re-posted by Bodwyn Wook
The synopsis of a theme by the author of SPITFIRE : Portrait Of A Legend, by Leo McKinstry
(John Murray, £20 — To order a copy at £18 [P&P free], call 0845 606 4206.)
From the MailOnline, 21 November 2007:
[The following text from The Daily Mail re-posted here solely for purposes of information redundancy is ample, if unwitting, testimonial to an example of the precisely-attuned sufi handling of mundane affairs and the overall direction of history; the inert character of the “collective unconscious” of the jungian psychologists means, alas, that not too much can be done at a time and, so, at the risk of a certain statistical, or ‘normal’, incomprehension many workers regardlessly make their specific contributions which, nonetheless, are additive to the general result over the millenia. — Mohamet Nedgjeem & Bodwyn Wook]
The images of the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940 resonate almost 70 years later.
Dashing young RAF fighter pilots concealing their courage beneath an air of nonchalance; the beautiful outline of the Spitfire with its unmistakable elliptical wings; desperate dogfights with the enemy in the summer skies – all of these remain to this day the ultimate symbols of British resolve. Those months from July until the middle of September 1940, when the men of the RAF held the nation’s destiny in their hands, were a unique moment in our island history.
As Winston Churchill famously put it during the height of the battle, “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”
Yet it is a strange twist of history that the commander of The Few, Sir Hugh Dowding, was different from the classic fighter pilot stereotype.
Aloof, dry, cold to the point of frigidity, Dowding, who was head of RAF Fighter Command throughout the Battle, had little of the Èlan that characterised his men.
Quite the contrary.
He was a widower who lived with his sister, believed in reincarnation and, most bizarrely of all, met his second wife after claiming he had spoken to her dead husband through a medium.
So great was the glory that his men won for their part in the Battle of Britain and so crucial their role in saving the nation from Nazi invasion that Dowding’s enigmatic personality has largely been overlooked.
But during the research for my book on the Spitfire I discovered what an extraordinary, unconventional man he was and how his unorthodox mind played a key role in saving the nation.
The son of a prep school headmaster from Scotland, Dowding had been educated at Winchester public school before joining the Army in 1899. His conventional background shaped his character and throughout his adult life, he seemed to cling to the trappings of Victorian morality.
But without Dowding, Leo McKinstry argues, the squadrons of Spitfires that won the Battle of Britain might not have been so strong.
He carried buttoned-up reserve almost to the point of parody, avoiding alcohol and shrinking from the company of women.
From his schooldays, he had been unapproachable, hence his nickname “Stuffy”.
Failing to achieve academic excellence at Winchester, he enrolled at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, where he achieved no great heights, nor did he shine during World War I when he joined the new Royal Flying Corps, the forerunner of the RAF.
The forceful head of the RFC, Sir Hugh Trenchard, thought Dowding was far too negative and cautious to be an inspiring commander, describing him as “a dismal Jimmy” and ensuring that his role was limited.
One of his fellow World War I officers, Duncan Grinnell-Milne, described the inadequate nature of Dowding’s leadership: “He was efficient, strict and calm; he had a sense of duty.
“But he was too reserved and aloof from his juniors; he cared too much for his own job, too little for theirs.
“He was not a good pilot, seldom flew, and had none of that fire which I then believed and later knew to be essential in the leader of a good squadron.”
Dowding’s withdrawn nature was worsened in 1920 when his young wife, Clarice, the daughter of a captain in the Indian Army and widow of a soldier killed in World War I, died after a short illness.
They had been married only two years and had one son, Derek, who went on to become a fine RAF pilot.
Deprived of domestic happiness by this tragic blow, Dowding fell back for comfort on his family, first living with his father and then his sister.
In the early Twenties, his career seemed to be going nowhere.
But then in 1926, he was appointed the RAF’s Director of Training, where he proved his technical capabilities.
From there began his rise to head of Fighter Command.
Dowding once said of his own outlook: “Since I was a child, I have never accepted ideas purely because they were orthodox.”
His unorthodox thinking was the key to his future success: he understood the requirements of modern air warfare far better than any other senior figure in the RAF.
Throughout the Thirties, when other chiefs in the Air Ministry were talking of vast bomber fleets or maintaining the strength of the air force in the farflung corners of the Empire, Dowding astutely recognised that Britain’s salvation in the inevitable clash with Germany would depend on the capability of her home defences.
It was Dowding’s genius to see the importance of radar and effective fighter planes in taking on the Luftwaffe, though conventional wisdom within the RAF held that the only way to defeat a Continental enemy was through massive bomber offensives.
Fighter defences should be kept to a minimum, Trenchard had once said, arguing for concentration on the bomber.
Dowding became head of Fighter Command in 1936, but as late as 1938, this was still the thinking that prevailed within the higher echelons of the RAF, and Dowding was one of the few military chiefs willing to challenge the bomber creed.
Without his influence, the Spitfire and the Hurricane, the two aircraft that made up most of Fighter Command in 1940, would probably not have been built in sufficient numbers, nor would there have been a complex communications network, based around radar stations, to protect the South of England.
With his RAF commander’s tunic, bristling moustache and peaked cap, Dowding always looked in his photographs like the traditional military leader.
But underneath, he was something of a hippie before his time, eager to pursue ideas about reincarnation, vegetarianism and animal rights.
He was a firm believer in spiritualism, and felt he could communicate with the dead, particularly RAF pilots.
Not that he possessed an iota of that spirit of romance that we associate with fighter aircrew, whose daring exploits led to their being treated like film stars by the public.
Aged almost 60 in 1940, Dowding was an inarticulate widower, devoted to his work, and seemingly with no room for passion or excess in his life.
His RAF assistant in 1940, Flight Lieutenant Hugh Ironside, said of him: “He was very shy and difficult to engage in conversation.
“He lived with his sister and every few months they would have a sherry party. It was my job to get people to attend it.
“It was really gruesome. ‘Stuffy’ would have one sherry and he used to play ancient tunes on his gramophone.
“After a time, I found it difficult to get anyone to come.”
Dowding’s social caution was matched by his military strategy.
He was perhaps over-cautious in his deployment of Spitfires and Hurricanes in the heat of the battle.
Even in early September, when the RAF stations were being pummelled by the Luftwaffe, there were still a large number of fighter squadrons standing idle in the North of England, East Anglia, Scotland and the West Country.
One Spitfire pilot, George Unwin of 19 Squadron from Duxford, thought the refusal to throw all available aircraft into the battle was “ridiculous”.
“An awful lot of lives could have been saved and a lot more damage done [to the Luftwaffe].”
Moreover Dowding, lacking charismatic authority, failed to exercise control over his group commanders, often squabbling over air strategy, while in the blackest moments of the conflict, he failed to take a grip of the battle plan, delegating all immediate tactics to his commanders lower down the chain.
After the Battle of Britain had been won, Churchill decided that Dowding must retire as head of Fighter Command, believing he was not the man to take forward the war to its next stage.
It was almost certainly the right decision, for by then Dowding was exhausted.
“He was becoming burned out. I saw him almost blind with fatigue,” recalled one of his aides.
He had done his job but in the years that followed, his unorthodox beliefs became even more pronounced.
At one Fighter Command reunion dinner held after he had retired, he caused some embarrassment by announcing to the assembled pilots that he had been in touch with their dead comrades.
“I am afraid that the reaction of most of us at the time was that ‘The old boy had gone round the bend,'” said Spitfire pilot Hugh Dundas, who later became a distinguished MP.
In fact, it was through spiritualism that Dowding ended his long years of loneliness.
She had been distraught when she had lost her husband Max in 1944 during a bombing mission over Eastern Europe.
So upset was she that she had been to a medium to try to discover more about Max’s fate.
Muriel had also contacted Dowding, long retired but well-known for his spiritualist enthusiasms, seeking his help in trying to find out from the Air Ministry what had happened to Max.
But instead of writing a formal response to her letter, Dowding, totally against his usual pattern with women, invited her to lunch to discuss Max’s case.
They soon fell in love and married. After their wedding, Muriel asked Dowding why he had asked her out rather than just replying by letter.
Dowding explained that, just after she had written, he had visited a medium, through whom Max had spoken to him.
“I wish you would take my wife out to lunch. You will like her,” the ghostly voice had apparently said.
Cynics might say “How convenient,” but there is no doubt that Muriel provided the elderly Dowding not only with the companionship he had missed for so long, but also a stimulus to his intellectual curiosity.
Under her influence, he gave up game shooting and became a strict vegetarian and campaigner for animal rights.
Having been given a peerage in 1943 in recognition of his wartime services, he devoted most of his speeches in the Lords to condemnation of abuses against animals.
A leading figure in the anti-vivisection movement, he was also president of the company founded by Muriel, called Beauty Without Cruelty.
A forerunner of Anita Roddick’s Body Shop, it sold cosmetic products which had not been tested on animals.
Living in quiet, some might say eccentric, retirement in Tunbridge Wells, Dowding grew more passionate than ever about reincarnation, convincing himself that he had been a Mongol chief in a previous life.
In 1964, he wrote a bizarre letter to Lord Beaverbrook, who had been Churchill’s Minister of Aircraft Production during the war and had vastly expanded Spitfire production, explaining his belief that both of them had been chosen by divine will to save Britain in 1940.
“I am telling you this because I think it is more than probable that your part in the battle was laid down by the Lords of Karma as a result of some action of your own in times long past,” he wrote.
“Looking back on my own life, I can see how events conspired to put me at the head of Fighter Command at the critical time.”
It may be a bizarre explanation for his position during one of the turning points of World War II and Dowding may not have been the most charismatic leader, but thanks in no small part to this strange man, our darkest hour became our finest.
[all rights reserved
[21 November 2007]