Battle of Britain
Once Adolf Hitler came to power as the elected chancellor (and later the dictator) of Germany in 1933, he acted to overturn the military limitations placed on Germany by the Versailles treaty that ended World War I and to expand Germany’s borders by every means short of war. In 1938, the Western powers permitted him to conquer Czechoslovakia. This is generally counted as appeasement, the hope that Hitler would stop his aggression if he were given his way, but in fact leaders of France and Great Britain were told by their military advisors that the Western democracies would not be ready for war until 1942, so the sacrifice of Czechoslovakia could be viewed as an attempt to buy time. Nevertheless, on September 1, 1939, when Hitler’s Germany attacked Poland, France and Britain declared war. France was conquered by Germany in a campaign of seven weeks during the spring of 1940 owing to Germany’s advantage in the tactics of modern armored warfare, a lightning fast attack called the Blitzkrieg The British army was surrounded in Northern France and Belgium; it was evacuated across the English Channel, but only at the cost of abandoning heavy equipment such as tanks and artillery pieces, which left the army in no condition to defend Britain against a German sea-borne invasion. The British Navy, however, had complete control of the seas, so the only chance the Germans had to invade Britain was to gain a victory in another new kind of warfare, air warfare. If Germany could gain air superiority over the Channel, any British warships that might attempt to repel the invasion could be destroyed by the German air force (the Luftwaffe To this end, throughout July and August of 1940, the Germans attacked the infrastructure of the RAF defenses in Britain, the radar towers that let the RAF monitor German movements in advance, and the coastal bases of the fighter aircraft (Spitfires and Hurricanes) the RAF used to attack German Bombers (JU-87 Stuka divebombers, JU-88s, and HE-111s). Although this effort came close to breaking the RAF, the Germans concluded after the first week of September that they had failed and began attacking British cities to create terror rather than for any military reason. After late September, German terror-bombing raids were generally confined to the nighttime hours, when British fighters could not operate. British night bombing of German cities went on throughout this period. Although Dahl does not give many specifics, Williamson in ‘‘Beware of the Dog’’ was probably a fighter pilot during the height of the battle, which explains his close familiarity with the sound of JU-88 engines. Since the story takes place after JU-88s are no longer making daylight raids on Britain, it could be set no earlier than October or November of 1940. After that, it would be rare for JU-88s to bomb in Britain at all as the air war shifted to the Mediterranean and eventually Russia. However, its dramatic date is much later, since the nurse tells Williamson that the planes he thought were JU-88s ‘‘were probably Lancasters or Flying Fortresses.’’ These aircraft were used in the strategic bombing campaign against Germany. The B-17 Flying Fortress, in particular, was flown by the American Army Air Corps Eighth Air Force, and so the story must take place after the United States declaration of war in 1942. However, it must be sometime before 1944, or else other factors, such as German attacks by V-weapons (primitive cruise missiles and rockets) and the D-Day landings in France would most likely have been mentioned.
World War II in the Mediterranean
In ‘‘Beware of the Dog,’’ Williamson, during part of his mental wandering while he is blacking out from loss of blood and shock, contemplates his future with a lost leg and recalls, ‘‘I always hated walking except when I walked down the street of the coppersmiths in Baghdad.’’ This reminiscence is doubtless based on Dahl’s own military service during World War II. Enlisting in Africa at the beginning of the war in 1939, Dahl was soon sent to the gigantic Habbaniya airfield in Iraq, where he underwent his advanced training as a fighter pilot during the first half of 1940. Habbaniya was about a hundred miles from the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, where Dahl most likely visited (in transit, if not on leave). More fundamentally, however, ‘‘Beware of the Dog’’ is based in part on an experience of Dahl’s during the war, the incident that concerned his publication of the article that initially brought him to public attention as a writer in the Saturday Evening in 1942. Dahl was posted to a fighter base supporting the front line of the desert war against the Italo-German Afikakorps in Libya. He became disoriented and had to land in the open desert when he ran out of fuel. Disoriented and wounded, he had to guess about the best direction to walk to try to find safety. As it happens, he had landed in the no-man’s-land between the German and British lines and was lucky to walk back toward his own army. He could just as easily have walked the other direction and been killed or captured by the Germans. In the same way, Williamson in ‘‘Beware of the Dog’’ does not know which side of the English Channel he is on. This uncertainty is exploited in creating doubt later in the story. In the story Dahl is exploring what might have happened if he had made a different decision after he had crashed.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Roald Dahl, Published by Gale Group, 2010