The only commander who won one of the decisive battles of history and got sacked for his pains. –“Bomber” Harris on Hugh Dowding
Cast of Characters
Air Marshall Hugh Caswell Tremenheere Dowding – Air Officer Commanding (AOC) RAF Fighter Command
Air Vice Marshall Keith Park – AOC 11 Group, RAF Fighter Command
Air Chief Marshall Cyril Newall – RAF Chief of Staff
Air Chief Marshall Charles Portal – RAF Chief of Staff (Replaces Newall as RAF Chief of Staff)
Sir John Salmond – Former RAF Chief of Staff, chairman of the Night Defence Committee
Viscount Hugh Trenchard – Former RAF Chief of Staff
Air Vice Marshall William Sholto Douglas – (replaces Dowding as AOC Fighter Command)
Squadron Leader Douglas Bader – AOC 242 Squadron, 12 Group
Winston Churchill – Prime Minister
Air Vice Marshall Trafford Leigh-Mallory – AOC 12 Group, RAF Fighter Command (replaces Park as AOC 11 Group)
Lord Beaverbrook (Maxwell Aitken) – Minister of Aircraft Production
Sir Archibald Sinclair – Secretary of State for Air
Wing Commander Edgar Kingston-McCloughry
In December of 2006, the San Diego Chargers finished their best season ever with a 14-2 record only to be eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the New England Patriots. One month later, the Chargers fired Head Coach Marty Schottenheimer.i The nearly unprecedented event of firing a head coach right after a team record-setting regular season closely parallels the removal of Air Chief Marshall Hugh Caswall Tremenheere Dowding as Air Officer Commanding (AOC) Fighter Command, Royal Air Force (RAF) shortly after the end of the Battle of Britain. In both cases, the men were removed from their positions after winning difficult campaigns. Additionally, both were removed due to problems with relations between themselves and senior and subordinate officers within their respective organizations.
Air Chief Marshall Dowding was replaced as AOC Fighter Command on November 25, 1940. However, he wasn’t the only one removed. One month earlier, Air Chief Marshall Cyril Newall was retired as the Air Chief of Staff of the RAF. One month after Dowding’s departure, Air Vice Marshall Trafford Leigh-Mallory replaced Air Vice Marshall Keith Park as AOC No. 11 Group, Fighter Command. Park was given the ignominious position of AOC of a training group. Though none of the three were “technically” fired, they certainly were not given the reward “owed by so many to so few.” This article explores the seemingly inexplicable replacement of these primary leaders within the RAF just after its greatest triumph in WWII.
“Stuffy” Dowding and Fighter Command
Hugh Dowding had begun ruffling the feathers of his superiors in the First World War. As a Squadron leader in the Royal Flying Corps, he clashed with the commander of the Corps, Major General Hugh Trenchard, over rest for his pilots. Trenchard viewed Dowding as a “dismal Jimmy” and had him transferred back to England to command a training brigade. Their clashes continued as Dowding refused to cut corners in pilot training to supply Trenchard’s growing demand for replacement pilots. Trenchard would become the first Air Chief of Staff (ACoS) commanding the newly formed Royal Air Force (RAF).
Dowding’s dogged determination engendered a reputation of stubbornness that drew hostility from seniors and peers. However, his receptiveness to new ideas coupled with an ability to focus clearly on problems combined to allow Dowding to come up with innovative solutions to issues facing the RAF. It was in this manner that Dowding slowly gained the grudging support of members of the Air Staff and, in 1930, he was assigned to the Air Council as the Member for Supply and Research.
Hugh Trenchard’s belief in the ability of the bomber as the ultimate weapon of deterrence drove the doctrinal and technological development of the RAF in the lean inter-war years. Multi-engine monoplane bombers quickly eclipsed the performance of biplane fighters. This gave rise to the certainty expressed by Stanley Baldwin, in 1932, that the “bomber will always get through.” Dowding believed in the necessity of having a strong bomber force, however, he also recognized the need for some form of defense against an enemy bomber force. Dowding determined that the answer to the bomber threat lay in two developing technologies. These were the monoplane fighter and radar.
As a member of the Air Council in the early 1930’s and during his tenure as AOC Fighter Command, Dowding was instrumental in the development of the Hurricane and the Spitfire. These were the RAF’s first modern monoplane fighters. Each had performance that outmatched all bombers of that era. Additionally, each carried eight .303 caliber machine guns, making them effective in the interceptor mission.
During this period, Dowding also pushed for construction of the Chain Home Radio Direction Finding (RDF) system. The RDF system (later called Radar) was integrated into a system of communication, command, and control. Unknown contacts were tracked and reported to a “filtering” room in HQ Fighter Command. When determined hostile, they were plotted on large map tables in the HQ and here it was decided whose group would be tasked to intercept the incoming raid. The information was passed to the group controllers, who had similar plotting tables in the group HQ. Group HQ would then determine what force would be sent against the raid and the appropriate squadron(s) would be scrambled. This system of integrated air defense became known as the Dowding System. It would prove crucial to the outcome of the Battle of Britain.
Keith Park: The Tactical Commander
While most credit the strategic planning for Britain’s air defense system to Hugh Dowding, Keith Park was the tactical commander most responsible for denying the Luftwaffe air superiority over Britain during the battle.
Dowding’s plan for the aerial defense of Britain divided the airspace into four Group areas (See Figure 1). Each area was commanded by a Group Leader. It was the Group leader’s job to decide how to allocate his squadrons against incoming raids which Fighter Command HQ had assigned to the Group. Initial pre-war planning had determined that 12 Group, defending the industrial heartlands, would be the most active area since it was closest to Germany. With the fall of France, 11 Group’s area on the southeastern corner of Britain would end up becoming the most heavily attacked area.
Keith Park had come to the RFC via a different route than Dowding. Native New Zealander Park began his service in WWI as an NCO in the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). He served with the ANZAC during the Gallipoli campaign before transferring to the British Army and serving with the Royal Horse Artillery. Wounded at the battle of the Somme, Park was declared unfit for active service. After recuperating from his wounds, and aided by the convenient “loss” of his medical records, Park joined the RFC and was posted to France in July 1917.ii He ended the war as an ace with five confirmed kills and fourteen probables. Park stayed in the RAF during the inter-war years serving as Dowding’s Senior Air Staff Officer at the beginning of WWII. Dowding assigned Park as 11 Group commander in April 1940.
Rivalry: Dowding was the Primary Target
The most commonly held theory surrounding the removal of Dowding and Park is that the situation was the result of a conspiracy within the senior leadership of the RAF and that Dowding was fired by telephone and given twenty-four hours to vacate his office.iii In this scenario, Newall’s retirement was not connected.
Dowding and Park had been called to a meeting at the Air Ministry on October 17th, 1940. The stated purpose of the meeting was to discuss “Major Day Fighting Tactics in the Fighter Force.”iv Rather than an open discussion of tactics, the meeting turned out to be a denigration of tactics used by Park, in 11 Group, in favor of the “Big Wing” tactics championed by Air Vice Marshall Trafford Leigh-Mallory, AOC 12 Group.v The meeting was, in fact, a kangaroo court presided over by the man who wanted Dowding’s job, Assistant Chief of the Air Staff, William Sholto-Douglas.
Leigh-Mallory would prove to be Dowding’s most vocal critic concerning his strategy during the Battle of Britain. At the beginning of the battle, Leigh-Mallory was the AOC 12 Group, Fighter Command, located to the north of Keith Park’s 11 Group (See Figure 1). 11
Group covered the southeastern corner of England (including London). It would, by far, bear the brunt of the battle. Leigh-Mallory’s 12 Group was relegated to largely a support role, frequently called to cover Park’s northern sector airfields when 11 Group squadrons were engaged in the battle. Leigh-Mallory chafed in this support role and wanted to directly engage the enemy.vi He soon found a tactic that would possibly get 12 Group into the battle.
One of 12 Group’s Squadron Leaders was the remarkable Douglas Bader. Bader had already made a name for himself as the legless wonder that turned around the fortunes of a Canadian Hurricane squadron in the Battle of France. Bader also was impatient to get back into the thick of the battle. He disapproved of Park engaging enemy formations with one or two squadrons at a time. Bader theorized that larger formations of three to five squadrons (known also as “Balbos” or “Big Wings”) could inflict far more damage on the German formations. Leigh-Mallory and other senior leaders on the Air Staff embraced this idea with the belief that the best way to beat the Germans was to inflict such large losses on them that they would consider the price too high to continue. It was Dowding’s position that the problem with larger fighter formations was that they took too long to form up and frequently missed their interception targets or intercepted them after they bombed their targets. Leigh-Mallory argued that it was preferable to shoot down large numbers of German bombers after they had bombed their targets rather than shooting down a few as they approached their targets.vii Many believe that the political fallout from the October 17th meeting led to Dowding’s replacement by Sholto-Douglas the following month.
The problem with this scenario of the firing is that the members of the Air Staff which attended this meeting would not have the authority to remove Dowding. Chief of Air Staff Newall did not attend, supposedly due to ill health. The Assistant Chief, William Sholto-Douglas, presided over the meeting. Only Newall or the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair would have that authority. Prime Minister Winston Churchill had already intervened twice to extend Dowding’s retirement date.viii Given Churchill’s support of Dowding, it is unlikely that RAF leadership, alone, could have ousted Dowding and Park.
Leadership in Question
One imperative in any chain of military command is that subordinate commanders have a clear picture of the commander’s strategies and that they work together to execute that strategy in accordance with the commander’s intent. This was clearly not the situation in Fighter Command in the late summer and fall of 1940. Keith Park, the 11 Group AOC did follow Dowding’s guidance to conserve his forces by using single squadron or smaller units to disrupt German raids before they could reach their targets. As stated above, Leigh-Mallory favored the use of three to five squadron “Big Wings” to attack the German formations. As 12 Group was frequently called upon to cover 11 Group airfields while 11 Group was intercepting raids, this allowed the Germans to bomb Park’s airfields while the 12 Group formations were still forming up and getting into position.ix Additionally, the two commanders did not like each other personally and demonstrated this resentment to their respective staffs.x Squadron Leader Simon Braun documents Dowding’s serious lack of awareness of the trouble brewing between his two Group Commanders:
The use of contrary tactics by the AOCs of 11 and 12 Groups in the middle of a battle was inappropriate. Moreover, their commander, Dowding, did not even notice and, when he did, was unwilling to make a command decision. Dowding should have intervened, and it is evident he was gravely at fault, even incompetent, for not doing so. Indeed, it was his responsibility as AOCinC to do so. While he could see the tactical arguments were not mutually exclusive, he failed to appreciate the extent to which the poor co-operation between the two groups, generated by the tactical differences, was jeopardising the whole conduct of the battle. Thus, Dowding lacked competence as a commander relating to this significant issue.xi
Despite the failure of leadership in this one area, Dowding did maintain Fighter Command as an effective fighting force. This was the standard of victory in the Battle of Britain. This single issue was not enough to bring about Dowding’s removal.
Political Infighting: Newall is the Primary Target
In the previous two scenarios, Sir Cyril Newall’s retirement is not connected to the removal of Dowding and Park. On the surface, it seems like a logical move to retire Newall as a matter of his own survival. Newall was 54 years old and due for retirement.xii The job of leading the RAF in war was taking its toll on him. By mid-1940, his second-in-command described him as a “bag of nerves.”xiii Not as apparent was what was going on in the War Ministry. In May 1940, the Ministry of Aircraft Production was created from within the Air Ministry. Maxwell Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook, was named the head of the new ministry. Beaverbrook was the Rupert Murdoch of his day. His vast newspaper holdings could make or break whomever he desired.
Jurisdictional disputes were frequent between the two ministries putting Beaverbrook and Newall at odds. Beaverbrook, a savvy businessman always on the hunt for inside information about his rivals, came across a disgruntled, passed over Wing Commander in the Air Ministry’s Directorate of War Organisation. xiv This man was Edgar James Kingston-McCloughry.
Beaverbrook and McCloughry had met in January of 1940. When Lord Beaverbrook was made Minister of Aircraft Production, McCloughry’s value to him increased. It is not known what influence Beaverbrook had on McCloughry, but McCloughry is known to have authored two anonymous memoranda highly critical of senior RAF leadership in general, and Newall in particular.xv These were circulated around Parliament and even came to the Prime Minister’s attention. Another target of these memoranda was ACM Dowding, and while Newall would not have been unhappy to see Dowding go, he feared proceeding with that action in view of Churchill’s strong support of Dowding. As stated above, Churchill had already intervened twice to keep Dowding on active duty by urging the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, to postpone Dowding’s retirement date. Newall’s continued attempts, into September 1940, to remove Dowding did not endear him to Churchill.
In addition to Beaverbrook and Churchill, Newall would come to have opposition from two former Air Chief of Staffs, Viscount Hugh Trenchard and Sir John Salmond. Hugh Trenchard had been the first Chief of the Air Staff of the newly formed Royal Air Force. He became the first Marshall of the RAF in 1924. During the 1930’s, Trenchard consistently marketed the superiority of bombers over fighters as an instrument of England’s power. Trenchard believed the deterrence factor of a strong bomber force would do more for national defense than investing in fighters. Salmond, also a former Air Chief of Staff, was a devoted “Trenchardist.”xvi Newall and Dowding were soon to run afoul of these two. Dowding’s major sin was being successful. Newall’s sin was not to get rid of him.
The problem that Trenchard, Salmond, and their adherents had was that by acknowledging that Dowding and Park won the Battle of Britain, they were admitting that fighters, not bombers, were essential to the defense of the nation. It also showed that bombers could be stopped. They had to find a way to minimize Dowding’s apparent contribution to the prosecution of the battle. Beaverbrook had already opened the door to the prospect that Dowding’s ability as a commander was lacking (McCloughry’s memoranda). The substance of these memoranda had already reached Churchill, but no action was taken.xvii Meanwhile, McCloughry’s actions came to the attention of the Air Staff. To punish him for airing internal squabbles to Parliament and the Prime Minister, McCloughry was posted to South Africa.xviii
Newall still could not proceed to remove Dowding because of Churchill’s support. Salmond and Trenchard took this reluctance to move against Dowding as weakness on Newall’s part. Beaverbrook, now seeing Salmond and Trenchard as possible allies in the plot to remove Newall and knowing of their desire to remove Dowding, suggested, “if Dowding is to go, why not Newall, as Newall must be responsible too.”xix At that point, Salmond agreed that Newall must go as well as Dowding. Trenchard was already coming to that conclusion due to dissatisfaction with Newall’s leadership in regard to Bomber Command. Trenchard was impatient waiting for Newall to start a strategic bombing offensive against Germany. Trenchard felt this would bring Bomber Command back into prominence.
Sir Charles Portal also held the same beliefs as Trenchard. Portal had become AOC Bomber Command in April 1940. A devout disciple of Trenchard, he was recognized by Trenchard as the logical choice for the next Air Chief of Staff. Trenchard, Beaverbrook, and Sinclair all heavily lobbied Churchill to remove Newall during the early fall of 1940.xx As a result, the Air Council informed Newall that he would be handing over the position of Air Chief of Staff to Portal in October.
With Newall soon to be out, attention now returned to Dowding’s removal. Churchill still remained the major obstacle to this. To draw attention to Dowding’s supposed shortcomings two attacks were made, one from within the RAF and one from the Ministry of Aircraft Production. The attack from the RAF was the October 17th meeting previously discussed. That meeting cast doubt on Dowding’s prosecution of the daytime air war. The second attack on Dowding came from his apparent inability to stop the night bombing campaign loosed by the Luftwaffe on London.
On September 7th, 1940, attacks on RAF airfields and radar stations had ceased and the battle entered a new phase. From this date and continuing into 1941, London was bombed day and night. This was “the Blitz”. The reason for this shift in Luftwaffe targeting is not entirely understood to this day, but it provided the RAF with a chance to recover from the pounding they had been taking from the Luftwaffe. London, however, would pay a high price for this breather. Day raids would continue to be intercepted, but the night raids proceeded without serious hindrance by the RAF. Churchill found himself under intense political pressure to do something about the night raids.
Churchill’s response was to form a Night Defence Committee. Formed in September 1940 with Salmond as its chairman, the committee produced a report and sent it to the Air Council on September 18th. The Air Council discussed this report on September 25th and submitted its seventeen recommendations to Dowding. These ranged from the absurd, sowing aerial mines on parachutes in front of enemy formations, to the ineffective, mounting searchlights in the nose of attack aircraft so they could illuminate the enemy bombers for single engine fighters working in hunter-killer teams. When presented with each of these schemes, Dowding would logically argue why they would not work. Dowding was holding out for what would prove to be the only practical method of dealing with night intruders, Airborne Interception (AI) Radar mounted in the Bristol Beaufighter, then under development. In the Air Council minutes of the October 2nd meeting, it is recorded that Dowding agreed to only two of the seventeen recommendations.xxi Churchill, who was under increasing pressure from October into November to do something about the night raids on London, was not willing to wait the months required for AI to be perfected. Michael Korda writes, “In the end, what brought Dowding down was not the ‘big wing’ controversy but the poor performance of his night fighters.” Dowding was told that he was to be replaced by William Sholto-Douglas in a meeting with Sinclair on November 13th (not by a curt telephone call as related by Len Deighton). He was asked, in a letter from Portal (the new Air Chief of Staff) to remain until November 25th, when Sholto-Douglas could take over.xxii Park’s removal was soon to follow the next month. Park was sent to a training command supposedly to give him a rest after his seven exhausting months in command of 11 Group during the battle.xxiii In reality, Park was fired for successfully carrying out Dowding’s strategy, and, more than any other single person, winning the Battle of Britain.
Aftermath and Conclusion
After Dowding stepped down, Churchill convinced him to accept a mission to the United States to discuss the supply of equipment to Britain. Churchill had hoped that the “Hero” of the Battle of Britain could convince the Americans to put their industrial might into developing and producing fighters for Britain. Dowding did, in fact, advise representatives of the military and industry that they were wasting their time and resources on heavy bombers and would be better served concentrating on fighters. The Americans he consulted did not appreciate Dowding’s forthrightness and he was recalled to Britain at the request of the British ambassador. He finally retired in 1942. Park regained a combat command in the Mediterranean and distinguished himself in the defense of Malta. Newall went on to become the Governor-General of New Zealand. Night interception of German bombers did not occur in any appreciable numbers until the Bristol Beaufighter with AI radar was put into active service in the late spring of 1941, just as Dowding had predicted. In early 1941, Leigh-Mallory took part in war games meant to show how the “big wing” would have worked in 11 Group during the battle. It did not go well. Leigh-Mallory’s squadrons took too long to form up and they did not intercept the incoming German formations. As a result, two major 11 Group airfields were destroyed in the simulations. Leigh-Mallory vowed “next time he would do better.”xxiv
Whatever one’s view of the importance of the Battle of Britain, the fact is that the end of the battle signalled a new phase of the air war to the RAF. It was time for the RAF to begin an offensive against Germany in Europe. Many in the senior leadership of the RAF and War Ministry thought that this required new and dynamic leadership in the RAF. Given this situation, it is unlikely that a large-scale change of senior leadership occurred because of a vendetta against a single individual. Rather, this was a top-down change of senior leadership brought about by simultaneous actions of ambitious senior officers within the RAF, politicians, and former Marshalls of the RAF all with agendas of their own. The regrettable truth is that Dowding’s and Park’s disgraceful treatment was accomplished through political maneuvering in the shadows rather than sound leadership decisions made by the Prime Minister and the Air Council.
Blake, Robert and William Roger Louis. Churchill. London: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Braun, Squadron Leader Simon. “The Command and Leadership Competence of Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Caswell Tremenheere Dowding GCB GCVO CMG ADC RAF.” Masters of Management in Defence Studies, Australian Command and Staff College, 2005.
Brown, Peter. Honour Restored: Dowding, the Battle of Britain and the Fight for Freedom. Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2005.
Churchill, Winston and Archibald Sinclair. Winston & Archie: The Letters of Sir Archibald Sinclair and Winston S. Churchill 1915- 1960. Edited by Ian Hunter. London: Politico’s, 2005.
Clayton, John. “Chargers Head Coach Schottenheimer fired.” ESPN.Com News Services, February 13, 2007. Accessed October 6, 2013. http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/news/story?id=2763552.
Deighton, Len. Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2000.
Deighton, Len and Max Hastings. Battle of Britain. London: Jonathan Cape, 1980.
Haslam, EB. “How Lord Dowding Came to Leave Fighter Command.” The Journal of Strategic Studies 4, no. 2 (1981): 175-86.
Korda, Michael. With Wings Like Eagles: A History of the Battle of Britain, New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
Orange, Vincent. A Biography of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, GCB, KBE, MC, DFC, DCL. London: Methuen, 1984.
———. Dowding of Fighter Command: Victor of the Battle of Britain. London: Grub Street, 2008.
———. “Trenchard, Hugh Montague, First Viscount Trenchard (1873–1956).” Oxford University Press. Accessed November 25, 2013. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/36552.
Ritchie, Sebastian. “A Political Intrigue Against the Chief of the Air Staff: The Downfall of Air Chief Marshal Sir Cyril Newall.” War & Society 16, no. 1 (1998): 83-104.
Wright, Robert. The Man Who Won the Battle of Britain. New York: Scribner, 1970.
i John Clayton, “Chargers Head Coach Schottenheimer fired,” ESPN.Com News Services, February 13, 2007, accessed 10/06/2013, http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/news/story?id=2763552.
ii David E. Fisher, A Summer Bright and Terrible: Winston Churchill, Lord Dowding, Radar, and the Impossible Triumph of the Battle of Britain (Washington, D.C.: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2005), 142.
iii Len Deighton and Max Hastings, Battle of Britain (London: Jonathan Cape, 1980), 216.
iv Peter Brown, Honour Restored: Dowding, the Battle of Britain and the Fight for Freedom (Gloucestershire: The History Press, 2005), 233.
v Ibid, 176.
vi Vincent Orange, 2008. Dowding of Fighter Command: Victor of the Battle of Britain (London: Grub Street, 2008), 199.
vii Deighton and Hastings, 151.
viii Winston Churchill and Archibald Sinclair, Winston and Archie: The Letters of Sir Archibald Sinclair and Winston S. Churchill 1915-1960, edited by Ian Hunter (London: Methuen Publishing Ltd, 2005), 246.
ix Michael Korda, With Wings Like Eagles: A History of the Battle of Britain (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 177.
x Ibid, 251 xi Squadron Leader Simon Braun, “The Command and Leadership Competence of Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Caswell Tremenheere Dowding GCB GCVO CMG ADC RAF.” Masters of Management in Defence Studies, Australian Command and Staff College, 2005, 16.
xii Robert Blake and William R. Louis, Churchill (London, Oxford University Press, 1996), 358.
xiii Vincent Orange, “Newall, Cyril Louis Norton, first Baron Newall (1886–1963),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,
xiv Sebastian Ritchie, “A Political Intrigue Against the Chief of the Air Staff: The Downfall of Air Chief Marshal Sir Cyril Newall” War & Society 16, no. 1 (1998): 86.
xv Ibid, 90.
xvi Vincent Orange, “Trenchard, Hugh Montague, First Viscount Trenchard (1873–1956), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed 11/25, 2013, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/36552.
xvii E. B. Haslam, “How Lord Dowding Came to Leave Fighter Command,” The Journal of Strategic Studies 4, no. 2 (1981): 179.
xviii Ritchie, 98.
xix Ibid, 99.
xx Churchill and Sinclair, 263.
xxi Air Council Meeting Minutes. Vol. AIR 6/70. Kew: UK National Archives, 1940.
xxii Haslam, 184.
xxiii Vincent Orange, A Biography of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, GCB, KBE, MC, DFC, DCL (London: Methuen, 1984), 129.
xxiv Robert Wright, The Man Who Won the Battle of Britain (New York: Scribner, 1970), 250.