Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding

Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding



"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

Winston Churchill.

In the Roll Call of British heroes, the name of Air Chief Marshall Dowding stands out like a beacon. Boy, does his name stand out. Hugh Caswall Tremenheere Dowding. A mighty magnificent monicker, if ever there was one.

But we digress.

The Battle of Britain was one of those defining moments in British history, up there along with Hastings, Trafalgar and the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

The "few" who fought and won the battle against overwhelming odds are legends, and rightfully so.

But behind the few, there was the one. Hugh Dowding. The man who masterminded the whole thing. The man who saved this country from almost certain invasion and defeat.

The man whose key role in the defence of Britain has seen him compared with Sir Francis Drake and Admiral Nelson. The man who was fired from his job and booted out on his arse almost as soon as the Battle was over.

If ever a British hero were treated disgracefully, it's Sir Hugh.

Moffat, the Borders town

Moffat, the Borders town otherwise known as "was that it?".

Hugh was born in the picturesque Scottish borders town of Moffat in 1882. He attended St.Ninian's Boys Preparatory School, which had been established in 1879 by his own father and, in one of those spooky coincidences of fate, a teaching colleague by the name of Mr Churchill.

At the age of 15, Hugh went to Winchester College where such ridiculously pompous nomenclature as his was commonplace and later joined the army, where silly names are a positive pre-requisite amongst the officer elite, gaining the rank of Second Lieutenant.

Fascinated by the new-fangled "flying machines" of the time, he learned to fly, joined the fledgling Royal Flying Corps and served in France throughout the First World War of 1914-1918.

His flying career nearly crashed before it got off the ground. Upon hearing of his son's position in the RFC, Hugh's father ordered him to "stop this ridiculous flying immediately" as it was far too dangerous. Hugh obeyed him like a dutiful son but the RFC wouldn't accept his resignation because the war with Germany had just broken out and as a qualified pilot he was simply too valuable to let go.

As it turned out, his rise through the ranks was faster than a Sopwith Camel's take off. Within a year, Dowding was in command of a Squadron. By the end of WW1 he was a Brigadier-General

Spitfires in formation

Spitfires in formation

Dowding was a visionary who recognised the need, particularly in the face of Hitler's growing threat, to revolutionise what became known as the Royal Air Force.

Promoted in 1930 to Air Member for Supply and Research (later, Research & Development) he pushed forward the rapid development of fast, manoeuvrable, all metal monoplane fighters such as the Hurricane and the Spitfire, and from 1935 was encouraging research into radar. (His obsession with "early-warning" systems would later prove to be crucial in winning the Battle of Britain.) For airfields, he wanted hard, all-weather runways. In all of this he faced stiff opposition from a High Command still in love with biplanes and grass airstrips.

Dowding, in the main, won his way, but there was still much work to be done. Promoted in 1936 to Air-Officer Commander in Chief of Fighter Command, his responsibility was to build an Air Defence capable of successfully resisting the potential onslaught of the Luftwaffe.

What he inherited was woefully inadequate for the task. In Defence of the Realm there existed only the embryo of a radar system, fourteen incomplete fighter squadrons, an incomplete Anti-Aircraft Division and an extremely under-manned, entirely volunteer, Observer Corps.

Dowding, in a report to the government in February 1937, requested that in order to do his job properly he would need 45 fully operational fighter squadrons, 1200 anti-aircraft guns, 5000 searchlights, a functioning radar system, full radio control of aircraft and a massive expansion of the Observer Corps.

His requests were ignored.

Only after the fiasco of the 1938 Munich Crisis when Neville Chamberlain famously spoke of "peace in our time" and waved around a worthless scrap of paper to prove it, was Dowding taken seriously.

Had Hitler taken advantage of the RAF's state of unpreparedness and attacked Britain earlier, he would almost certainly have won the battle to control the skies. As it was, he delayed just long enough to give Dowding a chance.

Battle of Britain Observation post, London

Battle of Britain Observation post, London

A countrywide network of constantly manned Observation posts were put in place which, along with Radar, allowed his control rooms to vector (guide in) fighters to where the enemy planes were, as fast as was possible. This speed of response and "element of surprise" was what effectively swung the Battle of Britain against the numerical odds. The RAF hit the enemy, usually from above, before they knew what was happening.

Totally simple. But utterly brilliant.

Dowding had but two basic convictions. History shows them both to be entirely accurate.

His first was that Germany would never attempt an invasion of mainland UK unless the RAF was defeated. His second was that the Observers who made immediate "spotting" of aircraft movements possible (Radar had its limitations) would be one of the differences between winning and losing the battle for air supremacy.

On the 16th October 1939, the first air attack of the "Battle of Britain" was launched upon the soil and waters of Scotland, at the Naval Base of Rosyth, just north of Edinburgh.

But it wasn't until the summer of 1940 that the real Battle began in the skies over southern England and the English Channel.

Dowding and "Dowding's chicks", as the RAF pilots of Fighter Command were known, flew into action and on to immortality.

After the Battle of Britain had been fought and won, the dust had barely settled when, in November 1940 Dowding was dismissed from his post with a simple, cursory telephone call from the Air Ministry saying, "The Air Council has no further work for you." He was asked to clear his desk within 24 hours and was sent to the USA to serve in the Ministry of Aircraft Production. A fine thankyou indeed from a grateful nation. All that was missing was a slap in the face with a wet kipper.

The reasons for his sacking were ostensibly that the Air Ministry believed he had become too remote from his pilots, had lost their confidence and wanted to replace Dowding with "someone who is more of a leader." It was a travesty. Dowding cared deeply for his "chicks" and they, by all accounts, had nothing but respect for their mother hen.

In truth, it was a simple stitch-up, largely orchestrated by Group Commander Leigh-Mallory, with whom he argued constantly and bitterly over tactics. The fact that he also continually opposed Churchill over the deployment of his squadrons may well have had more than a little to do with it though.

Churchill wanted more raids on mainland Europe and believed that the RAF was missing opportunities to engage with the Luftwaffe. Dowding, however, knew that to commit too many aircraft overseas would be suicidal by virtue of losing the country's own means of active air defence, and he stubbornly refused to give in to his leader's wishes. Saying "No!" to the big boss is rarely a fast-track to advancement, and in the end it cost Dowding the job he had performed so brilliantly in.

Dowding's statue outside of the Church of the Royal Air Force, St.Clement Danes, London
Dowding's statue outside of the Church of the Royal Air Force, St.Clement Danes, London

Churchill would, however, later acknowledge that Dowding had been right, remarking "We must regard the generalship here shown as an example of genius in the face of war."

Dowding, ever the honourable servant, accepted his new posting graciously but retired from the RAF, no doubt with mixed emotions, in 1942.

The debt owed to him by "so many" was eventually paid, at least in part, when he was knighted and awarded the title First Baron Dowding of Bentley Priory.

At Dowding's Memorial Service in Westminster Abbey in March 1970, the term "Architect of Deliverance" was used, and his ashes now fittingly lie within the Abbey, one of those buildings he was so instrumental in saving from destruction.

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