We often have a very specific view of historical characters in our mind. This is often down to the role of cultural memory in the formation of our historical consciousness. Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory’s character has been defined by Patrick Wymark’s depiction of him in Guy Hamilton’s 1969 classic The Battle of Britain. In this film, he plays Leigh-Mallory as an un-humorous, stiff and dour group commander who did not have the personal touch that his No. 11 Group counterpart, Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park had. Indeed the appearance of Park in his white overall getting out of his personal Hawker Hurricane was the perfect vehicle to illustrate the difference between the personal touch of each commander. However, how true is this depiction? Does it have a basis in historical fact? I would suggest the picture is perhaps not as simple as has been assumed. To illustrate this here are a couple of vignettes from various pilots who came into contact. First, they illustrate that Leigh-Mallory cared about the men under his command and often visited them to check on them and considered issues of morale. Second, they show that he had a sense of humour. Something, which Wymark’s depiction would lead us to believe that he did not.

The first comes from Wilfred Duncan Smith’s memoir. Duncan Smith served with No. 611 Squadron during the Battle of Britain. He remarks about a prank that the squadron played with furniture prior to a visit from Leigh-Mallory:

It was still there when we gathered for lunch to meet the AOC, who had decided to pay a surprise visit to tell us that he had been appointed to command No. 11 Group. Without once looking up at the balancing act of the settee perched precariously above him he remarked: ‘I’m arranging for 611 Squadron to be moved to Southend shortly. There will be plenty of action and rafters to divert your attendance. Leigh-Mallory, or L-M as he was affectionately known, took great interest in the affairs of his squadrons and was never happier than when he could mix with pilots and ground-crews, listening to opinions and discussing operational problems.[1]

The second comes from Hugh Dundas, who served with No. 616 Squadron, which was initially based in No. 12 Group and then moved to No. 11 Group during the Battle of Britain. The recollection relates to a visit by Leigh-Mallory just before the outbreak of the Second World War when Dundas was still training and before the Auxiliary Air Force was transferred into the RAF:

We received a visit a Manston from Air Officer Commanding No. 12 Fighter Group, Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory…The words ‘AOC inspection’ were on the lips of every senior NCO in the squadron for forty-eight hours before the visit, but I am glad to say as far as the pilots were concerned no time was wasted on any special spit and polish. I cannot remember any parade of any kind ever being carried out in 616 squadron and the rule was not broken for Leigh-Mallory.

The dinner party which we gave for the AOC in our mess tent that night was a memorable affair. One of our after-dinner games involved climbing up the pole in the middle of the tent, squeezing out through one of the ventilation flaps on the side near the top, clambering over the ridge pole, getting in again through the ventilation flap on the other side and sliding back to earth down the pole you had started from….

After we had drunk a good deal of port on the night of Leigh-Mallory’s visit it was decided that we should play the game. Two or three of us went up and down. Then someone suggested that the AOC should have a go. Very sportingly, he agreed. But he was not really built for that kind of thing. In the course of the passing years his figure had thickened. But he had a terrible job of squeezing through the ventilation flap. We stood below and cheered him on. At last he plopped through and his face, purple with exertion, disappeared out into the night. The tent swayed and the ridge-pole sagged as he struggled across the top. His legs reappeared on the other side. He got half way and stuck.

Shouting with laughter, we urged him on and his legs and buttocks wiggled and waggled as he fought his way through that canvas flap. Someone shinned up the pole and helped him with a few hearty tugs. He came out like a champagne cork, grabbed desperately at the pole and descended from a height of about ten feet in a free fall. Fortunately he was unhurt. He accepted a very large, very dark whisky and soda and left us hurriedly before we started playing something else.[2]

Clearly, here is a picture that does not fit the traditional narrative concerning Leigh-Mallory and it shows how complicated the analysis of a leader, and their impact on their subordinates, can be when you begin to scratch beneath the orthodox interpretations of their competences.

[1] Wilfred Duncan Smith, Spitfire into Battle (London: Hamlyn, 1982 [1981]) p. 34

[2] Hugh Dundas, Flying Start: A Fighter Pilot’s War Years (London: Stanley Paul, 1988) pp. 12-13


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