Theletter that changed the course of history

                                                       May 16, 1940

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

 2,         I hope and believe thatour Armies may yet be
  victorious inFrance and Belgium,  but we have to face the
  possibility thatthey may be defeated.

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

  4.        For this purpose it is necessary to retain some
  minimum fighterstrength in this country and I must request that
  the Air Councilwill 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 madeas to the force necessary to defend this country
  was 52 Squadrons, and my strength has now been reduced to the
  equivalent of36 Squadrons.

  6.        Once a decision has been reached as to the limit on
  which the AirCouncil and the Cabinet are prepared to stake the
  existence ofthe country,  it should be made clear to the Allied
  Commanders onthe Continent that not a single aeroplane from
  Fighter Commandbeyond the limit will be sent across the Channel,
  no matter howdesperate the situation may become.

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

  8.        I must point out that within the last few days the
  equivalent of10 Squadrons have been sent to France,  that the
  Hurricane Squadronsremaining in this country are seriously
  depleted, and that the more Squadrons which are sent to France
  the higher willbe the wastage and the more insistent the
  demands for reinforcements.

  9.        I must therefore request that as a matter of
  paramount urgencythe Air Ministry will consider and
  decide what levelof strength is to be left to the
  Fighter Commandfor the defences of this country, and will
  assure me thatwhen this level has been reached, not one
  fighter willbe sent across the Channel however urgent
  and insistentthe appeals for help may be.

  10.       I believe that, if an adequate fighter force is
  kept in thiscountry, if the fleet remains in being, and
  if Home Forcesare suitably organised to resist invasion,
  we should beable to carry on the war single handed for
  some time, ifnot indefinitely.   But, if the Home Defence
  Force is drainedaway in desperate attempts to remedy the
  situation inFrance,  defeat in France will involve the
  final, completeand 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 MarshalHugh Dowding who wrote the letter, putting forth his views on the sendingof more fighters across the Channel for the purpose of giving France thebadly needed support that they so desperately wanted. Churchill had promisedthe French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud who had asked for more squadronsof fighters, that they would be sent and that Britain would give supportin every possible way to assist them.

The Fairy Battleand the Bristol Blenheim bombers that had originally been sent to Francein the September of 1939 mainly to support the British Expeditionary Forcewere to prove ineffective and were totally outclassed by the German fighters.Knowing this, the Air Ministry considered sending the more effective Wellingtonand Whitely bombers, but the bulk of the decision makers were quite adamantthat this was out of the question. The bombers were to stay in Englandfor a strategic offensive that was "if required" to operate from theirEnglish bases.

So, the Fairy Battlesingle engined light bomber's which although belonging to Bomber Commandalong with the Blenheim, were under the control Sir Arthur Barratt whowas the RAF AOC in France who had control of all aircraft. These were supportedby just six squadrons of Hurricane fighters which totalled 96 and a fewGloster Gladiators. This small air force was up against the might of theadvancing German Luftwaffe who with a commanding strength and with exceptionalco-ordination constantly strafed and bombed Allied airfields and Britishand French troop concentrations, and like a swift, well oiled machine theGermans made a rapid advance through France.

At the beginningof the German advance, Barratt had nothing but disillusionment. Thirty-twoBattles took off to curb the German advance, but thirteen of these weredestroyed 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 Bridgesat Maastricht, not one of them returned, all had been destroyed. The sadstory continued on May 14th, when 71 Battles took off, again on a routinebombing mission, only thirty one returned, forty had been destroyed. Thenext day on the 15th, Barratt tallied up the amount of aircraft destroyed,an astounding 205 light bombers and fighter aircraft had been destroyedand not even a month had passed.

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

Dowding was informedof Churchill's intentions. He studied the forces that had already beendespatched to France, he already knew that for the successful defence ofBritain he would require fifty-two squadrons, this had already been depletedby the aircraft that had already been sent to France, in actual fact, hewas now down to a mere thirty-six squadrons. His fears were written byway of a letter indicating the perilous position he would be placed inif this request for more fighter aircraft be sent to France. He handedthe 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 unbemusedDowding simply replied, "I know.......thats why I wrote it".

Hugh Dowding wassummoned to the War Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street on 15th May. Alsothere was Sir Archibald Sinclair who had been recently appointed as thenew Air Minister, Lord Beaverbrook who had just received his appointmentas Minister for Aircraft Production and Sir Cyril Newhall who was the Chiefof 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 notonly must we give France all the support that we can......but we must supportour own forces fighting in that country".  Dowding remained unmoved,almost withdrawn, " I am well aware of the situation Prime Minister, butmy task at hand is for the air defence of this country and it is my beliefthat I cannot achieve this if half my aircraft are in France".

Dowding went on toproduce documents that showed the Hurricane losses since they were firstdespatched, and explained in considerable length that if these losses continuedat 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 thanwe can produce them" he went on and again further emphasized the pointthat the thirty-six squadrons that he now had at his disposal was no wherenear 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 hegot it, France would fall to the Germans far sooner than he would haveanticipated. He (Churchill) immediately telephoned the War Cabinet in Londonto request that another six squadrons of Hurricane fighters be despatchedat once claiming that Dowding had informed him that only twenty-five squadronswould 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 safetymargin for the defence of Britain.

When the Cabinetreceived Churchills request, Sir Cyril Newhall informed the Cabinet ofChurchills commitment on saving the Battle of France, and further mentionedDowding's fears if the air strength of Britain was to be reduced. A compromisingsolution was reached. Six Hurricane squadrons would be sent to France,but they were to operate from bases situated on the Northern French coastalstrip bordering the Channel. This way it would be possible for themto return to bases back in England each night, give added strength to theFrench campaign and could easily be withdrawn back to Britain should theoccasion arise.

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

In making a studyof the above document, it is accepted that Hugh Dowding was taking thesensible approach. As he mentioned, it was the Air Council that originallydecided that 52 squadrons would be the number required to successfullydefend Britain, he mentions in #9 that he requests, although I would saypleads, that not a single aircraft under the 52 squadron limit that theAir Council imposed, be sent away from their bases in Britain.

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

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

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