, Novelist and Storyteller: The Life of C. S. Forester, published by me in a small edition.

I know that there is some parallelism between NSN and CSF, and greater differences. CSF did nothing technical, although he did learn some technical information rather before the public announcements; airborne radar and the proximity fuse being the prime examples. He was the first person from whom I learned, very soon after the first atom bombs, the prediction that the ballistic rocket with atomic warhead would be a terrible weapon.

More Dahl Information

Second-hand copies of The Gremlins are available, but can be expensive - around $A800 or more. You can read more about it - and read a copy on-line - at the Gremlins page on Kristine Howard's excellent Roald Dahl site. Kristine has even discovered that Disney published several Gremlins sequels in comic-book form. See a sample at the bottom of her Gremlins page.

Want to buy a copy of The Gremlins? I recommend you search at Checking here a while ago showed 30 copies available, with prices ranging from $US125.00 to $US8,528.17! Admittedly, this last one was autographed. The story of this from the bookseller, Jonkers Rare Books of Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire, UK, is as follows:

"This copy is inscribed by Dahl on the half title. It reads, 'Mary and Millicent Rodgers/ I'm sorry I left so early - Roald Dahl, 1/6/43.' During the Second World War, Dahl was posted to Washington as a member of Air Force Intelligence. During his time there, he was romantically involved with socialite Millicent Rogers. Rogers was the Standard Oil Heiress and a great lover of art and jewellery. Mary Rogers was Millicent's mother. Dahl was a frequent visitor to their home and it would seem that he sent this book to them as a gift and an apology for an early departure."

If you have any questions about Roald Dahl not answered here, please check out these Web sites:

  • The Official Roald Dahl Web Site - very flash! This site was set up by Dahl's second wife, Liccy, and his long-time illustrator, Quentin Blake.
  • Dahl's time in aviation is covered at Hanneke Hoogstrate's Plane Writing site.

Related Topics

Read more about others working behind the scenes in World War II on this site in Mr. Norway and The Name's Fleming - Ian Fleming.

Read about Camp X, Intrepid's secret base on the shores of Lake Ontario in Canada, where British agents were trained before being dropped behind the lines, at Lynn-Philip Hodgson's Camp X site. You can buy the book Inside - Camp X here, which describes "the day to day life at Camp X for these very brave and talented men. The book has over 100 photos of Camp X and the related area."

You can also read about another book - The True Intrepid - at Bill Macdonald's site, which is using this site to help publicise the book.

The British model, Sophie Dahl, is Roald's grand-daughter. She has spoken about her memories of him telling her stories as a child.

  Updated: 23 Aug 2004 To Top    

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