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Lord Dowding

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Lord Dowding

The Lord Dowding
Birth name Hugh Caswall Tremenheere Dowding
Nickname Faggot
Born 24 April 1882
Moffat, Scotland, UK
Died 15 February 1970 (aged 87)
Royal Tunbridge Wells, England, UK
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  Royal Air Force
Years of service 1900–1942
Rank Air Chief Marshal
Commands held 16 Squadron (1915–1916)
RAF Fighter Command (1936–1940)
Battles/wars First World War
Second World War
Awards Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath
Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order
Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George
Mention in Despatches

Air Chief Marshal Hugh Caswall Tremenheere Dowding, 1st Baron Dowding GCB, GCVO, CMG (24 April 1882 – 15 February 1970) was a British officer in the Royal Air Force. He was the commander of RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain, and is generally credited with playing a crucial role in Britain's defence, and hence, the defeat of Hitler's plan to invade Britain.

Early life

Hugh Dowding's father, Arthur Dowding, taught at Fettes College in Edinburgh before moving to the southern Scottish town of Moffat where Hugh Dowding was born in 1882.[1] Hugh Dowding received his early education at St. Ninian's Boys' Preparatory School in Moffat which his father had been instrumental in founding.[2] Hugh Dowding was of Cornish ancestry being the grandchild of Lieutenant General Charles William Tremenheere. Dowding was educated at Winchester College in England on a scholarship before joining the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. He later served abroad in the Royal Garrison Artillery.[3]

Military career

Initially he served in Gibraltar, Ceylon, Hong Kong, and India. After returning to Great Britain, Dowding attended the Army Staff College in January 1912 before being posted to the Royal Garrison Artillery on the Isle of Wight in 1913.[4] After becoming interested in aviation, Dowding gained Aviator's Certificate no. 711 on 19 December 1913 in a Vickers biplane at the Vickers School of Flying, Brooklands.[5] He then attended the Central Flying School, where he was awarded his wings. Although added to the Reserve List of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), Dowding returned to the Isle of Wight to resume his Royal Garrison Artillery duties. However, this arrangement was short-lived and in August 1914, he joined the RFC as a pilot on No. 7 Squadron.[4]

First World War

Dowding was sent to France and in 1915 was promoted to commander of No. 16 Squadron.[4] After the Battle of the Somme, Dowding clashed with General Hugh Trenchard, the commander of the RFC, over the need to rest pilots exhausted by non-stop duty. As a result Dowding was sent back to Britain and, although promoted to the rank of Brigadier-General, saw no more operational service during the First World War.

Inter-war years

Dowding then joined the recently created Royal Air Force and gained experience in departments of training, supply, development, and research. On 19 August 1924, Air Commodore Dowding was made Chief Staff Officer for RAF Iraq Command.[4] In 1929, he was promoted to Air Vice Marshal and the following year joined the Air Council.[4] Tragedy struck in the inter-war period when Clarice, his wife of two years, died after a short illness. Left alone to bring up his son, Derek, Hugh Dowding withdrew from socialising and threw himself into his work. In 1933 Dowding was promoted to Air Marshal and was knighted.[4]

In the years prior to the Second World War, Dowding was the commanding officer of RAF Fighter Command, and was perhaps the one important person in Britain, and perhaps the world, who did not agree with British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin's 1932 declaration that "The bomber will always get through".[6] He conceived and oversaw the development of the "Dowding System".[7] This comprised an integrated air defence system which included (i) radar (whose potential Dowding was among the first to appreciate), (ii) human observers (including the Royal Observer Corps), who filled crucial gaps in what radar was capable of detecting at the time (the early radar systems, for example, did not provide good information on the altitude of incoming German aircraft), (iii) raid plotting, and (iv) radio control of aircraft. The whole network was tied together, in many cases, by dedicated phone links buried sufficiently deep to provide protection against bombing. The network had its apex (and Dowding his own headquarters) at RAF Bentley Priory, a converted country house on the outskirts of London.[8] The system as a whole later became known as Ground-controlled interception (GCI).

Dowding also introduced modern aircraft into service during the pre-war period, including the eight-gun Spitfire and Hurricane.[8] He is also credited with having fought the Air Ministry so that fighter planes were equipped with bullet proof wind shields.[9] He was promoted to Air Chief Marshal in 1937.[4]

Second World War

Battle of Britain

Due to retire in June 1939, Dowding was asked to stay on until March 1940 because of the tense international situation. He was again grudgingly permitted to continue, first until July and finally until October 1940.[8] Thus he fought the Battle of Britain under the shadow of retirement.

In 1940, Dowding, nicknamed "Faggot" by his men, proved unwilling to sacrifice aircraft and pilots in the attempt to aid Allied troops during the Battle of France. He, along with his immediate superior Sir Cyril Newall, then Chief of the Air Staff, resisted repeated requests from Winston Churchill to weaken the home defence by sending precious squadrons to France.[10] When the Allied resistance in France collapsed, he worked closely with Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, the commander of 11 Fighter Group, in organising cover for the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk.

Through the summer and autumn of 1940 in the Battle of Britain, Dowding's Fighter Command resisted the attacks of the Luftwaffe.[8] Beyond the critical importance of the overall system of integrated air defence which he had developed for Fighter Command, his major contribution was to marshal resources behind the scenes (including replacement aircraft and air crew) and to maintain a significant fighter reserve, while leaving his subordinate commanders' hands largely free to run the battle in detail.[8] At no point did Dowding commit more than half his force to the battle zone in Southern England.

Dowding was known for his humility and intense sincerity.[9] Fighter Command pilots came to characterise Dowding as one who cared for his men and had their best interests at heart. Dowding often referred to his "dear fighter boys" as his "chicks". Indeed his son Derek was one of them: He was a pilot in 74 Squadron. Because of his brilliant detailed preparation of Britain's air defences for the German assault, and his prudent management of his resources during the battle, Dowding is today generally given the credit for Britain's victory in the Battle of Britain.

Dowding's subsequent downfall has been attributed by some to his singlemindedness and perceived lack of diplomacy and political savoir faire in dealing with intra-RAF challenges and intrigues, most obviously the still even now hotly debated Big Wing controversy in which a number of senior and active service officers had argued in favour of large set-piece air battles with the Luftwaffe as an alternative to Dowding's successful Fabian strategy.[11] Another reason often cited for his removal, but characterised by some contemporary commentators more as a pretext, was the difficulty of countering German nighttime bombing raids on British cities.[12] The account of radar pioneer, E. G. Bowen in Radar Days (1987) rebuts the claim that Dowding's perception of the problems of British night fighters was inadequate. He suggests that if Dowding had been left to follow his own path, the ultimately effective British response to night bombing (which depended completely on developments in air-borne radar) would have come somewhat sooner.[13] Dowding himself showed that he had a good grasp of night fighter defence and was planning a defence system against night bombing in a letter he wrote some time after the Battle of Britain. However, there was great political and public pressure during the Blitz for something to be done, and Fighter Command's existing resources without, as yet, airborne radar, proved woefully inadequate. A committee of enquiry chaired by Sir John Salmond produced a long list of recommendations to improve night air defence; when Dowding approved only four of them, his erstwhile supporters, Lord Beaverbrook and Churchill, decided that it was time for him to step down.

Dowding unwillingly relinquished command on 24 November 1940 and was replaced by Big Wing advocate, Sholto Douglas. Churchill tried to soften the blow by putting him in charge of the British Air Mission to the USA, responsible for the procurement of new aircraft types.[14]

Dowding was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath. Publication of his book, Twelve Legions of Angels, was suppressed in 1942. The British Government considered that it contained information which might be of use to the Germans. The book was finally published in 1946, soon after the war ended.[8]

Ministry of Aircraft Production

After leaving Fighter Command, Dowding was sent on special duty to the United States for the Ministry of Aircraft Production, but there he made himself unpopular with his outspoken behaviour. On his return he headed a study into economies of RAF manpower before retiring from the Royal Air Force in July, 1942. The following year he was honoured with a peerage, as Baron Dowding of Bentley Priory.[8]


In his retirement, Dowding became actively interested in spiritualism, both as a writer and speaker. His first book on the subject, Many Mansions, was written in 1943, followed by Lychgate (1945), The Dark Star and God's Magic. Rejecting conventional Christianity, he joined the Theosophical Society which advocated belief in reincarnation. He also espoused the cause of animal welfare. He wrote in Lychgate of meeting dead "RAF boys" in his sleep – spirits who flew fighters from mountain-top runways made of light.

Late in life, because of his belief that he was unjustly treated by the RAF, Dowding became increasingly bitter. He approved Robert Wright's book Dowding and the Battle of Britain which argued that a conspiracy of Big Wing proponents, including Trafford Leigh-Mallory and Douglas Bader, had engineered his sacking from Fighter Command. In the wake of the debate that followed, which raised questions over some of Wright's accusations and showed some of Dowding's recollections to be at fault, the RAF debated whether or not to make the octogenarian a Marshal of the Royal Air Force, but recommended against it. Dowding saw this as yet another undeserved slight from the service.


In his youth Dowding was an accomplished skier, winner of the first ever National Slalom Championship, and president of the Ski Club of Great Britain from 1924 to 1925. Dowding and his second wife Lady Muriel Dowding, whom he married in 1951, were both anti-vivisectionists and in 1973 Britain's National Anti-Vivisection Society founded the Lord Dowding Fund for Humane Research in his honour.[15]

Dowding became a vegetarian, based on his beliefs as a theosophist and spiritualist. Although he personally was a vegetarian, he believed that "animals will be killed to satisfy human needs for many a long day to come", and he made several appeals in the House of Lords for the humane killing of animals intended for food.[16]

Dowding was a member of the Fairy Investigation Society[17] and of the Ghost Club. Although he knew that people considered him a crank for his belief in fairies, Dowding believed that fairies "are essential to the growth of plants and the welfare of the vegetable kingdom".[18]

Battle of Britain film

In the 1969 film Battle of Britain, Dowding was played by legendary actor Laurence Olivier. Olivier had himself served as a pilot in the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm during World War II. During filming, Dowding (then aged 86 and in a wheelchair) met Olivier. Olivier told Dowding he had sat behind the latter's desk all day "pretending to be you" and was "making an awful mess of it too", to which Dowding replied, "Oh, I'm sure you are". This broke the crew and Olivier into laughter. Footage of this can be seen in the special features section of the film's Special Edition DVD.

According to The Real Life of Laurence Olivier by Roger Lewis (Arrow Books, 1997), while Olivier filmed the scenes of Dowding in his office at Bentley Priory, Lord Dowding, watching the shooting, wept. Coincidentally, both Dowding and Olivier are interred in Westminster Abbey.


The biography Dowding of Fighter Command: Victor of the Battle of Britain (Vincent Orange, Grub Street publishing, 2008) describes how Dowding, in his later years was crippled by arthritis and often used a wheelchair.

Lord Dowding died at his home in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, on 15 February 1970 aged 87. He was cremated. At a memorial service at Westminster Abbey, his ashes were laid to rest below the Battle of Britain Memorial Window in the Abbey's Royal Air Force chapel. Dowding's son Derek (1919–1992) inherited the title of Baron Dowding.

Honours and tributes

A statue of Dowding stands outside St Clement Danes church on the Strand, London. The inscription reads:

"Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding was commander-in-chief of Fighter Command, Royal Air Force, from its formation in 1936 until November 1940. He was thus responsible for the preparation for and the conduct of the Battle of Britain. With remarkable foresight, he ensured the equipment of his command with monoplane fighters, the Hurricane and the Spitfire. He was among the first to appreciate the vital importance of R.D.F. (radar) and an effective command and control system for his squadrons. They were ready when war came. In the preliminary stages of that war, he thoroughly trained his minimal forces and conserved them against strong political pressure to disperse and misuse them. His wise and prudent judgement and leadership helped to ensure victory against overwhelming odds and thus prevented the loss of the Battle of Britain and probably the whole war. To him, the people of Britain and of the Free World owe largely the way of life and the liberties they enjoy today."

Other monuments to Dowding can be found in Station Park in Moffat, the town of his birth, and in Calverley Gardens in Tunbridge Wells where he died. There is a bust of him in the War Memorial Cloister at Winchester College.

The Dowding Centre at the School of Aerospace Battle Management, formally the School of Fighter Control at RAF Boulmer is named after Dowding.[19]

A green ceramic commemorative plaque was unveiled at his former residence (1951–1967) in Darnley Drive, Southborough on 6 May 2012.

Dowding Close, a residential road near the former RAF Hornchurch, is named after Dowding. Dowding Road, a former residential road for personnel based at RAF Uxbridge is named after Dowding. Dowding Way, a long stretch of road on the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells, is also named after Lord Dowding. Dowding House is one of a group of seven blocks of flats constructed by the GLC in Highgate, north London, and known collectively as Hillcrest.

The 1946-built Southern Railway Battle of Britain pacific (4-6-2) locomotive 21C152 was named Lord Dowding in honour of the wartime Air Chief Marshal.

See also


  • Bowen, E. G. Radar Days. Bristol, UK: Adam Hilger, 1987. ISBN 0-85274-590-7.
  • Brown, Peter. Honour Restored: The Battle of Britain, Dowding and the Fight for Freedom. Staplehurst, UK: Spellmount, 2005. ISBN 1-86227-301-4.
  • Bungay, Stephen. The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain. London: Aurum Press, 2000. ISBN 1-85410-721-6 (hardcover), ISBN 1-85410-801-8 (paperback 2002).
  • Deighton, Len. Battle of Britain. London: Michael Joseph, 1980. ISBN 0-7181-3441-9.
  • Dixon, J. E. G. Dowding and Churchill: The Dark Side of the Battle of Britain. Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK: Pen & Sword Books, 2009. ISBN 978-1-84415-854-6.
  • Korda, Michael. With Wings Like Eagles. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. ISBN 978-0-06-173603-2.
  • Orange, Vincent. Dowding of Fighter Command: Victor of the Battle of Britain. London: Grub Street, 2008. ISBN 978-1-906502-14-0.

External links

  • Battle of Britain in the Words of Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding
Military offices
Preceded by
F V Holt
Officer Commanding No. 16 Squadron
23 July 1915 - January 1916
Succeeded by
D W Powell
Preceded by
A V Vyvyan
Air Officer Commanding Northern Area
Succeeded by
J F A Higgins
Preceded by
Officer Commanding No. 16 Group
Group disbanded
Preceded by
Officer Commanding No. 1 Group
Succeeded by
E L Gerrard
Preceded by
T C R Higgins
Director of Training
Succeeded by
W G S Mitchell
Preceded by
P H L Playfair
Air Officer Commanding RAF Transjordan and Palestine
September - December 1929
Succeeded by
P H L Playfair
Preceded by
Sir John Higgins
Air Member for Supply and Research
1 September 1930 – 14 January 1935
Succeeded by
As Air Member for Research and Development
Succeeded by
C L N Newall
As Air Member for Supply and Organisation
New title
Created from part of the remit of the Air Member for Supply and Research
Air Member for Research and Development
14 January 1935 – 1 April 1936
Succeeded by
W R Freeman
New title
Command established
Commander-in-Chief Fighter Command
Succeeded by
Sir Sholto Douglas
Peerage of the United Kingdom
New title
Title created
Baron Dowding
Succeeded by
Derek Dowding

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