If the Battle of Britain saved the West, then we should remember the one man, above all others, who won that battle. Air Chief Marshall Hugh (Lord) Dowding did not win it by himself; he did not shoot down a single plane. Looking back, however, it seems almost certain that the battle (and perhaps the war) could not have been won without him.
His story is especially poignant because his achievements played out against a background of repeated professional disappointments. Before the war he was passed over for promotion and slated for retirement. Then, at the moment of his triumph, he was relieved of command. Decades would pass before the public came to understand how much they owed the quiet man who inflicted the first strategic defeat on Hitler’s war machine.
Dowding stands out from the other senior commanders of the war because his prewar contributions were as important as his wartime work. As the senior RAF officer for research and development he pushed for the creation of modern fighters and radar. These were the crucial tools of the Battle of Britain. Without Dowding’s efforts, it is almost certain that England would have faced the Luftwaffe with fighters of inferior quality than the Hurricane and Spitfires that took to the skies in 1940.
In 1936, Dowding became the first commander of Fighter Command. He immediately set to work building a force capable of defending England against threats from the air. His work here may have been his greatest contribution to the Western victory. Under his leadership, Fighter Command developed the first thoroughgoing doctrine of air defense. He also built the revolutionary system of radar, observation posts, and command centers tied together with protected communications that allowed Fighter Command to apply their meager resources for maximum effect.
As Churchill wrote:
Half a century later historian Williamson Murray was even more effusive in his praise of Dowding’s achievement. The development of Fighter Command doctrine, he declared, was ‘the only clear-cut case of revolutionary innovation in the twentieth century.’ Dowding ‘built an effective air defense system that altered the entire context within which air forces operated.’
All the ascendency of the Hurricanes and Spitfires would have been fruitless but for this system of underground control centers and telephone cables which had been devised and built before the war by the Air Ministry under Dowding’s advice and impulse.
The system was not merely an example of technical innovation. Instead, it offset technical deficiencies with a quantum leap forward in the theory of air warfare.
Dowding’s work is all the more impressive because it flew in the face of the conventional wisdom of professional soldiers and pundits alike. In the 1930s nearly everyone believed that ‘the bomber will always get through’.
While Germans may have possessed better equipment and even tactics, the British operated in a broader framework of contextual change. By doing so they created a new logic within which the Luftwaffe was incapable of winning.
In 1940, British planners estimated that 600,000 people would die in the first two months of a Luftwaffe civilian bombing campaign. ‘We thought of air warfare in 1938,’ recalled Harold Macmillan ‘rather as people think of nuclear warfare today.’ Beyond the physical destruction, officials worried that strategic bombing would tear apart the social fabric. Panic, peace strikes or revolution all seemed possible consequences of a sustained bombing campaign.
The only strategic options were appeasement/surrender or deterrence through a countervailing bomber force. Dowding was the only senior commander willing and able to think through the ‘bomber problem’ in sufficient depth to understand the vulnerabilities of offensive air power and to formulate and develop effective counter-measures.
Of all the men who commanded the great victories in the war, only Dowding was responsible for significant doctrinal and technological innovation in the peace that preceded it. Nimitz, for example, played no role in the development of amphibious doctrine or the design of fleet carriers. The German generals who invented the tactics of blitzkrieg (like Rommel and Guderian) were fairly junior commanders in the victories of 1939-42. Most of the men who created the Red Army’s doctrine for modern combined arms warfare died in Stalin’s prisons before the war started.
The evidence suggests that there was no other senior officer in the RAF with the requisite imagination and drive to carry through the contextual innovation that Dowding executed.
Britain survived for all the other glorious reasons, but mainly, and quite simply, because Dowding got it right.
If Dowding had retired as scheduled in July 1939, his peacetime work would still earn him a place among the most important military leaders of the twentieth century. All the more remarkable, then, is the fact that his appointment to those posts represented severe professional disappointment. The R&D section of the RAF was seen as a career dead-end. This was confirmed in 1937 when he was passed over for the highest command in the RAF
Dowding, then, is a near perfect exemplar of the patriot and the professional soldier. He did his best at all times because it was his duty.
Fortunately for Britain Dowding did not retire in 1939. He was in charge of Fighter Command in the crucial weeks when the fate of the nation hung in the balance. His conduct of that campaign marks him as both a great battlefield commander and a superlative strategist.
Britian could have lost the Battle of Britain before it even began. As the blitzkrieg drove the Allies back in May 1940, the French insisted that the RAF send more fighter squadrons to the Continent. Churchill initially supported this transfer. Dowding refused to deplete his home forces. He faced down Churchill at a meeting of the War Cabinet and kept the last of his Hurricanes and Spitfires at home.
His resolve hurt his standing with Churchill, but that was of little importance to the air commander. As Kenneth Macksey noted, he ‘possessed that inner strength of conscience … that enabled him to stand firm in his resolve even at the risk of forfeiture of office.’ What mattered most to Dowding was that Fighter Command preserve its strength for the decisive battle to come.
The whole war may have turned on Dowding’s refusal to send fighters to France. As Churchill later wrote of the Battle of Britain:
Courage is of two kinds: courage in the face of personal danger, and courage to accept responsibility, either before the tribunal of some outside power or before the court of one's own conscience
If the mind is to emerge unscathed from this relentless struggle with the unforeseen, two qualities are indispensable: first, an intellect that, even in the darkest hour, retains some glimmerings of the inner light that leads to truth; and second, the courage to follow the faint light wherever it may lead. The first of these qualities is described by the French term coup d'oeil; the second is determination.
Clausewitz, On War
The challenge before Dowding was even greater than anyone could have imagined at the beginning of 1940. The home defense systems were designed to stop German bombers operating from German airfields. It was assumed that there would be no fighter escorts because no fighter had the range to cover the distances involved. The French surrender now gave the Luftwaffe bases which put fighters within range of southern England. Fighter command would be tested in ways no one had foreseen.
The odds were great; our margins small; the stakes infinite.
Dowding’s conduct of the battle was a masterful orchestration of limited resources. His strategy was essentially Fabian. He understood that like Adm. Jellico in the Great War, he was ‘the only man who could lose the war in a day.’ Using radar and Fighter Command’s control centers, the RAF denied the Germans the air superiority they needed for Operation Sea Lion. Try as it might, the Luftwaffe could not destroy Britian’s last defenders.
The foresight of Air Marshall Dowding in his direction of Fighter Command deserves high praise, but even more remarkable had been the restraint and the exact measurement of formidable stresses which had reserved a fighter force in the North through all these long weeks of mortal conflicts in the South. We must regard the generalship shown here as an example of genius in the art of war
Churchill, Their Finest Hour
But in the many authoritative analyses of the Battle of Britain now available one salient feature emerges: in this, perhaps the most critical conflict fought in the war, the margin was indeed narrow. It was a battle fought on a razor's edge. Many well-recognized factors contributed to the ultimate success-- the pilots' devotion, the quality of British radar, Goring's errors. But it was in the mind of the Commander-in-Chief Fighter Command-- Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding-- that those delicate, difficult, day-to-day judgments were made which, in the end, drew the fine decisive line between victory and defeat. Often they were judgments as urgent and taxing as any commander has had to take.
Ronald Lewin Ultra Goes to War
On 15 September 1940 Goering and Hitler launched their largest raids of the campaign. The Luftwaffe chief expected this to be the decisive battle that finished Fighter Command once and for all. To his surprise and chagrin, Dowding still had sufficient forces left to inflict disproportionate loses on German bomber formations. The Luftwaffe still did not hold air superiority over the English Channel.
British intelligence soon picked up indications that Hitler had ordered the indefinite delay of the planned invasion of Britan. The most dangerous period of the war was over and the RAF had won.
And then, abruptly, Dowding was gone. Dismissed. As Arthur Harris of Bomber Command put it: Dowding became ‘the only commander who won one of the decisive battles of history and got sacked for his pains.’
Dowding’s problem was that his victory was clear-cut only in retrospect. The Battle of Britain had elided into the Blitz. Bombers were now getting through and bombing cities nearly every night. Only a few men at the highest levels knew that this meant that the worst danger had passed. Others believed that the failure to stop the bombing meant that Dowding and Fighter Command were not doing their job. Eventually, the latter camp was able to force Dowding out.
The anti-Dowding camp were not gracious winners. When the Air Ministry published a pamphlet history of the Battle of Britain in March 1941, they omitted his name altogether.
Later historians have rectified that grievous error. Now we can see that he was the indispensible man at a key pivot point in history.