SECURING THE SKIES

Commanders

The Commanders of the Battle

The overall tactics employed during the Battle of Britain have been the subject of much controversy, even at the time the Battle was fought. How and why the fighting system developed will be detailed elsewhere in these pages, but is more readily understood with a knowledge of the personalities behind the crucial decisions made in the heat of Battle. Listed here are the Commanders in Chief of the two opposing air forces, as well as those commanding officers responsible for conducting the day to day operations.

The Royal Air Force

Air Chief Marshal Sir Cyril Newall, Chief of the Air Staff

 

Cyril Newall was born in India in 1886 and after training at Sandhurst was commissioned in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in 1905. After active service on the North West Frontier during 1908, he joined the 2nd Gurkha Rifles and while at home on leave in 1911 learned to fly in a Bristol Biplane at Larkhill. Having gained his RFC 'wings' at the Central Flying School (CFS), Upavon, in 1913, he was posted as an instructor at the newly formed Indian CFS at Sitapur.

After a spell on No 1 Squadron following the outbreak of the First World War, Newell joined No 12 Squadron and became Squadron Commander shortly after leading the unit across the Channel to France. By the end of 1916, he was directly answerable to Trenchard as Commander of 9 Wing, whose squadrons provided the RFC's main long-range bombing and reconnaissance force in France. The following year, he took command of the newly formed 41 Wing (a precursor to the Independent Force), charged with striking targets of military importance in German territory.

Highly regarded as a wartime commander, Newell was well placed to share in the direction of the post-war RAF and after spending three years in the Air Ministry as Deputy Director of Personnel, he was posted to the newly opened No 1 School of Trade Training at Halton as deputy to the Commandant. Here, he did much to establish the reputation and ensure the success of the Apprentices Scheme which the future RAF would come to rely on. The remaining Inter-War years saw three more major postings; between 1926 and 1931 he served at the Air Ministry as Director of Operations and Intelligence and Deputy Chief of the Air Staff; from 1931 to 1934 he was in Cairo as Air Officer Commanding Middle East; and in January 1935 was given the newly created appointment of Air Member for Supply and Organisation. Here, Newell oversaw the rapid growth of the RAF through successive expansion programmes, with a key role in the organisation and provisioning for the Service and its rebuilding plans.

To many, his appointment as Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) in 1937 was a major surprise, but Newall was without doubt amply qualified for the post, and almost immediately submitted further expansion plans for the RAF, in particular Home Air Force and Bomber Command units, to at least maintain parity with Germany. This philosophy was challenged by members of the government much to the surprise of Service chiefs whose strategies were formed around the bomber force, but after many discussions, the emphasis of the scheme was changed towards fighter aircraft. Newall's strong leadership showed itself in many ways, not least when he agreed to order large-scale production of three heavy bombers off the drawing board in 1938 and strongly resisted the deployment of RAF fighters and bombers to France in September 1940, fearing that this would leave the country without sufficient resources to defend itself. Thus, the stage was set for Dowding and "The Few", but the support of Newall and his staff was also fundamental to the victory.

Then, on 24 October 1940, Newall departed. He had been CAS for over three years, and coped with enormous pressure and much criticism and understandably the strain was beginning to tell. He spent the remainder of the War as the highly respected Governor General of New Zealand, and was raised to the peerage in 1946. He died in 1963.

 

Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Fighter Command

Hugh Dowding was born at Moffat in 1882. Educated at Winchester and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, he was commissioned in the Royal Garrison Artillery and spent the early years of his service career overseas. After spending two years at the Staff College, Camberley, Dowding took the opportunity to learn to fly at Brooklands and gained his RFC wings during 1913.

The outbreak of the Great War saw him spend time in France with Nos 6 and 9 Squadrons before his interest in wireless telegraphy led to him returning home to form the Wireless Experimental Establishment at Brooklands in April 1915. Within months, however, Dowding was back in France, this time as Officer Commanding No 16 Squadron before taking command of the Ninth (Headquarters) Wing during the Battle of the Somme. Differences of opinion with Trenchard saw him return the UK to run the Southern Training Brigade at Salisbury, a post he occupied for the rest of the war.

Following the war, Dowding spent time in the Air Ministry and in Staff Officer posts, but it was his appointment as the Air Council as Air Member for Supply and Research at the end of 1930 and his subsequent position as Air Member for Research and Development were he influenced the future shape of Britain's defences. Here, he encouraged the development of advanced fighter aircraft, and it was largely on his initiative that the Hurricane and Spitfire were ordered into production in 1934. He also showed tremendous interest in the detection of enemy aircraft and provided his full support to the new Radio Direction Finding (RDF) equipment then under development.

His interest in defence made him the natural choice to command the new Fighter Command when it was set up in July 1936, and was disappointed to be overlooked for the position of Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) in 1937 (which went to Newall). Dowding continued to prepare his Command for war, overseeing the introduction new aircraft, bullet-proof wind-screens, the development of the Observer Corps and the integration of RDF units with communications and control organisations into a structure far in advance of anything else in the world.

Heavy fighter losses in France saw Dowding warn the War Cabinet of the dire consequences should the present wastage rates continue, and a letter dated 16 May 1940 is one of the great documents of history. After covering the evacuation from Dunkirk, he had just enough aircraft to fight the Luftwaffe in the one place they could be effectively used - within the comprehensive air defence system he had built in the UK. Even so, he admitted that the situation was "critical in the extreme" and while it is true that the immortal "Few" - his 'chicks' as Churchill christened them - won the Battle using the organisation he had created, the Luftwaffe lost it through bad leadership, faulty tactics and mistaken target selection. His personal role was, of course, limited. Day-to-day control of the fighters rested with the Group Commanders, of which Air Vice-Marshal Park (11 Group) and Air Vice-Marshal Leigh-Mallory (12 Group) bore the brunt of the enemy attacks, but the differing views of the two men (Park's closely matched those of Dowding, while Leigh-Mallory favoured large formations of defending aircraft - 'big wings'), and Dowding's inability settle the squabble between the two led to serious criticism of him. The Air Ministry favoured Leigh-Mallory's policies, and Dowding was increasingly seen as uncooperative and difficult to get on with. Within weeks of the end of the Battle of Britain, and with a new CAS (Air Chief Marshal Portal) in post, Dowding (now aged 58) relinquished his position. He was persuaded by Churchill to head an aircraft purchasing mission to the USA, a role for which he was quite unsuited, and also headed a major RAF economy study before finally retiring in July 1942.

An unwillingness to break with Service precedents meant that Dowding was not promoted to the rank of Marshal of the Royal Force - even when it was suggested by the King, and he spent the rest of his life largely away from the RAF. In later years he became President of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association. After his death in 1970, his remains were interred in Westminster Abbey, a fitting tribute to his remarkable achievements.

 

Air Vice-Marshal Sir Keith Park, Air Officer Commanding 11 Group

A New Zealander, and son of Professor James Park, he came to Britain to serve in the First World War as a gunner before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps during 1917 and receiving a permanent commission in the Royal Air Force.

He was given command of his first squadron on 10th April 1918, 48 Squadron, the first to be equipped with the Bristol Fighter, and later passed through the RAF Staff College before being appointed air attache to Argentina. By 1938 he had become Dowding's right-hand man as senior Staff Officer in Fighter Command, and was subsequently appointed as Air Officer Commanding No 11 Group. Like his commander, Park was relieved of his post almost immediately after the Battle of Britain and given command of a Flying Training Group. This was the outcome of pointed criticism of his tactics by Leigh-Mallory, Air Officer Commanding No 12 Group, who had gained favour within the War Cabinet and disliked both Dowding and his ally, Park.

In 1942 he became Air Officer Commanding Malta. This was during the anxious period in which the defence of the island rested with a few Hurricanes which fought with great determination and courage until the arrival of additional aircraft and aid allowed the garrison to be saved and the Mediterranean cleared. In January 1944, he was appointed Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Middle East, and a year later Allied Air Commander-in-Chief of South-East Asia Command. He died, aged 82, in New Zealand in 1975. It has been said of him by one of the great fighter leaders of the Second World War, Air Vice-Marshal 'Johnnie' Johnson, that "he was the only man who could have lost the war in a day or even an afternoon".

 

Air Vice-Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Air Officer Commanding 12 Group

Born on November 7, 1892, at Mobberley, Cheshire, he joined the a Territorial battalion of the King's (Liverpool) Regiment on the outbreak of World War I, and shortly afterwards received a commission in the Lancashire Fusiliers. Seconded to the Royal Flying Corps in July 1916, he was graded as major in the Royal Air Force following its formation in April 1918. Fore services in France he was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

Having been granted a commission in the RAF with the rank of squadron leader, in 1921 he joined the School of Army Co-operation, which he was later to command for three years. Further experience of air-land co-operation was gained and after service at the Air Ministry and overseas was given command of No 12 Group in 1937. Five years later, he moved across to No 11 Group and was promoted to Air Marshal and appointed Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Fighter Command. Leigh-Mallory was killed in November 1944 when the plane taking himself and his wife to his next appointment as Air Commander-in-Chief, South-East Asia Command crashed en-route.

Air Vice-Marshal Sir Quintin Brand, Air Officer Commanding 10 Group

Quintin Brand was born at Beaconsfield in South Africa on May 25, 1893. After being educated in his home country, Brand had a very distinguished career during the First World War as part of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force winning the Distinguished Service Order, Military Cross and Distinguished Flying Cross. One noteable feat attained by him was the shooting down of a German Gotha bomber during the last raid of the war on England.

With General Sir Pierre van Ryneveld he made the first flight from England to the Cape in 1920. The flight from Brooklands to Wynberg took six weeks due to poor weather and several mishaps - the actual flying time was some 109 hours! The aircraft they used, a Vickers Vimy bomber, crashed near Wadi Haifa and was wrecked. The pair managed to salvage the engines and fitted to a second aircraft which later crashed near Bulawayo as they were trying to leave Pretoria. They finally reached their destination in a third aircraft supplied by the South African government. They received a telegram from the King and were both knighted. Brand went on to become Director General of Aviation, Egypt between 1932 and 1936; Director of Repair and Maintenance at the Air Ministry between 1937 to 1939 before assuming the role of Air Officer Commanding No 10 Group, Fighter Command between 1939 and 1941. He retired from the RAF in 1943 and died in Rhodesia in March 1968 aged 74.

 

Air Vice-Marshal Richard Saul, Air Officer Commanding 13 Group

Responsible for the 220 aircraft and four sector stations defending the North of England, Scotland and such strategically important tagets as the major naval base at Scapa Flow, Richard Saul was one of the great all round sportsmen of the Royal Air Force. During his career, which began as an observer on such aircraft as the RE8 and BE2 during the First World War, he had represented the RAF at both rugby and hockey, and had won the RAF tennis championship outright. His appointment as commander of 13 Group followed on from his being the Senior Air Staff Officer at Fighter Command Headquarters, a post filled by Kieth Park on his departure. It was Saul's organisational ability that began shaping Fighter Command's structure into an effective fighting force during the late 1930's.