HughCaswell Tremenheere Dowding was born on April 24th 1882. He was the sonof a preparatory schoolmaster and born into what could be called a Victorianmiddle class family. His father wanted Hugh to have a sound education,saying 'you must choose and work at your profession, because a professionwill not always choose you." So his father enrolled Hugh into his old schoolWinchester for his education.
Winchester, from which has come many famousnames, was unfortunately not going to produce another intellectual nameat this stage, not in the name of Hugh Dowding. He was very selective inwhat he wanted to learn, had a personal hate for Latin and Greek, makingit known that at what stage would he ever use these most uninterestingand annoying subjects. After just a couple of years, he chose to leaveWinchester when only 17 years old and he was accepted into the Royal MilitaryAcademy at Woolwich. Deciding to become an engineer, he failed becauseof 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, andHugh thought that his enlistment would no doubt take him there.
With the army, he gained the rank of a SecondLieutenant and he became a much traveled individual being posted to manylocations 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. TheRoyal Flying Corps had been formed just a year earlier and were desperatelyseeking pilots. Anybody who paid for flying lessons to get into the RFCwould get the cost of the tuition refunded if they were accepted. Hughapproached the Aero Club at Brooklands and almost pleaded with them togive him flying lessons on credit, and he would pay them when he got hisrefund. The Aero Club thought that this was no problem so Hugh Dowdingcommenced flying lessons, with a mechanic as an instructor and less thantwo hours instruction, Hugh Dowding received his Royal Aero Club certificateand applied and was accepted into the Royal Flying Corps as a pilot. Afew months later all was official when he was presented with his 'wings'.
Hugh's father then heard of his son's positionin 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 brokenout with Germany and as a qualified pilot he was obliged to fly and servehis time with the RFC. In the four years of the 1914-18 war, the rise upthe promotional staircase was fast. After just one year with the RFC andserving in France, he commanded his own squadron, with continuing promotionuntil by 1918 he was a Brigadier- General. It was during this period thatHugh Dowding was to meet three other officers who held lower ranks, thatwere to play important roles in his life in later years.
One was a Major Keith Park, an energetic NewZealander who had claimed no less that twenty German aircraft shot downand was to become a close friend of Dowding. Another was a Major TraffordLeigh-Mallory who had risen through the ranks from his Cambridge Universitydays, 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 fivevictories during this First World War. Ironically, the Air Ministry atthe time issued the order to Brigadier-General Hugh Dowding to court-martialMajor Sholto-Douglas over an incident that it appeared that Sholto-Douglaswas completely innocent of. Hugh Dowding refused to allow any action betaken against Sholto-Douglas.
At the end of the First World War, all fourmen were to go their separate ways, although all of them remained withthe Royal Air Force. For Hugh Dowding, most of his life he enjoyed thecomradeship of his sports clubs notably the Ski Club of Great Britain,but on the tragic death of his wife in the late twenties, Hugh Dowdingbecame 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 becometransformed into the Royal Air Force, he made it clear that the days ofthe biplane fighter was nearing its end and that the RAF should replacethem with all metal monoplanes, he became the Member for Supply and Researchwith the Air Council in 1930, and in 1935 gave his approval on seeing thefirst Hurricane, then the Spitfire fly for the first time. He watched withgreat enthusiasm as Robert Watson-Watt gave a demonstration of how an aircraftin flight could send a radio beam to be seen as a green line on a cathoderay tube. This, he said shows great promise in the defence system for theRAF, and from that day he became a devotee to the world of radar and itsimprovements.
In 1936, the Royal Air Force decided thatit should reorganize into different commands. Dowding was given possiblyhis highest honour so far. He was made Commander in Chief of Fighter Command,which is quite extraordinary as plans were being made to stop himfrom becoming Chief of Air Staff. But, it was his knowledge of air warfare,his experience in administration, and his qualities in leadership, althoughthere are many who may argue that point.
He was the man responsible for the buildingof Fighter Command to the way that we know it as at the outbreak of theSecond World War. As radar started to take shape, he could not emphasizeenough the importance that this would be to Fighter Command, he organizeda network of communications that would link the radar stations, ObserverCorps, Balloon Command and the various defence organizations to all headquarterscommands. Fighter Command was divided into various groups, each with itsown commander and headquarters. The three men who were junior to Dowdingduring the First World War were still with the RAF. Keith Park was nowappointed to Senior Staff Officer with Dowding at Fighter Command Headquarters.Trafford Leigh-Mallory was made Commander of 12 Group covering the industrialMidlands and Sholto Douglas was with the Air Ministry. But, at the outbreakof war in 1939, and as it looked as though the main defence of Britainwould lie with 11 Group in the south-east, it was essential that this Grouphave an experienced commander that would appreciate tactics, have qualitiesof leadership and have foresight in the grim months that lie ahead. Ifwe go by theory and experience, Leigh-Mallory should have got the job asCommander of 11 Group, but this was not to be. Dowding assigned Keith Parkto the position, which it is understandable why the bitterness continuedbetween Dowding and Leigh-Mallory.
Once WWII was under way, Hugh Dowding wascommitted 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 Francestating that by doing so it would leave the British defence system severelydepleted. He pushed for all weather runways at fighter stations, whichhe did not get them for all of them. He pushed for operations rooms atall of the sector stations stating that these would relieve the pressureon the group operations rooms which in turn relieve the pressure on commandoperations rooms. He wanted more financial aid to the Observer Corps statingthat they are so important to the defence system that the war could belost 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 listento fighter pilots and to give them support. Dowding said after the war".....of course I had concern and admiration for these pilots, almost toa point where I could call them 'my boys' but they had problems and concernsof their own without seeing their Commander in Chief suddenly arrive onthe scene, the job of liaising with the pilots were best left to the GroupCommanders who in most cases knew them better." Of course he had concern,Len Deighton says that Dowding's concern was central to every decisionthat he made, Douglas Bader who. in collaboration with Leigh-Mallory andboth played a part in Dowdings dismissal said later "Without his vision,his planning, his singleness of purpose, and his complete disregard forpersonal aggrandizement, Fighter Command might have been unable to winthe Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940."
After the Battle of Britain had been foughtand won, the Air Ministry convened a meeting to discuss Dowding's handlingof the battle. In the main, it was the subject of 'Big Wings' that forcedthe general discussion. Portal, Newall and Sholto-Douglas were all presentas was Leigh-Mallory and for some reason Douglas Bader, (a Squadron Leaderat an Air Ministry meeting?) all discussing the fact that Dowding had refusedto allow 'Big Wings' because of the amount of time needed to get them intoformation. Was it a good enough reason to dismiss a man who had just savegreat Britain from possible invasion? It has now been well documented thatthe meeting was called 'as a course of procedure' in getting rid of KeithPark and Hugh Dowding. It was also reported that Hugh Dowding had no timefor his pilots and that was one of the reasons that he never visited theairfields to meet them. Raymond Lee, a United States Military Attachéin London stated ".....it pointed out an extremely dangerous situationin the Fighter Command, in which it would seem that dour, dogmatic, stuffyold 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 failsto appreciate how important it is for him to see and talk with them." Leegoes on to say that the Air Ministry wants to replace Dowding with someonewho is more of a leader.
Hugh Dowding was sacked from his positionby 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 sametreatment was given to Keith Park at the same time.
Like an honourable servant, Air Chief MarshallHugh Dowding obeyed. Charles (Chic) Willet, a member of Dowding's staffremembers those last final days:
Hugh Dowding also senta letter to all operational fighter stations and units:
Thestrains of the great problems and lack of sleep began to show. There weretimes when I saw him almost blind with fatigue; he obviously needed a longrest, 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 cameto take over and walked into the office while Dowding was writing at hisdesk; he finished what he was doing, looked up at Sholto Douglas and simplysaid, "Good morning", and was away.PeterFlint Dowding and Headquarters Fighter Command 1996 Airlifepp187-188
Mydear Fighter Boys,AirChief Marshall Hugh Dowding November 24th 1940
Insending you this my last message, I wish I could say all that is in myheart. I cannot hope to surpass the simple eloquence of the Prime Ministerswords, 'Never before has so much been owed by so many to so few." The debtremains and will increase.
Insaying good-bye to you I want you to know how continually you have beenin my thoughts, and that, though our direct connection may be severed,I may yet be able to help you in your gallant fight.
Good-byeto you and God bless you all.
The politics of the Battleof Britain was not so much as a war of words or a clash of personalitiesbetween Dowding and Leigh-Mallory, but rather between Keith Parkand Leigh-Mallory. True Dowding and L-M were not 'bosom buddies' but thereis a possibility that Dowding could be held responsible for Parks sackingfrom Fighter Command because as senior officer, he should have stoppedthe feud between Park and L-M earlier rather than allowing it to continue.
After his removal asC-in-C of Fighter Command, the Air Ministry sent Dowding to the USA tolecture, after that, he returned to Britain heading a study on economicsof RAF manpower, but finally retiring from the RAF in 1942.
The question of himbeing 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 ofall could be bestowed upon this man which Great Britain owes so much, beingtold that one has to be a member of the Air Staff to attain such honour.
He was knighted, andpreferred to be known as First Baron Dowding of Bentley Priory, died athis home in Tunbridge Wells Kent on February 15th 1970. His full titlebeing Lord Sir Hugh Dowding G.C.B., G.C.V.O.,C.M.G. But call him what youwill, "Stuffy' to most, it was under sincere leadership that Hugh Dowding,his commanders and his pilots that curtailed any possibility of an invasionof Great Britain by German forces.