Dowding and the ‘Big Wings’

[Cross-posted at The Aerodrome]

Well another good day at the archives, to be honest it was needed after the week I have had but that is another story. Today I was looking through the papers of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Baron Douglas of Kirtleside. There was some useful information in here, especially his correspondence with Robert Wright who served as his writer for his autobiography.

One piece of correspondence that particularly caught my eye was the following extract from Wright to Douglas regarding comments offered by Air Chief Marshal Dowding on his knowledge regarding the so-called animosity between Air Vice-Marshals’ Park and Leigh-Mallory, his chief operational commanders during the Battle of Britain. In a letter dated 28 March 1961 Wright writes the following:

There are two further important points for Chapter 13 of your book which Stuffy Dowding asks if you would consider. I mentioned these to you on the phone this morning.

The first is the “wings” controversy. Stuffy would like to be involved in this as little as possible. On page 13-19 of your script there is a note about it…Stuffy tells me that in actual fact he knew nothing about this until it had reached a fairly advanced stage, when, to his great surprise, the S. of S. mentioned to him the views advanced to him by Leigh-Mallory based on the idea put forward by Bader. Would you consider, for the present and until I am able to complete drafting this piece for your consideration, changing that note so that it reads:

“My personal interest in the controversy over the use that as made in the Battle of Britain of squadrons in wings; the Park school versus the Leigh-Mallory school of thought.”

What are we to make of this admission?

The way I see it there are two possible explanations here. First, if Dowding is accepted at face value then this is an amazing admission regarding his commanding competency. Yes he had devolved operational command to the groups but he still should have been aware of the relations between his commanders and he should have been doing something to deal with it’ the fact that he did not shows him to have failed in managing his commanders properly. The second possible explanation is a worse still. It is that he did know about it and failed to do something about it effectively and by the time of this correspondence he was aware that he had made a mistake and was trying to massage the record. Unfortunately there is no evidence to support this second assumption but considering Wright’s later polemic, Dowding and the Battle of Britain, one can wonder.

The unfortunate issue is that both theories are not palatable for the publics’ perception of Dowding especially this year, the 70th anniversary of the battle. Dowding is perceived to have single-handedly won the Battle of Britain, however, there are times when his must move away from hagiographic analyses and offer some hard truth regarding the public’s perception. This is the only way that we can effectively understand the past. My feelings are it is the former argument, which illustrates some of the failings that Dowding did have as a commander i.e. while he built up and effective system that defeated the Luftwaffe in 1940 he issues when dealing with people either above or below him, a necessary pre-requisite for effective command. Of course it can be argued that Leigh-Mallory had similar failing but that shall be dealt with at a future date. The ‘Big Wing’ controversy, and Leigh-Mallory’s role in it, is something that I shall have to deal with at some point in my thesis so information like this is very useful.

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5 responses to “Dowding and the ‘Big Wings’

  1. Pingback: Dowding and the ‘Big Wings’ « The Aerodrome·

  2. I agree; this is how I generally seen the situation. The strength of Dowding’s style of leadership was that it left his Group AOCs to get on with it, but the corresponding weakness was an inability to0 deal with conflict between his subordinates. Either Leigh-Mallory should have been told to do as Park told him, as Saul did (presumably on his own initiative), or a co-ordinated approach that involved the Big Wings should have been employed. The latter, of course, would have required more involvedment in the day-to-day running of the Battle by Fighter Command HQ. I know there are some that argue for precisely this, that the Battle should have been run from Bentley Priory, rather than, by default, from Uxbridge, but I’m not sure this would have been such a good idea – there’s a lot to be said for giving Park his head. Nevertheless, the dispute between Park and L-M required strong leadership to resolve it (as Hough and Richards say, at the very least Dowding could have rotated 242 Squadron into 11 Group), and it didn’t get it. Of course, giving your subordinates freedom at the same time as applying stong leadership when needed is a very narrow line to tread – most people either are wholly hands off or micromanage. So I’m not sure it was in Dowding to do both. But it does strengthen the argument, which I also tend to agree with, that the decision to remove him wasn’t entirely unjustified.

  3. I’d agree with Tony (it’s a small world – hi, Tony!). I thought that the criticism that Dowding should have got more of a grip on his subordinates before the Big Wing debate escalated into acrimony was fairly widely accepted – doesn’t Bungay follow this line?

  4. Jakob I think it is generally excepted by most in the know as it were but I think there is still a general perception that all the fault for the command and control issue lay at the door of Leigh-Mallory and his percieved machinations with Bader. This is simply no the case. I also think the context of this commenbt interesting. I think if this was widely known in the 60’s then reaction would be different to today and as we historians say context is all important. Interestingly I found reference to this source in Ray’s work, which I think is superior to Bungay’s, which I don’t think has added much to the debate; we still await a definitive history of the battle. The reason for that is partly because of the masterful work of T C G James and his history on which most historians have based their accounts on.

    Tony I agree that stonger leadership was require, actually the key issue here is management of his subordinates. There was no real issue in the devolution of operational command, it was the right thing to do, however, Dowding should have been more aware of his subordinates views. I also wonder what role Dowding’s SASO, Evill, had in this. If he was aware it would have been his responsibility to make him aware of it. Park, when he was SASO, frequently brought issues to Dowding’s attention, which often brought up discussion between Dowding and his commanders. It is an issue of grip, but not too much.

  5. There is yet another possibility.

    Dowding may have considered that Leigh Mallory had his orders, and that knew what his commanding officer’s mind was.

    That being the case, he might have deemed that Leigh Mallory would not agitate in the manner that he did.

    It must be said that Leigh Mallory’s behavior then, and later in the run-up to D-Day, was appalling.

    He should have been canned for insubordination.

    And Douglas Bader should have been slapped down hard too.

    They both acted like a pair of asses, ——— and for what, because they weren’t in the forefront of the action.

    his commanders’s mind,

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