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  • Dowding of Fighter Command: Victor of the Battle of Britain
  • Christina Goulter
Dowding of Fighter Command: Victor of the Battle of Britain. By Vincent Orange. London: Grub Street, 2008. ISBN 978-1-906502-14-0. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography and sources. Index. Pp. 320. £20.00.

This is another magnificent biography from the prolific pen of Vincent Orange. World War II and air power scholars will be delighted with this study of Dowding as it sheds new light both on the issue of his controversial removal from Fighter Command in November 1940, as well as other senior command dynamics and decision-making.

Dowding was described by subordinates, peers and superiors alike as ‘silent, forbidding, aloof, glum and stuffy’, so this is not a human subject lending himself to a biographer’s empathy. Indeed, this seems to have been Vincent Orange’s greatest biographical challenge to date. [End Page 1371]

Dowding, we learn, was an unusual character right from the start. He admitted of himself: ‘Since I was a child, I have never accepted ideas because they were orthodox, and consequently I have frequently found myself in opposition to generally accepted views’ (p. 11). He joined the Army at the turn of the twentieth century, when views on the role and tactics of the Army were still very Victorian, and prior to the First World War, he developed an interest in aviation long before it was fashionable to do so because he felt that he should explore all the potential solutions to operational problems (in this case, the utility of aircraft for reconnaissance). Dowding took over as Officer Commanding of 16 Squadron at the time of the Somme, and, not surprisingly, this experience made him an even greater advocate of putting technology rather than men in harm’s way.

During the 1920s, Dowding played a role in developing what would become known as ‘Air Control’, or the policing of the empire using air power. Although the results of the RAF’s policing of the empire were genuinely impressive compared with previous land campaigns to subdue rebellious indigenous populations, the accepted wisdom within the Air Ministry was that these operations had vindicated Trenchard’s strategic bombing doctrine. There were some dissenting ‘voices in the wilderness’, and Dowding’s was one. He felt, rightly, that it was intellectually dishonest to believe that the morale effects of bombing in places like Iraq, Aden and on the North-West Frontier of India could be repeated against an industrialised nation such as Germany. He felt that too much faith was being placed in the deterrent value of strategic bombers and argued, rightly as we all now know, that Britain needed credible self-defence as well.

Dowding’s role in developing Britain’s defences began well before he arrived at Fighter Command. He was at the centre of Air Ministry research in the early 1930s, and was particularly interested in the development of early warning radar. Thanks to money provided by his Research and Development budget, trial work was successful. Nor did Dowding’s interest stop there. The success of early warning depended on timely dissemination of the information, and so he also called for the development of rapid communications and centralised control rooms, where the data could be analysed and put to use through the tasking of fighter aircraft. The ‘Dowding System’ would ultimately involve tens of thousands of people in roles ranging from pilots, radar operators, anti-aircraft gunners, air traffic controllers, barrage balloon handlers, and SIGINT specialists, and was the foundation of what we would recognise today as an Integrated Air Defence System. What we learn from this biography is the fact that Dowding was not only interested in all these different elements of the defence machinery, but that he also understood them profoundly.

In July 1936, Dowding took over as the first AOC-in-C of Fighter Command, and, as Vincent Orange demonstrates, he possessed the ideal attributes of a senior commander: able to grasp the big strategic issues as well as dealing with tactical and technological details when required. Dowding had many disappointments during his career, not least being passed over for the top job, of Chief of the Air Staff...