Posts Tagged 'Sholto Douglas'

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

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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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