Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding taking the salute with Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh Mallory, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Fighter Command, at a parade on the third anniversary of the Battle of Britain at Fighter Command Headquarters at Bentley Priory, Middlesex, 15 September 1943. © IWM (CH 11054)
Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding taking the salute with Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh Mallory, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Fighter Command, at a parade on the third anniversary of the Battle of Britain at Fighter Command Headquarters at Bentley Priory, Middlesex, 15 September 1943. © IWM (CH 11054)

In late 1937, Air Commodore Trafford Leigh-Mallory took up what was his first senior command as Air Officer Commanding (AOC) No. 12 Group. This job assignment came at a time in Leigh-Mallory’s career after the RAF had nurtured him to take up such a position. Since becoming a permanent officer in 1919, Leigh-Mallory had undertaken a variety of roles that prepared him for a senior command position. Indeed, Leigh-Mallory was representative of the manner in which the RAF nurtured officers for such positions. From the perspective of leadership development, job assignments allowed Leigh-Mallory to ‘acquire leadership capacity as a result of the roles, responsibilities, and tasks encountered in their jobs.’[1] Furthermore, job assignments also allowed nurtured officers such as Leigh-Mallory the opportunity to experience transition to a position with unfamiliar responsibilities and succeed, help create change, and manage relationships both internally and externally.[2] These key job assignment included squadron command, staff duties, and teaching and training positions and these were also further reinforced by attendance at staff college, which provided the conceptual foundation for an officers leadership development by furthering their knowledge of their profession. Given that Leigh-Mallory made himself ‘visible’ for promotion by undertaking these assignments, he was, in the RAF’s eyes, ready for senior command.

Nevertheless, few historians have examined what Leigh-Mallory actually did during this period up to the outbreak of the Second World. For example, the late Vincent Orange considered Leigh-Mallory’s experience at No. 12 Group in this period in a teleological manner through the perspective of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park; thus, it is worth noting some of the challenges that confronted Leigh-Mallory in his first position as an AOC.[3] Firstly, this was Leigh-Mallory’s first tenure holding a command at this level; therefore, it is axiomatic that he would make mistakes. It was Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding’s responsibility as Air Officer Commanding in Chief (AOC-in-C) to nurture his development in this sphere and highlight potential pitfalls. AP1301, the second part of the RAF’s War Manual, which dealt with organisation and administration, explicitly noted that AOC-in-Cs was required to provide ‘leadership, training and administration of the air forces’ under their command.[4] Presumably, this included their key subordinates, group AOCs.

Twelve Group itself was a new formation. As Fighter Command responsibilities expanded, it became clear that one group was not enough; therefore, No. 12 Group took over responsibility for the defence of the industrial Midlands and the north.[5] Leigh-Mallory was responsible for the training and operational readiness of a new organisation with a specific mission in mind. It was widely expected that any threat from Germany would come from over the North Sea, thus, orientating his command to this, in part, explains his preference to keep Duxford in No. 12 Group while Debden was left to No. 11 Group. Finally, Leigh-Mallory had to communicate with various constituents such as civil defence organisations, the Observer Corps and 2 Anti-Aircraft Division, which from 13 July 1937 shared its headquarters with No. 12 Group at RAF Hucknall.[6] While Leigh-Mallory had knowledge of working with other services through his experience in the First World War and the 1920s as well as his time at as Directing Staff at the Army Staff College at Camberley and as a student at the Imperial Defence College, this was his first senior position. Historians who have ignored this point distort Leigh-Mallory’s ability, development and subsequent effectiveness. Careful reading of some of the sources that Orange cited illustrates a differing perspective. While Park reviewed Leigh-Mallory’s views, which was in his purview as Dowding’s Senior Air Staff Officer, the evidence that they held diametric differences is less clear. Examined yearly, evidently Leigh-Mallory, as an AOC, played a role in reviewing ideas and developing Fighter Command’s tactical doctrine, ‘Fighter Attacks’. Forwarded to HQ Fighter Command, on 13 January 1939, Leigh-Mallory held a group conference to provide suggestions for the 1939 edition of ‘Fighter Attacks’, which illustrated the role AOCs played in this process.[7] Interestingly correspondence from Leigh-Mallory to Park often began with ‘My Dear Keith’. Park described a suggestion from Leigh-Mallory concerning a proposed Fighter Attack No. 7 as potentially ‘effective.’[8] In essence, this proposal revolved around the use of a two-seat fighter, presumably the Boulton Paul Defiant, though not named, attacking a large bomber formation from the flank. Orange noted that discussion over the Home Defence Exercise in August 1939 showed ‘that Park clearly had no high opinion of his [Leigh-Mallory] ability long’ before the Battle of Britain.[9] This comment overplays both the evidence and the influence Park wielded as SASO. While Park was correct to raise concerns over Leigh-Mallory’s deductions concerning evacuation of operations rooms, the latter, as an AOC, was also right to raise concerns over their vulnerability.[10] Dowding, while making the point that the evacuation of operations room was only to occur when destroyed, praised Leigh-Mallory for the detail and speed with which he produced this report.[11] Unlike other wartime AOCs, Leigh-Mallory had a two-year grace period to develop both himself and his group while orientating it towards a wartime footing. During this time, Leigh-Mallory learned many lessons, tested ideas, which were something that in his army co-operation role he was already recognised for, and began to understand an organisation that he himself would ultimately lead. This was a vital development experience for Leigh-Mallory.

Clearly, Leigh-Mallory’s learning experience in this of assignment was not smooth and while his own competency cannot be ignored, we must remember that the development of leaders is a reciprocal relationship and that officers such as Dowding played a significant role in how they nurtured and mentored officers under their command. Indeed, as I suggested elsewhere, the problem for Dowding was that he generated a culture of empowerment that he failed to manage effectively. This was recognised by at least one officer in the RAF when in 1940, Wing Commander Edgar Kingston-McCloughry authored a memorandum entitled, ‘A Weak Link in the Nation’s Defence’, which ultimately made its way to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.[12] In this memorandum, Kingston-McLoughry wrote of Dowding that:

Indeed, H.Q. Fighter Command is substantially a one man show and is ruled by Air Chief Marshal Dowding who has definite personality, but unfortunately he has inadequate mental ability and a very slow brain. He is also a classic example of a complete non-co-operator either with the Air Ministry or any other authority. His treatment of his staff is deplorable and he tolerates only ‘yes’ men.[13]

While clearly vitriolic, indeed, this author does not agree with the view presented on Dowding’s intelligence; however, Kingston-McLoughry does suggest that suggest that Dowding may not have been the easiest of leaders to work for.

Of course, the challenge with all of this is how to reconceptualise how we understand what was, in essence, a leader-follower relationship between Dowding and Leigh-Mallory. The problem is that the place of these officers in our collective memory is so ingrained that, as with any revisionist view (revisionism with a small ‘r’), it is difficult to make people recognise that what they have come to except as historical truth may not be the case. The simple argument that Leigh-Mallory was incompetent is not wholly supported by the archival sources. He was an officer who thought about his profession and reached senior command through hard work by making himself visible. At some point his relationship with those that nurtured and mentored him needs to be more fully explored and this means re-examining what we accept about Dowding’s own leadership competency.

[1] David Day, ‘Leadership Development: A Review in Context’, Leadership Quarterly, 11(4) (2000), p. 598.

[2] Irwin L. Goldstein and J. Kevin Ford, Training in Organizations: Needs Assessment, Development, and Evaluation, Fourth Edition (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2002), pp. 317-19.

[3] Orange, Park: The Biography of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park GCB, KBE, MC, DFC, DCL (London: Grub Street, 2001 [1984]), pp. 67-83.

[4] RAFM, AP1301, Chap. II, Para. 2.

[5] On these challenges, see: T.C.G. James, The Growth of Fighter Command (London: Frank Cass, 2002). Found at The National Archives in AIR 41/14, this is the published version of the AHB narrative of the same name.

[6] TNA, AIR 25/219, Headquarters 12 Group, Operations Record Book, 14 July 1937.

[7] TNA, AIR 16/98, Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory to Air Commodore Keith Park, 16 January 1939; TNA, AIR 16/98, Minutes of a Conference held at HQ 12 Group to discuss Fighter Attacks, 13 January 1939.

[8] TNA, AIR 16/98, Minute from Air Commodore Keith Park to Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, 9 February 1939.

[9] Orange, Park, p. 75.

[10] TNA, AIR 16/132, Minute from Air Commodore Keith Park to Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding, 28 August 1939; TNA, AIR 16/132, 12 Group Report on Home Defence Exercise, 17 August 1939.

[11] TNA, AIR 16/132, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding to Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, 31 August 1939.

[12] TNA, PREM 4/3/6, A Weak Link in the Nation’s Defence’, 1940. On identifying Kingston-McCloughry as the author of this memorandum, see: Sebastian Ritchie, ‘A Political Intrigue against the Chief of the Air Staff: The Downfall of Air Chief Marshal Sir Cyril Newall’, War and Society, 16(1) (1998), pp. 83-104.

[13] TNA, PREM 4/3/6, A Weak Link in the Nation’s Defence’, 1940, p. 3.

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