Explaining Dowding’s strategic victory


Hugh Caswell Tremenheere Dowding

Why did “Stuffy” Dowding and his Fighter Command win in 1940? First, Dowding functioned persistently and consistently at the strategic level; he understood that, as the air officer commanding in chief, his responsibility was for the strategy of air defense. He committed himself to insuring that each of the classic constituents of strategy – ends, ways, and means, and their under-pinning assumptions – had integrity both in and of themselves and, no less important, as vital enablers of the others. The purpose was to explain that Dowding needed to modernize the system of air defense and its supporting infrastructure to insure that the ways and means were sufficiently adaptable to cope with unpredicted, even unanticipated, circumstances. Moreover, Dowding had to insure that the fighting power of his command – with its physical, moral, and conceptual components – could succeed in combat against the enemy on the day, whenever that day should dawn and for as long as it might last. Dowding’s exercise of those responsibilities underlines that strategic sense.

Second, Dowding’s major decisions over a ten-year period, including his long term on the air council from 1930 to 1936, proved “right enough.” He passed what one can term the minimum regrets test. The successful strategist does not need to record flawless strategic performance, only one free of truly irrecoverably fatal mistakes. Wherever one looks at the ends, ways, and means of British air defense in the 1930s and into the 1940s, there is no serious room for doubt that Dowding was either right, or sufficiently correct, on the major decisions and in the ways in which they were to be implemented. His strategic sense enabled him to adapt to unanticipated circumstances, because he insured Fighter Command was sound in structure and functioning so that operational and tactical adjustments would not compromise its capabilities.

Third, British victory in 1940 was the result of a quarter-century of preparation that was nearly always paced well enough to be combat competitive with the extant or anticipated threat and its near future. Even in the short lifetime of air power, the Fighter Command of 1940 enjoyed a lengthy provenance. Dowding the strategist did not have to improvise on many significant aspects of his command’s capability. Exceptions clearly included combat tactics, which in practice were adapted at the squadron level, and with respect to night fighting which Dowding insisted correctly could be improved only when airborne radar and suitable two-seat aircraft to carry and employ it were ready.

Fourth, Dowding succeeded in preparing an architecture of air defense that could cope with a German air menace that evolved rapidly and altered markedly in quality and quantity of tactical and operational menace as a result of unpredicted, certainly unpredictable, geostrategic changes. Fighter Com- mand was not created, developed, and then fine-tuned to deal with a Luftwaffe based in northern France. In the 1930s RAF leaders had envisaged the German air threat primarily as a menace based in Germany, possibly the Low Countries, and taking the form of medium bombers without single-seat fighter protection. The Battle of Britain took place in a quite different and far more menacing context.

Fifth, although it is no great challenge to cite the errors, structural as well as discretionary, that blunted the Luftwaffe’s effectiveness in 1940, some might argue that Dowding’s Fighter Command was always likely to win, almost regardless of German choices. With the Luftwaffe as it was in 1940, one can make a persuasive case that its campaign direction was not critically import- ant. Given what the Germans did not know about Fighter Command, and what Clausewitz called the “grammar of war,” one might argue that it did not much matter whether the Germans bombed airfields, cities, or both. Fighter Command was resilient against the kind of performance that the Luftwaffe was capable of imposing – though one might add a judgment indicating that targeting choices shaped the Germans’ performance. In principle, Britain’s aircraft industry was vulnerable to attack, as also were the coastal facilities of the Chain Home radar architecture. But, principle and practice were far apart. And one should not be seduced either by imagination into believing that the Luftwaffe might have made different operational choices here and there, and as a consequence won the campaign.

There were deep systemic reasons why the Luftwaffe of 1940 performed as it did in the way it did. Dowding was certainly fortunate in his enemy’s incom- petence, but that is not to argue that he succeeded because he was lucky. It was true that Dowding was the fortunate command legatee of two decades of British competence in air defense. It is also true to say, however, that Dowding personally contributed significantly to the strength of that air defense by virtue of his enthusiastic endorsement of vital technical developments both before and after he assumed command in July 1936. Of course, a team of outstanding contributors to Fighter Command’s combat potency was responsible for the successful defensive performance in 1940, but the overarching and most persuasive explanation for the victory was that superior strategic leadership provided Fighter Command decisive advantages over the Luftwaffe.

It was not luck that in 1940 Fighter Command had excellent equipment when it mattered; that a prudent and effective master operational concept guided its employment; that Park was Dowding’s alter ego in his grasp and strategic sense; and that the Command consistently addressed the scientific and technical issues. Almost as much to the point, so much about Fighter Command and its commander was right that they could correct for the bad luck of some circumstances and their mistakes by timely adaptation. A Fighter Command headed by a man with little strategic sense might well have proven incapable of exploiting the Luftwaffe’s weaknesses. The principal, though far from sole, agent for the security of that benefit was Hugh Dowding.

Sixth, Dowding persisted with what history demonstrated to be the correct command philosophy and broad guiding concept of operations. As air officer commanding in chief of Fighter Command, he reserved for himself the role of strategist, though subject at times to harassment from the Air Ministry. He delegated operational command to his exceptionally capable subordinate, Park, at 11 Group, who played the role of Sherman to Dowding’s Grant. Park, then, delegated tactical command to sector station controllers – up to the point of air-to-air contact, when squadron commanders aloft took charge. Because he adhered to a strategic standard of performance, Dowding selected a concept of operations that expressed the Command’s strategic purpose.

Dowding never forgot that his goal was to deny the Germans a convincing narrative that would support the invasion option. He could not decide for Berlin how much damage his command needed to inflict on the Luftwaffe. What he could do, however, was insure that in no rational, if optimistic, briefing to the Führer could the Luftwaffe claim credibly to have defeated Fighter Command. Almost certainly, Hitler was not hard to dissuade from the hazards of amphibious warfare. Overy is plausible when he writes: “It is evident that not a lot was needed to deter Hitler from the idea of invading Britain. Fighter Command tipped the balance.” However, Dowding could not have known this at the time. He needed his forces to continue to hurt the Luftwaffe, all the while never ceasing to demonstrate that Fighter Command remained alive and well. He had to insure that nothing resembled in German perception a decisive victory over his command, lest Berlin believed it had achieved the green-light for invasion.

One can summarize Dowding’s concept of operations as a minimum effective response, to deny the Luftwaffe even the possibility of a decisive victory in the air (or on airfields). Not surprisingly, many of Dowding’s critics, both in 1940 and afterwards, could not understand why Fighter Command committed only a fraction of its total force, most especially of its best fighter aircraft, the Spitfire, to combat at any one time. His was not the most exciting of operational concepts, but it was far and away the most prudent. “Stuffy” Dowding won an uncommonly important victory. This claim is beyond reasonable dispute. One may argue that he won in spite of his mistakes and because of German errors. Both points have some merit, but generically regarded they are simply permanent features of the realities of history. Not to dwell on Dowding’s mistakes, both because they proved relatively minor in consequence, but also because they are simply evidence of the obvious truth that even successful strategists are human. One should not forget that an extremely powerful enemy tested Dowding’s strategic performance in combat, and that the cost of his possible defeat could well have been defeat in the war as a whole. While Dowding might have fought a more perfect Battle of Britain, he might have also fought a far less perfect one. The probable strategic and political consequences of the latter compel respect.

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