Caswell Tremenheere Dowding was born on April 24th 1882. He was the son
of a preparatory schoolmaster and born into what could be called a Victorian
middle class family. His father wanted Hugh to have a sound education,
saying 'you must choose and work at your profession, because a profession
will not always choose you." So his father enrolled Hugh into his old school
Winchester for his education.
Winchester, from which has come many famous
names, was unfortunately not going to produce another intellectual name
at this stage, not in the name of Hugh Dowding. He was very selective in
what he wanted to learn, had a personal hate for Latin and Greek, making
it known that at what stage would he ever use these most uninteresting
and annoying subjects. After just a couple of years, he chose to leave
Winchester when only 17 years old and he was accepted into the Royal Military
Academy at Woolwich. Deciding to become an engineer, he failed because
of his hate for formulas so he enlisted as a gunner in the army instead.
1899 was the year that British soldiers were fighting the Boer War, and
Hugh thought that his enlistment would no doubt take him there.
With the army, he gained the rank of a Second
Lieutenant and he became a much traveled individual being posted to many
locations around the world including Ceylon, Hong Kong, Gibraltar and India,
but never to South Africa to fight the Boers. Returning back to England,
the world had changed somewhat, and that included 'the flying machine'.
Almost at once, Hugh became infatuated with this new form of transport.
A keen sportsman most of his life, he had an immediate ambition to fly.
But learning to fly was expensive, but he could foresee a solution. The
Royal Flying Corps had been formed just a year earlier and were desperately
seeking pilots. Anybody who paid for flying lessons to get into the RFC
would get the cost of the tuition refunded if they were accepted. Hugh
approached the Aero Club at Brooklands and almost pleaded with them to
give him flying lessons on credit, and he would pay them when he got his
refund. The Aero Club thought that this was no problem so Hugh Dowding
commenced flying lessons, with a mechanic as an instructor and less than
two hours instruction, Hugh Dowding received his Royal Aero Club certificate
and applied and was accepted into the Royal Flying Corps as a pilot. A
few months later all was official when he was presented with his 'wings'.
Hugh's father then heard of his son's position
in the RFC, and straight away ordered Hugh to 'stop this ridiculous flying'
as it was far too dangerous. Hugh was about to obey him as a dutiful son,
when the RFC would not accept his resignation as the war had just broken
out with Germany and as a qualified pilot he was obliged to fly and serve
his time with the RFC. In the four years of the 1914-18 war, the rise up
the promotional staircase was fast. After just one year with the RFC and
serving in France, he commanded his own squadron, with continuing promotion
until by 1918 he was a Brigadier- General. It was during this period that
Hugh Dowding was to meet three other officers who held lower ranks, that
were to play important roles in his life in later years.
One was a Major Keith Park, an energetic New
Zealander who had claimed no less that twenty German aircraft shot down
and was to become a close friend of Dowding. Another was a Major Trafford
Leigh-Mallory who had risen through the ranks from his Cambridge University
days, and even at that early stage the two were not to see eye to eye.
The other was a Major William Sholto-Douglas who it is claimed had five
victories during this First World War. Ironically, the Air Ministry at
the time issued the order to Brigadier-General Hugh Dowding to court-martial
Major Sholto-Douglas over an incident that it appeared that Sholto-Douglas
was completely innocent of. Hugh Dowding refused to allow any action be
taken against Sholto-Douglas.
At the end of the First World War, all four
men were to go their separate ways, although all of them remained with
the Royal Air Force. For Hugh Dowding, most of his life he enjoyed the
comradeship of his sports clubs notably the Ski Club of Great Britain,
but on the tragic death of his wife in the late twenties, Hugh Dowding
became withdrawn and he resigned from any sort of life that required socializing,
and seemed to devote the rest of his life to his work. He saw the RFC become
transformed into the Royal Air Force, he made it clear that the days of
the biplane fighter was nearing its end and that the RAF should replace
them with all metal monoplanes, he became the Member for Supply and Research
with the Air Council in 1930, and in 1935 gave his approval on seeing the
first Hurricane, then the Spitfire fly for the first time. He watched with
great enthusiasm as Robert Watson-Watt gave a demonstration of how an aircraft
in flight could send a radio beam to be seen as a green line on a cathode
ray tube. This, he said shows great promise in the defence system for the
RAF, and from that day he became a devotee to the world of radar and its
In 1936, the Royal Air Force decided that
it should reorganize into different commands. Dowding was given possibly
his highest honour so far. He was made Commander in Chief of Fighter Command,
which is quite extraordinary as plans were being made to stop him
from becoming Chief of Air Staff. But, it was his knowledge of air warfare,
his experience in administration, and his qualities in leadership, although
there are many who may argue that point.
He was the man responsible for the building
of Fighter Command to the way that we know it as at the outbreak of the
Second World War. As radar started to take shape, he could not emphasize
enough the importance that this would be to Fighter Command, he organized
a network of communications that would link the radar stations, Observer
Corps, Balloon Command and the various defence organizations to all headquarters
commands. Fighter Command was divided into various groups, each with its
own commander and headquarters. The three men who were junior to Dowding
during the First World War were still with the RAF. Keith Park was now
appointed to Senior Staff Officer with Dowding at Fighter Command Headquarters.
Trafford Leigh-Mallory was made Commander of 12 Group covering the industrial
Midlands and Sholto Douglas was with the Air Ministry. But, at the outbreak
of war in 1939, and as it looked as though the main defence of Britain
would lie with 11 Group in the south-east, it was essential that this Group
have an experienced commander that would appreciate tactics, have qualities
of leadership and have foresight in the grim months that lie ahead. If
we go by theory and experience, Leigh-Mallory should have got the job as
Commander of 11 Group, but this was not to be. Dowding assigned Keith Park
to the position, which it is understandable why the bitterness continued
between Dowding and Leigh-Mallory.
Once WWII was under way, Hugh Dowding was
committed to the defence of Britain. He spoke about this a number of times,
even refused Churchill's request for more Hurricanes to be sent to France
stating that by doing so it would leave the British defence system severely
depleted. He pushed for all weather runways at fighter stations, which
he did not get them for all of them. He pushed for operations rooms at
all of the sector stations stating that these would relieve the pressure
on the group operations rooms which in turn relieve the pressure on command
operations rooms. He wanted more financial aid to the Observer Corps stating
that they are so important to the defence system that the war could be
lost without them. With very few important friends at the Air Ministry,
Hugh Dowding's suggestions and decisions never went unobserved or ignored.
He never went to fighter stations to listen
to fighter pilots and to give them support. Dowding said after the war
".....of course I had concern and admiration for these pilots, almost to
a point where I could call them 'my boys' but they had problems and concerns
of their own without seeing their Commander in Chief suddenly arrive on
the scene, the job of liaising with the pilots were best left to the Group
Commanders who in most cases knew them better." Of course he had concern,
Len Deighton says that Dowding's concern was central to every decision
that he made, Douglas Bader who. in collaboration with Leigh-Mallory and
both played a part in Dowdings dismissal said later "Without his vision,
his planning, his singleness of purpose, and his complete disregard for
personal aggrandizement, Fighter Command might have been unable to win
the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940."
After the Battle of Britain had been fought
and won, the Air Ministry convened a meeting to discuss Dowding's handling
of the battle. In the main, it was the subject of 'Big Wings' that forced
the general discussion. Portal, Newall and Sholto-Douglas were all present
as was Leigh-Mallory and for some reason Douglas Bader, (a Squadron Leader
at an Air Ministry meeting?) all discussing the fact that Dowding had refused
to allow 'Big Wings' because of the amount of time needed to get them into
formation. Was it a good enough reason to dismiss a man who had just save
great Britain from possible invasion? It has now been well documented that
the meeting was called 'as a course of procedure' in getting rid of Keith
Park and Hugh Dowding. It was also reported that Hugh Dowding had no time
for his pilots and that was one of the reasons that he never visited the
airfields to meet them. Raymond Lee, a United States Military Attaché
in London stated ".....it pointed out an extremely dangerous situation
in the Fighter Command, in which it would seem that dour, dogmatic, stuffy
old Dowding has managed to lose the confidence of all the fighter pilots.
The complaint seems to be that he never has any contact with them and fails
to appreciate how important it is for him to see and talk with them." Lee
goes on to say that the Air Ministry wants to replace Dowding with someone
who is more of a leader.
Hugh Dowding was sacked from his position
by a simple telephone call, 'The Air Council has no further work for you'
and was asked to clear his desk within twenty-four hours. Much the same
treatment was given to Keith Park at the same time.
Like an honourable servant, Air Chief Marshall
Hugh Dowding obeyed. Charles (Chic) Willet, a member of Dowding's staff
remembers those last final days:
Hugh Dowding also sent
a letter to all operational fighter stations and units:
strains of the great problems and lack of sleep began to show. There were
times when I saw him almost blind with fatigue; he obviously needed a long
rest, he was becoming burnt out. When Dowding was eventually replaced,
he came along to each office and said, "I think you know that I am going,
thank you very much." On the morning of his departure, Sholto Douglas came
to take over and walked into the office while Dowding was writing at his
desk; he finished what he was doing, looked up at Sholto Douglas and simply
said, "Good morning", and was away.
Flint Dowding and Headquarters Fighter Command 1996 Airlife
dear Fighter Boys,
Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding November 24th 1940
sending you this my last message, I wish I could say all that is in my
heart. I cannot hope to surpass the simple eloquence of the Prime Ministers
words, 'Never before has so much been owed by so many to so few." The debt
remains and will increase.
saying good-bye to you I want you to know how continually you have been
in my thoughts, and that, though our direct connection may be severed,
I may yet be able to help you in your gallant fight.
to you and God bless you all.
The politics of the Battle
of Britain was not so much as a war of words or a clash of personalities
between Dowding and Leigh-Mallory, but rather between Keith Park
and Leigh-Mallory. True Dowding and L-M were not 'bosom buddies' but there
is a possibility that Dowding could be held responsible for Parks sacking
from Fighter Command because as senior officer, he should have stopped
the feud between Park and L-M earlier rather than allowing it to continue.
After his removal as
C-in-C of Fighter Command, the Air Ministry sent Dowding to the USA to
lecture, after that, he returned to Britain heading a study on economics
of RAF manpower, but finally retiring from the RAF in 1942.
The question of him
being promoted to the highest rank of all, Marshall of the Royal Air Force,
was often discussed. Even King George VI asked if the greatest honour of
all could be bestowed upon this man which Great Britain owes so much, being
told that one has to be a member of the Air Staff to attain such honour.
He was knighted, and
preferred to be known as First Baron Dowding of Bentley Priory, died at
his home in Tunbridge Wells Kent on February 15th 1970. His full title
being Lord Sir Hugh Dowding G.C.B., G.C.V.O.,C.M.G. But call him what you
will, "Stuffy' to most, it was under sincere leadership that Hugh Dowding,
his commanders and his pilots that curtailed any possibility of an invasion
of Great Britain by German forces.
The Battle of Britain - 1940
website © Battle of Britain Historical Society 2007