Dowding and Park won the Battle of Britain.’ That was the judgement of veteran pilot Wing Commander ‘Sandy’ Sanders. So why were both of them sacked immediately afterwards in a top-level row over tactics? On the 70th anniversary of the battle, Military Times assesses the achievement of the men who led Fighter Command to victory.
Air Chief-Marshal Hugh Dowding, head of Fighter Command, was, at 58, relatively old for senior command in 1940. Long due for retirement, he agreed to a third postponement on 10 July, the day the Battle of Britain officially began. He came, therefore, within a whisker of missing his moment of historical greatness.
It was as well that he stayed on. An independent Fighter Command had been formed only in 1936 – a key innovation in the reorganisation of British air-power. Dowding had been appointed commander, and it was he who had masterminded the new air-defence system that was about to be activated.
Nicknamed ‘Stuffy’, Dowding was withdrawn, aloof, and rather difficult to get on with. He had no close friends and most of his relationships remained formal and impersonal. Both awkward and intolerant, he could be disconcertingly direct. When asked by the Air Minister to comment on American scepticism about rival RAF and German reports on losses during the Battle of Britain, he replied, somewhat petulantly, that the Americans would soon learn the truth, for if the Germans were right, they would be in London in a week.
A ‘technocratic’ commander-in-chief
Dowding’s manner belied his extraordinary ability. A new type of ‘technocratic’ commander, he was a master of modern industrialised warfare.
Traditionally, in pre-industrial wars, military commanders had concerned themselves almost exclusively with strategy (the movement, supply, and deployment of military power in the theatre of war) and tactics (the application of military power in the combat zone). After 1914, this was never enough: other dimensions of conflict assumed equal, often greater, importance.
Technology was one of these. A new weapons-system could turn the tide even as the battle raged. In the late summer of 1916, the British had shot down four German airships in a month, mainly through the development of a revolutionary combination of explosive and incendiary ammunition in the machine-gun belts of their night-fighter aircraft. A canny techno-fix transformed the Zeppelins from sinister stealth-bombers stalking the London skies into aerial fireballs.
Logistics, the movement and supply of military power, was complicated by its dependence on industrialised production of war matériel – another of war’s new dimensions. All commanders have to supply their armies, but logistics become decisive in a long war of attrition. Fighter Command was to lose over a thousand aircraft during the Battle of Britain. But because British factories were turning out just under 500 aircraft a month, its operational strength remained more or less constant; in fact, in aircraft numbers, it was rather stronger at the end of the battle than at the beginning.
German air-power, on the other hand, degraded, with fighter strength falling 30% and bomber strength 25% between August and December 1940. German factories could not keep pace with the attrition in the air. This was critical to the outcome of the battle. Battle of Britain Day, 15 September, when Fighter Command shot down 56 German aircraft for the loss of 28, a 2:1 kill ratio, was decisive because it demonstrated to the decimated and exhausted German air-crew that they had lost the battle of attrition. Their strength was declining while that of their enemy remained undiminished.
Air war was an extreme expression of the new face of armed conflict. In the air above all, strategy and tactics were nothing unless technology was cutting-edge and mass production kept pace with attrition. Nelson had stopped an invasion in a day of concentrated cannon-fire. Hugh Dowding and Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, the key operational commander during the battle, did so in three months of carefully controlled, techno-powered attrition. It was in the new science of modern industrialised war that they were masters.
Bombers or fighters?
Until 1937, the RAF had subscribed to the conventional view that the bomber was dominant. ‘The bomber will always get through,’ Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin had told the House of Commons in 1932; and the only defence, so the argument went, was to have bomber fleets of one’s own as deterrent. ‘The only defence is offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourself.’
Dowding did not agree. He wanted fighters. ‘The best defence of the country is the fear of the fighter. If we were strong in fighters, we should probably never be attacked in force…’
So the bomber might not get through if only there were enough fighters? Here was a message congenial to Neville Chamberlain, who had been horrified by Baldwin’s vision of the massed aerial bombing of modern industrial cities. When he became Prime Minister in 1937, Dowding had a key ally and fighter production was stepped up.
But what sort of fighter? In 1938, the Deputy Chief of the Air Staff ordered Dowding to form nine squadrons of Defiants. The newly-designed Boulton-Paul Defiant was a two-seater fighter with a heavy, four-gun turret on top of the fuselage, but no fixed forward-firing armament.
Dowding wanted fast, single-seater fighters with multiple, forward-firing guns. ‘You had to fly the aeroplane through the gun-sight, and treat yourself and the plane as a flying gun,’ explained Battle of Britain ace Bob Doe later. That had been Dowding’s conception at the outset: it was reason he rejected the Defiant and equipped his command with Spitfires and Hurricanes.
Such was his pig-headedness that only two squadrons were equipped with Defiants in 1940. When one of them went into action on 19 July, they lost seven out of nine aircraft to German fighter attack. Churchill, who had favoured Defiants, admitted that Dowding had been right. This decision alone – to go for Spitfires and Hurricanes – probably made the difference between victory and defeat in 1940.
In air war, a slight technological edge can be everything – an extra 25 mph of speed, a tighter, faster turning circle, eight guns instead of four, guns in the wings instead of a turret. Obsolescence – especially in manoeuvrability – is death in an aerial dogfight.
The Spitfire was probably the finest fighter aircraft of its age. The Hurricane, with its more robust construction and wider-tracked undercarriage, was almost as good. In fact, they complemented each other. The principal threat to both was the Messerschmitt 109, a fighter of comparable speed, manoeuvrability, and firepower; overall, it probably had the edge on Hurricanes, but was more evenly matched against Spitfires. Dowding chose the right weapons for the battle to come.
Turning off the tap
His problem in May 1940 was that he did not have many to spare. On 13 May, German panzers crossed the River Meuse and cut the Allied armies in two. By 20 May, they had reached the Channel coast, cutting off the French and British armies in Belgium. French demands for more RAF fighter squadrons became increasingly shrill, and British leaders were divided over whether to commit more forces to try and stem defeat or conserve strength for the defence of Britain.
Dowding was adamant against reinforcing defeat. He saw the demands of the campaign on the Continent as a ‘tap’ draining away his strength. On 16 May, he penned a famous memorandum for the Air Ministry, concluding:
‘I believe that if an adequate fighter force is kept in this country, and if the Fleet remains in being, and if the home forces are suitably organised to resist invasion, we should be able to carry on the war single-handed for some time, if not indefinitely. But if the home defence force is drained away in desperate attempts to remedy the situation in France, defeat in France will involve the final, complete, and irremediable defeat of this country.’
On 19 May, Churchill issued a minute stating that no more squadrons should be sent to France. Dowding had got the tap turned off.
But to be useful in defending Britain, the fighters would have to intercept and destroy the bombers before they reached their targets: no easy matter. The Luftwaffe’s medium bombers cruised at around 250 mph. They could be over London within about 10 minutes of passing the Kent coast. Even the superb Spitfire took 7½ minutes to climb to 20,000 feet. Because of the speed of modern aircraft, then, unless defending fighters got an early warning, they would not have time to scramble, take off, climb, and intercept before the bombing run commenced. In that case, the bombers would get through. The solution to this problem was, of course, in place: Radio Direction-Finding (RDF) – radar.
While testing the fanciful idea of a ‘death ray’, government scientists had stumbled upon the fact that radio waves are deflected by aircraft. When Dowding heard of this, he declared it to be ‘a discovery of the highest importance’, and gave full support to research and development. In consequence, by the summer of 1940, a chain of transmitter-receiver stations had been set up around the vulnerable south and east coasts. The main ‘Chain Home’ system could detect high-level incoming aircraft up to 50 miles away, while a supplementary ‘Chain Home Low’ system could pick up those flying at low altitudes over shorter ranges.
Radar provided information about the range, bearing, height, and approximate size of an enemy formation – though speed and accuracy in interpreting the radar blips was critical. Once overland, the bombers’ further progress was monitored by the 30,000 members of the Observer Corps (later the Royal Observer Corps), manning some 1,500 observer posts. Radar stations and observer posts were connected by phone to Fighter Command HQ at Bentley Priory near Stanmore in Middlesex.
Command and control
Here was another of Dowding’s decisive contributions: the command-and-control system that made it possible for fighter squadrons to be scrambled within minutes of the relevant intelligence about enemy activity being received. The Filter Room at Bentley Priory collected and assessed all the information coming in from radar stations and observation posts. This was translated into an up-to-date representation of the current situation on a large map-table using movable counters in the Operations Room. The information was also relayed to the Operations Rooms of the groups and sectors into which Fighter Command was divided.
There were four groups. No. 11 Group covered the South-East, 10 Group the South-West, 12 Group the Midlands plus Wales and East Anglia, and 13 Group the North. No. 11 Group represented the front-line. It was divided into nine sectors, had 30 squadrons under command, and accounted for about half of Fighter Command’s total strength. The critical command decisions of the Battle of Britain were therefore taken by the commander of 11 Group, Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, in the Operations Room of his HQ at Uxbridge. He decided which squadrons to scramble, when to do so, and where to send them.
Dowding had forged the sword and Park wielded it. He was the commander in a three-month defensive battle. His mission was to parry enemy attacks and minimise bomb damage, but without exhausting his strength and allowing his line to be broken. This involved hundreds of close calls. Which was the main attack and where was it going? Which were the feints and diversions? How many waves? How much more to come? Against each onslaught, he had to judge when to commit, when to hold back, who to send up, who to hold at readiness.
Mistakes could be costly. The Luftwaffe had destroyed much of the Polish air force lined up on the ground. The risk was reduced for the RAF by another of Dowding’s innovations: dispersal of aircraft around the perimeter of airfields and in the protection of anti-blast ‘E-pens’. Nevertheless, risk remained. On the other hand, Park’s pilots would crack up if they spent too long in the air and did not rest enough. If the line was to hold, things had to be judged just right.
There was pressure to commit fighters before the main battle. From 10 July and 12 August, in the preliminary phase of the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe mounted scattered probing attacks on mainland targets and more concentrated attacks on Channel convoys. The Channel was not Dowding’s chosen battleground. Defending convoys meant maintaining standing patrols overhead, since squadrons could not be scrambled fast enough to reach the Channel before the enemy. This was exhausting, and worse, most pilots who baled out at sea were drowned, so the casualty rate was much higher over the Channel. Dowding and Park therefore limited their commitment to ‘the battle of the convoys’.
The main phase of the battle lasted a month, from Eagle Day on 13 August to Battle of Britain Day on 15 September. Though the Luftwaffe’s targets varied, the main focus was on Fighter Command’s infrastructure of airfields, radar stations, communications, and aircraft factories. This would be damaging in itself, especially if large numbers of aircraft were caught and destroyed on the ground. But the principal aim was to draw the Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons into the air, so they could be engaged and destroyed in a battle of attrition.
Yet this was precisely what Dowding had prepared for. And the enemy was now fighting on his chosen battleground: South-East England.
His strategy was to form and hold his defensive line with half his strength, keeping the other half back as reserves. No. 11 Group, the front-line, comprised 30 squadrons (each, typically, of 12 aircraft), while the other three groups had 28 squadrons between them. Some of these fought on the flanks of 11 Group when it was especially hard-pressed, but most formed a strategic reserve that allowed Dowding to rotate squadrons or replace losses so as to refresh the front-line.
Tactics were down to Park. Dowding’s role in this respect was to back an exceptionally talented subordinate. Park was a very different character: he spent much of his time flying from airfield to airfield visiting his men, offering explanation and encouragement, helping to sustain morale and commitment. Yet the two men formed a close and complementary professional relationship. Dowding built the technical, logistical, and strategic framework for victory, and then gave day-to-day tactical control to the 48-year-old New Zealander. Park’s cardinal principle was economy of force, and the tactics of aerial combat he advocated reflected his central need to conserve strength.
To this end, he ordered his pilots to ignore enemy fighters – they were no threat on their own – and to attack by choice only the bombers. This forced the Luftwaffe to fly at least some of their fighters as close escorts, reducing their tactical flexibility, making them vulnerable to a ‘bounce’ – a surprise attack, ideally achieved by diving out of the sun, against the rear of an enemy formation.
Park’s fighters thus operated as aerial guerrillas. He favoured attacks by one or two squadrons, even against much larger enemy formations. His fighters would swoop in, claiming initial victims in the bounce, then loop back to seek further kills in a general aerial mêlée. The enemy’s formations were to be broken up by aggressive ‘pell-mell’ dogfighting, designed to stop the bombers reaching their targets and to inflict unacceptable losses.
These tactics had several advantages over those of the ‘big wing’. The latter involved a formation of several squadrons, designed to meet the enemy with equal or superior strength. Park rejected big wings for a number of reasons. Compared with smaller fighting units, they took time to form up, were difficult to control, and were inherently inflexible. In addition, the sector controller, attempting to anticipate enemy movements, might direct them to the wrong location; in that case, the strength of an entire wing, airborne and committed, was wasted, leaving little in reserve. The speed of aerial combat meant that surprise and skill mattered more than superior numbers.
Fighter Command never came close to losing the Battle of Britain. Myths crowd in on our understanding of the event. The battle was not won simply by the courage and daring of a ‘Few’. The pilots were part of a complex weapons-system that included radar operators and observers, AA gunners and searchlight crews, riggers and fitters, telephone operators and Operations Room staff, and repair crews. Bomber and Coastal Commands were also in action during the battle against assembling German invasion forces. The RAF numbered 437,000 personnel in October 1940 (over 17,000 of them women).
Nor was the Battle of Britain a miraculous victory against the odds, with the British somehow ‘muddling through’, helped by the superior virtues of a dogged ‘Island Race’. Virtue is not an inherent possession of any nation. As for the odds, they were stacked against the Luftwaffe. It lacked heavy bombers, its fighters had limited range, and its strutting dilettante leader, top Nazi politician Hermann Göring, failed to establish clear objectives, effective strategy, or consistent targeting.
The truth is the opposite of the myth. In 1940, the British had the most sophisticated air-defence system in the world, constructed and directed by a master strategist of modern industrialised warfare. The front-line of this system was commanded by perhaps the most brilliant air-war tactician of all time. Park’s carefully judged deployment of defensive firepower in the skies over South-East Britain during the three-month battle was almost faultless.
The ‘big wing’ conspiracy
This did not protect either him or his boss from the conspiracy of lesser men that formed against them in October. Relations between Park and his opposite number at 12 Group, Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, had deteriorated during the battle. Leigh-Mallory was reporting great success for his five-squadron ‘big wings’ during September, but Park was convinced that the claimed kills were exaggerated, that 11 Group’s airfields north of London were not being properly protected, and that 12 Group’s contribution to the aerial battles around the capital was consistently tardy and modest.
At a meeting of the Air Council on 17 October, however, Dowding and Park found themselves on the defensive. Dowding felt he had been stitched up. Park subsequently monitored the effectiveness of Leigh-Mallory’s big wings and submitted a report which showed that in ten separate sorties in the second half of October they had managed to shoot down just one German aircraft. No-one took any notice. A political vendetta, not military science, was guiding the highest counsels.
Dowding was also under attack over night-bombing. The London Blitz began on 7 September, when a devastating daylight raid was followed by a night raid guided in by raging fires in the docks. The RAF had no effective defence against night-bombers. Dowding, true to form, sought a techno-fix: airborne radar sets to enable his fighters to find the bombers in the dark. ‘Sandy’ Sanders was present when Dowding explained his intentions to Churchill – that a pilot should fly blind, in fog, cloud, or moonless night, find his enemy, shoot him down, and return safely back to base.
At the time, Sanders thought Dowding was ‘a bloody lunatic’. Two months later, it happened: ‘so Dowding was right, absolutely right’. In December 1940, the British shot down only 14 German night-bombers, but in April 1941, they shot down 75. The key innovation was Dowding-inspired Aerial Interception (AI) radar carried inside Bristol Blenheim and Bristol Beaufighter night-fighters.
By then, Dowding was gone, retired on 25 November 1940. Park soon followed: he was moved on 18 December from 11 Group to Training Command, being replaced at the former by Leigh-Mallory.
Dowding’s career was over. Park was subsequently given new commands commensurate with his talents – in the Malta, Sicily, and North African campaigns. But neither man was accorded the official recognition and thanks they were due at the time. The judgement of history must be different from that of a wartime Air Ministry poisoned by rancour and misinformation.
Leigh-Mallory employed his new command in an aerial offensive against German-occupied France during 1941. The Luftwaffe massacred his big wings, achieving average kill ratios above 4:1.
Fighter Command’s victory in the Battle of Britain must stand as one of the most decisive events in modern history. Its two architects surely stand in the top rank of modern military commanders.