Dowding, Hugh Caswall Tremenheere, first Baron Dowding 1882-1970, air chief marshal, was born at Moffat, Dumfriesshire, 24 April 1882, the eldest in a family of three boys and one girl of Arthur John Caswall Dowding, a schoolmaster of Wiltshire stock, and his wife, Maud Caroline, daughter of Major-General Charles William Tremenheere, chief engineer in the Public Works Department in Bombay.
During his early schooldays at St. Ninian's, Moffat, he lived at home enjoying the combination of kindly parents who were also the respected headmaster and his wife. He entered Winchester, his father's old school, in 1895, where he spent four not entirely happy years. His lack of facility with the classics led him to join the army class, thence to choose an army career.
By way of the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, he became a gunner in the Royal Garrison Artillery, following the advice of his family. His subaltern's life in Gibraltar, Ceylon, and Hong Kong was that of a typical young gunner officer. After transfer to a mountain battery in 1904, he spent six years in India, half the time with a native battery. He relished the strenuous, solitary, and often dangerous life on maneuvres in the Himalayan foothills. Subsequently (1912-13), two years at the Staff College, Camberley, coincided with his developing interest in aviation. In his own time he learned to fly at Brooklands, the flying school run by the firm of Vickers, and obtained his Royal Aero Club pilot's certificate No. 711 early in the morning of the same day as he passed out from Camberley, 20 December 1913. He then took a three-month course at the Central Flying School at Upavon, where his flying instructor was (Sir) John Salmond [qv.] and his assistant commandant H. M. (later Viscount) Trenchard [qv.]. Dowding returned to the Garrison Artillery in the Isle of Wight as a Royal Flying Corps Reserve officer.
When war was declared in 1914 he was appointed commandant of the RFC Dover camp whence the squadrons left for France. Thereafter he served at home and in France with Nos. 7 and 6 Squadrons, both as observer and pilot and then as flight commander with No. 9 Squadron. He specialized in early experiments in wireless telegraphy. Appointed to command No. 16 Squadron at Merville in 1915, Dowding in many ways found it a testing time. His nickname from Camberley days of Stuffy appeared to younger aircrew to suit his older, more withdrawn, and austere approach to flying duties. His general reputation was not advanced by a brush with Trenchard over a supply of propellers, although Dowding proved that he himself had the better technical knowledge. Promotion followed regularly until by 1917 he was a brigadier-general; however, another brush with Trenchard in 1916, when Dowding commanded the headquarters wing of HQ, Royal Flying Corps, probably denied him field command for the rest of the war.
Becoming, not without difficulty, a permanent officer in the newly created Royal Air Force in 1919, Dowding was group commander at Kenley and then chief of staff at Headquarters, Inland Area. His name became prominent as the organizer of the second and some subsequent Hendon pageants. A posting as chief staff officer to Air Headquarters, Iraq, in 1924 provided further opportunities for active flying. In 1926 he became director of training at the Air Ministry and achieved a much-needed rapport with Trenchard, who was now at the height of power as the chief of air staff. So far did Dowding gain Trenchard's confidence that he was sent in 1929 to Palestine to report on the need for Service reinforcements when an Arab rising seemed imminent. His balanced reports won favour with Trenchard.
After a brief spell in command of the Fighting Area on return from Palestine, Dowding joined the Air Council in 1930 as air member for supply and research. His period of office saw continuous revolutionary changes in the design and construction of aircraft. It saw the development of all-metal monoplanes like the Hurricane and Spitfire, early work on the Stirling and other heavy bombers, and the development of eight-gun armament and especially of radar. Dowding's practical bent, his insistence on experimentation and trials, and his imaginative grasp of aircrew requirements often led him into conflict with colleagues or other holders of received orthodox opinions. Although Dowding was willing to listen to his scientific advisers, it was clear that he formed his own opinions. His title changed to air member for research and development when in 1935 supply became another member's responsibility.
It was fitting that Dowding was appointed AOC-in-C of the new Fighter Command in 1936. The fifty-four-year-old widower moved to Stanmore where his sister Hilda was hostess for him. (Dowding had married in 1918 and his wife died suddenly in 1920.) For the next four years in Fighter Command he dedicated himself to preparing the air defences of the United Kingdom. The introduction of efficient land-line communications, operations rooms, improved VHF R/T, and above all the completion of the chain of radar stations round the east and south coasts were his concern. Together with these went the creation of new squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes. The announcement that Sir Cyril (later Lord) Newall [qv.] was to be appointed chief of air staff in 1937 must have been a blow to any hopes Dowding may have had of achieving that office. He bore this just as stoically as he endured the five separate indications between August 1938 and August 1940 of Air Ministry intention to terminate his active service on grounds of age.
Although a massive Luftwaffe attack did not come, Dowding had to fight a constant paper war to resist diversions of his modern fighters from home defence. Single-mindedly, Dowding sought to retain in readiness the number of squadrons he deemed essential to resist the destruction of his force and the invasion of the country. The loss of fighters in Norway was small compared with the fighter reinforcements demanded by the French premier after the German assault on France. In an appearance at his own request at a Cabinet meeting on 15 May, and in his historic letter to the Air Ministry of 16 May 1940, Dowding set out the stark issues of survival or irremediable defeat. On 20 May the War Cabinet decided that no more fighter squadrons should leave the country. Providing fighter cover at long range during the withdrawal from Dunkirk provided successful combat experience for Dowding's men, but at the cost of further losses of aircraft and pilots. At this time a sympathetic working relationship between Dowding and his AOC No. 11 Group in south-east England, Air Vice-Marshal (later Air Chief Marshal Sir) Keith Park was confirmed and deepened in the summer and autumn of 1940. A similar sympathetic accord was established with his colleague, Lieutenant-General (later General) Sir Frederick Pile, GOC-in-C Anti-Aircraft Command.
The Battle of Britain was fought tactically at Group and Sector Operations Room level. But it is to Dowding that praise must go for his over-all mastery of the air weapon. The deployment of his forces, his rotation of squadrons which had been heavily engaged, his constant regard for reserves of aircraft and personnel, indicated skill of a high order. In addition to commanding the struggle by day for air superiority over south-east England, Dowding spent most nights in monitoring the development of airborne radar and other techniques to meet the threat of the night bomber. His complete personal commitment partly explains his failure to control the clash of tactics and personalities which developed between Park and Air Vice-Marshal Leigh-Mallory [qv.] (AOC No. 12 Group) over the use of squadrons in big wing formation. Dowding was replaced at Fighter Command on 25 November 1940 by the deputy chief of air staff, Air Marshal Sholto Douglas (later Lord Douglas of Kirtleside) [qv.]. Dowding was undoubtedly very tired. He was also a victorious airman and an embarrassingly senior officer.
To many, Dowding's replacement so soon after his victory in Britain's first great air battle appeared ungrateful. Some unusual mark of recognition might have tempered the eventually inevitable decision to appoint a new commander for Fighter Command in its more offensive role. Dowding was persuaded by the prime minister to visit the United States on behalf of the Ministry of Aircraft Production. The trip was not successful. Dowding was inclined to put forward his own views which were not always in accord with those of Britain's permanent representatives there. On his return in June 1941 he was asked to prepare a dispatch on the Battle of Britain. This was ready before October, the date of his retirement as indicated to him by the Air Ministry.
The prime minister expressed indignation when he learned of this intention and virtually commanded Dowding to accept an appointment in the Air Ministry involving the scrutiny of RAF establishments. At the same time he took possession of a book Twelve Legions of Angels which Dowding had submitted for clearance. The new appointment was not to Dowding's taste and before long the old arguments with the Air Ministry reappeared. At his own request he eventually retired in July 1942 but his book was suppressed under the wartime regulations until 1946.
In his retirement Dowding devoted himself to a study of spiritualism and theosophy. His nature had always been contemplative and philosophical. He published several books—Many Mansions (1943), Lychgate (1945), God's Magic (1946), and The Dark Star (1951). He wrote articles for newspapers and gave lectures on occult subjects. His second marriage in 1951 brought him a wife and companion who shared his beliefs. He gave up shooting and became a vegetarian.
As a young officer Dowding seemed set for an honourable but conventional soldier's life. Aviation opened new possibilities for his devoted spirit and inquiring mind. He became a dedicated airman, rising almost to the top of his profession. His stern sense of duty, added to his well-founded competence in practical flying matters, made him a formidable advocate for views strongly held. No easy compromiser or politician, he often aroused hostility, sometimes unwittingly. His vision was intense but narrow. His high moment was in the Battle of Britain. Few served their country more selflessly and courageously. His life had many bleak and lonely periods but his old age was mellow, surrounded, as he was, by the affection of family and friends. After the war Dowding became a legendary figure to the Battle of Britain pilots and one of his proudest moments was to receive a standing ovation from his so-called chicks at the première of the film Battle of Britain in 1969. In his later years as a senior officer Dowding had an erect lean figure. He was dour in aspect with an almost expressionless face. This appearance coupled with his sparing use of speech had a daunting effect on some who met him for the first time. But a twinkle in the eye and a slight pursing of the lips showed his inner kindliness and humour to those of whom he approved. He died at his home in Kent 15 February 1970. His ashes are interred in Westminster Abbey. Dowding was appointed CMG in 1919, CB in 1928, KCB in 1933, GCVO in 1937, and GCB during the Battle of Britain in 1940. In 1943 a barony was conferred on him and he took the style of his old headquarters, Bentley Priory.
His first marriage was in 1918 to Clarice Maud Vancourt, daughter of Captain John Williams of the Indian Army and the widow of an army officer, who had one daughter by her first marriage; in January 1919 she gave birth to a son. She died suddenly in 1920. Dowding's second marriage was in 1951 to Muriel, widow of Pilot Officer Maxwell Whiting, RAF, and daughter of John Albino. Dowding was succeeded by his only child, Wing Commander Derek Hugh Tremenheere Dowding.
There is a pastel drawing (1939) by Sir W. Rothenstein in the Imperial War Museum, a portrait (1942) by Sir W. Russell at Bentley Priory, and one by F. Kenworthy-Browne in the possession of the family. A bronze by David Wynne was exhibited in 1968 at the National Portrait Gallery.
The Times, 16 February 1970
Basil Collier, Leader of the Few, 1957
Robert Wright, Dowding and the Battle of Britain, 1969
Contributor: E. B. Haslam