Such was the description provided by the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Charles Portal to Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory’s son Thomas in a letter dated 20 November 1944. Sent just six days after Leigh-Mallory and his wife, Doris, disappeared when the aircraft transporting them to his new command in South-East Asia crashed, this handwritten letter illustrates heartfelt recognition from not only the former’s superior but also a peer and father himself. While such a letter should be treated with care, clearly Portal held Leigh-Mallory in high regard both as an officer and as a friend. Despite this, historians have generally held a negative view of Leigh-Mallory’s abilities during the Second World War. For example, the late Vincent Orange stated that Leigh-Mallory was either ‘misguided or incompetent, or at worst both’, while Williamson Murray claimed that he was ‘ambitious and duplicitous’. These are serious accusations. They not only concern Leigh-Mallory’s competency, but also raise questions over the organisation that nurtured him. Nevertheless, Leigh-Mallory’s death itself is, in many ways, a microcosm of his determination to prove himself as he sought to get in theatre as soon as possible.
Nevertheless, Orange’s and Murray’s views do not tell the whole picture regarding Leigh-Mallory’s ability. However, an examination of the relevant literature typically shows that views such as those presented above tend to be those found in works that involve Leigh-Mallory, especially those on the Battle of Britain. Nevertheless, a good historian should not rely on secondary sources and a return to the archives often throws up views that bring into question orthodox interpretations, which are often trotted out in poorly researched books. Indeed, an examination of various sources illustrates a more complex picture than hitherto understood. Questioning such orthodox views can be difficult as it bring into question people’s beliefs concerning the collective memory of historic events. However, it is clear that Leigh-Mallory got on with subordinates who often showed great loyalty to him. In 1988, Air Chief Marshal Sir Kenneth Cross, who was a staff officer at No. 12 Group in 1940, described Leigh-Mallory as ‘Much undervalued by history’ while Group Captain Wilfrid Duncan Smith recalled numerous visits by his Air Officer Commanding (AOC), and that he ‘was never happier than when he could mix with pilots and ground-crews.’ This example of maintaining morale was at the heart of understanding effective leadership in this period. More significantly, Richard Hough and Denis Richards provided a more balanced conclusion concerning Leigh-Mallory’s appointment as AOC No. 11 Group in late 1940. They wrote that:
As the senior Group commander, in charge of 12 Group since its inception, Leigh-Mallory had excellent qualifications for the post.
Hough and Richards also noted, related to Leigh-Mallory’s further wartime promotions, that ‘he was considered fit for much higher command than that of a Group.’ The use of ‘fit’ is interesting as it relates to his leadership development over the inter-war period. Nurtured through key experiences such as appropriate job assignments and military education, Leigh-Mallory emerged as an able and agile officer capable of operating at the senior level. Even contemporaries shared this view. Air Chief Marshal Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferté recalled in 1955 concerning questions over his performance in 1940, that, Leigh-Mallory:
had a brilliant brain and his character was determined and calm. To use a colloquialism he “he could run rings around Park intellectually.
Given that Joubert served as a Commandant of the RAF Staff College at Andover, he was well equipped to comment on officers abilities, though; Leigh-Mallory did have character flaws. In the opinion of Air Vice-Marshal Edgar Kingston-McCloughry, this was because Leigh-Mallory had ‘a nervous self-defence rather than pomp and conceit’, which his bombastic nature covered for. While it is easy to suggest that this assessment derived from Kingston-McCloughry owing his position at Allied Expeditionary Air Force (AEAF) to Leigh-Mallory’s support, it should be understood that the former did not hold back his opinion when necessary. In 1940, 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. The paper was highly critical of CAS, Air Chief Marshal Sir Cyril Newall, and played a role in the latter’s removal. Kingston-McCloughry is unlikely to have held back if he seriously felt that Leigh-Mallory was incompetent.
By 1944, Leigh-Mallory operated under difficult conditions at the senior level, which included maintaining relationships with a variety of individuals. Each individual involved had a strong personality. Additionally, the command team brought together to launch Operation OVERLORD had worked together in the Mediterranean, which placed Leigh-Mallory in a challenging position as he was clearly an outsider. Furthermore, it is possible to suggest that Leigh-Mallory had hit his operational ceiling before becoming Air Commanding-in-Chief (Air C-in-C) AEAF; however, he contributed much to OVERLORD’s planning, was self-aware enough, and recognised the challenges related to his position. Leigh-Mallory recalled in his diary, which he kept during the Normandy Campaign, that, ‘The Americans don’t like being under the command of an Englishman.’ This was just one challenge Leigh-Mallory faced during the planning for OVERLORD, and the conduct of the Normandy Campaign. Indeed, Leigh-Mallory’s diary remains one of his most valuable historic artefacts as it illustrates many of his inner thoughts during this important period of his career. Hillary St George Saunders, a noted author who wrote many pamphlets for various government bodies during the Second World War, and who described Leigh-Mallory as a ‘bulldog in trousers’, kept the diary. Richards, who co-wrote the RAF’s authorised history of the Second World War with Saunders, recalled being intrusted with ‘fresh sections’ of the diary while he worked at the Air Historical Branch, and that by understanding Leigh-Mallory’s ‘inner thoughts’ he was not able to ‘swallow Field Marshal Montgomery’s claim’ concerning the breakout from Normandy.
Even the argument that the Americans did not like or respect Leigh-Mallory has been over simplified. On 5 June 1944, Commanding General, 82nd Airborne Division, Major General Matthew Ridgeway wrote to Leigh-Mallory thanking him for his message of support before OVERLORD’s launch. Ridgeway wrote that:
it is characteristic of that broad visioned (sic) leadership and sympathetic patience with the problems of others which has made my association with you so highly regarded.
This stands at variance with the more commonly cited example of Leigh-Mallory expressing his concerns over the planned American airborne operations in the Cotentin Peninsula to General Dwight Eisenhower on the same day. As the Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander South East Asia Command (SEAC), Major General A.C. Wedemeyer, noted to Lord Ismay in September 1944, that Eisenhower and Major General Walter Beddell-Smith thought much of Leigh-Mallory and supported his new position as Air C-in-C SEAC. A point that Portal also noted to the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, in August 1944 in correspondence related to Leigh-Mallory’s future employment.
If Leigh-Mallory was an ineffective leader, the question remains as to why he was considered for the position of Air Member for Personnel (AMP), the RAF’s second most senior post. While Portal recognised Leigh-Mallory’s limitations concerning selection of subordinates, he noted in July 1944 that the latter had ‘great energy and ability [moreover] fair-mindedness’. It would be unusual for any senior leader not to have some flaw, for example, in the same note to Sinclair, Portal noted that Air Marshal Sir John Slessor was ‘a little too much inclined to hastiness and intolerance.’ Air Chief Marshal Sir Wilfrid Freeman, in discussion with Portal over the position of AMP in May 1944, noted that Leigh-Mallory did not have the ‘breadth of vision’ for the role. While appearing scathing, Freeman admitted that:
I hope the above does not seem unfair on L-M. You must remember that after yourself I consider Slessor is the only possible choice for CAS and in this respect would be far better than Tedder.
It is interesting, that, in this correspondence Freeman used the sobriquet L-M, which indicates some form of friendship with Leigh-Mallory as this was the common moniker used for the latter. In the end, it seems the post of AMP was never mentioned to Leigh-Mallory as Portal recognised his desire to go to SEAC as he felt he still had something to prove operationally. Slessor eventually became AMP on 5 April 1945. Leigh-Mallory, despite his wide-ranging experience over 30 years, felt the need to prove himself as an operational commander, an opportunity he never received.
Perhaps, most importantly, this foregoing discussion illustrates is that a more balanced analysis of Leigh-Mallory’s Second World War service is required to move past biased assertions concerning his ability. Leadership at the senior level is both challenging and ambiguous, and requires well-prepared officers’ to manage the situations they face. As Air Marshal Sir Arthur Longmore recognised in 1938, it would take the test of war to see if the education officers’ received had prepared them effectively. Leigh-Mallory was clearly nurtured during the inter-war years, but whether that development produced an officer able to operate at senior levels in intra-, inter-service and coalition contexts remains an open question. However, as historians we must continually question the interpretation presented to us and seek to deep further into the archival record to properly understand the subject that we are researching.
Things are not always what they appear to be!
 Vincent Orange, ‘The British Commanders’ in Sebastian Cox and Henry Probert (eds.), The Battle Re-Thought: A Symposium on the Battle of Britain (Shrewsbury: Airlife, 1991), p. 40; Williamson Murray, Military Adaptation in War: With Fear of Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 175.
 TNA, AIR 2/10593, Court of Inquiry into the disappearance of aircraft York MW 126 on 14 November 1944 with Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory on board.
 IWM, 10481, Interview with Air Chief Marshal Sir Kenneth Cross, 12 November 1988; Wilfrid Duncan Smith, Spitfire into Battle (London: Hamlyn, 1982), p. 34, pp. 67-68.
 Richard Hough and Denis Richards, The Battle of Britain: The Jubilee History (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1989), p. 320.
 Air Chief Marshal Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferté, The Third Service: The Story behind the Royal Air Force (London: Thames and Hudson, 1955), p. 137.
 Air Vice-Marshal E.J. Kingston-McCloughry, The Direction of War: A Critique of the Political Direction and High Command in War (London: Jonathan Cape, 1955), p. 172
 IWM, Personal Papers of Air Vice-Marshal Edgar Kingston-McCloughry, EJK-M6/15, Kingston-McCloughry to Leigh-Mallory, 13 November 1943; Leigh-Mallory to Kingston-McCloughry, 15 November 1943.
 TNA, PREM 4/3/6, A Weak Link in the Nation’s Defence’, 1940.
 TNA, AIR 37/784, Daily Reflections, 27 June 1944.
 Denis Richards, It Might have Been Worse: Recollections, 1941-1996 (London: Smithson Albright, 1998), pp. 87-88.
 Ibid, p. 88.
 TNA, AIR 37/771, Major General Matthew B. Ridgeway to Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, 5 June 1944.
 LHCMA, Personal Papers of General Baron Ismay, 4/32/6, Major General A.C. Wedemeyer to Ismay, 19 September 1944.
 CC, Portal Papers, Chief of the Air Staff to the Secretary of State for Air, 16 August 1944.
 CC, Portal Papers, Chief of the Air Staff to Secretary of State for Air, 9 July 1944, p. 2.
 CC, Portal Papers, Vice-Chief of the Air Staff to Chief of the Air Staff, 25 May 1944, p. 3.
 CC, Portal Papers, Chief of the Air Staff to the Secretary of State for Air, 16 August 1944.
 Air Marshal Sir Arthur Longmore, ‘Training for Higher Command’, Journal of the Royal United Services Institution, 84 (1939), p. 476.