Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding had been the driving force behind the development of Britain’s air defences in the immediate pre war period. He had organised and overseen the the integration of radar within the RAF command structure and had championed the development of both the Hurricane and the Spitfire. When war came he had warned Churchill not to lose valuable fighter resources in the defence of France.
During the Battle of Britain itself he had carefully managed the fighter Squadrons available and had worked tirelessly to respond to the various changing threats from the Luftwaffe. He had the strategic oversight to see the need for always keeping a proportion of fighters in reserve and the necessity of rotating Squadrons so that some could be ‘rested’ and fresh pilots brought into the battle successively. It was his supreme organisational abilities that put the RAF in the best possible position to combat the Germans.
Yet the reserved uncharismatic, Dowding, nicknamed “Stuffy”, was not popular amongst the higher echelons of the RAF. Some argued that he was not a sufficiently personable leader and should be spending more time visiting the front line Squadrons. There was no evidence that any fighter Squadron needed any form of inspiration – but it was an alternative view of military leadership.
Dowding was probably better placed than anyone to face the new challenge – getting the RAF’s night fighter capabilities up to speed and integrated with the rapidly developing radar technology. But he was overdue for retirement and he was told that his time was up with a telephone call.
Despite his nickname he was well regarded by fighter pilots and his devotion to them is evident in his final message:
November 24th 1940
My dear Fighter Boys,
In sending you this my last message, I wish I could say all that is in my heart. I cannot hope to surpass the simple eloquence of the Prime Ministers words, ‘Never before has so much been owed by so many to so few.” The debt remains and will increase.
In saying good-bye to you I want you to know how continually you have been in my thoughts, and that, though our direct connection may be severed, I may yet be able to help you in your gallant fight.
Good-bye to you and God bless you all.
Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding