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Book Reviews

Published and forthcoming book reviews:

  • Forthcoming. Braganca & Tame’s (Eds) The Long Aftermath, War in History.

  • 2018. Bergstrom’s Battle of Britain and Kelly’s Never Surrender, War in History.

  • 2017. Ferris & Mawdsley’s (Eds) Cambridge History of the SWW, War in History.

  • 2015. Holman’s The Next War in the Air, War in History.

  • 2012. Black’s The Face of Courage, War in History.

  • 2012. Sarker’s How the Spitfire Won the Battle of Britain, War in History.

  • 2011. Cumming’s Royal Navy and the Battle of Britain, War in History.

  • 2010. Dixon's Churchill and Dowding, Journal of Strategic Studies.

  • 2010. Francis's The Flyer, War in History.

  • 2009. Orange's Dowding of Fighter Command, War in History.

  • 2001. de la Bédoyère's Aviation Archaeology. Ind. Arch. Review. XXXIII, No 2.

Air Officer Commanding: Hugh Dowding, Architect of the Battle of Britain. By John T. LaSaine, Jr

ForeEdge: University Press of New England. Hardcovers. 2018. ISBN: 978-1-61168-937-2. pp. XIV; 250. 8 illustrations

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Lord Hugh Dowding, Air Chief Marshal, has been the focus of several biographies, including two with which he was directly involved: the first, by Basil Collier (1957), was a benign affair; the second, by Robert Wright (1969), generated a fierce debate at the very end of Dowding’s life. Dowding’s military career and record leading up to and during the Battle of Britain has also been the focus of considerable historical interest, as has the way he came to leave Fighter Command in late November 1940, the manner of which is generally considered to have been ungracious and somewhat shabby on the part of the Air Ministry.

To that point Dowding had had a successful military career, beginning in the army in the early 20th century, the RFC during the Great War, thence the RAF. As commander-in-chief of Fighter Command from 1936-1940 he was later credited as being the ‘architect of victory’ in the Battle of Britain, his earlier work in this post focusing on developing Ashmore’s earlier air defence system, this time integrating nascent radar which proved of immense value as the air battles developed during latter-1940. Prior to this Dowding had overseen the RAF’s research and development programmes, enabling the Spitfire and Hurricane to be introduced into service. Although he was also involved in the development of bombers, those commissioned during his tenure were not comparable to these two famous fighters, (a point noted by LaSaine). After the Battle of Britain, Dowding was hived-off into roles for which he was not suitable, quickly leading to his retirement. Thereafter, Dowding became increasingly interested in spiritualism which did not sit comfortably with Churchill, those in the Air Ministry, and RAF circles generally.                           

Given the wealth of published material on all aspects of Dowding’s career and interests, including his own books on spiritualism, it is undoubtedly difficult to find angles or areas for new research. For instance, both published in 2008, Vincent Orange’s conventional biography of Dowding covered significant ground, and Jack Dixon’s volume considered his relationship with Churchill, and the efforts made to remove him by very senior RAF officers, including MRAFs Salmond and Trenchard (the present writer previously reviewed these). Both books were based in part upon primary sources, especially Dowding’s papers and the many Air Ministry files generated during his career. It is fair to say that this material has been exhaustively analysed and it is unlikely that new documents will surface: for instance, private letters giving a clearer insight into Dowding’s personal life, which might dispel a sense that he was ‘stuffy’ in all aspects of his life – a point strongly refuted by his son Derek, also one of the Few in 1940.        

It is within this context that John LaSaine’s biography of Dowding is considered, the author acknowledging Orange’s earlier work especially, and the relative futility of seeking to replicate this. Instead, LaSaine confirms that his goal ‘is to bring together insights obtained from the specialist, academic literature in ways that foster an appreciation beyond the academy, of Dowding’s complexity as a historical figure.’ Note is also made of ‘primary source material in the Churchill War Papers’, but which is not obviously used in the sources cited (press release). To this end LaSaine adopts a chronological approach, his fourteen chapters beginning with Dowding’s early years, service in the Great War, then his increasing responsibility through successive promotions which brings him into direct – sometimes bitter – confrontation with the Air Ministry’s Air Council, and individual members, some of whom appeared to despise him. The final part of LaSaine’s book is on Dowding’s post-war life and activity up to his death in 1970.       

In approach, La Saine does draw upon insights offered by other historians, the literature review current in that respect. To frame these, organisational context is included which can leave Dowding somewhat in the background as a rather opaque figure (but this is also because of the difficulty in understanding him as a rounded personality, as previous biographers discovered). A further difficulty in drawing partly upon and synthesizing the insights of others is that this limits opportunities for contributing new material. For instance, LaSaine covers the Battle of Britain in some detail, but few new angles emerge in what is a very familiar event.

Here, LaSaine does though affirm that Dowding, and 11 Group commander, Sir Keith Park’s version of the conduct of the Battle is that which ultimately prevailed, despite the Air Ministry’s best efforts to expunge both from 1941 official propaganda. To Dowding’s credit he also avoided ‘reach down’, allowing Park to manage his fighter assets as he thought best. LaSaine’s chapter on Dowding’s later life is a good example of adding to our current understanding. Orange focused less on this aspect and it is fascinating to see in LaSaine’s account how totally Dowding embraced spiritualism, despite his earlier military experience which one might have expected to temper and constrain more esoteric interests.

As an added benefit, a conclusion assessing Dowding’s legacy would have provided an up to the moment end to the book, in addition to the ‘History and Myth’ chapter which takes the reader to Dowding’s death. This would have allowed Dowding’s undoubtedly complex, sometimes difficult, and perhaps unusual personality and character, to have shone through more clearly, so that his place in history might be more fully understood now. As it is, the reader ends the book with a sense of a life well lived, some tragedy, and significant achievement, but Dowding himself remains a slightly one-dimensional figure. Another aspect of interest would be the decision not to make Dowding a Marshal of the Royal Air Force at the end of his life, and why this was decided against by the Ministry of Defence. It may be that there is no clear answer to this (evidence derived from documents), but more exploration of this would have been welcomed.

Overall, this is a very readable, balanced, detailed yet fairly concise account, derived principally from the numerous secondary sources cited by its author. The book therefore achieves its aim in providing an accessible account of Dowding’s life and career for a general readership, but adds little which is new to our understanding of this complex man. It can therefore be recommended for those wishing to understand this important but often misunderstood historical figure, who in 1970 was greatly praised as a national saviour at his funeral in Westminster Abbey, but in his later RAF career experienced the disapproval and spitefulness of senior figures in the Air Ministry.   

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