Churchill, War, and the Battle of Britain
by Jack Dixon (November 2009)
A recent book by Geoffrey Best, entitled Churchill and War, contains not a single word about the Battle of Britain. Yet we find this statement: “Wars determined the course of history, and battles determined the outcomes of wars. Churchill wrote exceedingly well about battles, and not just because they absorbed and thrilled him. They settled the fate of nations.” An earlier page, recounting his first days as prime minister in May 1940, tells us: “Being the leader at the time and persuading the Cabinet to support him – another momentous act of leadership ... – Churchill was able to swing the people his way, and by so doing to change the course of history.”
The air was the decisive strategic military arm of the Second World War, yet it seems that Churchill had not studied it as he had military history. We make this claim in the face of what Churchill himself had written much earlier:
"Except for the year 1916, I was continually in control of one or the other branch of the Air Service during the first eleven years of its existence. From 1911 to 1915 I was responsible at the Admiralty for the creation and development of the Royal Naval Air Service; from July, 1917, to the end of the War I was in charge of the design, manufacture and supply of all kinds of aircraft and air material needed for the War; and from 1919 to 1921 I was Air Minister as well as Secretary of State for War. Thus it happens to have fallen to my lot to have witnessed, and to some extent shaped in its initial phases, the whole of this tremendous new arm, undoubtedly destined to revolutionize war by land and sea, and possibly in the end to dominate or supersede armies and navies as we have known them...
"From the outset I was deeply interested in the air and vividly conscious of the changes which it must bring to every form of war." 
Yet in the popular mind the Battle of Britain and the name of Churchill are inseparable. The explanation is threefold: Churchill’s was the commanding public presence from May 1940 to the end of the war; this presence, and his leadership, were projected largely by his speeches; and Air Chief Marshal, Sir Hugh Dowding, who might have become a public figure, was far too preoccupied with the war, and was equally far too private a person to seek the limelight.
Militarily speaking, Churchill had nothing to do with the conduct of the Battle, though he watched it with, at times, almost hypnotic fascination, and with intense admiration.
Churchill’s life and experience were intimately involved in war. At times he seemed to revel in war. He described his early experiences in writings which he hoped would bring him fame and fortune. On leaving school he joined the Army, being accepted as an officer cadet at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. The regiment he joined on passing out, the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, gave him leave to report on the civil war in Cuba for the Daily Graphic newspaper. There he came under fire for the first time in his life, and wrote glowingly of the experience both to his newspaper and to his mother.
In 1897 Churchill was on the North-West Frontier between India and Afghanistan as a correspondent for The Daily Telegraph in the months of October to December, where he witnessed military action involving gruesome slaughter.
The following year, recalled to his regiment, he was involved in the war against the Mahdi in Sudan, and took part in the last genuine cavalry charge in the history of warfare at the battle of Omdurman, which destroyed the Dervishes and their control of the Sudan.
It was, however, in South Africa that he made a name for himself when, as both a lieutenant in the South African Light Horse and a correspondent for The Morning Post, he was captured by the Boers and effected a daring escape. General Botha put out a proclamation offering a big reward for Churchill, either dead or alive.
All these experiences and escapades were exploited to the hilt by his publishing of his accounts of them. Some were collections of his despatches; others were of an autobiographical nature; one was a genuine history. They poured off the presses and earned their author some of the renown he craved. The Story of the Malakand Field Force, The River War, London to Ladysmith, Ian Hamilton’s March.
In 1900 Churchill came to the conviction that the sphere of life that offered the most challenging prospect of fame, and the greatest opportunity to exercise an influence over world events, was the political. He had already written much. During his Army years he read voluminously. Not only history but also literature. And he was to devote much time and effort to the acquisition of that skill without which no politician will ever achieve fame or statesmanship, as his heroes of the Victorian age had demonstrated, namely, that of oratory.
His first important Cabinet post was that of First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911. To his credit, Churchill was alive to the role of technology in war, and in 1912, without authorization by the Government, he ordered the conversion of the Navy’s capital ships from coal- to oil-burning furnaces.
In 1915 blame for the failure of the Dardanelles campaign, although not strictly his, was accepted by Churchill to honour the political ethos of the time; he resigned his position and re-joined the Army. He went to the Western Front as officer commanding the 6th Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers. As it happens, his second-in-command was one Archibald Sinclair. They formed a close friendship. Later, Sinclair became the leader of the Liberal Party. In 1940 Churchill was to reward his friendship, and acquit a political debt, by appointing him to a position which was to have baleful consequences for both Dowding and the rational prosecution of the air war.
In 1917 Churchill returned to Government and for the next several years held a number of important portfolios with direct connection with war and defence. At that time he took flying lessons and, having poor coordination, barely succeeded in making one solo flight. He also had two serious accidents, after which he was persuaded by his wife to abandon flying. It is possible that his unfitness for flying soured him to the air, for he was to develop little appreciation of air power. He was above all an Army man, and attuned to land warfare.
He was Home Secretary in 1926 when the General Strike threatened to bring all industry to a halt. Churchill organized military and citizen forces to combat the militancy of the union leaders, and published a daily bulletin to bring news to the people while the daily presses were shut down by the strikers. He incurred some disfavour for praising Mussolini, who, in his words, “rendered a service to the world” by showing the way “to combat subversive forces.”
For ten years Churchill was relegated to the back benches of Parliament, a period he called his “wilderness years”. He came into his own again, and he found his true voice, in the 1930s, when he was the most prominent of a small number of people warning Britain of the dangers that Hitler posed to European peace, in fiercely opposing Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, and in calling for Britain to rearm. He became a thorn in the side of the Government; he aroused considerable distaste for his belligerent attitude in a country that was sunk in a grievous recession, and whose people, still suffering from the appalling slaughter of the Great War, were in no mood to risk another conflict, the limits of which were unknowable, and potentially horrendous. The terrors of war, especially of a war which rained destruction on the people, made vivid by prophetic projections by such writers as H.G. Wells’s 1936 movie, The War of the Worlds, inspired fear in people because it showed there was no defence against bombardment from the air.
War was thrust upon the British people, and eventually the whole world, because of the French and British Governments’ failure to challenge Hitler at the time of Czechoslovakia in 1938. In that year France and Britain, by resolute action, could have saved the Czech people and stopped Hitler. Indeed, Britain failed to support Czechoslovakia even when France and Russia were keen to challenge Hitler. Instead Chamberlain, acting alone, cast aside all honour by negotiating with Hitler and on returning home and waving a pitiful piece of paper in the air, proclaimed “Peace for our time.” By 1939 it was too late: France and Britain gave a worthless guarantee to Poland, knowing they could do nothing to help them if Germany attacked them, as they did. Tyrants cannot be appeased.
With all of Eastern Europe overrun and the Battle of France about to be launched, with the British Government in disarray and Chamberlain harried out of office, the whines of appeasement and a negotiated peace clashed head on with the trumpets of resistance. It was only be a slim margin that the struggle for power was won by Churchill. That it was a struggle testifies to the strong suspicions held by leading Conservatives, and much of the country, and by the King himself, as to Churchill’s reliability, for he had proved himself in the past an erratic and volatile character.
On the other hand, the fact that the struggle was conducted on both sides by the arts of persuasion, almost according to the rules of parliamentary debate, was a stark demonstration of the solid foundations of parliamentary democracy in the United Kingdom. But a large doubt lingered in the background. What powers would a wartime prime minister have, or would arrogate to himself, especially a prime minister of the stamp of Churchill? As things turned out, Churchill proved himself one among the greatest of respecters of parliamentary traditions.
Churchill immediately appointed himself the Minister of Defence, a new portfolio. But he did not specify his responsibilities. He took an intimate interest in the appointment of some senior officers, but he was inconsistent. He showed a marked preference for senior, operational Army appointments, and seemed to leave the Navy and Air Force much to themselves.
There seems little doubt that it was his intimate experience of war, especially of successful war on the ground, that coloured his subsequent ideas about war. As a First Lord of the Admiralty he might have been expected to have studied the history of the Royal Navy, and learnt from it how the Navy had not only provided the impenetrable defence of the British Isles for hundreds of years, but also, notably, had guaranteed the Pax Britannica and the safety of the seven seas for all legitimate traffic throughout the 19th century.
Similarly, as Secretary of State for Air, albeit briefly – and especially in the light of his declaration quoted above -- he might have been expected to study, and to think occasionally about, the role of the air in future wars. The evidence shows that he failed to acquire a grasp of the role likely to be played by air power.
There is, however, evidence that he was not altogether oblivious to the problems of defence against air attack. H. Montgomery Hyde, in his book about T.E. Lawrence the airman, recounts a visit that his subject made to Churchill:
Yet, two years later, when unveiling a plaque to Lawrence’s memory at the Oxford High School for Boys, Churchill said: “He saw as clearly as anyone the vision of Air power and all that it would mean in traffic and war.” Churchill did not even then take up the study of air power, and did not acquire the vision that could be translated into wise decisions.
Another episode is equally telling. When Churchill visited Park’s headquarters to see for himself how the early warning system worked. When all 11 Group’s squadrons were airborne Churchill asked about reserves. This question shows the preoccupation of the Army man with back-up forces. A month earlier he had delivered his famous speech about ‘the Few’. Here again is the Army man seeing the action in terms of the individual soldier – or, in this context, the fighter pilot, who glowed in Churchill’s eyes as the epitome of chivalry, the worthy successor of the cavalryman.
Churchill’s appointment of his old Liberal Party friend and Army colleague to the vital portfolio of the Air Ministry was not wise. Sir Archibald Sinclair knew less about the Air than Churchill, and never mastered his job.
Sinclair’s biographer, Gerard J. De Groot, has claimed that Churchill’s appointment of Anthony Eden as Secretary of State for War and of Sinclair to the Air Ministry was tantamount to announcing that he intended to make all the strategic decisions affecting the war himself, secure in the conviction that they would not dispute or contest him in them. And Churchill’s ‘direction’ of the war was far from rational. “Churchill’s haphazard leadership was made all the more anarchic by his mercurial nature. Ad hoc advisers like ‘Prof’ Lindemann competed with ministers and civil servants for his attention. ‘Insiders’ clashed violently with ‘outsiders’ [to whom we may add the name of Beaverbrook], clashes which Churchill frequently encouraged ... Suspicion, animosity and intrigue were rife, and petty jealousy came to affect grand policy.”
Sinclair was out of his depth with Dowding, even more than Air Chief Marshal Sir Cyril Newall was. The Air Ministry being a hotbed of intrigue, Sinclair did not come to grips with the problems it caused, and may not even have been aware of the problems. He depended entirely on his Air Council colleagues, and some senior officers on the Air Staff, for advice and decisions. Hence he came under the influence of determined and ambitious men, of men who knew how to work the system.
Chief among them was Marshal William Sholto Douglas. If Newall vented his frustrations to Sinclair in his dealings with Dowding, it was Douglas who provided the constant goad. When Sinclair assumed his office as Air Minister on May 12, Dowding’s tenure as AOC-in-C of Fighter Command was due to terminate on July 14 and Sinclair wished to hold Dowding to this date. Sinclair mentioned this casually to Churchill one evening in early July, and Churchill wrote angrily to Sinclair to state his opposition and to declare his complete support for Dowding, who “ has (his) complete confidence.” However, the crucial remark in Churchill’s letter must have made Sinclair’s head spin. He concluded by saying that “his appointment should be indefinitely prolonged while the war lasts”, which measure “would not of course exclude his being moved to a higher position, if that were thought necessary.”
This seemingly innocuous suggestion by Churchill set the tocsins clanging alarmingly in the ears of the higher establishment of the Air Force. Sinclair mentioned it to his colleagues of the Air Council, by whom the word passed to first Chief of the Air Staff, Lord Trenchard, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Geoffrey Salmond. Their immediate joint reaction was: “He must be stopped!”
The very notion of Dowding becoming Chief of the Air Staff induced nightmares in them. The entire independent existence of the Royal Air Force, of which Trenchard was the architect and builder, was based on the conviction that the Air would become a decisive strategic arm in its own right and determine the outcome of future wars. Salmond was both his disciple and successor. This strategic role of the bomber was the very raison d’être of the Air Force, the ruling doctrine that guided and determined every aspect of the Air Force’s policies. To it, all else was secondary and subservient. Suddenly, it seemed, here was an event that threatened to turn upside down and negate that doctrine, the reason for existence of their life’s work. Why, if Fighter Command was successful in defeating the Luftwaffe, it meant that Defence checkmated Offence, and that any future strategy that preached that the bombing of Germany could end, or even shorten, the war would come to nought.
It was precisely at this time that the German attacks against Britain intensified, and Fighter Command began to prove that it could effectively counter them. Trenchard and Salmond were obliged to bide their time. That time would come in early September. But they were not inactive in the interim. Newall’s tenure as Chief of the Air Staff was due to terminate in October. They bent their energies to finding a suitable successor. Their eye fell on Portal who, as a protégé of Trenchard’s, was a bomber man; and not only that, but a man with the backbone to support Sinclair in the threefold task of resisting Churchill’s hope of promoting Dowding, of bearding Churchill in his den when it came to persuading him that Dowding had to go, and in delivering the coup de grâce to Dowding at a time of their choosing.
Despite Sinclair’s relative deference to Churchill throughout the war, on this one issue, the removal of Dowding, they were at loggerheads throughout the summer and remained so until its resolution and dénouement when, for once, Sinclair prevailed and succeeded in his objective. In ‘his’ objective? We may well ask. Sinclair made it his cause, but he was in thrall to determined men, notably to Sholto Douglas.
We turn to Salmond, and of the purpose of his intervention with Churchill there can be no doubt. Salmond, whatever his personal feelings, had a weapon readily to hand: the night defences. On his first intervention, Churchill “almost blew [him] out of the room.” There was no such explosion the second time. Churchill had begun to listen. And to doubt.
Churchill was more concerned with the devastation being visited on Britain’s cities and factories and ports – with the concomitant alarm over the Londoners’ morale – than on any other worry that pre-occupied him during the early winter of 1940-41. Salmond’s report on the night defernces had been highly critical of Dowding’s efforts. Churchill had witnessed for himself, in the Committee on Night Defence which he himself chaired, that Dowding had no answer to the problem. Yes, he had an answer, the only answer, but it would take months to perfect it. Dowding the air marshal and war leader had the honesty to see, and the courage to say to the Prime Minister, that he had no immediate answer. Churchill the politician – and the leader of the people – needed to give the people some reason to hope.
Churchill remembered with much misgiving the raids on London by German Gotha bombers on June 13, 1917, when a bomb landed on an infant’s school at Poplar and killing 162 and wounding 432 children and adults; and on July 7 when the bulk of the bombs fell on the East End. “The East End of London was ... in a very ugly mood, the result of a massive wave of sympathy for the infants killed in Poplar ... There was arson, rioting and strikes in abundance. In any case, the morale of the British working-class was at a low ebb consequent on the carnage being suffered in France, which struck the poor more than the rich as the ordinary soldiers were being used as cannon fodder. The bombing brought it [morale] to its nadir. The Prime Minister of the day, David Lloyd George, no doubt saw the possibility of a revolution against his government ...”
Churchill remembered only too well, for he was both Minister for War Munitions and Minister for Air at the time. Churchill, like the British Government as a whole, was thoroughly alarmed about the morale of the people of the East End. (As it turned out, the politicians were running more scared than the workers.)
Salmond, for his part, was only too ready to point out that others were putting forward various defensive ideas which, together or separately, might well either actually destroy enemy aircraft, or at least have the effect of deflecting them from their course and so spare British cities and save British lives. It was easy for him, and other critics, to point out that Dowding did nothing but pooh-pooh all ideas other than his own. In war one must be flexible; one must be ready to consider all possibilities in such extreme circumstances, when the defence of the realm was paramount.
It will be remembered that Salmond wrote his report on night defence on September 18. It was brought up for discussion in the War Cabinet on October 7. Because of Dowding’s opposition to a number of its recommendations Churchill asked him to submit a counter-report to state his case about the issues he disagreed with. He singled out filtering which “had been disinterred by the Salmond committee” despite its “having little specific connection with night interception.”
In the meeting of the Night Defence Committee of October 10 Churchill approved the Salmond report, but after the removal of the filtering item. Salmond and Air Chief Marshal Sir Philip Joubert objected, and tried to insist that it be retained. Two weeks later Churchill, impressed by Dowding’s obvious frustration in his dealings with people who tried to impose their views without having the responsibility for carrying out the measures they involved, wrote a personal note to Dowding asking him to state his case. His reply is worth quoting in full.
Your minute reached me this evening and I note your instruction regarding its personal nature... The Secretary of State’s minute contains a few inaccuracies, only one of which is important and that is ... that it is an undoubted fact that time is saved in getting squadrons into the air by filtering at Group HQ – it is substantially untrue. Plots are told to Group HQ from my table without delay with the average lag in transmission of a plot is less than 15 seconds. ...
The metaphorical edifice which you have seen in my Filter and Operations Rooms has been built up brick by brick under my own eye during the last four years. My predecessor, Joubert, had left the Fighting Area as it was, without having made the slightest effort to tackle what had been in fact one of the greatest problems of the defence, the differentiation between friendly and enemy aircraft... The system that I have devised might not be perfect but it cannot be improved by disruptive criticism on the part of people who do not understand it as a whole. ... My greatest grievance however is the matter of expenditure of my time arguing with the Air Staff of every intimate detail of my organisation. Surely the C-in-C should be left to manage his own affairs if the general result is satisfactory. I have expended no less than 50 hours on this controversy. As the Secretary of State says, I agreed to decentralise under strong pressure because it is not a matter that is going to lose the war and I have to fight the Air Staff over so many important issues.... If you feel bound to support the Secretary of State..., I shall quite understand although I feel that we shall pay £100,000 .. in order to secure a slight reduction in efficiency.
Despite this energetic appeal to Churchill-- in which incidentally Dowding shows a clear grasp of what is essential and what is not – the Prime Minister’s eventual siding with Sinclair and all the other critics becomes all the more curious.
There is one person who, in all this debate, has not received the attention he deserves. That is Frederick Lindemann. Lindemann was Churchill’s personal scientific adviser throughout the war. In appointing a scientific adviser, Churchill needed advice on scientific matters as they related to the war. But on appointing Lindemann he was as little aware of what he was doing as when he appointed Sinclair as Air Minister. He appointed people to some vital positions on the grounds of friendship or political indebtedness.
Most of the advice Lindemann gave to Churchill, and to the committees he served on, turned out to be wrong-headed. It was, for example, Lindemann’s perfervid anti-German animus that stoked Churchill’s natural aggressiveness to put his full weight behind the indiscriminate bombing of German populations.
The story of the clash between Lindemann and Sir Henry Thomas Tizard is well known. Tizard and Dowding were allies in the scientific war against the Luftwaffe. Together they had created the early warning system of Fighter Command. Lindemann’s nose was out of joint. His opposition to Dowding was as much of a personal thing as a genuine disagreement over the scientific war. If Churchill had appointed Tizard instead of Lindemann to be his scientific adviser the war would have taken a different course.
The dénouement took place in Churchill’s office. It is not hard to figure what arguments they put forward that were so persuasive that Churchill, of all people, Dowding’s chief admirer and champion, was finally turned.
One wonders how much Sinclair and Portal knew of the efforts to dethrone Dowding. The question is important because on the answer depends the tactics they will employ and the arguments to advance to Churchill to convince him that Dowding’s time had come. It is probable that they knew a great deal. We need not go into a detailed analysis: it is sufficient for them to know – as indeed they must have done – that Churchill’s championing of Dowding had been materially weakened, perhaps even fatally undermined already, especially by Salmond’s second intervention, which they would know of. Now, if the Air Minister and the Chief of the Air Staff together insisted on his removal, even he, even as the (undefined) Minister of Defence, would be hard put to defend him. Why, even Lord Beaverbrook had abandoned him!
Nevertheless, for the sake of the record, we must attempt to reconstruct the scene.
And by ‘scene’ I mean it literally. It is unusual, perhaps inadmissible, in a work of purported history to resort to dramatic composition to convey one’s sense of an event, but that is what I am going to attempt.
SINCLAIR: That is not fair, Winston. How can we in the Air Ministry make such important changes without your approval as Minister of Defence?
CHURCHILL: But Dowding! After all he has done! He and Park with their valiant pilots have saved our Island race! And perhaps all of Europe and her ancient Civilization as well, who knows! And now simply to be retired, to be put on the shelf with a 'Thank you'! Or perhaps without even a 'Thank you'.
SINCLAIR: We recognize his great service, but there comes a time, as you must know, ....
CHURCHILL: I seem to recall, Archie, that you were anxious to get rid of Dowding last July, when you had only been in your Ministry for a couple of months, and ....
SINCLAIR: That was a mistake, I concede. I was new to my department, and the advice I received ...
CHURCHILL: ...the advice you received then is exactly the same advice that you are receiving now. You came round to being – or at least to saying you were one of Dowding's most faithful supporters. Now you have changed your tune again. I see I am now beset by his detractors and that I am his sole remaining defender. Some people say that once I am crossed I do not forgive. That is not true. What is true is that Air Marshal Dowding opposed me on the issue of sending more fighters to France in June and carried the day with the War Cabinet. I admired him. The stand he took then was the right stand -- for him. My position and the stand I took were the right ones for me to take. Did I bear him a grudge, try to knock him down? On the contrary. Throughout the Battle of Britain he had my constant, unwavering and wholehearted support. And I made sure that he knew it. And when I went down to 11 Group last September I knew that Dowding had been right.
SINCLAIR: I have never been one of his detractors and I am not now ...
CHURCHILL: I haven't finished. Let me speak - while I still have the opportunity. Has the Air Marshal seen that scurrilous diatribe that has been circulating in Whitehall? I suspect not. Two or three weeks ago I received from Brendan Bracken a malicious document defaming both Newall and Dowding. He had received it from Miss Irene Ward, a ferocious virago, it seems, who I regret to say is a member of the Conservative Party. Of course I discounted it entirely and took no action on it. I cannot express adequately how pained I am that such poisonous stuff should be written, and circulated, against one of our most brilliant and successful air marshals. If half our air marshals were half as trustworthy as Dowding I would have no qualms or doubts about the effective and disinterested conduct of policy and operations by the Air Ministry. That this scheme to remove Dowding from his Command should come on top of Miss Ward's unseemly intervention in matters of which she avows her own total ignorance fills me with dismay and concern. I smell a rat! The Air Force is going to play the decisive role in this war, and I want it to be directed with the same courage and devotion to duty that our fighting airmen display. As it is, the Air Ministry is rife with jealousies and intrigue, and I mean to have them extirpated root and branch. You have just taken over as Chief of the Air Staff, Portal. None of this falls on you, so I wish you particularly to concern yourself with the moral and mental health and fitness of the most senior and responsible officers. And I expect you to report to me on it periodically, Archie.
SINCLAIR: Very well, Winston. I will take a personal hand in it. Now, if there are jealousies and intrigue, as you put it, going on in my Department, I have seen nothing of them. And if you have, you should have warned me of it and I would have done something about it. But that is not what we are discussing.
CHURCHILL: No, that can wait. What you came here to discuss was your intention to remove Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding from his Command just after he had won one of the most decisive battles in Western Civilization. I warn you– I warn you both – that if Dowding goes you will have to answer to History for your deed.
SINCLAIR: Winston, I tell you in all confidentiality that if you had been in my place, and in Sir Cyril Newall’s place, for several years – or in my case for only several months – you would see things in the same light. The simple fact is that Dowding is quite impossible to deal with. In his letters to the Air Staff he borders on a rudeness that is quite unbecoming...
CHURCHILL: (growling) In war you don’t have to be polite, you have to be right!
SINCLAIR: He wasn’t always right ...
CHURCHILL: He was in the essentials.
SINCLAIR: There is worse. He is intransigent, inflexible, immoveable. Once he has an idea in his head he will not listen to any other. You have seen him and heard him in the Night Defence Committee meetings. He has one fixed idea and that idea is the only one.
CHURCHILL: But supposing it is the right idea, and the only right idea?
PORTAL: Allow me, Prime Minister, if I may. I believe the Minister is right, Sir. We can put up with incivility in correspondence, with aspersions cast on the intelligence and expertise of my Staff officers -- [Churchill allows himself another sideways grin] -- but we have difficulty in accepting the attitude of a High Commander who refuses to consider other possible defences against the night attackers than his own. Why, just the other evening, Professor Lindemann advanced a number of very original ideas, and all Dowding did was to scoff at them. [Churchill scowls, and nods, albeit reluctantly.]
SINCLAIR: I’m rather afraid that that is the sort of thing the Air Council and the Air Staff have had to put up with for years. The Commander-in-Chief is inflexible. He knows the right way of doing things, and the only right way.
PORTAL: We must also look ahead -- to next Spring, especially, when we can expect massive onslaughts by a more powerful enemy. We shall have to employ different tactics. Dowding and Park still believe in forward defence, even if it means in smaller formations than is possible.
CHURCHILL: Have you discussed these matters with them and discovered their views?
PORTAL: No, Prime Minister. I know they have not altered their views. And my judgement tells me that new men are needed for the task, with new ideas. They are as single-minded in their tactical ideas about fighting the day battle as in they are in their approach to our night defences.
CHURCHILL: Yes, we must look forward to the next stage. But what precisely do you have in mind? What kind of tactics?
PORTAL: We need to counter the much stronger attacks we expect next Spring with greater forces than we did last summer. Park did what he could with his slender forces. And both he and Dowding still believe that those tactics will be sufficient the next time. They won’t be. The minister and I believe that Douglas and Leigh-Mallory in 12 Group have the answer in sending up larger wings to intercept the raiders, as they did last September.
SINCLAIR: I second the Chief of the Air Staff’s summary completely. However, I agree with you also, Winston, in your appreciation of Sir Hugh’s accomplishments as the leader of Fighter Command. But the Chief of the Air Staff and I have come to the firm conclusion that the Commander-in-Chief has reached the end of his useful service with the Battle now over and won. On the other hand I do not intend that the Air Chief Marshal should be merely retired. I propose to ask you to consider a suitable and worthy task or assignment to offer him when he relinquishes his Command, and which will make a valuable contribution to the war effort in another sphere.
CHURCHILL: That will be very advisable. Let me know what you have in mind. But let me warn you: Air Chief Marshal Dowding is to be properly treated, as befits an outstanding officer who has shown a rare genius in the art of war.
PORTAL: May we then take it, Prime Minister, that we have your approval of the measures and changes we have proposed?
CHURCHILL: My approval you most emphatically do not have. Whether or not you have my consent is another matter. I will need a couple of days to reflect on it.
Churchill (we can imagine) listened carefully and critically. He nodded here, he shook his head there; he frowned, he growled, he quizzed, he questioned. At the end he would weigh everything in the balance and deliver his verdict in a day or two. The following day Sinclair telephoned him, and Churchill, like Beaverbrook, abandoned Dowding. At least he was confident in his own mind that, in forsaking Dowding, he had given him his full support throughout the battle and made it possible for him to achieve the fame that, as the victor of the Battle of Britain, was his due.
He, Churchill, was never happy in defence, in countering the enemy’s aggression, in trying to anticipate his next move, in having to cede the initiative, and surprise, to the enemy. In a word, in being on the defensive. He had an “instinctive lust for action”, so he revelled in aggression, in going on to the attack, in trying on his side to out-smart the enemy, to put him at the disadvantage.
But there was something more to it, as he had learnt from his experience in his imperial wars. In this view, the Germans had descended into barbarism and were no different from the tribal savages of Afghanistan and the dervishes of the Sudan that he had carried war to. It was a matter of bringing civilization to the darker places of the world. This, for example, is how he concluded his last despatch from the North-West Frontier in 1897:
These tribesmen are among the most miserable and brutal creatures of the earth. Their intelligence only enables them to be more cruel, more dangerous, more destructive than the wild beasts. Their religion – fanatic though they are – is only respected when it incites to bloodshed and murder. Their habits are filthy; their morals cannot be alluded to. With every feeling of respect for that wide sentiment of human sympathy which characterises a Christian civilization, I find it impossible to come to any other conclusion than that, in proportion as these valleys are purged from the pernicious vermin that infest them, so will the happiness of humanity be increased, and the progress of mankind accelerated.
Dowding seems a more complex figure when it comes to war and his attitude to it. On the one hand he rose to the highest rank in the Royal Air Force, and he was essentially a humanitarian, a commander who was reluctant to take any more lives, even those of relative barbarians, than the situation demanded. His career shows that he was an intensely proud and patriotic Englishman who took part in military actions in the name of the Empire. It may be that after having suffered the loss of so many of his pilots in the Battle of Britain, pilots with whom he had established, even if only in his own mind, a sort of chivalric relationship; and after he had seen the horrible results of the bombing of open cities and their defenceless civilians, he was moved to consider, and to write about, ways of preventing wars in the future. It is possible that Portal had been right in telling Churchill that Dowding was not an offensive war-maker.
If we are to sum up Dowding’s feelings about war, we could not do better than to quote a passage from St. Augustine’s City of God:
Dowding tells us that the one thing that sticks out among the memories of that visit was his intervention in a fund-raising campaign for the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund launched by the British Embassy in Washington. Dowding brought the matter up at a public luncheon because he found it to be “wrong and humiliating” when it was a matter for the British public to support it. His remarks caused “an unexpected commotion” and he was summonsed to the Embassy to explain. He expressed no regret and pointed out that, by virtue of his position on the Committee, he had cause to object to what he called this “barefaced panhandling.”
When he returned to London Churchill sent for him and “appeared to be very angry about something. I had no idea what he was angry about... and did not inquire, but... I supposed it was over the incident of the Benevolent Fund contributions.”
It was precisely at this time that the Air Ministry issued a slim pamphlet of 32 pages entitled, The Battle of Britain August - October 1940. An Air Ministry Account of the Great Days from 8th August - 31st October 1940. The most remarkable thing about this pamphlet was that there was no mention of Dowding in it. Not only was his name not mentioned, but there was no allusion to the organizing genius who had created Fighter Command from the ground up, and not the least passing reference to the existence of a mastermind behind the strategic direction of the battle on the British side.
Churchill read it, and was furious with indignation. On April 12th he wrote to Sinclair in these strong terms:
What would have been said if the War Office had produced the story of the Battle of Libya and had managed to exclude General Wavell’s name, of if the Admiralty had told the tale of Trafalgar and left Lord Nelson out of it! ... It grieves me very much that you should associate yourself with such behaviour. I am sure you were not consulted beforehand on the point, and your natural loyalty to everything done in your department can alone have led you to condone what nine out of ten men would unhesitatingly condemn.
Martin Gilbert, one of Churchill’s many biographers, has recorded the efforts that the Prime Minister made at the time to appoint Dowding to an operational command. In March 1941, when Churchill was preoccupied with Anglo-American relations and, especially, with obtaining the greatest possible measure of aid and cooperation from the Americans in what was already being called the Battle of the Atlantic, Churchill gave to Beaverbrook control of the Atlantic Service, which was the agency charged with setting up and overseeing the newly formed Atlantic Ferry Operation. An Air Vice-Marshal Dawson was put in charge of this Service. Gilbert continues: “Churchill subsequently hoped to use the changes involved in Dawson’s appointment to give Dowding command of Army Cooperation Command in Britain. ‘I hope you will be able to do this,’ he minuted to Sinclair, ‘as I am sure nothing but good will come of it (inasmuch as it would) give confidence to the Army’. But Sinclair declined to re-employ Dowding in an operational command.”
The next attempt he made was in the aftermath of the disaster of Crete – for which Churchill must be held largely accountable. (The Crete débâcle was May 20 - 30, 1941.) Gilbert writes: “Churchill made a single change in command in the Middle East, replacing Air Chief Marshal Longmore ... by Air Vice-Marshal Tedder.” To this Gilbert adds the footnote : “Churchill’s first thought was to recall Sir Hugh Dowding to active service as Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East Air Forces. This, however, was resisted by Sinclair and the Chief of the Air Staff.” He continues without a break, although there appears to be a gap of almost five months between the events: “On October 23 Churchill wrote in the third person ... that ‘the Prime Minister told the Secretary of State and the Chief of the Air Staff only six weeks ago (sic) that he thought it would be well that Sir Hugh Dowding should replace Vice Air Marshal (sic) Longmore in the Middle East. However the Prime Minister deferred to the representations then made to him by the Secretary of State and the CAS’.”
Dowding had another reason. He had just completed the writing of a slim volume, subsequently to be published under the title of Twelve Legions of Angels, and which he was anxious to publish as soon as possible, discussing as he did a number of issues related directly to air matters. He analysed the strategic, tactical, material and logistic requirements for the successful prosecution of the war. But it also speculated on the ways and means whereby statesmanship might prevent wars in the future. He examined the causes of war, and, horrified by its cost in human lives and misery and in material destruction, proposed a number of measures designed to prevent it, so far as possible, in the future.
Dowding gave Churchill a copy of the text and asked him to read and approve its publication before he took on his new task. He added that now he was retired there was no reason why the book should not be published. Churchill expressed his surprise that Dowding had been placed on the retired list. At which Dowding asked him pointedly whether he had not been informed or consulted about it. Churchill replied that he had not: “I knew nothing about it until I saw it in the papers.” Dowding’s retirement was gazetted on October 1st, and was probably noted in the papers a day or two later. Clearly Churchill wasted no time in seeing Dowding, for Wright records this meeting as taking place at 5pm on October 5th in the Cabinet Room.
Churchill read some parts of the book himself, and passed it to Brendan Bracken, his Minister of Information – and one of his closest friends – who read it all. At their next meeting Churchill raised an objection to Dowding’s criticism of the traditional British foreign policy in Europe of always striving to maintain “a balance of power” between the most powerful European states, a policy which, according to Dowding, achieved the very opposite of its aim. Churchill objected on the ground that he, Dowding, would most probably be quoted favourably by the enemy.
A few days later Dowding was invited to have dinner and to stay the night at Chequers. It was late at night before Churchill got round to discussing Dowding’s book – or rather, to talking desultorily about it, between interruptions by the playing of gramophone records.
Among other things, Churchill did not agree with Dowding’s quest for “world harmony” after the war. He was not interested in the remote future. Churchill, in Dowding’s view, seemed uninterested “in working for world peace”: he believed that “an atmosphere of struggle [was] necessary to avoid decadence.”
This difference between the two men is of vital importance. It is clear that Churchill did not like Dowding’s views at all. He considered that war was a necessary process in the development of the vigorous and manly qualities in a race. Stalwart defence of one’s homeland cannot be achieved at too high a price. If one is attacked, energetic and ruthless counter-attack is the only answer. Sport is all very well, even relatively dangerous sports. But they are no substitute for war. War alone can bring out the best in a race. Without it, a nation’s youth degenerates into slothful habits, indolence and effeteness, and ends up good for nothing – good not even for sport, daring enterprise, and business adventurism.
Dowding returned to his theme in an article published in the “Sunday Chronicle” of December 13, 1942 (and which was appended to the book in question when it was published in 1946.) “Is war a Good Thing, or not?” he wrote. “This is not a purely rhetorical question, because there are those who think that war and training for war are necessary for the virility of the race, and that periods of continuous peace lead to softness, luxury and decadence.”
Churchill had already formed a Battle of the Atlantic Committee. He was so aware of the danger that at a meeting of the War Cabinet of March 20 he told them: “I’m not afraid of the Air. I’m not afraid of invasion, I’m less afraid of the Balkans — but— I’m anxious about the Atlantic.” Yet the Navy chiefs had not prepared the Navy for such a wartime role, and did not appear to have the political influence to ensure that the Government took the necessary action to provide for the safety of the Atlantic convoys. Lamentably, this was not achieved until May 1943.
The distance between the two men over the question of war itself as Churchill saw in Dowding’s book was enough to cast doubt in Churchill’s mind about the aggressive spirit that the war now needed.
Churchill associated in his mind Dowding with the Battle of Britain. The night battle was bad for the damage it caused, but it could have no bearing on the outcome of the war, so it no longer mattered who was in charge of the defences.
Sad to say, in November 1940 Churchill had simply lost interest in Dowding. Yet to my mind the most telling factor lies in the opposition between their views of war. Churchill was a man of aggression. And a man of instinct rather than of reason. He and Trenchard saw eye to eye on the question of taking the war to Germany, even to the extent of devastating their cities and destroying the morale of the people. Of destroying their very nation and race. Churchill, to his credit, was torn in two: on the one hand he admired Dowding immensely for his role in the saving of Western Civilization; on the other he knew that Dowding was not the man to carry out his policy of bombing Germany to smithereens.
Perhaps there was even a personal factor. Churchill was set on dominating the scene. He had met with resistance over sending more fighters to France, and lost. He was not going to risk further clashes, and the possibility of butting heads with a man with an equally steely will, and of facing the prospect of real rivalry for leadership in the conduct of the war. Lynne Olson, in recent book, has gone so far as to assert that “Churchill had been denied power so long that once finally given it, he wasn’t about to share it with anybody. ‘It took Armageddon to make me prime minister,’ he told Boothby in late May . ‘But now I am here I am determined that power shall be in no other hands than mine.’”
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