The Magazine

Dowding's Victory

Neither luck nor chance won the Battle of Britain.

Sep 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 01 • By NELSON D. LANKFORD
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During a visit to London in the 1990s my wife and I attended a service at St. Clement Danes, a once-bombed-out Wren church in the Strand, now station church of the Royal Air Force. By pure chance it was September 15, Battle of Britain Day. Half a century had passed since the stooped, graying veterans who gathered to worship that day had faced daunting odds in the skies over England. To visiting Americans, they made tangible the centrality of the Battle of Britain to collective memory in the United Kingdom.

Now, seven decades after the war, it is hard to conjure up the awe and dread that filled residents of southern England as they looked up into the brilliant blue skies of summer 1940, skies streaked with the contrails of hundreds of Luftwaffe planes, day after day. Michael Korda's latest book retells the familiar story of how Britain, alone, blunted the seemingly inexorable German tide. And although With Wings Like Eagles is not a work of original scholarship based on exhaustive sifting of unpublished sources, it is nonetheless a compelling synthesis, elegantly written.

Korda begins by recounting the fitful creation of Britain's air defenses. It may surprise readers that he gives credit to both Stanley Baldwin and, after him, Neville Chamberlain. As prime minister, Baldwin took little interest in the military and hated spending on it. In the House of Commons he feuded bitterly with Winston Churchill, who doggedly argued for greater defense outlays. (When Churchill later learned, during the war, that the Germans had bombed the Baldwin family factory, he groused, "How ungrateful of them.")

Baldwin parroted the orthodoxy of the times that "the bomber will always get through." If nothing could stop enemy bombers, why waste money on fighter planes? Yet he could not completely ignore defense, and by his parsimonious reckoning, spending a little on fighters would cost less than building fleets of bombers. Thus, in a roundabout way, he "stumbled on the idea of defense rather than deterrence."

Korda views his subject from the heights of central command rather than from the cockpit of a Spitfire. His hero, and the focus of this book, is Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding. Stubborn, remote, shy, incapable of charm, and lacking in humor, Dowding
more than earned his nickname "Stuffy." Despite these debilities, he perfected the system that defined RAF Fighter Command.

At Bentley Priory, the 18th-century mansion outside London that served as Dowding's headquarters, buried telephone lines linked the commander to each airfield and radar station. A central operations room collected and distilled readiness reports from fighter squadrons and intelligence generated by radar and the ground Observer Corps. On a huge map table members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) moved counters, representing these data, with a long pole "like that used by the croupier at the roulette table."

If war came, the counters constantly dancing across the face of the map would guide Dowding's orders to his squadron commanders, and from them to their pilots. By the late 1930s the latter flew two newly operational models of monoplane, the Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire, which were evenly matched with the best German fighter, the Messerschmitt Bf 109.

The Air Ministry and its political masters long doubted the value of defense by fighter planes, and both only reluctantly acceded--"at first more in the spirit of window dressing" --to Dowding's insistent demands. Undeterred, Dowding hectored them for funds, including money to build an underground duplicate of the operations room, protected by reinforced concrete. He got his way with just months to spare, and by the spring of 1940 had assembled the tools he needed.

The point Korda hammers home is that the RAF's victory "came about neither by luck nor by last-minute improvisation" but by thorough preparation. And when the conflict began, Dowding's genius lay in husbanding his forces rather than committing them all at once. He wanted his adversaries to think he was scraping the bottom of the barrel and about to run out of planes and pilots at any moment. With constant pinprick attacks by small numbers of fighters, he concealed his total strength while inflicting a mounting toll on German bombers. The head of Fighter Command knew his pilots--whom he sentimentally called his "Chicks"--could not win the war, but in that summer of endless blue skies, they surely could lose it.