The ‘Tragic’ Life of Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory

[Cross posted at Thoughts on Military History]

On 14 November 1944 an Avro York, MW126, took off from RAF Northolt carrying the new Air Commander for the South East Asia Command (SEAC). This was Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory KCB, DSO and Bar, formerly the Air Officer Commander in Chief (AOC-in-C) of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force (AEAF). Since 1943 Leigh-Mallory had been involved in the preparation and execution of the air plan in support of the invasion of occupied Europe. Having successfully overseen this Leigh-Mallory was now seeking new challenges in South-East Asia. He recorded in the final entry of his operational diary, dictated to Hilary St Gorge Saunders, that:

…he now regarded the campaign in France and Western Europe…as won and his eyes were turning in the direction of the Far East whither he was shortly to proceed.[1]

However, despite looking forward to the challenges of his new command Leigh-Mallory was not to make it to his new command in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Having pushed back his departure date he eventually flew out on 14 November and on the first leg of his journey the aircraft veered off course by some two hundred and fifty miles and crashed in the mountains around Grenoble, France killing himself, his wife, Doris, his personal assistant, Flight Lieutenant Peter Chinn, and the crew.[2] Initially listed as missing the crash site, and the bodies, was eventually discovered on 4 June 1945.

General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), paid tribute to Leigh-Mallory, and Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, in his report of operations in North-West Europe as ‘…gallant officers who started the campaign…[and]…who lost their lives before its conclusion.’[3] He described their war service and devotion to duty as irreplaceable. He also linked their loss to the sacrifice of the thousands of other men and women who were lost in the course of the campaign.[4] Perhaps the most telling note of grief regarding Leigh-Mallory’s loss came from Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Charles Portal who wrote to Leigh-Mallory’s son Thomas to offer his condolences at a time when he was still officially declared missing by the service; Portal wrote:

Your father was one of my oldest friends and one of our greatest officers, and I would like you to know how deeply I and all…his friends in the service feel smitten by this great misfortune.[5]

Born 11 July 1892 in Mobberley, Cheshire, Leigh-Mallory was the youngest of four children, the most famous of which was his oldest brother George who would die climbing Mount Everest in 1924.[6] His father was a Rector at the local Anglican Church, where the family had been parsons for generations. From an early age Leigh-Mallory had links to important persons of the age, for example, his Godfather was Sir Lees Knowles, 1st Baronet, the noted philanthropist, politician and military historian.[7] Leigh-Mallory attended the noted public school Haileybury College being placed in the Classical Side as opposed to the Modern or Army Side; given his later career path this illustrates an early leaning away from the military, indeed Leigh-Mallory excelled as a gymnast while at the College. However, Haileybury had close links to military producing several notable officers including several contemporaries of Leigh-Mallory, such as Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham and Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor.[8] Leigh-Mallory’s biographer notes of his time at Haileybury that he developed self-confidence, the ability to be a good team player, initiative and even a glimpse of leadership; given later criticism of Leigh-Mallory it would appear difficult to reconcile this person with the historical character that has graced the pages of the literature, however, that is what this thesis seeks to do.[9]

After Haileybury, which he left in April 1911, Leigh-Mallory moved onto Magdalene College, University of Cambridge where he had earned an Exhibition Scholarship. In attending Magdalene College Leigh-Mallory was following in the footsteps of his brother George, however, it would appear that he did not slavishly follow him. Marshal of the Royal Air Force Arthur Tedder, 1st Baron of Glengiun, was a contemporary of Leigh-Mallory both in the RAF and at Magdalene College, where he was one year his senior. Both were elected to the Kingsley Club on the same day.[10] Despite this shared experience Tedder makes no reference to it in him memoirs.[11] Originally Leigh-Mallory studied for a degree in History, however in 1912 he began to explore taking up a legal career when, through the patronage of his godfather, he was admitted to the membership of the Inner Temple at the Inns of Court. This change was due to his poor performance in his Tripos examination.

However, Leigh-Mallory was never to take up this career path due to the outbreak of the First World War. Like many men with a public school background he was caught up in the jingoistic fervour of August 1914 and on 6 August he enlisted in the 10th (Territorial) Battalion of the King’s Liverpool Regiment as a Private. The need for officers would see him promoted to Second Lieutenant and posted to the 4th (Extra Reserve) Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers. After training with the battalion Leigh-Mallory was posted to the 2nd Battalion of the South Lancashire Regiment, who were part of 7 Brigade, 3 Division, on the Western Front. On 16/17 June during the attack on Bellewaarde Ridge he was injured in the leg and sent back to his home battalion. While there Leigh-Mallory contemplated his future and decided to join the fledgling Royal Flying Corps (RFC). Accepted for service he saw service with No. 5 Squadron over the Somme. Promoted to Major in April 1917 he was posted commanded a training unit, No. 15 (Reserve) Squadron, and in November 1917 was posted to take over No. 8 Squadron. It was with this unit that that he was to have his biggest impact being involved in the development of tank/air co-operation with the Tank Corps. At the end of the war Leigh-Mallory was recognised as an officer and despite considering a return to a law career he chose to stay in the newly formed RAF and was given a permanent commission of Squadron Leader on 1 August 1919.[12] Thus, despite his injury Leigh-Mallory had had a good war.

The inter-war years were to see his stock rise further within the RAF. Initially posted to the Inspectorate of Recruiting he would eventually find his niche at the School of Army Co-Operation. He served there twice, first, as a Squadron Leader and then as its commandant. This led to Leigh-Mallory becoming the RAF’s leading light on this subject in the 1920’s. This would lead to his appointment, as a Wing Commander, to the Directing Staff at the Army Staff College in 1930. Before this he attended the newly formed RAF Staff College at Andover. Undoubtedly during this period he showed a keen intellect in his given area of interest for he was twice runner-up in the Gordon Shepherd Prize, 1930 and 1934, and had several articles published.[13] In addition to his work in the field of Army Co-Operation he also did several tours as a Staff Officers, in particular within the Directorate of Staff Duties. Indeed he served two tours as Deputy Director of Staff Duties, first, in late 1931 and then from October 1932 to January 1934.[14] In 1934 Leigh-Mallory attended the Imperial Defence College (IDC) clearly illustrating that he was marked out for higher command within the RAF. However, before holding a senior operational command it was felt he needed more staff experience, therefore, from December 1935 to December 1937 he served as Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO) to the commander of British Force Iraq.

On return to the UK Leigh-Mallory took over at the newly formed No. 12 Group of Fighter Command and as will be explored later this was an intriguing choice given his lack of fighter experience. However, in the period leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War Leigh-Mallory organised and prepared his group for the impending conflict with Germany. Indeed in many respects No. 12 Group was a vital part of the defence system given its position relative to bombers coming from Germany and it role in defending the industrial Midlands. Undeniably this was case until the shock defeat of the French Army and the forced withdrawal of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from France in late May 1940. During the ensuing Battle of Britain Leigh-Mallory became involved in a tactical debate with his counterpart at No. 11 Group, Air Vice-Marshal Sir Keith Park, which surrounded the use of large formation of fighter in order to intercept the incoming German bombers. This episode, now often referred to as the ‘Big Wing’ Controversy, led to the souring of relations between these two officers and had repercussions for the conduct of the battle. In this debate Leigh-Mallory became ostensibly associated with the actions of Squadron Leader Douglas Bader, Officer Commanding (OC) No. 242 Squadron. Bader would champion the ‘Big Wing’ idea and with Leigh-Mallory’s support he would test its veracity through the mechanism of the Duxford ‘Wing’; a degree of controversy remains over the success of this tactic. This episode highlights the problems of command style between Leigh-Mallory, Park and their superior at Fighter Command Headquarters, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding. Eventually issues over the conduct the night defence of the UK would lead to the removal of Dowding from Fighter Command and his replacement by Air Chief Marshal Sir William Sholto Douglas, formerly Deputy Chief of the Air Staff (DCAS). With Douglas’ assumption of command he removed Park from the command of No. 11 Group and replaced him with Leigh-Mallory on 18 December 1940.

Moving into 1941 Fighter Command faced a twofold mission, first defend British cities from the night time ‘Blitz’ and, second, take the offensive against the Luftwaffe in the west. Indeed this was characterised as ‘leaning forward into France’ and Leigh-Mallory’s No. 11 Group was at the forefront of this new mission.[15] This new mission allowed the offensively minded Leigh-Mallory to utilise large formations in offensive action over the continent. The success of these new missions varied and indeed much of the success or failures was outside the operation control of Leigh-Mallory and the Air Historical Branch (AHB) narrative notes that the impact sought did not materialise.[16] This offensive policy continued into 1942 despite some opposition. Perhaps the biggest expression of the policy came in August 1942 when Leigh-Mallory became involved in the planning for Operation RUTTER/JUBILEE, which saw the largest aerial battle since the Battle of Britain.[17] In November 1942 Douglas moved on to take over RAF Middle East and Leigh-Mallory became the obvious choice to fulfil the now vacant post at Fighter Command.

Nineteen forty-three saw a continuation of the offensive policy but higher command brought Leigh-Mallory into greater contact with the strategic level of command and the challenges with it. Also 1943 saw serious planning being undertaken with regards to the planned re-entry to North-West Europe. As AOC-in-C of Fighter Command Leigh-Mallory became increasingly involved with the planning. Indeed it was Leigh-Mallory visit to North Africa in April 1943 that convinced him of the utility of the system then being employed out there. The composite group system was then subsequently tested during Exercise SPARTAN and became the basis for the groups that would form the backbone of the new Tactical Air Force then being formed.

By late 1943 the command set up for Operation OVERLORD was being formulated and with the support of the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Portal, Leigh-Mallory was appointed AOC-in-C of the AEAF. Despite support from Portal this was not a popular decision, with many expecting Tedder to receive the appointment. Leigh-Mallory became responsible for the subjugation of the Luftwaffe and the pre-invasion strategy designed to cut Normandy off from reinforcement. Issues surrounding the Transportation Plan and the control of the strategic bomber forces led to Tedder being placed in control of strategic forces and overseeing Leigh-Mallory’s roles, thus, making him in effect as spare wheel in the command set up. Despite this Leigh-Mallory was to play a key role in the planning and conduct of air operations both before and during operations in Normandy. However, by the end of the campaign it was decided that an overall air commander was no longer needed and Leigh-Mallory was informed that he was to become the AOC-in-C of the air forces in SEAC. As noted at the beginning of this chapter this was not a decision that he was bitter about. By November his preparation were made and he made the fateful flight that would lead to his death.

Even this was to prove controversial with a Court of Inquiry being convened to examine the circumstances surrounding the flight and crash. As noted he was initially listed as missing until the bodies were discovered on 4 June 1945; almost a year to the day of his involvement in the Allies greatest feat of arms, Operation OVERLORD. Leigh-Mallory, his wife Doris and the crew of the transport are buried at the Allemont Communal Cemetery in the department of Isere, not far from Grenoble. The chief mourner at the funeral was Leigh-Mallory’s son-in-law, Flight Lieutenant Doherty. The senior RAF officer present was Air Marshal C R Carr, Deputy Chief of Staff (AIR) at SHAEF, numerous dignitaries from the Allied nation attended with a guard of honour provided by the RAF with troops of the US Army and French Air Force also present. Thus, the most senior RAF officer to lose his life during the Second World War lies in a grave in a small plot in a civilian graveyard in the south of France, maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

By Ross Mahoney

[1] The National Archives (TNA), AIR 37/784, Daily Reflections on the Course of the Battle by Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, KCB, DSO, p. 105. Herewith referred to as the Leigh-Mallory Diary.

[2] A useful description of the last flight and subsequent disappearance of Leigh-Mallory can be found in: Denis Bateman ‘The Death of Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory’ After the Battle, No. 39 (February 1983) pp. 1-27

[3] Anon, Report by the Supreme Commander to the Combined Chiefs of Staff on the Operation in Europe of the Allied Expeditionary Force, 6 June 1944 to 8 May 1945 (London: HMSO, 1946) p. 148. Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, Commander in Chief of the Allied Naval Forces for Operation OVERLORD, died on 2 January 1945 when his plane crashed on taking off at Tousses-le-Noble. Brian P. Farrell, ‘Ramsay, Sir Bertram Home (1883–1945)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, May 2008 [, accessed 24 May 2010]

[4] Anon, Report by the Supreme Commander, p. 148

[5] Royal Air Force Museum (RAFM), Papers of Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, AC 71/24/7/2, Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Charles Portal to Thomas Leigh-Mallory, 20/11/1944. Herewith referred to as the Leigh-Mallory Papers.

[6] Background biographical information stems from several sources. Bill Newton Dunn Big Wing: The Biography of Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory (Shrewsbury: Airlife, 1992) passim, Vincent Orange ‘Mallory, Sir Trafford Leigh- (1892-1944)’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 – [, accessed 18 May 2007] passim, Bateman ‘The Death of Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory’ pp. 2-7

[7] Sir Lees Knowles biggest impact on military history has been the endowment left for the Sir Lees Knowles lectures delivered at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, see; Marshal of the Royal Air Force Arthur Tedder, 1st Baron of Glengiun, a contemporary of Leigh-Mallory, delivered the lectures in 1947, see;  Arthur Tedder, Air Power in War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948)

[8] John Slessor, The Central Blue: Recollections and Reflections (London: Cassell, 1956) pp. 3-4

[9] Dunn, Big Wing, p. 14

[10] Dunn, Big Wing, p. 15, Vincent Orange, Tedder: Quietly in Command (London: Frank Cass, 2004) p. 15

[11] Orange, Tedder, p. 15

[12] Air Force List…

[13] Trafford Leigh-Mallory, ‘Air Co-Operation with Mechanized Forces’ Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, Vol. 75 (1930: Feb/Nov) pp. 565-577; ‘The Maintenance of Air Superiority in a Land Campaign’ Royal Air Force Air Power Review, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Spring 2003) pp. 152-159 (Reprinted from the Royal Air Force Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 2 (April 1931) pp. 245–52).

[14] Air Force List…

[15] Richards, The Fight at Odds, p. 383

[16] TNA, AIR 41/49, The Struggle for Air Superiority, 1942-1943, p. 88

[17] For more analysis of the RAF during Operation Jubilee see; Ross Mahoney, ‘The Royal Air Force, Combined Operations Doctrine and the Raid on Dieppe, 19 August 1942’ MPhil Thesis (University of Birmingham, 2009)


1 Response to “The ‘Tragic’ Life of Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory”

  1. 1 Army Organisation | Aviation and Military History Blog | Chris Chant's Blog Trackback on May 21, 2012 at 8:16 am

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