Patronage and Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory

In trying to understand leadership competence and why people end up in the positions that they do there is one factor that cannot be underplayed, and that is the role of patronage. Patronage as a concept usually conjures up images of people with powerful patrons pushing them into positions of power and influence, and on occasion into positions that these people are not capable of fulfilling. Patronage works well in the military sphere as powerful senior officers take a keen interest in the careers of up and coming officers who they feel they need to nurture in order to further their careers and in some cases ensure the services priorities. Nowhere is this truer than in the early RAF. Lord Trenchard took a keen interest in the careers of several officers who he felt would eventual form the core of the services high command in later years. Names such a Sir John Slessor and Viscount Portal of Hungerford are men whose careers prospered because of his support. However, this does not automatically mean that they would not have reached high command without his support but perhaps it made it easier. However, Trenchard must have seen competence in their abilities in order to offer that support. Indeed with Slessor it was certainly the case that his keen intellect appears to have been the reason for that early support, though he did not always agree with Trenchard.

But what of Leigh-Mallory? Does patronage answer the central question of why he reached such a high rank? Unfortunately I do not think this is the case. Yes he was friends with future key players in the RAF but they were in no position in the 1920s to sponsor his move up the command chain. What of Trenchard? Leigh-Mallory was certainly known by him. For example, Slessor in The Central Blue remarks about how Trenchard would mix up their names when they worked in the Air Ministry in 1922.[1] However, one way of marking those who Trenchard marked out for future promotion can be seen by those who attended the first course of the newly established RAF Staff College at Andover. On this course were men such as Slessor, Portal, Lord Douglas of Kirtleside and Sir Keith Park. The key issue here is that unlike later courses the students of the first course were handpicked by Trenchard to attend. Trenchard considered the Staff College as a ‘School of Thought’ for the nascent RAF; therefore, we can assume that these men were viewed by Trenchard as the core of RAF’s future. However, Leigh-Mallory would eventually attend Staff College in 1925 and in 1934 he attended the Imperial Defence College, which clearly marked him out for high command in the future. Another important name missing from first course is Lord Tedder, who in 1923 as sent by Trenchard to attend the Royal Naval Staff College at Greenwich.[2]

What of the Second World War? Did he receive positions because of his earlier friendships? For example, he was friends with Portal.[3] Did this mean that he received the commands he did because of this friendship? Again I am not convinced that there is enough evidence for this. Yes Portal was involved in the decision to appoint Leigh-Mallory as AOC-in-C of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force in 1943 but this had more to do with his view of the air offensive and how he initially perceived the nature of air support for the invasion. Similarly there is little archival evidence, certainly in the personal papers, that Douglas pushed for Leigh-Mallory. Indeed it can be argued that Douglas’ decision to replace Park had more to do with an unfortunate incident at an air tournament at Hendon in 1920 than anything else. Neither Park nor Douglas was to see eye to eye after this event.[4] Unfortunately the whole debate over Douglas’ assumption of command at Fighter Command has become far too polarised for it to be difficult to separate the issues at play but it must not forgotten that there were valid reasons to remove Dowding.

The one person who may have patronised Leigh-Mallory during the war was Earl Mountbatten of Burma.[5] Both had worked closely together during the planning for RUTTER/JUBILEE and it is obvious in the correspondence after the operation that their offensively minded outlooks found in each other a like-minded individual. Mountbatten was seeking to continue his plan for ever larger Combined Operations and Leigh-Mallory wanted to continue his fighter offensive against the Luftwaffe. This relationship would come into play when Leigh-Mallory left the AEAF in 1944 and was due to go out to SEAC to command the air forces in theatre. Mountbatten noted in his diary:

15 August 1944…Lunched with Leigh-Mallory…, and had an important discussion with him.[6]

On the same day Leigh-Mallory on returning from this meeting recorded in his diary that:

…he now regarded the campaign in France and Western Europe…as won and his eyes were turning in the direction of the Far East whither he was shortly to proceed.[7]

Mountbatten would later record on hearing of Leigh-Mallory’s plane crash that:

15 November 1944…This is an absolute body blow, for, having at last succeeded in collecting a team of really young and dashing Commanders-in-Chief whom I know and like and can work well with, it is disheartening to lose one of the team before he has even taken over.[8]

There certainly existed a positive relationship between these two senior commander and their offensive views worked together. Is there an element of patronage, yes, but how important is it is an important question that needs to be examined further. I do not doubt that at various time during his career Leigh-Mallory had important friends and acquaintances but did they further his career? Perhaps Mountbatten may have in 1944 as there was probably little chance of him going back to Fighter Command after AEAF but had this happened would he have found a position in the Air Ministry? These are question that need to be further examined.

However, the key question that exists is if patronage not a valid reason for his promotion to high command then what is the answer? Is it that he is capable and competent commander? Perhaps an answer the popular cultural memory of events such as the Battle of Britain and D-Day cannot accept?


[1] John Slessor, The Central Blue: Recollections and Reflections (London: Cassell, 1956) p. 46

[2] Vincent Orange, Tedder: Quietly in Command (London: Frank Cass, 2004) p. 70

[3] It is interesting to note that Denis Richards in his biography of Portal does not mention Leigh-Mallory. Denis Richards, Portal of Hungerford: The Life of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Viscount Portal of Hungerford KG, GCB, OM, DSO, MC (London: Heinemann, 1977)

[4] Vincent Orange, Park: The Biography of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park GCB, KBE, MC, DFC, DCL (London: Grub Street, 2001) pp. 43-44; Lord Douglas or Kirtleside with Robert Wright, Years of Command: The Second Volume of the Autobiography of Sholto Douglas (London: Collins, 1966) pp. 14-15

[5] The best and most recent biography of Mountbatten is, Adrian Smith, Mountbatten: Apprentice War Lord (London: I B Tauris, 2010)

[6] Philip Ziegler (Ed.) Personal Diary of Admiral the Lord Louis Mountbatten: Supreme Allied Commander South-East Asia, 1943-1946 (London: Collins, 1988) p. 124

[7] The National Archives (TNA), AIR 37/784, Daily Reflections on the Course of the Battle by Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, KCB, DSO, p. 105

[8] Ziegler (Ed.) Personal Diary, p. 154

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6 responses to “Patronage and Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory

  1. Interesting piece. I think Leigh-Mallory certainly benefitted from patronage at various points in his career, but then so did every senior RAF commander. Keith Park, for instance, clearly benefitted from Dowding’s patronage when given the 11 Group job ahead of Leigh-Mallory, and his being seen as Dowding’s man will have been a contributory factor in his losing that post in October 1940. Of course, a significant part of the reason for Dowding’s patronage of Park was that Dowding recognised that Park’s ideas on aerial defence chimed with his, and he felt that Park was the best man available for the job. Similarly, Douglas backs Leigh-Mallory for 11 Group when he takes over from Dowding because Leigh-Mallory shares his ideas about being more aggressive in the use of Fighter Command.

    The point is that patronage, as you note, was often applied for a reason, because the potential of someone had been perceived. So patronage cannot be disentangled from talent and ability.

  2. Tony you are right that patronage cannot be seperated from talent and ability. However, in the historiography relating to L-M this is the problem. Most people do not see him as having any talent, which given the records relating to his First World War and inter-war career is simply not the case. The fact that he is given command at 12 Group and that he had risen through the ranks is testiment to that. At some point I have got to map the careers of senior officers through the Air Force list to see who goes where and why in order to comapre his rise to high command with that of his contemporaries.

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

  4. Patronage is essential for advancement in any large organization, especially those full of exceptional “war heroes” etc who rise after every war. It would seem that biographers and academics with no actual experience of either service, or a large organization, should recognize that ego, selfishness, and and self advancement are not uncommon and that organizations generally favor those who have accomplished things. Former officer.

  5. Ross but I find it difficult to be convinced that Leigh-Mallory was particularly talented or visionary when he was in Command in the Second World War. Kenneth Cross who was liked by Leigh-Mallory attests that Leigh-Mallory was conniving with Douglas to comment unfavourably on the way Dowding and Park were fighting the Battle of Britain – see ‘Straight and Level’ (London: Grub Street, 1993), pp. 120-123. Cross also contends that Leigh-Mallory was anything but an original thinker, and Johnnie Johnson thought he was too far divorced from the tactical battle and modern equipment to make a reasoned judgement based on experience – (see ‘Big Wing’ pp.189-190).

    Cox lamented the grossly inflated self-belief of Douglas and Leigh-Mallory, who ‘despite their lack of recent relevant command, intimate knowledge of the air defence system or flying experience in the Spitfire or Hurricane.. quickly came to believe that they had a better understanding of the air defence problem than the two men who had developed the defensive system and were to bear the brunt of command in battle.’ (Sholto Douglas and Leigh Mallory, in John Jupp (Ed.) Air Force Leadership: Changing Culture, Sleaford, Royal Air Force Leadership Centre, 2007)

    As someone who has seen those that understand the battle and those who claim they do I am much more inclined to believe that Park had a ‘feel’ for the battle and what was going on, whereas it appears that Leigh-Mallory convinced himself, and Douglas [but certainly not Cross] that he understood what was going on and could do better than Park. The Americans distrusted Leigh-Mallory’s judgement after his lethargy in seeing any need to support the Eighth Air Force daylight bombing campaign in support of POINTBLANK and sought to diminish his influence thereafter (Dunn, Big Wing, pp.98-99) (Stephen L. McFarland and Wesley Phillips Newton,To Command the Sky: The battle for air superiority over Germany, 1942-1944, (Washington: Smithsonian, 1991), pp. 139-140, 147, 228, as well as AIR 41/66, Air Historical Branch, The Liberation of North West Europe Volume 1 (Appendix I/53)

    Finally, either Leigh-Mallory was unable to understand the strategic importance of the maritime strikes against iron ore convoys from Norway (or was influenced by Slessor – see Central Blue, p. 552) sufficient to and provide the long-range fighter support requested to enable attacks despite the size of Fighter Command when compared to the resources available during the Battle of Britain, or he was malevolently disposed towards joint operations because the Mustang III fighter escorts requested on 20 Aug 1943 only started to operate against German naval units in Norwegian Waters after Leigh-Mallory left Fighter Command (Central Blue, p. 555) and Air 41/49, AHB, The Air Defence of Great Britain Vol V: The Struggle for Air Supremacy (January 1942 – May 1945), p. 331.

    Sorry, but I just can’t see it

  6. David,

    Apologies for the delay in the reply. First, welcome to historical discourse 😉 If we agreed it would be boring. A couple of comments…

    I think you have to remember the context in which Leigh-Mallory was operating when considering the attacks against Norwegian Waters. He had just been tasked to prepare Fighter Command, and it subordinate units including the Tactical Air Force for the invasion of Europe and he been tacitly appointed Air Commander in Chief Allied Expeditionary Air Force. In the larger position he may have felt, and this is of course the central problem with Leigh-Mallory’s career because of course we may never know, apart from official correspondence, that he had bigger issue to deal with. Additionally, Slessor is not an impartial witness to all of this given that he was AOC-in-C Coastal Command at the time. You could argue that he is fighting his own corner in his wartime memoir, something Leigh-Mallory can’t do. Though, to be impartial and can see both sides of the strategic argument here.

    As to Kenneth Cross you should, if you get a chance, listen to the interview with him that resides at the IWM. It is not as critical as he comes across in the book. Think about its context and who has written the book with him, Vincent Orange, who is perhaps Leigh-Mallory’s most ardent critique and views most incidents involving Leigh-Mallory and Douglas through the prism of what could be described as the Park School of History. There is plenty of that in his biography of Slessor too.

    Concerning Seb’s piece. I would suggest most of the criticism is leveled at Douglas, who perhaps does deserve more of it. Certainly Leigh-Mallory makes mistakes, but there are plenty of commanders who do. Should Leigh-Mallory have taken Bader to the meeting at the Air Ministry, perhaps not, but the minutes of the meeting actually show that Bader actually says very little and that his role was played up by himself post-war. Leigh-Mallory may have been using him to support a point. We must also remember that Leigh-Mallory is very much the type of leader the RAF wants in this period. He fits its organisational culture. He support independent air power and believes in command of the air. This was very important at the times. He was also a very intelligent man and was prepared for senior command. Joubert described him as being able to run rings around Park intellectually. Of course, this does not make him a great leader, and I would never suggest such a thing, but it does highlight the esteem that he was held in at the time, excluding external factors such as the role of Trenchard and Salmond in the removal of Dowding. Additionally, we must not forget it was not Leigh-Mallory who removed Park, that was done on the orders of Douglas and agreed to by the Air Ministry who felt the time was right for more offensively minded officers.

    It is not an easy conundrum to solve and not one helped by the simple fact of Leigh-Mallory’s death which creates untold historiographical problems, and trust me you won’t be the first, or last, not to agree with me.

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