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Dowding, Air Chief Marshal Hugh

Category: Business and political leaders


Air Chief Marshal Hugh Caswall Tremenheere Dowding (24 April 1882 – 15 February 1970), 1st Baron Dowding, GCB [Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath], GCVO [Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order], CMG [Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George]  was an officer in the Royal Air Force, Mentioned in Dispatches. He was elevated to the peerage, as Baron Dowding of Bentley Priory on 2 June 1943.

He served as a fighter pilot and then as commanding officer of No. 16 Squadron during the First World War. During the inter-war years he became Air Officer Commanding Fighting Area, Air Defence of Great Britain and then joined the Air Council as Air Member for Supply and Research. He was Air Officer Commanding RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain.

The inscription on the statue of Dowding standing outside St Clement Danes church on the Strand, in London reads:

Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding was commander-in-chief of Fighter Command, Royal Air Force, from its formation in 1936 until November 1940. He was thus responsible for the preparation for and the conduct of the Battle of Britain.
With remarkable foresight, he ensured the equipment of his command with monoplane fighters, the Hurricane and the Spitfire.
He was among the first to appreciate the vital importance of R.D.F. (radar) and an effective command and control system for his squadrons. They were ready when war came.

In the preliminary stages of that war, he thoroughly trained his minimal forces and conserved them against strong political pressure to disperse and misuse them.
His wise and prudent judgement and leadership helped to ensure victory against overwhelming odds and thus prevented the loss of the Battle of Britain and probably the whole war.

To him, the people of Britain and of the Free World owe largely the way of life and the liberties they enjoy today.


Dowding was born in Moffat, Dumfriesshire, the son of Arthur John Caswall Dowding and Maud Caroline Dowding (née Tremenheere). His father had taught at Fettes College in Edinburgh before moving to the southern Scottish town of Moffat to establish a school – St Ninian's Boys' Preparatory School. Dowding was educated at St Ninian's and Winchester College on a scholarship. He trained at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich before being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery on 18 August 1900.

Promoted to lieutenant on 8 May 1902, Dowding served with the Royal Garrison Artillery at Gibraltar, in Ceylon and in Hong Kong before being posted to No. 7 Mountain Artillery Battery in India in 1904. After returning to the United Kingdom, he attended the Army Staff College 1912 before being promoted to captain on 18 August 1913.

After becoming interested in aviation, Dowding gained Aviator's Certificate no. 711 on 19 December 1913 in a Vickers biplane at the Vickers School of Flying, Brooklands. He then attended the Central Flying School, where he was awarded his wings. Although added to the Reserve List of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), Dowding returned to the Isle of Wight to resume his Royal Garrison Artillery duties. However, this arrangement was short lived and in August 1914, he joined the RFC as a pilot on No. 7 Squadron.

First World War


Dowding transferred to No. 6 Squadron in October 1914 and then, after two weeks as a staff officer in France, became a Flight Commander, first with No. 9 Squadron and then with No. 6 Squadron. He became commanding officer of the Wireless Experimental Establishment at Brooklands in March 1915 and went on to be commanding officer of No. 16 Squadron in July 1915.

Promoted to major on 30 December 1915, Dowding was recalled to England in January 1916, and, having been promoted to temporary lieutenant colonel on 1 February 1916 was given command of 7 Wing at Farnborough later that month. He transferred to the command of 9 wing at Fienvillers in June 1916. Returning to England, he was promoted to temporary colonel on 1 January 1917 on appointment as commander of the Southern Group Command and promoted to temporary brigadier-general on 23 June 1917 before being given command of the southern training brigade in August 1917. He was sent to York as chief staff officer to the RAF's senior administrative officer in the area in April 1918. He was appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George on 1 January 1919.

Inter war years


Dowding was given a permanent commission in the RAF on 1 August 1919 with the rank of group captain. He commanded No. 16 Group from October 1919 and then No. 1 Group from February 1920. He was promoted to air commodore on 1 January 1922, and served as chief staff officer at Inland Area headquarters at Uxbridge from February 1922 before being appointed Chief Staff Officer for RAF Iraq Command in August 1924.

In May 1926, Dowding was appointed director of training at the Air Ministry. He was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath on 2 January 1928 and promoted to air vice-marshal on 1 January 1929. Trenchard sent him to Palestine and Transjordan to study security problems caused by Arab–Jewish unrest: his reports gained Trenchard's approval. Dowding became Air Officer Commanding Fighting Area, Air Defence of Great Britain in December 1929 and then joined the Air Council as Air Member for Supply and Research in September 1930.

Dowding's time in this office coincided with a period of rapid development in aircraft design and a growing fear that another major war was on the horizon. Although without scientific or technical training, he displayed a great capacity for understanding technical matters. He was promoted to air marshal on 1 January 1933 and advanced to Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath on 3 June 1933.


In July 1936, Dowding was appointed commanding officer of the newly created RAF Fighter Command, and was perhaps the one important person in Britain, and perhaps the world, who did not agree with British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin's 1932 declaration that "The bomber will always get through". 

He conceived and oversaw the development of the "Dowding system". This consisted of an integrated air defence system which included


  • radar (whose potential Dowding was among the first to appreciate),
  •  human observers (including the Royal Observer Corps), who filled crucial gaps in what radar was capable of detecting at the time (the early radar systems, for example, did not provide good information on the altitude of incoming German aircraft),
  •  raid plotting, and
  •  radio control of aircraft. The whole network was linked in many cases by dedicated telephone cables buried sufficiently deeply to provide protection against bombing.

The network had its centre at RAF Bentley Priory, a converted country house on the outskirts of London. The system as a whole later became known as Ground-controlled interception (GCI).

Dowding also introduced modern aircraft into service during the pre war period, including the eight gun Spitfire and Hurricane. He is also credited with having fought the Air Ministry so that fighter planes were equipped with bullet proof wind shields. He was promoted to air chief marshal on 1 January 1937 and appointed a Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order on 23 January 1937.

Second World War

Due to retire in June 1939, Dowding was asked to stay on until March 1940 because of the tense international situation.


The [Scottish] Sunday Herald - 8th September 2000:  The Battle of Britain and the fall of 'Stuffy' Dowding

Most historians of the Second World War agree that one of the critical turning points was the Battle of Britain …. For a few days in 1940, Goering hurled the Luftwaffe against the South-east of England to soften it up for the inevitable invasion which would follow. That invasion never came, principally because the Royal Air Force won the battle for air supremacy despite inferior numbers.

Churchill immortalised the Hurricane and Spitfire pilots in his famous phrase after the battle: ''Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.''

 ''The few'' were, indeed, one of the main causes of victory, but two Scotsmen played a critical role in the victory also. The first was Robert Watson Watt, the boffin from Brechin, who had invented radar prior to the war and developed a series of coastal radar stations which were invaluable in giving early warning of the incoming Luftwaffe raids. But the man who encouraged him to do it, and fought for the building programme for Spitfires to replace the old biplanes still in use in the 1930s, and was in charge of Fighter Command during this vital period, was another Scotsman - Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding.

…..Dowding …. knew more than anyone about all aspects of aerial warfare. When Churchill ordered more Hurricanes to be sent to France in the days before the withdrawal at Dunkirk, he refused since it would have left home defences vulnerable. He built up night fighters and resisted the demands that ''Big Wings'' be made part of Fighter Command strategy. Their advocates, like fighter ace Douglas Bader, claimed they gave greater fire power, while Dowding argued they were cumbersome to assemble, to manoeuvre, and left no reserve defences.

Through the summer and autumn of 1940 in the Battle of Britain, Dowding's Fighter Command resisted the attacks of the Luftwaffe. Beyond the critical importance of the overall system of integrated air defence which he had developed for Fighter Command, his major contribution was to marshal resources behind the scenes (including replacement aircraft and air crew) and to maintain a significant fighter reserve, while leaving his subordinate commanders' hands largely free to run the battle in detail.

Because of his brilliant detailed preparation of Britain's air defences for the German assault, and his prudent management of his resources during the battle, Dowding is today generally given the credit for Britain's victory in the Battle of Britain.


The evil that men do

Dowding's role in the Battle of Britain was crucial, in preparation before it and strategy during it. Yet, despite the victory, within three months a group of colleagues conspired to oust him from his post, and led to the serious neglect of his importance in the years after the war. Dowding was ousted from his job after the Battle of Britain in a coup that was both vicious and probably helped to extend the war. 

During war service he had encountered three men whose lives were later to affect his own: Keith Park, the fighter ace who became a close friend, Trafford Leigh-Mallory who was anything but a friend of Park, and William Sholto-Douglas, another ace pilot whom Dowding was ordered to put on trial by court-martial. Dowding refused, since he believed him innocent, but in a twist of fate fitting for a Greek tragedy, it was Sholto-Douglas who was to play a leading part in Dowding's betrayal in 1940.

The [Scottish] Sunday Herald - 8th September 2000:  The Battle of Britain and the fall of 'Stuffy' Dowding

When he chose to give Park command of the front-line sector in the South-east of England and left Leigh-Mallory with the Midlands, the smouldering feud between the two men began to heat up. …… on November 25, 1940, Dowding was ordered by a short telephone call to leave his desk, which he yielded with a curt ''Good morning'' to Sholto-Douglas, who had supplanted him in a coup in which Leigh-Mallory and Bader played a part.


Dowding was due to retire anyway, but the manner in which he was ousted and the intrigues that accompanied it were shameful, given his achievements.


Those who debate the reasons why he was ousted cite “the Big Wing controversy” in which a number of senior and active service officers had argued in favour of large set-piece air battles with the Luftwaffe as an alternative to Dowding's successful Fabian strategy.  Another reason often cited is the difficulty of countering German night-time bombing raids on British cities.  But, the account of radar pioneer, E. G. Bowen in Radar Days (1987) rebuts the claim that Dowding's grasp of the problems of British night fighters was inadequate. He suggests that if Dowding had been left to follow his own path, the ultimately effective British response to night bombing (which depended completely on developments in air-borne radar) would have come somewhat sooner. Dowding himself showed that he had a good grasp of night fighter defence and was planning a defence system against night bombing in a letter he wrote some time after the Battle of Britain.


Dowding’s mistake was to refuse to court martial William Sholto-Douglas.  Sholto-Douglas was a scheming man, who plotted against him, determined to get his job.  He used the great political and public pressure during the Blitz for something to be done, to manoeuvre himself into a position of power.

Dowding was advanced to Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath on 8 October 1940.  And he unwillingly relinquished command on 24 November 1940.  And the person who replaced him?  Big Wing advocate Sholto Douglas.
Douglas retired in 1947 and became chairman of BEA in 1949, a post he retained until 1964.

Ministry of Aircraft Production

After leaving Fighter Command, Churchill put him in charge of the British Air Mission to the USA, for the Ministry of Aircraft Production, responsible for the procurement of new aircraft types.  But Dowding had become embittered by his experiences – whilst there he ‘made himself unpopular with his outspokenness’. On his return he headed a study into economies of RAF manpower before retiring from the Royal Air Force in July 1942.


The Spirituality and Psychic Research of Lord Dowding

The one abiding impression one gets of Lord Dowding – despite his affectionate nickname of ‘stuffy’ - is his humanity – his great concern for his men and his abiding concern for the planet and our fellow creatures as a whole.  Even his nickname derives from his complaint to a senior officer that inexperienced pilots were being sent up to meet the enemy without adequate training. ''Don't be so stuffy, Dowding,'' came the reply.


Dowding was known for his humility and great sincerity. Fighter Command pilots came to characterise Dowding as one who cared for his men and had their best interests at heart. Dowding often referred to his "dear fighter boys" as his "chicks": indeed his son Derek was one of them.  After the Battle of the Somme, for example, Dowding clashed with General Hugh Trenchard, the commander of the RFC, over the need to rest pilots exhausted by non-stop duty.

Despite his regard for his pilots, he remained aloof and did not visit airfields. It rendered him open to the charge of callousness, but Lord Dowding was anything but callous.  The main reason he didn’t meet the men is because he could not bear to face the people he was sending out possibly to die.  He had a job to do and he had to keep aloof in order to do it.  And he himself said after the war, that it was his concern and admiration for the pilots which led him not to interfere. That admiration incidentally was reciprocal.

As we have seen, Dowding was the victim of some very nasty manoevering by a group of unprincipled men, and it was reported that his pilots were “sickened” to learn on November 25, 1940, that Dowding had been ordered by a short telephone call to leave his desk. But in 1951, it was Dowding who laid the foundation stone of the Chapel of St George at RAF Biggin Hill, in memory of fallen airmen. 

Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me
more than twelve legions of angels? — Matthew 26:53.

Publication of his book Twelve Legions of Angels was suppressed in 1942. The British Government considered that it contained information which might be of use to the Germans. The book was finally published in 1946, soon after the war ended.  Its full title is Twelve Legions of Angels Essays on war as affected by air power, and on the prevention of war.

Dowding became a vegetarian, but he was also realistic in his understanding that although he was a vegetarian, "animals will be killed to satisfy human needs for many a long day to come".  Given this, he made several appeals in the House of Lords for the humane killing of animals intended for food.  He and his second wife Baroness Dowding were also both anti-vivisectionists, and in 1973 Britain's National Anti-Vivisection Society founded the Lord Dowding Fund for Humane Research in his honour.

After the Second World War ended, Dowding was often contacted by mothers and the loved ones of the airmen who died under his command, seeking consolation or simply some reassurance of life after death.  He endeavoured to try to help.  But when he asked his local vicar how he should respond to their grieving, allegedly, the vicar replied, "Tell them they're with God."

Dowding was not content with the vicar's answer, and so he started his own investigation in an attempt to find the truth to the age-old question, "what happens after we die?" In the end, Dowding devoted most of his remaining life to exploring this question and the other questions that tend to spring from it. He authored four books on the subject:

  • Many Mansions (1943),
  • Lychgate (1945),
  • The Dark Star (1951), and
  • God's Magic (1960).

They are widely praised by those who read them and using observations he manages to put forward a very good case for survival of the spirit after death.

The author presents the subject attractively in a vigorous and fluent style- there are no dreary chapters of analysis, full of meaningless phraseology-the book is written in a clear and concise manner, which can be comprehended and will convince all who read it.


Dowding is no sentimentalist; he examines his facts soberly and critically from all angles; his plea for a better understanding of spiritualism will be greeted with enthusiasm by spiritualists all over the world and is bound to be regarded as a valuable asset to the spiritualistic cause. No one can question the deep sincerity with which this work has been carried out. Having in mind the many instances of survival after death on the battlefield recorded through various channels, Lord Dowding has satisfied himself that these records should be made known to the public as widely as possible, believing that they carry with them the hall-mark of truth.

In the record of Lord Dowding's career lies the assurance that he is a practical man not likely to be led astray by specious theories, or to harbour delusions when confronted by hard facts.

Not only did Dowding write about spirituality, he also spoke frequently on the subject using the results of his research.

The observations we have are from his books and are thus not his directly, but Dowding admitted having frequent dreams in which he met his dead "RAF boys" in his sleep – spirits who flew fighters from mountain-top runways made of light. He also used a medium…..

The [Scottish] Sunday Herald - 8th September 2000:  The Battle of Britain and the fall of 'Stuffy' Dowding
…. Dowding …retired from the RAF in 1942. After that, Dowding was more communicative with his pilots but in an extraordinary way - by means of a spiritualist medium with whom he was friendly and he became a believer in spiritualism prior his death in 1970.

And a last endearing fact about Lord Dowding is that he was also a member of the Fairy Investigation Society. “Although he knew that people considered him a crank for his belief in fairies, Dowding believed that fairies are essential to the growth of plants and the welfare of the vegetable kingdom".



Dowding had married Clarice Maud Vancourt, the daughter of an officer in the Indian Army, on 16 February 1918 and they had had one son, Derek. Following the death of his first wife, he married Muriel Whiting on 25 September 1951; they had no children.

Dowding died at his home in Royal Tunbridge Wells, Kent, on 15 February 1970. Following his cremation, his ashes were laid to rest below the Battle of Britain Memorial Window in the Royal Air Force chapel at Westminster Abbey.

Dowding's son Derek (1919–1992) inherited the title of Baron Dowding.