Hugh Dowding, 1st Baron Dowding

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Hugh Caswell Tremenheere Dowding, 1st Baron Dowding G.C.B., G.C.V.O., C.M.G. (24 April 1882 - 15 February 1970) was a British officer in the Royal Air Force. He was the commander of RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain.


Early Life

Dowding was born in Moffat, Scotland. He was educated at Winchester College and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, and later served abroad in the Royal Artillery.


After obtaining his pilot's license in December 1913, he joined the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). He was sent to France and in 1915 was promoted to commander of 16 Squadron. After the Battle of the Somme, Dowding clashed with General Hugh Trenchard, the commander of the RFC, over the need to rest pilots exhausted by non-stop duty. As a result Dowding was sent back to Britain and although promoted to the rank of brigadier-general, saw no more active service during the First World War.

Dowding now joined the recently created Royal Air Force and gained experience in departments of training, supply, development and research. In 1929 he was promoted to Air Vice-Marshal and the following year joined the Air Council. Tragedy struck in the inter-war period when his wife of two years died. Left alone to bring up his son, Derek, Hugh Dowding withdrew from socialising and threw himself into his work.

Air Marshal

In 1933 Dowding was promoted to Air Marshal and was knighted the following year. In the years prior to World War II he was the commanding officer of the RAF's Fighter Command and oversaw development of the 'Dowding System' -- an integrated air defence system of radar, raid plotting and radio control of aircraft. He also introduced modern aircraft into service such as the eight-gun Spitfire and Hurricane.

Due to retire in June 1939, he was asked to stay on until March 1940 due to the tense international situation. He was again persuaded to continue, first until July and finally until October 1940. Thus, he fought the Battle of Britain under the shadow of retirement.

In 1940 Dowding, nicknamed "Stuffy" by his men, proved unwilling to sacrifice aircraft and pilots in the attempt to aid Allied troops during the Battle of France. He, along with his immediate superior Sir Cyril Newall, then Chief of the Air Staff, resisted repeated requests from Winston Churchill to weaken home defence by sending precious squadrons to France. When the Allied resistance collapsed, he worked closely with Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, the commander of 11 Fighter Group, in organizing cover for the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk.

Through the summer of 1940 in the Battle of Britain Dowding's Fighter Command resisted the attacks of the Luftwaffe. Aside from the system he bequeathed to Fighter Command, his major contribution was to marshal resources behind the scenes and maintain a significant fighter reserve, while leaving his subordinate commanders' hands free to run the battle. At no point did Dowding commit more than half his force to the battle zone in southern England.

Fighter Command pilots came to recognise Dowding as a distant figure, but 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: a pilot in 74 Squadron. In spite of his reserve many junior officers regarded "Stuffy" as a fatherly figure with a steady hand on the tiller.

Because of his preparation and prudence "Stuffy" Dowding was credited with winning the battle and was made the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath. However, his prickly temperament and intransigence over issues such as the Big Wing controversy, as well as Fighter Command's inability to counter night raids, contributed to his downfall. The new Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Charles Portal removed Dowding from his post in November 1940 and replaced him with his ambitious rival, Sholto Douglas.

Ministry of Aircraft Production

After leaving Fighter Command Dowding was sent on special duty in the United States for the Ministry of Aircraft Production, where he made himself unpopular with his outspoken behaviour. On his return he headed a study into economies of RAF manpower before retiring from the Royal Air Force in July, 1942. The following year he was honoured with a peerage, as Baron Dowding of Bentley Priory.


In his retirement Dowding became actively interested in spiritualism, both as a writer and speaker. His first book on the subject, Many Mansions, was written in 1943, followed by Lychgate (1945), The Dark Star and God's Magic. Rejecting conventional Christianity he joined the Theosophical Society which advocated belief in reincarnation. He insisted to his friend Lord Beaverbrook that he had been the leader of a Mongol tribe in a previous life. He also espoused the cause of animal welfare. An evangelist with a belief in life after death he wrote in Lychgate of meeting dead 'RAF boys' in his sleep -- spirits who flew fighters from mountain-top runways made of light. One of his former pilots was to comment years later: "at that stage we thought Stuffy had gone a bit ga ga".

Late in life Dowding's belief that he was unjustly treated by the RAF became increasingly bitter. He approved Robert Wright's book Dowding and the Battle of Britain which perpetuated the claim that a conspiracy of Big Wing proponents, including Trafford Leigh-Mallory and Douglas Bader, had engineered his sacking from Fighter Command. In the wake of the debate that followed, which largely refuted the Wright accusations and showed Dowding's recollections to be at fault, the RAF debated whether or not to make the octogenarian a Marshal of the Royal Air Force, but recommended against it. Dowding saw this as yet another undeserved slight from the service.


In his youth Dowding was an accomplished skier, winner of the first ever National Slalom Championship, and president of the Ski Club of Great Britain from 1924 to 1925.


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

Since his death Dowding has been a popular subject with spiritualists, several of whom have alleged they have contacted him beyond the grave.


A statue of Dowding stands outside St Clement Danes church on The Strand, London. The inscription 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.'

See also


Preceded by:
New Creation
Baron Dowding
Succeeded by:
Derek Hugh Tremenheere Dowding

Template:End boxAerial warfare pioneers|Dowding, Hugh

nl:Hugh Dowding


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