Leigh-Mallory – A Pawn?

I have just begun doing some reading in preparation for starting my PhD; well I have the time so I may as well use it. I am currently reading Vincent Orange’s biography of Lord Tedder and as is the case with much of Orange’s work it is a good read though there is a degree of bias towards the likes of Leigh-Mallory and Sholto Douglas. Orange very much takes the side of Park, of whom he has written a biography, and therefore, is often critical of Leigh-Mallory and Douglas and this seems to come through in many of his works. However, the works are a useful gauge to examine opinions about Leigh-Mallory and biographies will form one of the key sources of my research as a useful indication of Leigh-Mallory’s command competence, but I digress and more on that later.

I am up to the section of the book that start to look at the preparations for Operation OVERLORD and the decision to appoint commanders to their respective positions and there are some interesting quotes from Eisenhower and his Chief of Staff Bedell-Smith over who should be the air commander for the invasion. For example, Orange quotes a memo dated 2 October from Eisenhower to Bedell-Smith, who was to go to the US to discuss air arrangements with Marshall, whom it was believed at the time to be the Supreme Commander for OVERLORD, about whom should be his air commander. It reads that Marshall will need:

…a top air man who is thoroughly schooled in all the phases of strategic bombing, and more particularly in the job of supporting ground armies in the field. Let him know that because of my earnest conviction on this matter I seriously recommend he insist upon getting ACM Tedder…

It then continues that in the UK Marshall:

…will have a dearth of high-ranking officers in England who have had to live with this problem of air-ground coordination and ACM Tedder not only is an expert in these matters, but has the such a high standing in British air forces that the readiness of the CAS to place, during critical junctions of the land campaign, every last plane in England under the General’s Air Commander will be enhanced.’[1]

This memo illustrates that Eisenhower is convinced that Tedder is the right man for the job and that his position and friendship with Portal would enable maximum coordination of effort in the preparation for the invasion, including the use of the strategic bombers. At this point it should be noted that this is the position of Air Commander, the position that Leigh-Mallory will be appointed to in November 1943, and not deputy supreme commander a position he was appointed to in December 1943. Considering Eisenhower’s preference for Tedder, a tried and trusted subordinate, why is Leigh-Mallory appointed to the position? Portal and Sinclair, the Secretary of State for Air, suggest Leigh-Mallory for the position. The question that then needs to be asked is why these two high-ranking officials appoint a fighter commander, with little experience outside of this field to such a prominent position that will require the coordination of several different arms of air power. This is not to say that Leigh-Mallory is not well qualified as an air power leader. He had a great deal of experience in fighter operation and in air-ground coordination, he had even written on the subject during the inter-war years, however, he had a dearth of experience when it came to maritime or bomber operations, which would be of just as much importance when the invasion came. Indeed the imposition of Leigh-Mallory into the command set-up created problems with Eisenhower. Bedell-Smith wrote to Eisenhower on 30 December 1943 to say that they all agreed that Tedder should be the air commander but that an officer by the name of ‘Mallory’ was claiming the position. This caused Eisenhower to complain to Marshall that he should have freedom to choose commanders, which imposing someone with lack of experience in this form of warfare was unacceptable, and Tedder agreed with him.[2] This argument is hard to fault as Leigh-Mallory’s only experience with Combined Operation was with Operation JUBILEE, small raid within the context of Combined Operation and this involved little cooperation with the Americans, an important prerequisite for OVERLORD.

So why does Portal and Sinclair support him? Is it something to do with a desire to attempt to maintain the independence of the strategic bombers? Probably. Indeed the decision to appoint Leigh-Mallory would eventually lead to a strategic debate over the use of the bombers in the lead up to OVERLORD. Does Portal realise this? Is he trying to give time to Harris to achieve his knockout blow before he knows he needs to support the invasion? Does Portal think that by imposing Leigh-Mallory into the mix will help him achieve this? I think this is something that needs to be explored.

However, it does have the effect of making Leigh-Mallory’s position much more difficult. He was known to be difficult to work with; Tedder had turned him down in January 1942 as his deputy in the Middle East because of this, and his experience played against him. This inline with the fact that he was not part of the Mediterranean cabal puts him out of place in the command set-up for OVERLORD. Out of the five key commands for OVERLORD Leigh-Mallory is the only one not to have served in the Mediterranean, he was, therefore, an outsider even before question were being raised about his experience and why he was chosen. Not a very good start for a commander.

Indeed the theory of the Allied Air Expeditionary Force was sound; it was based on the model being used out in the Mediterranean. The key reason for its perceived failure as an organisation must be laid at the door of the personalities involved and the machinations to hinder or control Leigh-Mallory did not help. That he was the wrong choice can be argued, however, once he was there every step should have been taken to integrate him into the team rather than the power battles that appear to have occurred. It is interesting to note that when Leigh-Mallory leaves to command in the Far East the AEAF is effectively shut down.

Well plenty to think about and to start looking at when I get to the archives.

[1] Cited in Vincent Orange Tedder: Quietly in Command, p.242

[2] Orange Tedder, p. 249


3 responses to “Leigh-Mallory – A Pawn?

  1. Its a very interesting point. I’ve always thought that the dynamics between the Air Commanders regarding Overlord seemed complicated. Did Tedder’s presence in the command set-up complicate matters? I’ve often wondered if because the Deputy Supreme Commander role was ill-defined Tedder was left kicking his heels and this led to him being used more as an Air Commander, leaving Leigh-Mallory redundant?

    There were suggestions later in 1944 that Alexander might take over as Deputy Supreme Commander and Land Forces Commander. This was after Leigh-Mallory had gone to the Far East, but would a smiliar set up from the outset have saved a lot of complications?

  2. I agree that the dynamics were complicated. In theory the model used was similar to the North Africa model but with no one co-ordinating the heavy bombers, which was one of the key problems with it all. The issue is not whether Tedder complicated matters but is more that L-M complicated issues. He was almost universally disliked by those coming back from the Med. Even his former SASO at 11 Group, Broadhurst, was not keen. It is more an issue of personality rather than organisation that I think created the problems. I think Ike probably left Tedder’s role ill-defined because he hope he would control the air forces.

    As too Alexander he would have been better with regards to controlling Monty and got on well with Ike. In actual fact Alexander had been proposed as Ground Force Commander by Ike in late 43. However, the position went to Monty.

  3. Pingback: Patronage and Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory « The Aerodrome·

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