SPITFIRE-AND A MOST UNLIKELY
HERO -OUR DARKEST HOUR BECAME OUR FINEST
A MOST UNLIKELY HERO
[Daily Mail-Thursday, November 22,
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
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
it is a strange twist of history that the
commander of the
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
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
I discovered what an extraordinary
unconventional man he was and how his unorthodox
mind played a key role in
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
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
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
One of his fellow World War I officers, Duncan
Grinnell-Milne described the inadequate nature of
'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
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
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
FIGHTER defences should be kept to a minimum,
Trenchard had once said, arguing for concentration
on the bomber.
Head of Fighter Command
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
Without his influence, the
the two aircraft that made up most of
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
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
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
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.
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
Dowding explained that, just after she had written,
he had visited a medium through whom Max had spoken
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
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
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
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
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
Portrait Of A Legend
Leo McKinstry (John Murray, £20)
To order a copy at £18 (P&P free)
call 0845 606 4206
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The poll comes as the Tories
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