Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding (1882-1970), nicknamed "Stuffy" due to his reserved and undeniably crusty manner, led the Royal Air Force Fighter Command to victory during the Battle of Britain.
Born on the 24th of April 1882 at Moffat, Scotland, Hugh Dowding was the son of a schoolmaster. Educated at Winchester and then at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, Dowding was commissioned as a subaltern in the Royal Garrison Artillery, seeing service in Gibraltar, Ceylon and Hong Kong before being transferred to India where he served for some time with a Mountain Artillery battery.
Returning to Britain, Dowding became fascinated with flying machines. Approaching the Aero Club at Brooklands, he pleaded with them to give him flying lessons on credit. The Aero Club agreed and with a mechanic as his instructor gained his flying certificate with just two hours instruction. With this certificate he was successful in gaining acceptance into the Royal Flying Corps as a pilot in December 1913.
In 1915 Dowding was given command of No.16 Squadron in France, but following the Battle of the Somme in 1916, he clashed with General Trenchard, the RFC commander, over the need to rest pilots exhausted by continuous duty. Sent back to Britain, he would play no further part in the Great War despite being promoted.
In 1918, Dowding joined the newly created Royal Air Force, serving in various positions at home and in the Middle East. Promoted Air Vice Marshal in 1929, he was appointed to the Air Council in the following year with responsibility for matters regarding supply and research. In this role he encouraged the development of advanced fighters, such as the Spitfire and Hurricane, and encouraged the research into radar-all of which would play a vital part in the Battle. Promoted Air Marshal in 1933 and knighted by the King in the following year, Sir Hugh, with his usual uncompromising, single-minded devotion to British air supremacy coupled with his immense skill and experience would actively organize the restructuring of the nations air defence - setting up a network of communications that would link the radar stations, Observer Corps, Balloon Command and the various defence organisations with all the headquarters commands.
In 1936 he took over command of Fighter Command, dividing up the Command into four groups each with its own commander and headquarters. These were:
10 Group (Air Vice-Marshal Sir Quintin Brand) with responsibility for the air defence of Wales and the West Country.
11 Group (Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park) to cover the southeast of England and the critical approaches to London.
12 Group (Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory) to defend the Midlands and East Anglia.
13 Group (Air Vice-Marshal Richard Saul) to cover the north of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
As head of Fighter Command, Dowding was soon at odds with the Air Ministry, arguing that priority should be given to development of aircraft for the defence of Britain, rather than producing a fleet of bombers. Well aware that, in the event of war, the RAF would struggle when pitted against the Luftwaffe, Dowding advised Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to appease Hitler in order to gain time to prepare the country for war.
In 1940, Dowding worked closely with Vice Marshal Keith Park, AOC No.11 Group, in providing cover for the evacuation from Dunkirk. Although Dowding had only 200 aircraft at his disposal, he managed to gain air superiority (although this was not always obvious to those awaiting evacuation)which greatly helped to ensure the safe return of the BEF. Dowding was however less than willing to sacrifice his pilots in the Battle of France - which he already considered to be a lost cause.
During the Battle of Britain Dowding was criticised by Vice Marshal William Sholto Douglas, Assistant Chief of Air Staff, and Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, for not being aggressive enough. Douglas took the view that the RAF fighters should be sent out to intercept the German aircraft before they reached Britain. Dowding rejected this strategy as being too dangerous and argued that such action would increase the number of valuable pilots being killed. With hindsight we can see that this was indeed the correct strategy - targeting the German bombers after their fighter escorts ran low on fuel. Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal, the new Chief of Air Staff, however agreed with Douglas in the dispute over tactics and in November 1940 (soon after Hitler finally called off Operation Sealion), he removed Dowding. Douglas having the added satisfaction of replacing him as head of Fighter Command.
This was effectively the end of Dowding's career. Despite being recognised for winning the battle (even his old adversary, Lord Trenchard, having to admit that he had seriously under-estimated him for 26 years) and being awarded the Knight Grand Cross, his forthright manner had made him too many enemies in high places. Sent by the Air Ministry to the US to lecture, he finally retired from the RAF in 1942. For his outstanding foresight, deep sense of purpose and leadership that prepared Fighter Command to face and defeat the Luftwaffe and thus saving the country from the threat of Nazi invasion, Dowding was created First Baron Dowding of Bentley Priory (the location of Fighter Command's Headquarters) in 1943.
Lord Dowding died at his home in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, on 15 February 1970.
The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History
World Famous Battles Chapter 3
World Aircraft Information Files (File 394 Sheet 04)
Great Battles of World War II