Profile of Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding

Led the RAF's Fighter Command During World War II's Battle of Britain

Heroes Reunited
Air aces who won the Battle of Britain reunited. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding is located center. Stevenson / Getty Images

Born April 24, 1882, at Moffat, Scotland, Hugh Dowding was the son of a schoolmaster. Attending St. Ninian's Preparatory School as a boy, he continued his education at Winchester College at age 15. After two years of further schooling, Dowding elected to pursue a military career and began classes at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich in September 1899. Graduating the following year, he was commissioned as a subaltern and posted to the Royal Garrison Artillery. Sent to Gibraltar, he subsequently saw service in Ceylon and Hong Kong. In 1904, Dowding was assigned to the No. 7 Mountain Artillery Battery in India.

Learning to Fly

Returning to Britain, he was accepted for the Royal Staff College and began classes in January 1912. In his spare time, he quickly became fascinated by flying and aircraft. Visiting the Aero Club at Brooklands, he was able to convince them to give him flying lessons on credit. A quick learner, he soon received his flying certificate. With this in hand, he applied to the Royal Flying Corps to become a pilot. The request was approved and he joined the RFC in December 1913. With the outbreak of ​World War I in August 1914, Dowding saw service with Nos. 6 and 9 Squadrons.

Dowding in World War I

Seeing service at the front, Dowding showed a deep interest in wireless telegraphy which led him to return to Britain in April 1915 to form the Wireless Experimental Establishment at Brooklands. That summer, he was given command of No. 16 Squadron and returned to the fighting until posted to the 7th Wing at Farnborough in early 1916. In July, he was assigned to lead 9th (Headquarters) Wing in France. Taking part in the Battle of the Somme, Dowding clashed with the commander of the RFC, Major General Hugh Trenchard, over the need to rest pilots at the front.

This dispute soured their relationship and saw Dowding reassigned to the Southern Training Brigade. Though promoted to brigadier general in 1917, his conflict with Trenchard ensured that he did not return to France. Instead, Dowding moved through various administrative posts for the remainder of the war. In 1918, he moved to the newly created Royal Air Force and in the years after the war led No. 16 and No. 1 Groups. Moving into staff assignments, he was sent to the Middle East in 1924 as the chief staff officer for the RAF Iraq Command. Promoted to air vice marshal in 1929, he joined the Air Council a year later.

Building the Defenses

On the Air Council, Dowding served as Air Member for Supply and Research and later Air Member for Research and Development (1935). In these positions, he proved instrumental in modernizing Britain's aerial defenses. Encouraging the design of advanced fighter aircraft, he also supported the development of new Radio Direction Finding equipment. His efforts ultimately led to the design and production of the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire. Having been promoted to air marshal in 1933, Dowding was selected to lead the newly formed Fighter Command in 1936.

Though overlooked for the position of Chief of the Air Staff in 1937, Dowding worked tirelessly to improve his command. Promoted to air chief marshal in 1937, Dowding developed the "Dowding System" which integrated several air defense components into one apparatus. This saw the uniting of radar, ground observers, raid plotting, and radio control of aircraft. These disparate components were tied together through a protected telephone network that was administered through his headquarters at RAF Bentley Priory. In addition, to better control his aircraft, he divided the command into four groups to cover all of Britain.

These consisted of Air Vice Marshal Sir Quintin Brand's 10 Group (Wales and the West Country), Air Vice Marshal Keith Park's 11 Group (Southeastern England), Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory's 12 Group (Midland & East Anglia), and Air Vice Marshal Richard Saul's 13 Group (Northern England, Scotland, & Northern Ireland). Though scheduled to retire in June 1939, Dowding was asked to remain in his post until March 1940 due to the deteriorating international situation. His retirement was subsequently postponed until July and then October. As a result, Dowding remained at Fighter Command as World War II began.

The Battle of Britain

With the outbreak of World War II, Dowding worked with Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Cyril Newall to ensure that Britain's defenses were not weakened in order to support campaigns on the Continent. Stunned by RAF fighter losses during the Battle of France, Dowding warned the War Cabinet of the dire consequences should it continue. With defeat on the Continent, Dowding worked closely with Park to ensure that air superiority was maintained during the Dunkirk Evacuation. As the German invasion loomed, Dowding, known as "Stuffy" to his men, was viewed as a steady but distant leader.

As the Battle of Britain began in the summer of 1940, Dowding worked to ensure adequate aircraft and resources were available to his men. The brunt of the fighting was carried by Park's 11 Group and by Leigh-Mallory's 12 Group. Though badly stretched during the course of the fighting, Dowding's integrated system proved effective and at no point did he commit more than fifty percent of his aircraft to the battle zone. During the course of the fighting, a debate emerged between Park and Leigh-Mallory regarding tactics.

While Park favored intercepting raids with individual squadrons and subjecting them to continued attack, Leigh-Mallory advocated for massed attacks by "Big Wings" consisting of at least three squadrons. The thought behind the Big Wing was that a larger number of fighters would increase enemy losses while minimizing RAF casualties. Opponents pointed out that it took longer for Big Wings to form and increased the danger of fighters being caught on the ground refueling. Dowding proved unable to resolve the differences between his commanders, as he preferred Park's methods while the Air Ministry favored the Big Wing approach.

Dowding was also criticized during the battle by Vice Marshal William Sholto Douglas, Assistant Chief of Air Staff, and Leigh-Mallory for being too cautious. Both men felt that Fighter Command should be intercepting raids before they reached Britain. Dowding dismissed this approach as he believed it would increase losses in aircrew. By fighting over Britain, downed RAF pilots could be quickly returned to their squadrons rather than lost at sea. Though Dowding's approach and tactics proved correct for achieving victory, he was increasingly seen as uncooperative and difficult by his superiors. With the replacement of Newell with Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal, and with an aged Trenchard lobbying behind the scenes, Dowding was removed from Fighter Command in November 1940, shortly after winning the battle.

Later Career

Awarded the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath for his role in the battle, Dowding was effectively sidelined for the rest of his career due to his outspoken and forthright manner. After conducting an aircraft purchasing mission to the United States, he returned to Britain and conducted an economic study on RAF manpower before retiring in July 1942. In 1943, he was created First Baron Dowding of Bentley Priory for his service to the nation. In his later years, he became actively engaged in spiritualism and increasingly bitter regarding his treatment by the RAF. Largely living away from the service, he did serve as the president of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association. Dowding died at Tunbridge Wells on February 15, 1970, and was buried at Westminster Abbey.


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Hickman, Kennedy. "Profile of Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). Profile of Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "Profile of Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).