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THE SPITFIRE-AND A MOST UNLIKELY HERO -OUR DARKEST HOUR BECAME OUR FINEST

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A MOST UNLIKELY HERO

by

 Leo McKinstry

[Daily Mail-Thursday, November 22, 2007]

THE images of the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940 resonate almost 70 years later. Dashing young RAF fighter pilots concealing their courage beneath an air of nonchalance; the beautiful outline of the

Spitfire

with its unmistakable elliptical wings; desperate dogfights with the enemy in the summer skies - all of these remain to this day the ultimate symbols of British resolve.

those months from July until the middle of September 1940, when the men of the RAF held the nation's destiny in their hands, were a unique moment in our island history.

As Winston Churchill famously put it during the height of the battle,

'Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.'

Yet it is  a strange twist of history that the commander of the

'Few'

Sir Hugh Dowding

was very different from the classic fighter pilot stereotype.

Aloof, dry, cold to the point of frigidity, Dowding, who was head of

RAF Fighter Command

had little of the elan that characterised his men.

Quite the contrary.

He was a widower who lived with his sister, believed in reincarnation and, most bizarrely of all, met his second wife after claiming he had spoken to her dead husband through a medium.

So great was the glory that his men won for their part in the

Battle of Britain

and so crucial their role in saving the nation from Nazi invasion that Dowding's enigmatic personality has largely been overlooked.

But during the research for my book on the

Spitfire

I discovered what an extraordinary unconventional man he was and how his unorthodox mind played a key role in

SAVING THE NATION.

The son  of a prep school headmaster from Scotland, Dowding had been educated at Winchester public school before joining the Army in 1899.  His conventional background shaped his character and throughout his adult life, he seemed to cling to the trappings of Victorian morality.

He carried buttoned -up reserve almost to the point of parody, avoiding alcohol and shrinking from the company of women. From his schooldays, he had been unapproachable, hence his nickname 'Stuffy'

Failing to achieve academic excellence at Winchester, he enrolled at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, where he achieved no great heights nor did he shine during World War I when he joined the new

Royal Flying Corps

the forerunner of the RAF.

The forceful head of the RFC Sir Hugh Trenchard, thought Dowding was far too negative and cautious to be an inspiring commander, describing him as a 'dismal Jimmy' and ensuring that his role was limited.

One of his fellow World War I officers, Duncan Grinnell-Milne described the inadequate nature of Dowding's leadership:

'He was efficient, strict and calm; he had a sense of duty. But he was reserved and aloof from his juniors; he cared too much for his own job, too little for theirs.

He was not a good pilot, seldom flew, and had none of that fire which I knew to be essential in the leader of a good squadron.'

Dowding's withdrawn nature was worsened in 1920 when his young wife, Clarice, the daughter of a captain in the Indian Army and widow of a soldier killed in World War I, died after a short illness. They had been married only two years and had one son, Derek, who went on to be a fine RAF pilot.

Deprived of domestic happiness by this tragic blow, Dowding fell back for comfort on his family, first living with his father and then his sister.

In the early Twenties, his career seemed to be going nowhere. But then in 1926, he was appointed the RAF's Director of training, where he proved his technical capabilities. From there he began his rise to

Head of Fighter Command

Dowding once said of his own outlook:

'Since I was a child, I have never accepted ideas purely because they were orthodox.'

His unorthodox thinking was the key to his future success: he understood the requirements of modern air warfare far better than any other senior figure in the RAF.

Throughout the Thirties, when other chiefs in the Air Ministry were talking of vast bomber fleets or maintaining the strength of the air force in the far-flung corners of the Empire, Dowding astutely recognised that Britain's salvation in the inevitable clash with Germany would depend on the capability of her home defences.

It was Dowding's genius to see the importance of radar and effective fighter planes in taking on the Luftwaffe, though conventional wisdom within the RAF held that the only way to defeat a Continental enemy was through massive bomber offensives.

FIGHTER defences should be kept to a minimum, Trenchard had once said, arguing for concentration on the bomber.

Dowding became

Head of Fighter Command

in

1936

but as late as 1938, this was still the thinking that prevailed within the upper echelons of the RAF, and Dowding was one of the few military chiefs willing to challenge the bomber creed.

Without his influence, the

Spitfire and the Hurricane

the two aircraft that made up most of

Fighter Command

in

1940

would probably not have been built in sufficient numbers, nor would there have been a complex communications network based on radar stations , to protect the

South of England.

With his RAF commander's tunic, bristling moustache and peaked cap, Dowding always looked like the traditional military leader. But underneath, he was something of a hippy before his time eager to pursue ideas about reincarnation, vegetarianism and animal rights. He was a firm believer in spiritualism, and felt he could communicate with the dead, particularly RAF pilots.

Not that he possessed an iota of that spirit of romance that we associate with fighter aircrew, whose daring exploits led to their being treated like film stars by the public.

Aged almost 60 in 1940, Dowding was an inarticulate widower, devoted to his work, and seemingly with no room for passion or excess in his life.

His RAF assistant in 1940, Flight lieutenant Hugh Ironside, said of him:

'he was very shy and difficult to engage in conversation. he lived with his sister and every few months they would have a sherry party. it was my job to get people to attend.

it was really gruesome. 'Stuffy' would have one sherry and he used to play ancient tunes on his gramophone. After a time, I found it difficult to get anyone to come'

Dowding's social caution was matched by his military stategy. he was perhaps over-cautious in his deployment of Spitfires and Hurricanes in the heat of battle.

Even in early September when the RAF stations were being pummelled by the Luftwaffe, there were still large numbers of fighter squadrons standing idle in the North of England, east Anglia, Scotland and the West Country.

One Spitfire pilot, George Unwin of 19 squadron from Duxford, thought the refusal to throw all available into the battle was 'ridiculous'

'An awful lot of lives could have been saved and a lot more damage done [ to the Luftwaffe]

Moreover, Dowding, lacking charismatic authority failed to exercise control over his commanders, often squabbling over the air strategy, while in the blackest moments of the conflict he failed to take a grip of the battle plan, delegating all immediate tactics to his commanders lower down the chain.

After the

Battle of Britain

Churchill decided that Dowding must retire as head of Fighter Command believing he was not the man to take forward the war to its next stage. It was almost certainly the right decision, for by then Dowding was exhausted.

'He was burned out. I saw him almost blind with fatigue,'

recalled one of his aides he had done his job but in the years that followed, his unorthodox beliefs became more pronounced.

At one Fighter Command reunion dinner held after he retired, he caused some embarrassment by announcing to the assembled pilots that he had been in touch with their dead comrades.

'I am afraid that the reaction of most of us at the time was that "The old boy had gone round the bend" said Spitfire pilot Hugh Dundas, who later became a distinguished MP.

In fact, it was through the spiritualism that Dowding ended his long years in loneliness. In 1951, he married Muriel Whiting the widow of an RAF pilot who shared his beliefs.

She hjad been distraught when she lost her husband Max in 1944, during a bombing mission over Eastern Europe. So upset was she that she had been to a medium to try to discover more about Max's fate.

 

Muriel also contacted Dowding long retired but well-known for his spiritualist enthusiasms, seeking his help in trying to find out from the Air Ministry what had happened to Max.

But instead of writing  a formal response to her letter, Dowding totally against his usual pattern with women, invite her to lunch to discuss max's case. They soon fell in love and married. After the wedding, Muriel asked Dowding why he had asked her out rather than just replying to the letter.

Dowding explained that, just after she had written, he had visited a medium through whom Max had spoken to him.

'I wish you would take my wife out to lunch. You will like her.' the ghostly voice had apparently said.

Cynics might say 'How comvenient' but there is no doubt that Muriel provided the elderly Dowding not only with the companionship he had missed for so long, but also a stimulus to his intellectual curiosity.

Under her influence, he gave up game shooting and became a strict vegetarian and campaigner for animal rights.

having being given a peerage in 1943 in recognition of his wartime services, he devoted most of his speeches in the Lords to condemnation of abuses against animals.

A leading figure in the anti-vivisection movement, he was also president of the company founded by Muriel, called Beauty Without Cruelty. A forerunner of Anita Roddick's Body Shop. It sold cosmetic products which had not been tested on animals.

Living in quiet, some might say eccentric, retirement in Tunbridge Wells, Dowding grew more passionate than ever about reincarnation convincing himself that he had been a Mongol chief in a previous life.

In 1964, he wrote a bizarre letter to Lord Beaverbrook, who had been Churchill's Minister of Aircraft Production during the war and had vastly expanded

Spitfire

production, explaining his belief that both of them had been chosen by divine will to save Britain in 1940.

'I am telling you this because I think it is more than probable that your part in the battle was laid down by the Lords of Karma as a result of some action of your own in times long past.' he wrote

'looking back on my own life, I can see how events conspired to put me at the head of Fighter Command at the critical time.'

It may be a bizarre explanation for his position during one of the turning points of

World War II

and Dowding may not have been the most charismatic leader, but thanks in no small part to this strange man,

 

OUR DARKEST HOUR BECAME OUR FINEST

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SPITFIRE:

Portrait Of  A Legend

by

Leo McKinstry (John Murray, 20)

To order a copy at 18 (P&P free)

call 0845 606 4206

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[Font Altered-Bolding & Underlining Used-Comments in Brackets]

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THE PEOPLE HAVE SPOKEN-IS THE EU COMMISSION LISTENING?

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Ditch the EU TREATY after IRISH REJECTION

SAY VOTERS

by

Daniel Martin

Political Reporter

[Daily Mail-Wednesday, June 18,2008]

MORE THAN HALF of voters believe Britain should drop the controversial European Treaty in the wake of its rejection in last week's

IRISH REFERENDUM'

The poll comes as the Tories launch a last-ditch bid in the

HOUSE of LORDS

today to delay the

RATIFICATION OF THE TREATY.

And

10,000 people

have signed a

PETITION

on the

DOWNING STREET- WEBSITE

within the past few days

JUNE16-2008

, calling on the

GOVERNMENT

NOT TO RATIFY THE BILL

[WHY DON'T YOU?]

 

Downing Street website is

http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/Abandon-Lisbon/

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JUNE 18-2008

 

 

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