Dowding and the ‘Big Wings’

[Cross-posted at Thoughts on Military History]

Well another good day at the archives, to be honest it was needed after the week I have had but that is another story. Today I was looking through the papers of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Baron Douglas of Kirtleside. There was some useful information in here, especially his correspondence with Robert Wright who served as his writer for his autobiography.

One piece of correspondence that particularly caught my eye was the following extract from Wright to Douglas regarding comments offered by Air Chief Marshal Dowding on his knowledge regarding the so-called animosity between Air Vice-Marshals’ Park and Leigh-Mallory, his chief operational commanders during the Battle of Britain. In a letter dated 28 March 1961 Wright writes the following:

There are two further important points for Chapter 13 of your book which Stuffy Dowding asks if you would consider. I mentioned these to you on the phone this morning.

The first is the “wings” controversy. Stuffy would like to be involved in this as little as possible. On page 13-19 of your script there is a note about it…Stuffy tells me that in actual fact he knew nothing about this until it had reached a fairly advanced stage, when, to his great surprise, the S. of S. mentioned to him the views advanced to him by Leigh-Mallory based on the idea put forward by Bader. Would you consider, for the present and until I am able to complete drafting this piece for your consideration, changing that note so that it reads:

“My personal interest in the controversy over the use that as made in the Battle of Britain of squadrons in wings; the Park school versus the Leigh-Mallory school of thought.”

What are we to make of this admission?

The way I see it there are two possible explanations here. First, if Dowding is accepted at face value then this is an amazing admission regarding his commanding competency. Yes he had devolved operational command to the groups but he still should have been aware of the relations between his commanders and he should have been doing something to deal with it’ the fact that he did not shows him to have failed in managing his commanders properly. The second possible explanation is a worse still. It is that he did know about it and failed to do something about it effectively and by the time of this correspondence he was aware that he had made a mistake and was trying to massage the record. Unfortunately there is no evidence to support this second assumption but considering Wright’s later polemic, Dowding and the Battle of Britain, one can wonder.

The unfortunate issue is that both theories are not palatable for the publics’ perception of Dowding especially this year, the 70th anniversary of the battle. Dowding is perceived to have single-handedly won the Battle of Britain, however, there are times when his must move away from hagiographic analyses and offer some hard truth regarding the public’s perception. This is the only way that we can effectively understand the past. My feelings are it is the former argument, which illustrates some of the failings that Dowding did have as a commander i.e. while he built up and effective system that defeated the Luftwaffe in 1940 he issues when dealing with people either above or below him, a necessary pre-requisite for effective command. Of course it can be argued that Leigh-Mallory had similar failing but that shall be dealt with at a future date. The ‘Big Wing’ controversy, and Leigh-Mallory’s role in it, is something that I shall have to deal with at some point in my thesis so information like this is very useful.

By Ross Mahoney

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