The letter that changed the course of history

                                                        May 16, 1940

             I have the honour to refer to the very serious calls
  which have recently been made upon the Home Defence Fighter'Units
  in an attempt to stem the German invasion on the Continent.

  2,         I hope and believe that our Armies may yet be
  victorious in France and Belgium,  but we have to face the
  possibility that they may be defeated.

  3.         In this case I presume that there is no-one who will
  deny that England should fight on,  even though the remainder of
  the Continent of Europe is dominated by the Germans.

  4.         For this purpose it is necessary to retain some
  minimum fighter strength in this country and I must request that
  the Air Council will inform me what they consider this minimum
  strength to be,  in order that I may make my dispositions

  5.         I would remind the Air Council that the last estimate
  which they made as to the force necessary to defend this country
  was 52 Squadrons,  and my strength has now been reduced to the
  equivalent of 36 Squadrons.

  6.         Once a decision has been reached as to the limit on
  which the Air Council and the Cabinet are prepared to stake the
  existence of the country,  it should be made clear to the Allied
  Commanders on the Continent that not a single aeroplane from
  Fighter Command beyond the limit will be sent across the Channel,
  no matter how desperate the situation may become.

  7.         It will, of course, be remembered that the estimate
  of 52 Squadrons was based on the assumption that the attack
  would come from the eastwards except in so far as the defences
  might be outflanked in flight.   We have now to face the
  possibility that attacks may come from Spain or even from the
  North coast of France.   The result is that our line is very
  much extended at the same time as our resources are reduced.

  8.         I must point out that within the last few days the
  equivalent of 10 Squadrons have been sent to France,  that the
  Hurricane Squadrons remaining in this country are seriously
  depleted,  and that the more Squadrons which are sent to France
  the higher will be the wastage and the more insistent the
  demands for reinforcements.

  9.         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 defences of this country, and will
  assure me that when this level has been reached, not one
  fighter will be sent across the Channel however urgent
  and insistent the appeals for help may be.

  10.        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 organised 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.

                                    I have the honour to be,
                                      Your obedient Servant,

                                                                                        Air Chief Marshal,
                                 Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief,
                                 Fighter Command,Royal Air Force.

It was Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding who wrote the letter, putting forth his views on the sending of more fighters across the Channel for the purpose of giving France the badly needed support that they so desperately wanted. Churchill had promised the French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud who had asked for more squadrons of fighters, that they would be sent and that Britain would give support in every possible way to assist them.

The Fairy Battle and the Bristol Blenheim bombers that had originally been sent to France in the September of 1939 mainly to support the British Expeditionary Force were to prove ineffective and were totally outclassed by the German fighters. Knowing this, the Air Ministry considered sending the more effective Wellington and Whitely bombers, but the bulk of the decision makers were quite adamant that this was out of the question. The bombers were to stay in England for a strategic offensive that was "if required" to operate from their English bases.

So, the Fairy Battle single engined light bomber's which although belonging to Bomber Command along with the Blenheim, were under the control Sir Arthur Barratt who was the RAF AOC in France who had control of all aircraft. These were supported by just six squadrons of Hurricane fighters which totalled 96 and a few Gloster Gladiators. This small air force was up against the might of the advancing German Luftwaffe who with a commanding strength and with exceptional co-ordination constantly strafed and bombed Allied airfields and British and French troop concentrations, and like a swift, well oiled machine the Germans made a rapid advance through France.

At the beginning of the German advance, Barratt had nothing but disillusionment. Thirty-two Battles took off to curb the German advance, but thirteen of these were destroyed and eighteen suffered severe damage. 600 Squadron (Blenheim's) took off on a routine patrol of Waalhaven, and only one returned intact. On the 12th May 1940 five Battles were despatched to destroy the Bridges at Maastricht, not one of them returned, all had been destroyed. The sad story continued on May 14th, when 71 Battles took off, again on a routine bombing mission, only thirty one returned, forty had been destroyed. The next day on the 15th, Barratt tallied up the amount of aircraft destroyed, an astounding 205 light bombers and fighter aircraft had been destroyed and not even a month had passed.

The French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud made a personal appeal to Churchill. "If we are to win this battle, which might be decisive for the whole war, it is necessary to send at once at least ten more squadrons. This had put pressure on the War Cabinet in London who had already sent four additional squadrons of Hurricanes on May 12th with a further 32 aircraft the very next day. Churchill knew that one day, maybe sooner than later, the war will have reached Britain, and was insistent about supporting the British and French armies and doing all in his power in saving the Battle of France. The longer he could hold France, the more time Britain had to build her defences. Delaying the German advance was therefore of prime importance.

Dowding was informed of Churchill's intentions. He studied the forces that had already been despatched to France, he already knew that for the successful defence of Britain he would require fifty-two squadrons, this had already been depleted by the aircraft that had already been sent to France, in actual fact, he was now down to a mere thirty-six squadrons. His fears were written by way of a letter indicating the perilous position he would be placed in if this request for more fighter aircraft be sent to France. He handed the letter to his Chief Civil Servant for delivery to the War cabinet. "You know that Churchill will have to read this" to which a rather unbemused Dowding simply replied, "I know.......that's why I wrote it".

Hugh Dowding was summoned to the War Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street on 15th May. Also there was Sir Archibald Sinclair who had been recently appointed as the new Air Minister, Lord Beaverbrook who had just received his appointment as Minister for Aircraft Production and Sir Cyril Newhall who was the Chief of Air Staff. "Dowding" said Churchill in his usual low toned voice, " you know that this now puts us in a very precarious position with France, I have.......made a commitment to the French Prime Minister......that not only must we give France all the support that we can......but we must support our own forces fighting in that country".  Dowding remained unmoved, almost withdrawn, " I am well aware of the situation Prime Minister, but my task at hand is for the air defence of this country and it is my belief that I cannot achieve this if half my aircraft are in France".

Dowding went on to produce documents that showed the Hurricane losses since they were first despatched, and explained in considerable length that if these losses continued at this same rate, not only would he be in short supply of fighter aircraft, but of pilots as well. "We are losing aircraft at far quicker rate than we can produce them" he went on and again further emphasized the point that the thirty-six squadrons that he now had at his disposal was no where near enough for a successful defence of Britain. "We need more aircraft, and more pilots to fly them".

The following day, the 16th, Churchill flew to Paris for yet another meeting with Paul Reynaud. Again, the French Prime Minister requested help stating that unless he got it, France would fall to the Germans far sooner than he would have anticipated. He (Churchill) immediately telephoned the War Cabinet in London to request that another six squadrons of Hurricane fighters be despatched at once claiming that Dowding had informed him that only twenty-five squadrons would be required in the event that they would be needed to defend Britain. If six squadrons were sent, then that would still leave enough of a safety margin for the defence of Britain.

When the Cabinet received Churchill's request, Sir Cyril Newhall informed the Cabinet of Churchill's commitment on saving the Battle of France, and further mentioned Dowding's fears if the air strength of Britain was to be reduced. A compromising solution was reached. Six Hurricane squadrons would be sent to France, but they were to operate from bases situated on the Northern French coastal strip bordering the Channel. This way it would be possible for them to return to bases back in England each night, give added strength to the French campaign and could easily be withdrawn back to Britain should the occasion arise.

The letter above, written by ACM Sir Hugh Dowding is an interesting one. It has been reproduced it here in full hoping that you will supply your own thoughts regarding Dowding's fears.

In making a study of the above document, it is accepted that Hugh Dowding was taking the sensible approach. As he mentioned, it was the Air Council that originally decided that 52 squadrons would be the number required to successfully defend Britain, he mentions in #9 that he requests, although I would say pleads, that not a single aircraft under the 52 squadron limit that the Air Council imposed, be sent away from their bases in Britain.

Dowding would have also known that even with 52 squadrons defending Britain, there would be losses, and that judging by what was occurring in France, aircraft were being lost at a far greater rate than they were being produced. So how long could he have maintained the 52 squadrons, but, with only 32, this would have been even worse.

And what of Churchill. He knew that Dowding stated that 32 was not to be enough, so why did he deceive the Cabinet by stating that Dowding had said that 25 squadrons would have been enough. Was this blatant lying to his own cabinet, just to maintain a promise to France?

The Battle of Britain - 1940 website Battle of Britain Historical Society 2007