(Nov. 20, 2020) This week, 80 years ago, one of the great injustices of the war was imposed by the British Government on one of its country’s heroes, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh C.T. Dowding, as he was unceremoniously removed from his position — a position from which he had, literally, saved his country.
During the just completed Battle of Britain, the Air Chief Marshal had defended his island nation day after day and night after night, as Germany’s vaunted Luftwaffe tried to break it. He had assembled the pieces that allowed the island to defend itself by organizing the functions of land communications, operations rooms, chain of radar stations, air defense artillery, the home observer corporation, and above all, the fighter aircraft.
The development of weapons capable of fighting the battle was an important advance in this period, as first the Hawker Hurricane and later the Supermarine Spitfire entered service. Although Dowding cannot be credited for such technical developments, it was his energy, and urgency, that ensured that Britain had enough fighters to conduct the battle in 1940.
Britain’s savior was born and educated at St. Ninian’s Boys’ Preparatory School, founded by his father, Arthur John Caswall Dowding. The school was located in Moffat, Scotland. In 1987, the RAF Association and the RAF Benevolent Fund purchased the building and renamed it the Dowding House, which is now used to house former RAF veterans. The small town is 59 miles southeast of Glasgow, 51 miles south of Edinburgh, and 44 miles north of Carlisle.
By the time World War I began, Dowding had served almost 20 years in the Army with postings at Gibraltar, Ceylon, and Hong Kong. He had transferred to the Royal Flying Corps about a year earlier, and was appointed temporary brigadier general on June 23, 1917. He served in Iraq in 1924 and became air vice-marshal in 1929.
Four years later, he was promoted to air marshal and in 1936 became commander of the new RAF Fighter Command. During his early years at the Royal Artillery Staff College, he was nicknamed “Stuffy” for his always-serious attitude. The name stuck and many of the pilots who fought for Dowding in the skies over Britain in 1940 were accustomed to calling him by this name.
He began creating an integrated air defense system, which included radar, human observers, raid plotting and radio-controlled aircraft. This became known as “Ground Controlled Interception,” or GCI. He is credited with, among other things, insisting on the installation of bullet-proof wind shields on the fighters. He had the sort of stubborn tenacity and scientific mind capable of achieving the task at hand. In the course of the conflict, his skills were to be tested to the limit, but he ultimately emerged as the victor in the first decisive air battle in history.
Dowding’s basic approach was the integration of various capabilities under one command structure. To create an efficient air defense system Dowding had to organize the functions of land communications, operations rooms, the chain of radar stations, Air Defense Artillery, the Home Observer Corp, and above all, the fighter aircraft.
He divided Britain into groups, or areas, of responsibility. The most important was 11 Group, since it comprised most of southern England, including London, which was the closest to the French coast. Keith Rodney Park commanded 11 Group. Park was born in Thames, New Zealand, on June 15, 1892, the son of a couple who had immigrated from Scotland.
When WWII began, 11 Group was commanded by Air Vice-Marshal Leslie Gossett. Its neighbor, 12 Group, was commanded by Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who had commanded that group since 1937. In April of 1940, Marshal Gossett was appointed Air Member for Personnel. Although the obvious choice to replace him as commander of 11 Group was Leigh-Mallory, Marshal Dowding appointed Keith Park. The appointment created enmity on the part of Leigh-Mallory toward both Park and Dowding, which was to have long-lasting and unpleasant repercussions on both their careers.
While the Battle of Britain was raging, between the RAF and the German Luftwaffe, another battle was being fought. This battle was being fought between Dowding and Park, on one side, and Leigh-Mallory, Sir William Sholto Douglas, and ace Sir Paul Bader, on the other side.
Leigh-Mallory began espousing the “Big Wing Theory.” In this theory, the British fighters did not attack the Germans until the British had achieved a mass of fighters. Of course, it worked for Leigh-Mallory, because his group was not on the coast! His group had the time to form the “Big Wing.” But 11 Group only had minutes in which to react to the Luftwaffe. It got into the air what fighters it could get into the air as soon as possible, to attack the enemy before the enemy had dropped its bombs.
Quite often, under the “Big Wing Theory” the attack was made after the enemy had dropped its bombs. In addition, use of the “Big Wing” meant that all of the planes would be returning at the same time, getting refueled at the same time, and getting rearmed at the same time. This, of course, would result in significant periods when there was no protection.
Another cause of friction between the two Group commanders occurred when fighters from 11 Group’s bases near 12 Group would be scrambled and 12 Group was asked to provide protection for their bases. Several times, Leigh-Mallory’s 12 Group did not provide the requested protection, with the result that the 11 Group’s bases were damaged.
Leigh-Mallory took his complaints to the Air Ministry. After the Battle of Britain had been won, and Dowding and Park should have been celebrating, and feted by all, they were summoned to an inquisition at the Air Ministry. This charade was used to force Dowding out of his position in November, to be followed by Park the next month.
Shortly after the RAF’s victory in the Battle of Britain, the Air Ministry’s Air Historical Branch published a 31-page history extolling the triumph of the RAF over the Luftwaffe. Incredibly, neither Park nor Dowding were mentioned!
Dowding’s statue now stands watch outside St. Clement Danes Church on the Strand in London. There, on a plaque, he is credited with the, “... wise and prudent judgement and leadership [that] helped to ensure victory against overwhelming odds and thus prevented the loss of the Battle of Britain and probably the whole war. To him, the people of Britain and of the Free World owe largely the way of life and the liberties they enjoy today.”
A plaque was also unveiled at his former residence in Southborough in 2012. He died on Feb. 15, 1970, but lived long enough to see himself portrayed by acting great Sir Lawrence Olivier in the movie “Battle of Britain.”
Next week: 100 Regiments Offensive
Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: email@example.com