The Dowding & Park Spitfire

Chief Marshal Hugh Caswall Tremenheere Dowding 

“Mine was the purely defensive role of trying to stop the possibility of an invasion, and thus giving the country a breathing spell … it was Germany’s objective to win the war by invasion, and it was my job to prevent such an invasion from taking place.”                          

Air Chief Marshal Hugh Caswall Tremenheere Dowding, 1st Baron Dowding, GCB, GCVO, CMG.

Born  24th April 1882, died 15th February 1970, he was an officer in the Royal Air Force. He served as a fighter pilot and then as commanding officer of No. 16 Squadron during the First World War. During the inter war years he became Air Officer Commanding Fighting Area, Air Defence of Great Britain and then joined the Air Council as Air Member for Supply and Research. He was Air Officer Commanding RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain and is generally credited with playing a crucial role in Britain's defence, and hence, the defeat of Adolf Hitler's plan to invade Britain. He was unwillingly replaced in command in November 1940 by Big Wing advocate Sholto Douglas.

Soldier, pilot, wireless pioneer, squadron commander, spiritualist (he would often talk about meeting dead "RAF boys" in his sleep), champion skier, 'Stuffy' Dowding is perhaps best known as the creator of the first radar, then known as RDF, based air defence system and his no less remarkable management of such throughout the Battle of Britain. Dowding served in 'delightful and dangerous Iraq', helped to pacify unrest in the Holy Land, was involved in the R.101 airship disaster and oversaw the creation of Britain's first eight gun monoplanes, the Hurricane and Spitfire.Controversially dismissed from Fighter Command and refused the RAF's highest rank, he nevertheless became the first airman elevated to the peerage since Trenchard.

He was born at St. Ninian's Boys' Preparatory School in Moffat, Dumfriesshire, the son of Arthur John Caswall Dowding and Maud Caroline Dowding (née Tremenheere). His father had taught at Fettes College in Edinburgh before moving to the southern Scottish town of Moffat. Dowding was educated at St Ninian's School and Winchester College. He trained at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich before being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery on 18th August 1900.

Promoted to lieutenant on 8th May 1902, Dowding served with the Royal Garrison Artillery at Gibraltar, in Ceylon and in Hong Kong before being posted to No. 7 Mountain Artillery Battery in India in 1904. After returning to the United Kingdom, he attended the Army Staff College 1912 before being promoted to captain on 18th August 1913 and being posted with the Royal Garrison Artillery on the Isle of Wight later that year. After becoming interested in aviation, Dowding gained Aviator's Certificate no. 711 on 19th December 1913 in a Vickers biplane at the Vickers School of Flying, Brooklands. He then attended the Central Flying School, where he was awarded his wings. Although added to the Reserve List of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), Dowding returned to the Isle of Wight to resume his Royal Garrison Artillery duties. However, this arrangement was short lived and in August 1914, he joined the RFC as a pilot on No. 7 Squadron.

In 1915 he clashed with General Hugh Trenchard, the commander of the RFC, over the need to rest pilots exhausted by non-stop duty.

Dowding was given a permanent commission in the RAF on 1st August 1919 with the rank of group captain. He commanded No. 16 Group from October 1919 and then No. 1 Group from February 1920. He was promoted to air commodore on 1st January 1922, and served as chief staff officer at Inland Area headquarters at Uxbridge from February 1922 before being appointed Chief Staff Officer for RAF Iraq Command in August 1924.

He was also an accomplished skier, and winner of the first ever National Slalom Championship, and president of the Ski Club of Great Britain from 1924 to 1925.

In May 1926 he was appointed director of training at the Air Ministry. Lord Trenchard sent him to Palestine and Transjordan to study security problems caused by Arab/Jewish unrest: his reports, which gained Trenchard's approval, were a cause of further career advancement. Dowding became Air Officer Commanding Fighting Area, Air Defence of Great Britain in December 1929 and then joined the Air Council as Air Member for Supply and Research in September 1930. One of his first responsibilities in this post was the approval of the granting of a certificate of airworthiness to the R101 airship shortly before it set off on its ill fated voyage to India.

In July 1936 Dowding was appointed commanding officer of the newly created RAF Fighter Command, and was perhaps the one important person in Britain, and very possibly the world, who did not agree with British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin's 1932 declaration that "The bomber will always get through" .He conceived and oversaw the development of the "Dowding system". This consisted of an integrated air defence system which included (i) radar, (ii) human observers (including the Royal Observer Corps), (iii) raid plotting, and (iv) radio control of aircraft. The whole network was linked in many cases by dedicated telephone cables buried sufficiently deeply to provide protection against bombing. The network had its centre at RAF Bentley Priory, a converted country house on the outskirts of London. The system as a whole later became known as Ground controlled interception (GCI).

Dowding also introduced modern aircraft into service during the pre war period, including the eight gun Spitfire and Hurricane. He is also credited with having fought the Air Ministry so that fighter planes were equipped with bullet proof wind shields. He was promoted to air chief marshal on 1st January 1937.

Due to retire in June 1939, he was asked to stay on until November 1940. In 1940, Dowding, nicknamed "Stuffy" by his men for his alleged lack of humour, proved unwilling to sacrifice aircraft and pilots in the attempt to aid Allied troops during the Battle of France. 


“I believe that, if an adequate fighter force is kept in this country, if the fleet remains in being, and if Home Forces are suitably organized to resist invasion, we should be able to carry on the war single handed for some time, if not indefinitely. But, if the Home Defence Force is drained away in desperate attempts to remedy the situation in France, defeat in France will involve the final, complete and irremediable defeat of this country.” 

 

He, along with his immediate superior Sir Cyril Newall, then Chief of the Air Staff, resisted repeated requests from Winston Churchill to weaken the home defence by sending precious squadrons to France. When the Allied resistance in France collapsed, he worked closely with Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, the commander of 11 Fighter Group, in organising cover for the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk.

 

Through the summer and autumn of 1940 in the Battle of Britain, Dowding's Fighter Command resisted the attacks of the Luftwaffe. Beyond the critical importance of the overall system of integrated air defence which he had developed for Fighter Command, his major contribution was to marshal resources behind the scenes (including replacement aircraft and aircrew) and to maintain a significant fighter reserve, while leaving his subordinate commanders' hands largely free to run the battle in detail.

Dowding was known for his humility and great sincerity. Fighter Command pilots came to characterise Dowding as "The  one who cared for his men, and had their best interests at heart".

He often referred to his "dear fighter boys" : indeed his son Derek was one of them. Because of his brilliant detailed preparation of Britain's air defences for the German assault, and his prudent management of his resources during the battle, Dowding is today generally given the credit for Britain's victory in the Battle of Britain.

Dowding's subsequent downfall has been attributed by some to his single mindedness and perceived lack of diplomacy and political savoir faire in dealing with intra-RAF challenges and intrigues, most obviously the still even now hotly debated Big Wing controversy in which a number of senior and active service officers had argued in favour of large set piece air battles with the Luftwaffe as an alternative to Dowding's successful Fabian strategy. Another reason often cited for his removal, was the difficulty of countering German night bombing raids on British cities.

There was great political and public pressure during the Blitz for something to be done, and Fighter Command's existing resources without, as yet, airborne radar, proved woefully inadequate. A committee of enquiry produced a long list of recommendations to improve night air defence; when Dowding approved only some of them, his erstwhile supporters, Lord Beaverbrook and Churchill, decided that it was time for him to step down.

He unwillingly relinquished command on 24th November 1940 and was replaced by Big Wing advocate Sholto Douglas. Churchill tried to soften the blow by putting him in charge of the British Air Mission to the USA, responsible for the procurement of new aircraft types, but there he made himself unpopular with his outspokenness. On his return to England he headed a study into economies of RAF manpower before retiring from the Royal Air Force in July 1942.

Later in life, because of his belief that he was unjustly treated by the RAF, he became increasingly bitter. He thought Big Wing proponents, including Trafford Leigh Mallory and Douglas Bader, had engineered his sacking from Fighter Command. In the wake of the debate that followed, the RAF passed him over for promotion to Marshal of the Royal Air Force.

Dowding died at his home in Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent, on 15th February 1970, aged 87. Following his cremation, his ashes were laid to rest below the Battle of Britain Memorial Window in the Royal Air Force chapel at Westminster Abbey.

Westminster Abbey was packed for his memorial service in March 1970 with more than 46 air marshals in attendance; and in 1988 HM the Queen Mother unveiled a statue in his honour.

It may be a bizarre explanation for his position during one of the turning points of World War II and Dowding may not have been the most charismatic leader, but thanks in no small part to this strange man, our darkest hour became our finest.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park GCB, KBE, MC*, DFC, DCL, MA, RAF

"If any one man won the Battle of Britain, he did. I do not believe it is realised how much that one man, with his leadership, his calm judgement and his skill, did to save, not only this country, but the world". 

Lord Tedder, Chief of the Air Staff, February 1947.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Rodney Park, GCB, KBE, MC & Bar, DFC, was born in Thames, New Zealand on 15th June 1892, and died on 6th February 1975, aged 82. He was a New Zealand soldier, First World War flying ace and Second World War Royal Air Force commander.

He was in operational command during two of the most significant air battles in the European theatre in the Second World War, helping to win the Battle of Britain and the Battle of Malta. In Germany, he was known as "the Defender of London".

Park was born in Thames, New Zealand. He was the son of James Park from Scotland, a geologist for a mining company and later a professor at the University of Otago in Dunedin.

An undistinguished young man, but keen on guns and riding, Keith Park was educated at King's College, Auckland until 1906, and then at Otago Boys' High School, Dunedin where he served in the army cadets. Later he joined the Army as a Territorial soldier in the New Zealand Field Artillery. In 1911, at age 19, he went to sea as a purser aboard collier and passenger steamships, earning the family nickname "skipper".

When the First World War broke out, Park left the ships and joined his artillery battalion. As a non-commissioned officer, he participated in the landings at Gallipoli in April 1915, going ashore at Anzac Cove. In the trench warfare that followed, Park's achievements were recognised and in July 1915 he gained a commission as second lieutenant. He commanded an artillery battalion during the August 1915 attack on Suvla Bay and endured more months of squalor in the trenches. At this time Park took the unusual decision to transfer from the New Zealand Army to the British Army, joining the Royal Horse and Field Artillery.

Park was evacuated from Gallipoli in January 1916. The battle had left its mark on him both physically and mentally, though later on in life, he would remember it with nostalgia. He particularly admired the ANZA Commander, Sir William Birdwood, whose leadership style and attention to detail would be a model for Park in his later career.

After the hardship at Gallipoli, Park's battalion was shipped to France to take part in the Battle of the Somme. Here he learned the value of aerial reconnaissance, noting the manner in which German aircraft were able to spot Allied artillery for counter-fire and getting an early taste of flight by being taken aloft to check his battalion's camouflage. On 21st October 1916, Park was blown off his horse by a German shell. Wounded, he was evacuated to England and medically certified "unfit for active service," which technically meant he was unfit to ride a horse. After a brief remission recovering from his wounds, recuperating and doing training duties at Woolwich Depot, he joined the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in December 1916.

By the end of the war, the strain of command had all but exhausted Park, but he had achieved much as a pilot and commander, he was also shot down twice during this period.

After the War, Park was awarded a permanent commission as a captain in the Royal Flying Crops, and when the new RAF officer ranks were introduced in 1919, Park became a flight lieutenant. He served as a flight commander on No. 25 Squadron from 1919 to 1920 before taking up duties as a squadron commander at the School of Technical Training. In 1922 he was selected to attend the newly formed RAF Staff College, after Staff College he commanded various RAF stations, and was an instructor before promotion to Air Commodore and an appointment as Senior Air Staff Officer at Fighter Command under Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding in 1938. 

Promoted to the rank of air vice marshal, Park took command of No.11 Group RAF, responsible for the fighter defence of London and southeast England, in April 1940. He organized fighter patrols over France during the Dunkirk evacuation and in the Battle of Britain his command took the brunt of the Luftwaffe's air attacks. Park gained a reputation as a shrewd tactician with an astute grasp of strategic issues and as a popular "hands-on" commander. However, he became embroiled in an acrimonious dispute with ambitious Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, commander of 12 Group. Leigh-Mallory, already envious of Park for leading the key 11 Group while No.12 Group was left to defend airfields, repeatedly failed to support No.11 Group. Leigh-Mallory and his Big Wing (led by Douglas Bader) often ran amok through No.11 Group airspace confusing the defences. Quintin Brand's No. 10 Group in the South West successfully supported No.11 Group when required despite having far more arduous defensive duties in its own area than No.12 Group.

Park's subsequent objection to Leigh-Mallory's behaviour during the Big Wing controversy may have contributed to his and Dowding's removal from command at the end of the battle, but neither Park nor Dowding had much time for internal politics and fell easy prey to their waiting critics. Richard Saul of 13 Group on the other hand, wrote to Park on learning of his pending departure from No.11 Group, commenting on "the magnificent achievements of your group in the past six months; they have borne the brunt of the war, and undoubtedly saved England". Park was to remain indignant however over his and Dowding's treatment for the rest of his life. Park was posted immediately to Training Command before seeing later high ranking service in the Mediterranean and elsewhere.

No.11 Group RAF were co-ordinated by fighter controllers in the No.11 Group Operations Room. Park himself was not based in the bunker but did visit to impart his wisdom at numerous key points during the battle, along with visits from the Royal Family and Winston Churchill. Among the many air battles fought over Britain, Park personally commanded RAF forces on several important dates; 13th August (Adlertag), 18th August (The Hardest Day) and the 15th September (Battle of Britain Day).

In January 1942 Park went to Egypt as Air Officer Commanding, where he built up the air defence of the Nile Delta. In July 1942, following growing concern over the German and Italian attacks on Malta, he returned to action, commanding the vital air defence of the island. From there his squadrons participated in the North African and Sicilian campaigns. In January 1944 he was made Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Middle East Command.

In February 1945 Park was appointed Allied Air Commander, South-East Asia, where he served until the end of the war. Park was made a Commander of the American Legion in 1947.

On leaving the Royal Air Force, Park personally selected a Supermarine Spitfire to be donated to the Auckland War Memorial Museum, New Zealand. This aircraft is still on display today along with his service decorations and uniform.

Park retired and was promoted to Air Chief Marshal on 20th December 1946 and returned to New Zealand, where he took up a number of civic roles and was elected to the Auckland City Council in 1962. He lived in New Zealand until his death on 6th February 1975, aged 82 years.

While Sir Hugh Dowding controlled the Battle from day to day, it was Keith Park who controlled it hour by hour. Air Vice Marshal 'Johnnie' Johnson, one of the top Allied air aces of the war, said: "He was the only man who could have lost the war in a day or even an afternoon". This was an echo of Winston Churchill's description of Admiral Jellicoe in the First World War.

Although Park has not received widespread public recognition, either in Britain or his native New Zealand, he has a claim to be one of the greatest commanders in the history of aerial warfare.