Patronage and Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory

[Cross posted at Thoughts on Military History]

In trying to understand leadership competence and why people end up in the positions that they do there is one factor that cannot be underplayed, and that is the role of patronage. Patronage as a concept usually conjures up images of people with powerful patrons pushing them into positions of power and influence, and on occasion into positions that these people are not capable of fulfilling. Patronage works well in the military sphere as powerful senior officers take a keen interest in the careers of up and coming officers who they feel they need to nurture in order to further their careers and in some cases ensure the services priorities. Nowhere is this truer than in the early RAF. Lord Trenchard took a keen interest in the careers of several officers who he felt would eventual form the core of the services high command in later years. Names such a Sir John Slessor and Viscount Portal of Hungerford are men whose careers prospered because of his support. However, this does not automatically mean that they would not have reached high command without his support but perhaps it made it easier. However, Trenchard must have seen competence in their abilities in order to offer that support. Indeed with Slessor it was certainly the case that his keen intellect appears to have been the reason for that early support, though he did not always agree with Trenchard.

But what of Leigh-Mallory? Does patronage answer the central question of why he reached such a high rank? Unfortunately I do not think this is the case. Yes he was friends with future key players in the RAF but they were in no position in the 1920s to sponsor his move up the command chain. What of Trenchard? Leigh-Mallory was certainly known by him. For example, Slessor in The Central Blue remarks about how Trenchard would mix up their names when they worked in the Air Ministry in 1922.[1] However, one way of marking those who Trenchard marked out for future promotion can be seen by those who attended the first course of the newly established RAF Staff College at Andover. On this course were men such as Slessor, Portal, Lord Douglas of Kirtleside and Sir Keith Park. The key issue here is that unlike later courses the students of the first course were handpicked by Trenchard to attend. Trenchard considered the Staff College as a ‘School of Thought’ for the nascent RAF; therefore, we can assume that these men were viewed by Trenchard as the core of RAF’s future. However, Leigh-Mallory would eventually attend Staff College in 1925 and in 1934 he attended the Imperial Defence College, which clearly marked him out for high command in the future. Another important name missing from first course is Lord Tedder, who in 1923 as sent by Trenchard to attend the Royal Naval Staff College at Greenwich.[2]

What of the Second World War? Did he receive positions because of his earlier friendships? For example, he was friends with Portal.[3] Did this mean that he received the commands he did because of this friendship? Again I am not convinced that there is enough evidence for this. Yes Portal was involved in the decision to appoint Leigh-Mallory as AOC-in-C of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force in 1943 but this had more to do with his view of the air offensive and how he initially perceived the nature of air support for the invasion. Similarly there is little archival evidence, certainly in the personal papers, that Douglas pushed for Leigh-Mallory. Indeed it can be argued that Douglas’ decision to replace Park had more to do with an unfortunate incident at an air tournament at Hendon in 1920 than anything else. Neither Park nor Douglas was to see eye to eye after this event.[4] Unfortunately the whole debate over Douglas’ assumption of command at Fighter Command has become far too polarised for it to be difficult to separate the issues at play but it must not forgotten that there were valid reasons to remove Dowding.

The one person who may have patronised Leigh-Mallory during the war was Earl Mountbatten of Burma.[5] Both had worked closely together during the planning for RUTTER/JUBILEE and it is obvious in the correspondence after the operation that their offensively minded outlooks found in each other a like-minded individual. Mountbatten was seeking to continue his plan for ever larger Combined Operations and Leigh-Mallory wanted to continue his fighter offensive against the Luftwaffe. This relationship would come into play when Leigh-Mallory left the AEAF in 1944 and was due to go out to SEAC to command the air forces in theatre. Mountbatten noted in his diary:

15 August 1944…Lunched with Leigh-Mallory…, and had an important discussion with him.[6]

On the same day Leigh-Mallory on returning from this meeting recorded in his diary 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.[7]

Mountbatten would later record on hearing of Leigh-Mallory’s plane crash that:

15 November 1944…This is an absolute body blow, for, having at last succeeded in collecting a team of really young and dashing Commanders-in-Chief whom I know and like and can work well with, it is disheartening to lose one of the team before he has even taken over.[8]

There certainly existed a positive relationship between these two senior commander and their offensive views worked together. Is there an element of patronage, yes, but how important is it is an important question that needs to be examined further. I do not doubt that at various time during his career Leigh-Mallory had important friends and acquaintances but did they further his career? Perhaps Mountbatten may have in 1944 as there was probably little chance of him going back to Fighter Command after AEAF but had this happened would he have found a position in the Air Ministry? These are question that need to be further examined.

However, the key question that exists is if patronage not a valid reason for his promotion to high command then what is the answer? Is it that he is capable and competent commander? Perhaps an answer the popular cultural memory of events such as the Battle of Britain and D-Day cannot accept?


[1] John Slessor, The Central Blue: Recollections and Reflections (London: Cassell, 1956) p. 46

[2] Vincent Orange, Tedder: Quietly in Command (London: Frank Cass, 2004) p. 70

[3] It is interesting to note that Denis Richards in his biography of Portal does not mention Leigh-Mallory. Denis Richards, Portal of Hungerford: The Life of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Viscount Portal of Hungerford KG, GCB, OM, DSO, MC (London: Heinemann, 1977)

[4] Vincent Orange, Park: The Biography of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park GCB, KBE, MC, DFC, DCL (London: Grub Street, 2001) pp. 43-44; Lord Douglas or Kirtleside with Robert Wright, Years of Command: The Second Volume of the Autobiography of Sholto Douglas (London: Collins, 1966) pp. 14-15

[5] The best and most recent biography of Mountbatten is, Adrian Smith, Mountbatten: Apprentice War Lord (London: I B Tauris, 2010)

[6] Philip Ziegler (Ed.) Personal Diary of Admiral the Lord Louis Mountbatten: Supreme Allied Commander South-East Asia, 1943-1946 (London: Collins, 1988) p. 124

[7] 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

[8] Ziegler (Ed.) Personal Diary, p. 154

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