Hugh Dowding

Hugh Dowding

Hugh Dowding, the son of a schoolmaster, was born in Moffat, Scotland, on 24th April, 1882. He was educated at Winchester School and the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich. He joined the Royal Artillery Garrison he served as a subaltern at Gibraltar, Ceylon and Hong Kong before spending six years in India with mountain artillery troops.

On his return to Britain he learnt to fly. After obtaining his pilot's licence in December 1913, he joined the Royal Flying Corps. He was sent to France and in 1915 was promoted to commander of 16 Squadron.

After the Battle of the Somme, Dowding clashed with General Hugh Trenchard, the commander of the RFC, over the need to rest pilots exhausted by non-stop duty. As a result Dowding was sent back to Britain and although promoted to the rank of brigadier general, saw no more active service during the First World War.

Dowding now joined the recently created Royal Air Force and in 1929 was promoted to air vice marshal and the following year joined the Air Council.

In 1933 Dowding was promoted to air marshal and was knighted the following year. As a member of the Air Council for Supply and Research, he concentrated on research and development and helped prepare the RAF for war. This included a design competition that led to the production of the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire. He was also responsible for encouraging the development of radar that became operational in 1937.

Dowding took command of Fighter Command where he argued that the Air Ministry should concentrate on development of aircraft for the defence of Britain rather than producing a fleet of bombers. Aware that the RAF would struggle against the Luftwaffe, Dowding advised Neville Chamberlain to appease Adolf Hitler in an attempt to gain time to prepare the country for war.

In 1940 Dowding worked closely with Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, the commander of No. 11 Fighter Group, in covering the evacuation at Dunkirk. Although Dowding only had 200 planes at his disposal he managed to gain air superiority over the Luftwaffe. However, he was unwilling to sacrifice his pilots in what he considered to be a futile attempt to help Allied troops during the Western Offensive.

Air Marshal Hugh Dowding and Douglas Bader (1945)
Air Marshal Hugh Dowding and Douglas Bader (c. 1940)

During the Battle of Britain Dowding was criticized by Air Vice-Marshal William Sholto Douglas, assistant chief of air staff, and Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, for not being aggressive enough. Douglas took the view that RAF fighters should be sent out to meet the German planes before they reached Britain. Dowding rejected this strategy as being too dangerous and argued it would increase the number of pilots being killed.

Dowding was credited with winning the Battle of Britain and was awarded the Knight Grand Cross. His old adversary, Hugh Trenchard, also told him that he had been guilty of gravely underestimating him for 26 years.

However, Air Chief-Marshal Charles Portal, the new chief of the air staff, had agreed with William Sholto Douglas in the dispute over tactics and in November 1941, and Dowding was encouraged to retire from his post. Douglas had the added satisfaction of taking over from Dowding as head of Fighter Command.

Dowding was now sent on special duty in the United States for the Ministry of Aircraft Production before retiring from the Royal Air Force in July, 1942. The following year he was honoured with a baronetcy.

In his retirement he published Many Mansions (1943), Lynchgate (1945), Twelve Legions of Angels (1946), God's Magic (1946) and The Dark Star (1951).

Hugh Dowding died on 15th February, 1970.

Primary Sources

(1) Hugh Downing, letter to the Air Ministry (16th May 1940)

I would remind the Air Council that the last estimate which they made as to the force necessary to defend this country was fifty-two squadrons, and my strength has now been reduced to the equivalent of thirty-six squadrons.

I must therefore request that as a matter of paramount urgency the Air Ministry will consider and decide what level of strength is to be left to the Fighter Command for the defence of this country, and will assure me that when the level has been reached, not one fighter will be sent across the Channel however urgent and insistent the appeals for help may be.

I believe that if an adequate fighter force is kept in this country, if the Fleet remains in being, and if Home Forces are suitably organized to resist invasion, we should be able to carry on the war single-handed for some time, if not indefinitely. But, if the Home Defence Force is drained away in desperate attempts to remedy the situation in France, defeat in France will involve the final, complete and irremediable defeat of this country.

(2) Donald Bennett was highly critical of the decision to relieve Sir Hugh Dowding as head of Fighter Command after the Battle of Britain. He wrote about it in his autobiography, Pathfinder (1958)

I had a visit from Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding (now Lord Dowding), who had been relieved of Fighter Command after the Battle of Britain was over. As the Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command he had, of course, saved us and thereby, I believe, the civilized world. But as I have indicated elsewhere in this book, Britain behaved as it always seems to in such circumstances - it promptly turned round and started criticizing the man who had been responsible for our salvation. Petty jealousies amongst senior Air Force officers are unhappily all too frequent, and on this occasion I believe that such jealousies were responsible for one of the most deplorable examples of lack of appreciation for a great Englishman which we have ever displayed. Old "Stuffy" Dowding had not only been the C-in-C. in the whole of the Battle of Britain proper, but he had also been responsible for the introduction of the 8-gun fighter and many of the developments which made that victory possible. There were very good reasons for his leaving Fighter Command, but outwardly the method of his going was unfortunate, to say the least.

(3) Robert Boothby, Boothby: Recollections of a Rebel (1978)

The treatment of the Commander-in-Chief Fighter Command, Dowding, after he had won the most critical battle for this country since Drake, was so atrocious that it hardly bears description. He may well have made mistakes. His two principal Group Commanders, Keith Park and Leigh-Mallory, disagreed about tactics; and it has been argued that he should have knocked their heads together, and forced them to conform to his own views, or go. Instead he let them both fight in the way they wished. But all criticism fades before the victory achieved under his supreme command. The story that immediately after the battle he was sacked over the telephone by the Secretary of State, Sir Archibald Sinclair, is untrue. That would have been entirely out of character. On the contrary, Sinclair sent for Dowding to offer him his personal congratulations. This, however, did not prevent Dowding's headquarters staff from being ordered to vacate their offices within forty-eight hours, or the immediate dismissal of Dowding himself.

After that an enquiry was set up by the Air Ministry, to which Dowding and Keith Park were summoned. There they found themselves confronted by an array of Air Marshals, which included Leigh-Mallory. It was more like a court-martial than an enquiry. Dowding as was his custom, said nothing. He just disappeared. No one now maintains that he should not have been relieved of his command after the appalling strain to which he had been subjected, or that Sholto Douglas was not his obvious successor. What is almost inconceivable is that he was never made a Marshal of the Royal Air Force. Some years later he was given a peerage; but by then he had been forgotten.