Posts Tagged 'Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding'

‘Despised and Neglected’: Transformation and Innovation in British Air Defence, 1922-1935

[Cross posted at Birmingham “On War”]

The conventional wisdom is that British air defence was, in A. J. P. Taylor’s words, ‘despised and comparatively neglected before the war’ and that victory in the Battle of Britain was the result of innovations: of radar, the Spitfire and the Hurricane, and their combination in the ‘Dowding System’. This chapter examines British air defence transformation and innovation from the creation of the Home Defence Air Force in 1922 until the formation of Fighter Command in 1936. Counter-revisionist interpretations of appeasement recognise the government’s wholly defensive military strategy abandoned France and failed to deter Hitler, despite Britain’s relative military strength. Yet air defence is somewhat neglected in the historiography of British interwar air power, which focuses on Trenchard’s strategic bombing doctrine and its failure in 1939-42. This chapter challenges the conventional wisdom by arguing that successive interwar governments comparatively prioritised air defence, which was seen as a continuation of Britain’s long-standing maritime strategy, shaped by the need for economy, and the public fear of the bomber and of bloody land conflict. Furthermore, though successive Chiefs of the Air Staff favoured strategic bombing as a means of deterrence and to reinforce the RAF’s independent strategic role, there remained a strong commitment to, and expertise in, air defence throughout the Service. In contrast to its blind faith in strategic bombing, the RAF transformed its air defence scheme following cabinet direction in 1922-23, because of the French air menace, and again in 1934-35, following the identification of Germany as the long-term threat to Britain. On each occasion, the RAF further developed the innovative system of early warning, centralised control and co-ordinated fighter and anti-aircraft gun engagement zones devised to defend London in 1917-18, and which was fundamental to the Service’s formation. The transformation of air defence used objective evaluation, bespoke aircraft design and scientific advice to both drive and incorporate innovation.

By John Alexander, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

(This is an abstract from our forthcoming book on transformation and innovation in the British Military)

A Short Critique of Vincent Orange

[Cross posted from Thoughts on Military History]

One of the key authors I have to engage with in my PhD is Dr Vincent Orange. What follows is a short critic of his work as it appears in the introduction to my thesis. It may seem that I am being harsh but I feel that are some important structural and historiographical issues with his works. They tend to lean towards the hagiographical and need to be read with care and with an understanding of the context of both the period and of the RAF.

Orange has written several key biographies of RAF airmen. In general, these works have been well received and undeniably, Orange has added valuable accounts to the historiography of the RAF. As Air Commodore (ret’d) Henry Probert, the former head of the RAF’s Air Historical Branch, noted in his review of Orange’s work on Air Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Mary’ Coningham in 1990 there had been few biographies of RAF commanders.[1] Thus, this work was a welcome addition to the field. This is a situation that to a large degree still exists to this day, though Orange himself has added several important works since writing his Coningham biography; however, it should be noted that works dealing with combat pilots rather than high commanders of the RAF remain an ever-popular genre with the publishing houses.

However, while Orange’s works have been lauded an important issue must be considered when utilising these works. This is the issue of bias that is inherent in all of his works, but notably his biographies of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park and Air Chief Marshal Baron Dowding. The issue can be described as the ‘Park View of History, in effect his works are biased to the view of Park when viewing contentious events; it should be noted that Orange’s first biography was his work on Park and his affinity to this important airmen is noticeable in his writings. This especially notable in sections of his works that deal with the Battle of Britain but this bias is also inferred in sections of dealing with the issues surrounding the use of air power in the Normandy Campaign. Even in his work on Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor, a book that is generally positive about this airmen’s contribution to air power history, we can see this bias emerge where the subject turns to events that include Park or officers involved in the contentious events of 1940. For example, in discussing, the decision to replace Slessor with Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Douglas of Kirtleside at Coastal Command at the start of 1944 Orange describes the RAF’s posting system as random and that it was the wrong decision for the forthcoming role that the command would play in preparations for OVERLORD.[2] However, Orange’s criticism is wrong, as it was not unusual to post officers to new commands in order for them to gain further operational experience. In addition, the change in command for Slessor, and indeed Douglas, did not significantly affect the conduct of the war. In reality, the decision to send Slessor to the Mediterranean aided in the conduct of complex political issues that affected operations in theatre; Slessor undoubtedly had the skills need for dealing with the political of coalition operations.[3] In addition, Douglas fitted in with the command team then being gathered together for OVERLORD through his experience of working with these officers in the Mediterranean in 1942 and 1943. In addition, to argue that he had a lack of experience is to ignore his time as Deputy Chief of the Air Staff where he would have been fully cognizant with the problems facing Coastal Command.[4]

Perhaps Orange’s bias, in particular towards those officers involved in the debates of 1940, can be best summed up by comments made in his review of John Ray’s work The Battle of Britain, New Perspectives: Behind the Scenes of the Great Air War in the Journal of Military History.[5] In this review, Orange concludes by noting that ‘Dowding and Park were right, Douglas and Leigh-Mallory were wrong.’[6] This simplistic analysis of the debates of fighter tactics in 1940 and 1941 highlights the partisan nature of Orange’s work. He sees himself as the defender of Park’s, and latterly Dowding’s reputation. In doing so, he has sought to denigrate the role and impact of their contemporaries. In doing this, he ignores the difficulties of fighter operations as a whole but rather concentrates on daylight defensive operations.


[1] Henry Probert, ‘Coningham by Vincent Orange (Book Review)’ Journal of the Royal United Services Institute, Vol. 135, No. 2 (Summer: 1990) p. 81

[2] Orange, Slessor, p. 123

[3] For a more positive view of Slessor’s impact both at Coastal Command and the Meditteranean Allied Air Forces see; Corvin Connelly, ‘Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Cottesworth Slessor and the Anglo-American Air Power Alliance, 1940-1945’ PhD Thesis (Texas A&M University, 2001) pp. 193-271

[4] Lord Douglas of Kirtleside with Robert Wright, Years of Command: The Second Volume of the Autobiography of Sholto Douglas, Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Lord Douglas of Kirtleside, GCB, MC, DFC (London; Collins, 1966) p. 246

[5] Vincent Orange, ‘The Battle of Britain, New Perspectives: Behind the Scenes of the Great Air War by John Ray (Book Review)’ Journal of Military History, Vol. 59, No. 2 (1995:Apr.) pp.348-349

[6] Orange, ‘The Battle of Britain (Review)’ p. 349

1940 and the Problems of Coalition Air Power

[Cross-posted at Thoughts on Military History]

It would be difficult to assume that any air power historian, or for that matter any general military historian, is not aware of the letter that Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding wrote to the Secretary of State for Air on 14 May 1940 declaring that not one more squadron should be sent to France lest the fighter force be drained away and lead to the irrevocable defeat of the United Kingdom. Indeed it has pervaded the public imagination most notably in  the 1969 film The Battle of Britain as seen below. Personally I have watched the film enough that I can now virtually recite the main passage verbatim. However, the letter is most important as the starting point for the removal or control of the no. of squadrons that were being sent to France to reinforce Air Marshal Barratt’s British Air Force in France (BAFF).

While searching through the AIR files at the National Archives I came across an interesting letter, see below,  from General Vuillemin, the commander of the French Air Force in 1940, to Barratt that struck me as having similar tones to Dowding’s letter.[i] It was written on 3 June and predicted defeat in France if more fighters were not sent to France. Possibly the most emotive paragraph, and the one that had a similar tone to Dowding’s letter, stated that:

The failure to obtain from the British supreme authorities the complete and immediate assistance required will probably result in the defeat of French forces and the loss of the war for Great Britain as for France

Therefore, in essence he is arguing the opposite of what Dowding argued in that he is asking for more forces to be concentrated in France to aid in the defence of his country. In many respects this is a natural response given his predicament.

From the British perspective it is worth considering the context of this letter. It is written as DYNAMO is being completed and the French forces and the remnants of BAFF are retreating over the Somme in preparation to fend off the second phase of the German operations, Fall Rot. That France was defeated was not completely clear at this point and indeed the RAF was sending forces to Southern France to deal with the entry into the war of Italy in Operation HADDOCK. Also the second BEF, under the command of General Alan Brooke, was in the process of being sent to Normandy so it might be argued that it should be natural for the RAF to reinforce BAFF if the army was prepared to do the same. However, the difficulty for the RAF was the rapidity of the German advance and the problem of setting up effective bases. This problem was being made even more difficult as BAFF was retreating on its own lines of communications.

Barratt, the man caught in the middle of communications with the French and the Air Staff back in Britain, wrote a three page letter with a copy of Vuillemin’s to lay out the argument for reinforcing the forces in France.[ii] He did his best to convince the Air Ministry that using fighters based in Britain was inefficient.  However, the rest of the correspondence shows what views were being taken back in Britain. Churchill sent a memo to General Spears in Paris stating the Vuillemin’s demand were unreasonable.[iii] Given that the request was for twenty squadrons it is not difficult to see the response that this elicited in London.[iv] However, despite the protestations that no more squadrons’ should be sent on 7 June both No. 17 and 242 Squadrons were sent over.[v] However, both of these squadrons would be back in the Britain shortly.

What is important about this episode? Firstly, I think it illustrates the problems the operational commander, in this case Barratt, faces when trying to deal with a coalition partner that is in need of help but is also aware of the dire state this ally was in. It says much for Barratt that despite probably being aware of the situation of the ground he was still willing to fight for Vuillemin in trying to get more aircraft sent across the channel. Secondly, it highlight the problems between the strategic and operational level in the decision-making process with regards to deciding what help is given to an ailing coalition partner. In the end the reticence of the Air Ministry to reinforce BAFF did not lead to French defeat but it had the effect of insuring that enough squadrons, and most importantly their effective cadres of experience pilots, were in Britain to aid in the defence of the country. So whose impassioned plea was the right one? Dowding or Vuillemin?

Perhaps Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sholto Douglas sums it up best, at the time he was DCAS and dealt with many of the issues relating to the reinforcement of BAFF, when he wrote in his autobiography that:

We would have been left wide open to defeat in the air battle against Britain which we were sure was about to be launched by the Germans.[vi]

By Ross Mahoney


[i] TNA, AIR 2/3198, General Vuillemin to Air Marshal Barratt, 3 June 1940

[ii] TNA, AIR 2/3198, Air Marshal Barratt to the Under-Secretary State for Air, 3 June 1940

[iii] TNA, AIR 2/3198, Churchill to General Spears, 5 June 1940

[iv] TNA, AIR 2/3198, General Vuillemin to Air Marshal Barratt, 3 June 1940, Denis Richards Royal Air Force, 1939-1945: Volume 1 – The Fight at Odds (HMSO, 1953) p. 145, John Terraine The Right of the Line: The Royal Air Force in the European War, 1939-1945 (Wordsworth, 1997) pp. 159-160

[v] Stuart Peach ‘Air Power and the Fall of France’ in Sebastian Cox and Peter Gray (Eds.) Air Power History: Turning Points from Kitty Hawk to Kosovo (Frank Cass, 2002) p. 164, Richards, The Fight at Odds, p. 145, Terraine, Right of the Line, p. 160

[vi] Lord Douglas of Kirtleside with Robert Wright Years of Command: The Second Volume of the Autobiography of Sholto Douglas (Collins, 1966) p. 71


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